Alabama legislators clash over bill extending 10-year code exemption to single building

By: - April 21, 2023 7:01 am
A large chamber with two stone pillars. A half-moon shaped dais is at center, with an electronic board above it. People sit at desks that fan out across the chamber.

The Alabama House of Representatives meets on March 14, 2023 to consider legislation appropriating $1 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act. The House approved the measure. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

A bill that would exempt nonprofit veterans’ organizations from state or local building codes for at least 10 years from date of acquisition passed the Alabama House on a 51-26 vote, with 27 abstentions. It goes to the Senate.

The bill passed after a long debate on the House floor over applying the bill statewide and questioning whether it could cause harm.

The debate ended with Republicans cloturing Democrats, the first in the House in the 2023 session. 

HB 62 sponsor Rep. Ben Robbins, R-Sylacauga, said that “this is basically a local bill” that had to be written as statewide legislation. Robbins said as a local bill, it would have to pass as a constitutional amendment, requiring 60% of the votes in both chambers to pass – 63 in the House; 21 in the Senate.

Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, whose district includes Talladega, said that she was upset because procedure was not followed. She said that Robbins should have reached out to discuss the bill with other members of the Talladega legislative delegation. Boyd said she was trying to determine if it would have been better as a local bill, she said.

“Because that’s my district too – it’s just a matter of procedure and communication between the delegation,” Boyd said.

She said that with rules changes, in order to communicate and to be involved, the minority party has “the right to debate or to know about it previously.”

The bill would apply to a single American Legion post, giving them 10 years to bring their building up to code.

“This was an easier way to do it,” said Robbins, adding that as a constitutional amendment would “cost more money and be more time consuming, and [he] was just trying to save the cost of printing the constitutional amendment.”

Democrats expressed suspicion. Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville said that she is not necessarily opposed to the bill. But she said that she opposed bringing local bills as general bills that would be broadly applied across the state.

“I don’t think it’s fair that we allow a situation where we know that the right thing to do may take a little more time and a little more effort,” she said.

Robbins said it was an economic issue.

“A part of the reason is because last year I had a local constitutional amendment, and one of the pushbacks I got on that was the cost of publishing it, just the extra cost,” he said. “‘They said ‘this cost us an extra $100,000,’ so I was just trying to save the state some money here.”

Asked by Hall who wanted the local bill to be a constitutional amendment, Robbins said “it was an issue related to the bill and a government agency, but that was not really germane to this,” but did not otherwise answer the question.

Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, said exempting a building from compliance for 10 years would be negligent.

“Ten years’ time,” Moore said, “That building probably could be out of code, and you still want to exempt it. So somebody should happen to get hurt in that building because of a code violation, then what do you say?”

Robbins said that they should have insurance in that case, which Moore called a “cop-out, because the person has been hurt.”

Rep. A.J. McCampbell, D-Linden, also expressed concerns.

“What Pandora Box do we open up by doing this?” he said. “Because what other companies, what other organizations, what other buildings are we going to have using this particular exemption? Because once it becomes general law, then other areas that are going to want to avoid building codes, they are going to use this.”

Robbins maintained that the legislation was narrowly written, and that it would have to pass a two-pronged test: it has to be a nonprofit or veteran organization and have acquired a former armory building.

But Hall said that this is a statewide bill that only impacts one county. 

“That one building, which is in one county, which is in Talladega County,” Hall said. 

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Alander Rocha
Alander Rocha

Alander Rocha is a journalist based in Montgomery, and he reports on government, policy and healthcare. He previously worked for KFF Health News and the Red & Black, Georgia's student newspaper. He is a Tulane and Georgia alumnus with a two-year stint in the U.S. Peace Corps.