Recent editorials from Alabama newspapers:

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March 21

The Decatur Daily on U.S. Sen Richard Shelby and a proposed balanced budget amendment:

U.S. Sen Richard Shelby has been in office since 1987. Last month, the 86-year-old Republican announced he would not seek a seventh term.

Thirty-four years is a lot of time to spend in the Senate, and before he was a senator, Shelby was a member of the U.S. House for an additional eight years, meaning Shelby has been in one chamber of Congress or the other since bell bottoms were in style.

In that time, he introduced a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution 17 times. Last week, he made it 18.

Old habits are indeed hard to break. Having gone nowhere the first 17 times, the balanced budget amendment seems particularly doomed this go-round, with the Senate split 50-50.

Democrats have never shown interest in the balanced budget amendment, and Republicans showed no interest during the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency, when the GOP controlled both houses of Congress.

Reining in spending and worrying about the national debt are only Republican preoccupations when out of power. When in power, they can spend as drunkenly as any Democrat.

Yet the mounting debt is a problem, and it is not helped by the recent passage of the latest $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, which did include some necessary COVID relief but also contained money for a long list of Democratic priorities having nothing to do with the pandemic. (It also doesn’t help that even some of the COVID-related spending won’t get where it’s going until after the pandemic subsides.)

“I have long believed that our Constitution lacks proper constraint on government spending,” Shelby said last week in a prepared statement. “If we continue in this unsustainable direction, the burden will land on our children and our grandchildren.”

Currently, the U.S. national debt stands at about $28 trillion. This is a long-term drag on the economy.

Aside from being dead on arrival, however, there’s no guarantee a balanced budget amendment would actually control spending. For one thing, it wouldn’t apply during wartime, and the U.S. has been continually at war somewhere for decades. For another, Congress is adept at finding ways around any spending limitations.

Ending earmarks, for example, was supposed to curtail spending by taking away the ability of congressmen to load bills with pork for their districts. Since the ban was enacted in 2011, discretionary spending has continued to rise. All banning earmarks did was move decisions about pork barrel spending higher up the food chain, from ordinary congressmen to party leaders and committee chairs — chairs like Shelby, who is the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee.

From his perch, Shelby has been able to obtain what his office always calls “critical” or “crucial” funding for programs here in Alabama. Maybe some of it even is crucial, but probably lawmakers from other states think some of it is pork.

Now Republicans are doing away with the earmark ban. This may be for the best. There is a school of thought that believes part of the increasing partisanship in Congress is due to the increased discipline party leaders wield because of their greater control over spending during the ban.

There is simply no will in either party for fiscal discipline during good times, and bad times — like a pandemic or the Great Recession — simply provide an excuse to tack on additional spending to spending that is needed.

Shelby’s 18th attempt at getting his colleagues to pass a balanced budget amendment amounts to little more than a curtain call.

Online: https://www.decaturdaily.com/

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March 20

The Dothan Eagle on an anti-riot bill that would increase penalties for participating in “tumultuous” protests:

At first blush, Alabama lawmakers would appear to have solid footing in a move to enhance penalties for people who participate in riots or demonstrations that block traffic. Proponents of the measure point to disturbances around the country in which fires were set and property damaged.

“It’s about protecting lives,” said Rep. Allen Treadaway, a retired Birmingham assistant police chief who proposed the measure after a Birmingham disturbance following the death of George Floyd turned destructive. “We’re talking when you start burning buildings, you start looting stores and assaulting police officers, these new laws kick in.”

No reasonable person would endorse violence and destruction, and there are already laws on the books to punish those who would commit such crimes.

However, the devil is in the details — in this case, the potential for such broad interpretation of enhanced law that would at least have a chilling effect on public protest and at worst land someone in jail for exercising their rights to protest peacefully.

Our nation has a long tradition of protest rooted in the U.S. Constitution. Tensions rise and tempers flare, but without detailed definition of the terms in a law, the characterization of an event is simply left to the subjective judgment of onlookers. At what point does a protest become a riot?

Ironically, the events that unfolded at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 are characterized broadly by people who have seen the same recorded depictions.

Alabama lawmakers must tread lightly in seeking a way to crack down on violence and destruction, and ensure that their efforts don’t encroach on the rights of law-abiding citizens engaged in peaceful protest.

Online: https://dothaneagle.com/

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March 20

The Cullman Times on Alabama’s open records law:

“Every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state, except as otherwise expressly provided by statute.” Alabama public records law.

Alabama’s open records law needs an overhaul. In fact, it’s a bit of a stretch to even call what we have now a “law.” With no oversight, no penalty for failing to comply and no deadline for complying, Alabama’s open records law is more of a suggestion. Alabama lawmakers have an opportunity to change that though. Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) is sponsoring a bill that will shine some light into government agencies, and it’s a bill all legislators who claim to value transparency should support.

SB 165 would impose a deadline for complying with open records requests, set reasonable fees for obtaining the records and provide for an appeals process if the request is denied, all things currently lacking. It also updates “every citizen” to “every person,” a badly needed change when you consider the number of international companies doing business in Alabama who also have a vested interest in Alabama’s public records.

Under Alabama’s current open records law, there is no deadline for agencies to respond to a request, although many say they will do so within a “reasonable” amount of time. What is reasonable? Last week, The Times asked Cullman County towns for copies of their budgets. It took Garden City mere minutes to send over an electronic version. Some - like West Point and Holly Pond - have not yet responded. Others took a few days and varying amounts of effort on our part. Which of these is “reasonable?”

We asked the school systems for contract information on school superintendents and salary information. The Cullman County school system responded that they will get that information for us; the city schools has yet to respond. Similarly, we asked the county commission and city of Cullman for information on take-home vehicle policies and information on millage and fuel use. The commission has the policy on its website, and informed The Times they would be providing the other requested information.

The city of Cullman responded with a form for us to fill out to obtain the information, but has not yet indicated when or if the requested information will be forthcoming.

Legally, any of these entities could withhold the information as long as they wanted because there is no deadline by which to comply. The only recourse is to sue, and while government agencies have the advantage of the deep pockets of taxpayer money to fight such legal battles, even if an individual or entity is successful in winning a public records lawsuit, they aren’t entitled to recover attorneys’ fees.

SB 165 would establish a 14-day time period in which the custodians of public records would have to produce the records, provide a way to view them, make them available for searching, deny the request and specify why it’s being denied or explain why more time is needed to comply. Two weeks is certainly a generous amount of time to respond to any open records request, so agencies should not have any heartburn with this provision.

The bill also creates a Public Access Counselor who would hear appeals if someone believes their request was unfairly denied.

Ideally, we’d also like to see government agencies face penalties for failure to comply with the law, but SB 165 certainly provides more accountability than what is currently law. Governments are the custodians of public records, but they are not the owners. Orr’s bill goes a long way towards making sure the rightful owners have access to their documents. We urge the Alabama legislature to pass SB 165.

Online: https://www.cullmantimes.com/