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The Great Goat Hill Stampede of 2024


The Great Goat Hill Stampede of 2024

Mar 04, 2024 | 7:59 am ET
By Brian Lyman
The Great Goat Hill Stampede of 2024
The Alabama House of Representatives debates a bill to extend criminal and civil immunity to in vitro fertilization providers on Feb. 29, 2024 at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Alabama. The House approved the measure on a 94-6 vote. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

The Alabama Legislature crammed 40% of this year’s session into February.

That’s light speed for the body. At this rate, lawmakers could finish the session in mid- to late April, over a month before the state Constitution would require them to depart.

You might approve. The less time the Legislature sits, the less time they have to pass bad laws. In recent years, the Republican supermajority has turned legislative sessions into bonfires of civil rights and voting access. If it could stop our lawmakers from throwing other freedoms into the flames, I’d end the sacrificial ritual early.

But stampeding through the session means lawmakers are pushing through major bills in a frenzy. And with little reflection about the impact or long-term consequences.

Even as we’re seeing the fruits of another short-term decision.

The Alabama Supreme Court’s decision to effectively end IVF treatments in the state depended on a 2018 constitutional amendment, approved by the Legislature the previous year, declaring that the “public policy” of the state was protecting unborn life.

Ahead of the election on the amendment, supporters downplayed its impact, claiming it was just a statement of values, even as abortion rights groups warned that the measure would have dire consequences should Roe v. Wade fall.

The following year, the Alabama Legislature passed what would become an effective abortion ban in the state, restrained only by Roe v. Wade. Then, in 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

And in 2024, the far-right justices on the Alabama Supreme Court — citing both the 2018 amendment and Dobbs — decided to close off a method of conception for childless people.

That’s a deeply unpopular decision. So Republicans are trying to fix it. Their approach is to extend civil and criminal immunity to IVF providers. Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, who sponsored the 2019 abortion ban, is carrying the House version.

But Collins and other supporters acknowledged it will only be a temporary fix. And it does not address the court’s central conclusion that frozen embryos are children, a pretty steep legal barrier to any revival plan.

“My mom always said, ‘If you do it right the first time, you won’t have to worry about it on the back end,’” Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, said during the House debate on the measure Thursday. “And Alabama did not do it right on the front end. And that’s why we are paying for what we’re faced with right now.”

But that’s not stopping legislators from racing some other dangerous bills through the process.

SB 1, sponsored by Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, has passed the Senate and is in position for a vote in the House. It would criminalize certain forms of absentee voting assistance, allegedly because of what supporters call “ballot harvesting.”

Voter fraud is not an issue in Alabama. As al.com reported, the evidence that it is includes a handful of majority-Black counties voting absentee more than the state (not evidence of a problem, let alone a crime) and a 24-year-old voting fraud conviction (which suggests existing laws can catch actual malfeasance).

That’s a shaky foundation for a brand-new punishment regime. At a minimum, lawmakers would make it harder for people with disabilities to vote. And they could subject people making good faith efforts to help those people vote to criminal punishment.

There are other bills. SB 92, sponsored by Sen. April Weaver, R-Brierfield, and HB 111, from Rep. Susan DuBose, R-Hoover, would define men and women by the presence of or potential for particular reproductive cells.

As LGBTQ+ activists note, this could lead transgender people in our violent prisons to get thrown into populations that don’t reflect their gender identity or spark harassment of any woman who doesn’t conform to traditional gender presentations. And Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, noted it might also run afoul of a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Or how about SB 129, sponsored by Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road? That would subject a public employee who teaches a ‘divisive concept’ or runs a program encouraging people to get along with people of different backgrounds to discipline or termination. There’s a lot of potential to make a teacher’s life hell if a student finds something disagreeable in the day’s lesson plan.

All these bills progressed through the Legislature in the last three weeks. All have the potential to make Alabamians’ lives miserable or dangerous.

And the breakneck pace of the 2024 session makes it more likely that those bills will do those things.

I asked House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter about this on Thursday. Ledbetter said the GOP caucus “wanted to get things out there and get them moving pretty quickly.” Leaders had planned to slow down this week, he said, until the Alabama Supreme Court’s IVF decision came down.

Were they worried about unintended consequences? “Well, every time we pass a bill there’s unintended consequences,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re meeting three days a week or five days a week. I mean, that’s just part of the process. Substantially, we can correct those issues if they come to be a problem.”

Ledbetter’s right: the Legislature can fix mistakes. But why not be cautious the first time around?

Would slowing the process to a jog lead to better bills? Maybe not. But it would give time for legislators to think things through and alter the bills. Senate Democrats managed to get a series of amendments on SB 129 earlier this month that struck out language that could have inhibited the teaching of slavery in schools and discussions related to DEI topics.

Not great. But not as bad.

Yet lawmakers are moving at a pace that makes “less bad” untenable for most legislation. It cuts off real consideration of what a new law can do. And it creates the potential for another IVF-style crisis in the state — caused by lawmakers not thinking through the consequences of their actions.

So the great 2024 legislative stampede continues. It’s as sudden and perilous as any similar panic. And Alabamians face a real risk of getting trampled.