When Alabama voters go to the polls on March 5, there will be one additional task after they have voted to nominate candidates for offices. They will also vote YES or NO on a proposed statewide amendment to the Alabama Constitution.

If a voter does not wish to vote on the proposed amendment or has not decided on it, the amendment vote can be skipped without affecting the validity of the rest of the ballot.

Amendment One, the only statewide amendment on March 5, would remove the legislature's requirement to pass a “Budget Isolation Resolution” (BIR) by a 60% majority on local measures when the state’s two budgets have not already passed.

If the two budgets have not already been passed, a BIR is required to pass by 60% in advance of each measure.

Sound confusing? Maybe this will help.

Vote YES if you believe the legislature should be able to address local bills by the routine simple majority (50% plus one vote) before the budgets are passed.

Vote NO if you believe the legislature should handle the two budgets before passing any local bills.

Amendment One allows the legislature to pass local bills at any time with only a simple majority (50% plus one vote). No BIR required. No 60% required.

The online non-partisan election information service Ballotpedia.org explains the voters’ options in this way:

The Alabama Exempt Local Bills from Budget Isolation Resolution Amendment is on the ballot in Alabama as a legislatively referred constitutional amendment on March 5, 2024.

"yes" vote supports exempting local laws or local constitutional amendments from the budget isolation resolution process, which requires that the legislature must pass education and general fund budgets prior to enacting any other legislation, unless the legislation receives a 60% majority vote from the legislature.

"no" vote opposes exempting local laws or local constitutional amendments from the budget isolation resolution process.

Alabama Amendment 1, Exempt Local Bills from Budget Isolation Resolution Amendment (March 2024) - Ballotpedia

State Senator Clyde Chambliss Jr. (R-Prattville), who sponsored Amendment One in the state senate, said he proposed the change to remove an "unnecessary hurdle that has really had no effect on legislation."

Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said the change would "remove questions about how you can effectively and constitutionally move a local bill forward," and remove "any kind of question that could be raised about the number of votes that were required to get the bill to the point that it could be passed."

A conservative think-tank, the Alabama Policy Institute (API), has conducted a study of Amendment One titled “Ballot Language & Policy Analysis.” It is available in full here.

The study concluded:

Being touted by proponents as an effort to streamline government, the amendment would allow local laws and local constitutional amendments to be passed by the Legislature before the state General Fund and Education Trust Fund budget have been adopted. While API is all for streamlining state government, that is not at all what Statewide Amendment 1 would do.

Under section 71.01 of the Alabama Constitution, the only statutory obligation of the Legislature is to enact state budgets each year. The Constitution requires that the annual budgets be considered before all other legislative items. However, since 1984, a process has been in place where a 3/5th majority of the Legislature can adopt something called the Budget Isolation Resolution (BIR) before moving on to the consideration of non-budget related bills if the state’s operating budgets have not been enacted. It is, in effect, a double vote on every bill until the budgets are passed; the intent is to make it harder for legislators to ignore the constitutional directive to focus on the budgets.

For general bills, the 3/5th vote requirement is a simple yes or no process because most legislators cast a vote. However, there is a gentlemen’s agreement for legislators to abstain from voting on local bills that do not directly impact their districts. That agreement and practice caused a question of the integrity of the process.

In 2015, a County Circuit Court judge declared a Jefferson County local law invalid because the Legislature had not met the 3/5th BIR threshold due to hat-tip abstentions.

To counteract the Jefferson County ruling, statewide voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2016 that retroactively validated all local legislation passed between 1984 and November of 2016. Since 2016, the Legislature has operated under the premise that a 3/5th vote of a quorum (11 members in the Senate and 32 in the House) satisfies the BIR requirement. However, legal challenges have continued.

Statewide Amendment 1 would retroactively validate all local legislation passed since 2016.

After March 5, 2024, a BIR would no longer be required to debate and pass local bills and local constitutional amendments that come before the Legislature in the absence of the state budgets being enacted. The point, proponents say, is to be able to pass local bills faster and easier while ameliorating the lingering legal issues. That is not streamlining government, it is fast-tracking it. Legislative hurdles are there for a reason. The process is supposed to be arduous, messy and methodical, not quick or easily manipulated from the top-down.

API has several concerns with no longer requiring a BIR for local bills.  The BIR debate is an important part of the legislative process and can halt (or at least slow down) bad policy from passing. Doing away with the BIR vote for local bills would also make it easier to pass local constitutional amendments, such as the “local” expansion of gambling (Senate Bill 324) that passed the Senate during the 2023 regular session. In fact, many bills being presented as local bills have the potential to have an impact on the entire state, beyond the geographic area that they directly affect.

The solution to the problem isn’t a further subversion of the Legislature’s constitutional duty to enact budgets above all other matters to accommodate questionable legislative practices. The solution to the problem isn’t more control from the top or having fewer votes. The clear solution to the problem is for our legislature to participate in less hat-tipping votes and abstentions. Members of the Alabama legislature should accept the accountability of voting for or against every piece of legislation that is brought to the floor; that is the only way to truly be accountable to those of us they represent. 

Few Alabama voters know they will be asked to vote on a constitutional amendment on March 5. Fewer still know what it is about.

Jim Zeigler is a former Alabama Public Service Commissioner and State Auditor. You can reach him for comments at ZeiglerElderCare@yahoo.com.

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