Budgets, education reform among bills pending in final stretch of legislative session

Budgets, education reform among bills pending in final stretch of legislative session

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Alabama lawmakers this year have approved a statewide gas tax increase, told sheriffs they can’t keep money meant for feeding jail inmates and said they want a shot at the U.S. Supreme Court with the nation’s most restrictive abortion ban.

The Legislature has two to three weeks remaining in its 2019 session and a lot of legislating is left to do.

Here’s a look at some of the major bills that are pending and what might get punted to a special session later this year.

Alabama lottery not a sure thing

The Alabama House of Representatives is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposal to allow for paper-ticket lotteries such as PowerBall and Mega Millions.

A House committee changed the Senate-approved version of the bill to send 25 percent of ticket sale revenue to the state education budget. The Senate wants to send 100 percent to state debt and the General Fund, which supports non-education agencies and departments. 

If approved in the full House Tuesday, the bill goes back to the Senate where sponsor Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, said changes could cost several votes. That chamber approved the bill without a vote to spare earlier this month.

“I really don’t know at this point,” Albritton said Friday about whether the House and Senate can come to an agreement. 

Albritton wouldn’t say if he’d support the bill in its current version.

“I’m going to wait and see what comes out of the House,” he said.

If it gets through both chambers, Alabama voters will have the final say in March 2020.

But even House approval isn’t a sure thing.

“I think it’s certain to say it won’t be a slam dunk, it’ll be close,” Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said Thursday.

Meanwhile, disputes about the education and General Fund budgets aren’t limited to the lottery…

Budgets pending

Both the proposed $2.1 billion General Fund and $7.1 billion education budget are increases over last year.

The General Fund includes more money for most agencies and a 2% raise for state employees. The education budget boosts funding to many programs and has a 4% raise for K-12 and community college educators.

But early last week, the state’s $35 million match for the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program wasn’t in either the House-approved General Fund or the Senate-approved education budget. Both budgets are now in the opposite chamber.

Albritton is the Senate General Fund committee chairman and lead a meeting where $17.5 million for CHIP was put in that budget.

“That is on the belief, hope and faith that the (Education Trust Fund) will step up some,” Albritton said.

About 174,000 Alabama children receive health care funded through CHIP.

House education budget committee chairman Rep. Bill Poole couldn’t be reached for comment Friday. That budget should be in committee Wednesday while the General Fund budget could be on the Senate floor Tuesday, Albritton said. 

The 2020 General Fund budget includes an additional $40 million for the Alabama Department of Corrections, most of which is to hire additional prison staff. But the big fixes for the state’s crowded and dangerous prisons aren’t happening in this session.

Pushing prisons to a special session

A bipartisan group of lawmakers recently asked Gov. Kay Ivey to call a prison-focused special session later this year to respond to the U.S. Department of Justice’s April report on the suicides, staffing shortages and extreme violence in Alabama prisons. 

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, on Friday said there isn’t enough time remaining in the session to get necessary data, including information on possible sentencing reform and prison construction.

Lawmakers for years have kicked around the crowding issue and the possibility of new prisons.

Ward said he’s “not thrilled” about legislators revisiting prison construction because it always leads to disagreements about locations. New facilities mean thousands of jobs for an area. Meanwhile, Ivey has explored the possibility of leasing new prisons from private companies.

Ward also said Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, is working on a bill to require more state oversight on how sexual assaults and suicides are reported.

Ivey hasn’t committed to a special session, but says all options are on the table.

Ward said the remaining priority on prisons for him in this current session is a bill to let the governor appoint members of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Parole. The bill, which has cleared the House and is pending in the Senate, also sets sentence minimums.

Medical marijuana 

The Alabama Senate this month approved legislation to allow medical marijuana for people with certain medical conditions. The bill from Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, creates a state commission to regulate the use and sale of medical marijuana. As of Friday afternoon, the bill was not on a committee meeting agenda for the upcoming week.

“In the House, there is still a lot of misinformation about the bill… members want to make sure they have a chance to read what came out of the Senate,” McCutcheon said.

He said he isn’t sure of his position on the bill.

Stopping asset seizures without convictions

Sen. Arthur Orr’s bill to prohibit law enforcement agencies from seizing the assets of people who haven’t been convicted of a crime again met resistance Thursday on the Senate floor and did not get a vote. It could come up again though.

Under Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture law, police can seize property if they have reason to believe it was criminally gained. Even if there’s no conviction, law enforcement can keep the property with a civil court order.

On the Senate floor Thursday, Orr said one in four people who have their assets taken are never criminally charged. 

“We didn’t convict, much less charge the person whose property we have,” he said. “That’s something I think the public ought to know.”

Some law enforcement agencies oppose Orr’s bill.

“I’m getting some dings from back home on this,” Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, said on the Senate floor before the bill was carried over.

