The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

May 25, 2013

Gov. Bentley looks at options for state boards

Associated Press

— MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Gov. Robert Bentley repeated himself this week when he signed nomination letters for trustees at Alabama State University and the University of North Alabama.

The Republican governor had already nominated Jacqueline Brooks of Tuskegee, Larry Thornton of Hueytown and Robert Gilpin of Montgomery to the ASU governing board and Simpson Russell of Florence to the UNA board. But the four were among 70 nominations to various state posts that died without a vote in the Alabama Senate, which spent much of the session in a partisan logjam.

With Bentley's repeat action, Brooks, Thornton, Gilpin and Russell can still serve as trustees until at least the 2014 legislative session, when they will again be up for Senate confirmation.

Bentley spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis said the governor's office is concerned that it may not be so simple for some of the other affected panels, which range from the state cosmetology board to the citizen panel that helps select school textbooks.

It's not immediately clear that any of the boards at issue will have enough vacancies that will threaten their ability to do business. But it's a complication that forces the governor's office to go statute-by-statute as it considers its legal options. At the very least, the situation highlights that the Alabama Constitution and code do not have uniform rules for seats on the state's agency, university and professional boards.

Boards at the University of Alabama System and Auburn University are both established in the constitution. The UA board is self-perpetuating, meaning existing members elect new members who are subject to Senate confirmation but can still serve immediately. So there's no practical effect to the Senate not confirming Harris Morrissette and Marietta Urquhart to additional terms.

Auburn trustees are selected by a nomination panel and must be confirmed by the Senate before serving. Members can serve only a year past their term, even if a successor is not confirmed and a vacancy ensues. But it took a series of rulings by the Alabama Supreme Court to establish when the staggered terms begin and end.

University trustees elsewhere in the state — such as those at ASU and North Alabama — are selected by the governor and can sit immediately when the Legislature is in recess.

The State Textbook Committee, meanwhile, is seated on an annual basis, but the governor's appointees must be confirmed. There is a clause in Alabama law that allows the state superintendent of education to recall the committee, theoretically avoiding a problem if a new panel wasn't seated.

Many other boards allow sitting members to continue serving until their successors are confirmed. Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey nominated V. Larkin Martin of Courtland to the Alabama Ethics Commission. But there is no recess appointment allowed in the law, so Josephine Venable, whose term expires later this year, will continue to serve. Ivey will be left to submit Martin or another choice to the Senate in 2014.

But leaning on existing membership can introduce new complications if long-serving appointees resign or simply stop coming to meetings.

Ardis said the governor will use whatever "options are available to try to help these boards continue to operate." But Bentley has given no indication that he wants to address inconsistencies in the law. The governor's office maintains that the best option is for the Senate to give nominees timely up-or-down votes.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, continue to blame the slowdown on the Democratic minority.

Sen. Jabo Waggoner, a Vestavia Hills Republican who chairs the confirmations committee, said Democrats blocked confirmations for the last month of the session. "It really is a shame to lock down the process where we can't confirm people," Waggoner said.

But Republicans, who have a supermajority in the chamber, also declined to use procedural methods to force confirmation votes. They frequently used those kinds of maneuvers on other bills, which passed despite Democratic stalling tactics.

Sen. Quinton Ross, a leading Democrat, told the Montgomery Advertiser this week that the Republicans' control of the chamber means they can't blame the confirmations failures on Democrats.

Earlier in this year's session, Republicans confirmed Secretary of State Beth Chapman to the University of Montevallo board of trustees. She replaced Sen. Rodger Smitherman, a Birmingham Democrat who has long advocated for greater diversity on state boards and commissions.

Smitherman is black. Chapman is white. Both graduated from Montevallo.

The senator said at the time that he wasn't angry about Bentley replacing him but that Chapman's confirmation means a high-profile state board lost a minority seat.

Before the Chapman vote, the Senate had confirmed more than two dozen nominations. After the vote, just one more confirmation cleared the Senate.