When Sessions End, Gavels and Hankies Fall

(Updated 12:51 p.m. EDT, June 23, 2008)

Alabama state Rep. Ken Guin's (D) nutrition bill was dead from the start.

So dead, in fact, that he won the Legislature's "shroud" award, a gag honor that for three decades has marked the end of the session for lawmakers in Montgomery.

Alabama and many other states conclude their sessions with traditions that are funny, bizarre and even poignant. With half of state legislatures concluding in the past two months, and several more to adjourn within a few weeks, the celebrations are in full swing.

Guin garnered his ghastly gift for a bill that would have required schools to submit lunch menus to a Department of Education nutritionist for review. The Legislature adopted a House resolution declaring that, of all the bills proposed this session, his stood the least chance of getting passed. It was doomed after school superintendents voiced their opposition.

"Childhood obesity is no laughing matter, and the sponsor is certainly devoted to this caloric crusade," the resolution states. "Your glass is still half full … of SLIM FAST, and your RECIPE FOR SUCCESS was a FULL FEELING effort that just lacked one essential ingredient: ENOUGH VOTES." (See the full resolution here . Click here for an audio clip of the House speaker reading the bill.)

A state representative who owned a funeral home awarded the shroud - a black suit in a box that serves as a burial garment - to its first victim in 1978, said Greg Pappas, the House clerk for 33 years. "There may be a lot of partisan bickering, but everyone comes together for (awarding the shroud)," he said.

On the last day of the legislative session next door in Mississippi, a Mississippi State University lobbyist places tomato seedlings on the desks of legislators, staff members and sometimes Statehouse reporters. The tradition started several decades ago after university researchers engineered a robust tomato plant capable of traveling well. Proud of their development, they sent some to the Capitol, where the tomatoes were a hit.

Legislatures are notorious for not finishing on time. Lawmakers in Alabama, California, Illinois and South Carolina, among others, have literally stopped the clock at midnight to buy time for unresolved issues. South Carolina's Senate has been known to send the sergeant-at-arms to the third floor gallery, wielding a broom, to reach up and turn back the clock hands. Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia practiced the same kind of time management until courts ruled it unconstitutional.

Years before in South Carolina, a House majority leader joked that the session wasn't finished until the fat lady had sung. Sure enough, a lobbyist who took him at his word found an opera professor at the University of South Carolina. At adjournment, she belted out an aria from high above the chamber floor.

Legislatures in Florida, North Carolina and Washington state hold handkerchief-dropping ceremonies for adjourning sine die , a Latin term meaning "without day," that ends a body's formal gathering.

The sergeant-at-arms from one or both chambers drops a handkerchief in the center rotunda that is visible to both the House speaker and Senate president. When the hankie hits the floor, both presiding officers strike their gavels simultaneously, ensuring that one chamber doesn't adjourn before the other.

During the ceremony in Washington state, lawmakers and their staff form two lines - facing each other - that snake from the House, down a flight of stairs to the center rotunda, and up another set of stairs to the Senate chamber.

There aren't any stately ceremonies for the Georgia and Missouri legislatures, which purge themselves of all their paperwork when session ends. Missouri House members heave bundles of bills skyward on the last day that legislation can be considered, while Georgia lawmakers shred their paper before flinging it into the air. Similarly, at midnight in Maryland, confetti rains down through the Senate and House.

For years in Colorado, the minority party from both houses took jabs at the other party with skits called "hummers." The practice was ended two sessions ago after lawmakers said the spoofs had become too political and hurtful.

Interns in Utah's state Senate award signed Certificates of Senator Superlatives at the session's close, including honors for the best wardrobe, the most likely to vote no, and the "only person on the floor able to understand his bill," among others.

State Sen. Scott McCoy, a liberal Democrat in a state where two-thirds of the House and Senate is Republican, won an award from this year's interns for delivering speeches most likely to fall on deaf ears.

"I'm often a dissenting voice on a lot of things we pass." McCoy said. "(But) all of (the awards) are in good fun and in jest, and a way to celebrate what is normally a high-intensity, short time-frame period of 45 days."

Some legislatures find closure in more solemn ceremonies. In Maine, the lights are dimmed in the House chamber; the roll call light for each retiring or term-limited member is switched on, and their names and lengths of service are read. Hawaii legislators form a circle in the House chamber, join hands and sing the state song, "Hawai'i Pono'i." In Michigan, retiring and term-limited lawmakers give farewell addresses.

Back in Alabama, state Rep. Thomas Jackson (D), last year's shroud winner, was partially vindicated this year.

"We've carried (the shroud) for a whole year," Jackson told his colleagues. "I got laughed at. I got talked about. I got criticized. I was in the doggone papers. Front page! Two weeks running! I haven't had that much popularity since I first ran for office."

The bill for which Jackson won the 2007 award - a measure to allow higher alcohol content in beer - at least passed the House this year. 


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