Ban on devices while driving stalled

Another bill that’s delayed would ban the use of hand-held cell phones and other electronic devices while driving. The companion bills from Rep. K.L. Brown, R-Jacksonville and Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, are modeled after Georgia’s 2018 law. 

McCutcheon said a substitute bill is in the works.

Some church ‘Stand Your Ground’ bills pass, others pending

Representatives from several counties, including Shelby, Bibb, Talladega, Limestone, Lauderdale, Colbert and Franklin, filed county-specific constitutional amendments to clarify that church goers can use deadly force if threatened.

The local bills came after a statewide bill wasn’t advancing because Democrats and some Republicans said the state’s current “Stand Your Ground” law covers places of worship. 

So far, the Lauderdale and Franklin county bills have cleared the Legislature. But because at least one House member voted no, the constitutional amendments will be on statewide ballots, not county specific ballots.

Several education bills priority for Senate leader

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said his education bills are a priority for him.

He has a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow voters to decide if the state’s board of education should be appointed by the governor rather than elected, as members currently are. The bill has the support of Ivey and cleared the Senate unanimously. It’s now in the House. 

The bill also mandates the new education commission adopt a new course of study standards “in lieu of Common Core.”

Waiting for a vote in the Senate is Marsh’s bill to ensure more public dollars can follow students to charter schools.

The original charter school law, sponsored by Marsh in 2015, said any local revenues “restricted, earmarked, or committed by statutory provision, constitutional provision, or board covenant” shall be excluded from the funds allocated to a charter school. 

Marsh’s new bill strikes that language. It also deletes the 10-mill cap on local funding, per student, that could be forwarded to a charter school.

Also, the House approved a bill by Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, to require schools to hold back third-grade students who are not reading. It now goes to the Senate.

‘Tier III’ bills clear House, in Senate

A bill providing better retirement benefits for teachers cleared the House in late April and is awaiting committee action in the Senate.

The Tier III benefits are between the Tier I benefits offered prior to 2013 and the lesser Tier II benefits that have been in effect for new teachers since then.

A fiscal note on the bill says it would increase the total employer contributions by an estimated $16.7 million for fiscal year 2020, with approximately $9.8 million being paid from the education budget.

Advocates say the more generous benefits could attract new teachers, of which the state has a shortage.

A similar bill for state employees also received House approval and is in the Senate.

Equal pay for women

The House passed a bill from Rep. Adline Clarke, D-Mobile, on Wednesday that would prohibit employers from paying different wages to employees based on their race or sex. The measure passed 98-to-0 and went to the Senate.

The bill says employers can only pay employees differently based on seniority, a merit system, systems that base earnings on quality or quantity of production, or “a differential based on any factor other than sex or race.”

Employers who violate the law would be required to pay the employee the lost wages and interest. The employee would have to make the claim in a civil suit that would have to be brought within a year of the violation.

Alabama and Mississippi are the only two states without their own laws on pay discrimination.

Broadband expansion efforts

The effort to expand access to high-speed broadband internet is one of the hottest issues of the session.  A coalition of business, agriculture, education and health care groups are pushing Alabama lawmakers to make progress on getting more of rural Alabama connected. 

The Senate included $30 million in the Education Trust Fund to boost a state grant program that helps subsidize the cost of internet providers running fiber-optic lines to less-populated areas. Such areas often lack the potential customer base necessary for internet providers to justify the expense of building the infrastructure that carries the broadband service. The state grants aim to offset those costs to make it financially feasible for lines to be run to rural communities.

Earlier this month, the House passed House Bill 400, sponsored by Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Cullman, which allows electric utility companies to offer high-speed internet to rural communities by way of their existing power networks. Supporters say it would alleviate the cost of running new fiber lines to rural areas by allowing utilities like Alabama Power, the Tennessee Valley Authority and regional electric cooperatives to piggyback their existing networks with high-speed cable lines. The bill was briefly debated in the Senate Thursday, but set aside due to disagreements that would lead to a lengthy debate. Some existing cable and internet providers have problems with losing marketshare to utilities or the state subsidizing their competition with taxpayer-funded grants.

Inland ports

Orr also has a bill to dedicate some of the revenue from the gas tax increase lawmakers approved in March to publicly owned inland ports and intermodal facilities around the state.

The proposal would spend up to $10 million a year for 15 years on a new grant program  “to

facilitate and coordinate inland port and transfer facility development, improvement, maintenance, onsite storage, moorings and construction.”

The bill passed the Senate 30-to-0 earlier this month and is pending in a House committee.

Orr points to the intermodal hubs in South Carolina and Georgia that have spurred millions of dollars in economic investment in the last decade and moved container traffic — including for automotive industry — off the interstate and onto trains and rivers.

The gas tax increase is sending nearly $12 million a year to the Port of Mobile, where it and federal money will pay for improvements to allow access by more and larger ships.

“If that’s the case, you’re looking at a huge increase in river, rail and truck traffic,” Orr has said.

Alabama Daily News reporters Caroline Beck and Todd Stacy contributed to this report.