‘Gut check’ session ends, here’s what they did

‘Gut check’ session ends, here’s what they did

By MARY SELL and CAROLINE BECK,  Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, has been an Alabama lawmaker since 1966.

“I’ve been through more sessions that anybody here, and this is one of the toughest sessions ever,” Waggoner said Friday evening as legislators ended the annual law-making stint that began March 5. “I mean, we’re talking lottery, gasoline tax, medical marijuana, abortion.

“It has been a gut check this year, it really has, as far as tough, impactful votes. But as far as high profile issues, this session probably ranks No. 1 in my career.”

Here are some of the bigger bills that lawmakers approved or killed in the past three months. Some of the approved legislation is still awaiting Gov. Kay Ivey’s signature.

Gas Tax

Technically, it was approved in a separate special session, but the 10-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase to fund road and bridge improvements was a headlining issue of lawmakers’ three-months in Montgomery. The tax will be implemented in three increments starting this fall.

By 2021, it expected to generate about $320 million a year that will go toward improving infrastructure. The legislature has considered raising the gas tax for years due to the decline of purchasing power from inflation and fuel efficient cars. Gov. Kay Ivey made the infrastructure plan her top priority this year, calling lawmakers into a special session in early March.

Nearly $12 million a year will be used to match federal funds for improvements at the Port of Mobile. Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur tried to get $10 million a year for 15 years for improvements and developments at  inland ports and intermodal transfer facilities. That bill died in the House.

Abortion

Designed as a hopeful U.S. Supreme Court challenge, Alabama lawmakers passed the nation’s most restrictive abortion ban in May. It makes the performance of almost all abortions a felony and doesn’t have exceptions for rape or incest.

“It was about creating something that was meant to go all the way to the Supreme Court, and it also needed to have the most value when talking about a pro-life bill if you are going to try and pass it,” bill sponsor Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, said when the bill was introduced.

Ivey signed the bill but it doesn’t go into effect until November. As expected, Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit to block it.

Budgets

Usually the dominant issue of a session, the 2020 $2.1 billion General Fund and $7.1 billion education budget, both with substantial increases in revenue over the current year, were not the most-talked-about items this year.

The education budget includes a 4% raise for teachers and support staff and more money for Pre-K, K-12, community colleges and four-year universities.

The General Fund includes a 2% raise for state employees and more money for most agencies. The Alabama Department of Corrections received the biggest bump in order to give additional raises and hire more correctional officers. Several State House leaders expect lawmakers to return to Montgomery in the fall for a special session focused on the state’s crowded and dangerous prisons.

Meanwhile, budget leaders have already warned that the 2021 budget planning will not be smooth. Several agencies, including Medicaid and prisons, are expected to have significant cost increases.

Jail food funds

Sheriffs will now no longer be able to pocket money meant to go toward feeding inmates. Lawmakers stopped the decades-old practice that let them keep unspent money and encouraged feeding inmates as cheaply as possible. Senate Bill 228 by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, also raised the daily allowance for inmate food from $1.75 to $2.25 and places that money in a newly-created prisoner feeding fund.

Literacy Act

Schools will have to retain for another year third-grade students who are not reading proficiently starting in the 2021-2022 school year. There are exceptions for special needs children and no student could be held back more than twice.

Collins said her bill is aimed to improve student literacy and prevent the practice of promoting students up through elementary school even though they can’t read.  It requires additional reading resources, including summer programs.

K-12 school governance

Alabama voters will decide in March 2020 if the state’s elected K-12 board of education should be replaced with a commission of governor appointees. The proposed constitutional amendment was priority legislation for Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, and has Gov. Kay Ivey’s support.

Medical Marijuana

A bill that sets up a commission to study medical marijuana and extends Carly’s Law for one more year passed the Alabama legislature. The 15-members of the commission will be appointed by state officials. They’d have at least three public hearings around the state and make policy suggestions to lawmakers in December.

Lawmakers will then have to vote again next year before medical marijuana is legal. Proponents wanted legalization this year, but said a compromise bill doesn’t delay their goal of having cannabis available by 2021.

“I never dreamed going into this session that I’d carry it,” Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said about the legalization bill. “But after reading it, it amazed me after seeing all studies out there. It’s legitimate and we need to look at it. And even if it only helps 20 to 30% of the time on some situations, why not give them that opportunity?”

Marriage Licenses

Marriage licenses will no longer be issued in Alabama. Instead, couples will have to sign affidavits.

Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, sponsored the legislation after a number of probate judges in the state stopped issuing marriage licenses in protest of the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

The bill crossed party lines with six Democrats joining the 61 Republicans who voted for the bill in the House.

Rural Broadband

Bills to allow electric utility companies to offer high-speed internet to rural communities by way of their existing power networks and to expand by $20 million a state grant program to subsidize the cost of internet providers running fiber-optic lines to less-populated areas have been signed by Ivey

Unemployment benefits

Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, sponsored legislation to shorten the current maximum time for unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 14 to 20 weeks. When unemployment is at or below 6.5%, people will receive 14 weeks of benefits. If unemployment is above 6.5% , an additional week will be added for each .5% increase in the rate with a maximum of 20 weeks of benefits. People in job-training programs could get an additional five weeks of benefits.

