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How productive is the Legislature?comment (0)

June 27, 2013

By Jim Williams

The 2013 regular session of the Alabama Legislature adjourned May 20. According to the Legislative Fiscal Office, taxpayers pay about $874,000 for a legislative session. So how productive were our legislators? Did we get our money’s worth from their meeting this year?

The most common measure of legislative productivity is whether balanced budgets are passed to govern state spending for the coming year. They were. But a regular legislative session lasts over three months, and it is important to look at how productive lawmakers were in using the remaining time.

The Legislature’s website indicates that 1,176 bills were considered that would change state law, of which 122 or 10 percent were enacted. 

Four years earlier in 2009, more than three times as many bills were enacted into law in the regular legislative session, and the number of enactments has declined steadily in each year since. However, this does not necessarily mean that lawmakers are becoming less productive. Here’s why:

Many of the bills enacted into law each year apply statewide and are known as “general” acts. They are added into the Code of Alabama, which organizes the law by subject matter and includes historical information and legal interpretations.  

The code is widely available, and it is updated annually. This allows citizens to know how the law reads, an important principle of our government. In 2009 only 58 percent of the bills enacted into law were general in nature; by 2013 this had risen to 83 percent.

The remaining bills enacted into law apply only to a specific county or locality. These are called “local” acts. The 2009 legislative session produced 174 local acts, but by 2013 the number had dwindled to 21. Legislators should be congratulated because reducing this legislative output is a good thing.

Local acts are organized by county and in recent years have been added to the end of the code but not integrated with it. Thousands of local acts adopted before 1978 are not in the code at all. These might be considered the “hidden acts” of the Legislature, published only in the year of their enactment. The process lacks both transparency and accountability. 

Would Alabama have better local government if the Legislature spent 100 percent of its time writing and overseeing general laws, including the basic rules for all counties to follow, rather than delving piecemeal into local matters? I, for one, think so.           

EDITOR’S NOTE — Jim Williams is executive director for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. Jim may be contacted at jwwillia@samford.edu.

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