SUMMARY: Legislators often sit out votes that don’t affect their districts, and a 200-vote lapse over 19 days is not uncommon. Brown did leave Montgomery during the last week of the session, but there were only two days of legislative activity during that time. What’s really remarkable is that Brown’s colleagues voted in his place while he was gone – a practice that, according to legislative staff, is done more often than most people know.
ANALYSIS: The allegations about Brown’s voting record come from a direct mail ad by a group calling itself the Committee for Honest Conservative Leadership. It’s the second ad the group has aimed at Brown.
Attempts to reach the group at its Prattville headquarters were unsuccessful.
To understand the allegations in the ad, you have to understand the history of Brown’s term in the House. A Jacksonville funeral home director, Brown, R-Jacksonville, has been in office for less than a year. He ran against Democrat Ricky Whaley in a special election in February. The election was held to find a successor for Rep. Lea Fite, who died of a heart attack in October. Sworn in while the legislative session was underway, Brown has been in office for only 19 legislative days.
Brown doesn’t deny missing 200 votes, or possibly more, during that time.
“Everyone misses votes,” he said. “You can’t avoid it. The goal is to be there for the important ones.”
Staff at the House of Representatives indicated that missing 200 votes in 19 days isn’t uncommon at all.
Because Alabama’s state Constitution concentrates power in Montgomery, legislators often find themselves voting on matters that affect only one county or city. To keep all the local votes from bogging down the system, legislators typically sit out votes that don’t affect their own districts, said Don Ladner, administrative assistant to the clerk of the House.
“We refer to it as ‘local courtesy,’” Ladner said. “Basically, you stay out of each other’s business.”
Legislators also try to keep their constituents happy by introducing resolutions honoring residents for their accomplishments. Each one has to come before the House for a vote, Ladner said.
With so many local matters on the agenda, it’s easy for a single legislative day to become packed with chances to vote.
For instance, on Feb. 18, shortly after Brown joined the Legislature, the House took action on 150 items of business. Twenty-two votes involved local issues, including court costs in Etowah County and a change in pay for the sheriff of Limestone County. Fifty-six votes involved resolutions, including a vote to honor Mr. and Mrs. Bob Bryant of Glencoe on their 50th wedding anniversary, a commendation for the Florence High School football team and the announcement of Future Farmers of America Week. Most other days in Brown’s term follow a similar pattern.
Resolutions are decided by voice vote, which means there’s no record of who voted and who didn’t. A legislator could potentially miss hundreds of those votes and no one would be the wiser.
Brown said it’s common to miss some votes on legislation –- simply because legislators have to take bathroom breaks, or meet with constituents who drop by. In fact, he said, votes move through so fast that legislators often ask their colleagues to cast votes for them if an important item comes up while a legislator is gone.
“It’s pretty common, in both parties, to say ‘I have to be away, can you watch my machine and vote for me if this or that comes up?’” Brown said.
Ladner said the clerk’s office frowns on this absentee voting practice, which is against House rules. But he said the rule is rarely enforced because the members, both Republican and Democrat, engage in proxy voting so often. In fact, unless a legislator expressly asks for his voting machine to be turned off, Ladner said, it’s assumed that the legislator is consenting to proxy voting.
Brown stands out, however, in leaving his vote in the hands of Republican colleagues for the final two full days of the session.
Brown is immediate past president of the International Order of the Golden Rule, a professional association for funeral home directors. Before Brown joined the Legislature, the organization scheduled its annual convention for late April, the last week the Legislature was in session. The House was in session for only two days of that week. As president, Brown said, he was expected to be at the convention.
Brown said that when he realized there was a conflict, he went to state Rep. Mike Hubbard, chair of the state Republican Party, and asked for his advice.
“Rep. Hubbard said ‘you should honor your commitment, and we’ll take care of things here,’” Brown said.
So Brown went to the convention and let his colleagues vote in his place for two legislative days.
Ladner said there are occasions when members of the House will leave colleagues in charge of their vote for a day or more, though those occasions are fairly rare.
One assertion in the direct-mail ad is technically true, but very misleading –- the assertion Brown “took a 62 percent pay raise.” The Legislature voted itself a pay raise during Fite’s term, and Brown says that yes, he did accept the higher rate of pay. But he had nothing to do with getting the pay raise passed.
Equally misleading is the ad’s assertion that Brown did not sponsor a single bill in the 2010 term. As a newcomer, taking office in the middle of the session, Brown’s chances of successfully introducing a new bill were slim at best.
“When you arrive in the middle of the session, there’s not even an orientation,” Brown said. “You park your car, get shown to your office, and then you’re in the session casting votes. It’s almost overwhelming.”