The bill raises the weekly benefit amount from a maximum of $265 to $275 beginning Jan. 1, 2020. Ivey has signed the bill.

Ethics and Economic Development

A bill to exempt economic developers from state ethics rules governing lobbyists is now law. The legislation was seen as essential by the state’s economic development community, which argues that treating site selectors like lobbyists and requiring them to publicly disclose their clients will result in Alabama missing out on the next Mercedes, Honda or Mazda-Toyota type projects.

Last year, after much debate, lawmakers passed an economic development exemption, but set it to expire in one year. House Bill 289, sponsored by Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton, made that exemption permanent.

Free Speech on Campus

Public universities by July 2020 must now “develop, adopt, and enforce” policies that ensure intellectual freedom, allow the expression if ideas some find offensive, allow students and faculty to freely express political positions, ensure outdoor areas are open for public demonstration, and allow “any speaker whom students, student groups, or members of the faculty has invited” to speak and be protected on campus.

Other bills that went to the governor:

Require chemical castration of certain sex offenders before they are released from prison. The bill from Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, requires chemical castration of offenders who commit sex crimes against anyone under the age of 13. The offenders will have to pay the cost of the castration.

Allow mugshots of people charged with soliciting prostitutes to be published and requires all new commercial driver licensees to undergo industry-specific human trafficking training.

Require law enforcement to report how often they use civil actions to seize a person’s property when the person hasn’t been convicted of a crime.

Make it illegal for drivers to stay in the left-most lane of the interstate for more than 1.5 miles without passing another vehicle. Rep. Phillip Pettus, R-Greenhill, a former trooper, has said most road-rage incidents happen because of people crowding and slowing the left lane. His bill was dubbed the Anti-Road Rage Act.

Allow retired law enforcement officers to become armed school security personnel. They do not have to be certified by the Alabama Peace Officers’ Standards and Training Commission, as is currently required of school resource officers.

Make betting on fantasy sports contest legal. Fantasy sports allow fans to draft players from real professional rosters and select teams to compete against peers in regular contests. Former Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange outlawed the games because he considered them gambling. The bill taxes companies like DraftKings and FanDuel 10.5% on their revenue.

Prohibit fire districts from assessing fire-protection fees on timberlands under recently passed legislation. The legislation leaves fire protection on a privately owned property used for timber production to the Alabama Forestry Commission.

Allow hunters to bait white tail deer and feral pigs on private and leased lands for a $14 annual “bait privilege license fee” and a $1 issuance fee. Out-of-state hunters would pay $50.

Prohibit employers from paying different wages to employees based on their sex or race. Rep. Adline Clarke, D-Mobile, sponsored the legislation that passed out of both chambers unanimously. The bill would allow employees with proof of wage discrimination up to two years to file a lawsuit. Alabama and Mississippi were the only two state in the nation that didn’t have their own equity pay law.

Overhaul how the Alabama Pardons and Paroles Board and its executive leadership are chosen, giving appointment power to the governor.

What didn’t pass

Several high-profile bills didn’t make it out of the Alabama State House. Among the most prominent were bills calling for a statewide vote on a paper lottery and to give newly-hired teachers more generous retirement benefits.

The proposal to allow ticket sales for interstate lotteries like Mega Millions and PowerBall, died in the House. Some legislators still oppose gambling, others fought over what the bill could mean for electronic gambling. There was also disagreement on who revenue should be spent.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston , praised the session as one of the most productive in recent history. But he said the lottery bill’s failure was a disappointment. The proposed constitutional amendment cleared the Senate and died in the House.

“I wish the people would have gotten that opportunity (to vote),” he said..” And, it would have, in my opinion, eased some pressure on the General Fund going forward.”

Good grades

Asked how they’d grade the session, local lawmakers gave it passing marks.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon,R-Monrovia, said, “A.”

“Because of the fact that we addressed some tough issues and we didn’t turn our back on the tough issues,” McCutcheon said. “They were votes that will carry us into the future. We didn’t just look at an issue and put a Band-Aid on it, we tried to look at things for the future. That infrastructure bill is something that my children will be able to benefit from down the road. And it’s those kind of things that we as a legislative body should be looking at.”

Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, is the Minority Leader in the Republican controlled State Senate.

“It gets a B minus. I think the abortion bill alone drops it down from an A to a B-,” Singleton said.
“We had a good session. At least in the Senate, it was smooth and productive. There are some bills I still have some apprehensions about. But the biggest disappointment was the abortion bill. I really believe it gives the state of Alabama a black eye in terms of what we’ve said to women.”

Marsh told Alabama Daily News he’d give it a B+ or A- and that lawmakers took on a lot this year.

“You have to do what you think is the right thing at the time,” Marsh said. “I think the gas tax was the right thing. I think that will be proven by the time the next election rolls around and when people see asphalt and improvements in infrastructure.”

Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, said B.

“The budgets, the (education budget) especially, we had more money in both of them than we’ve ever had before,” Wood said.

“… The thing that I was very disappointed in was the marijuana bill. I said that I would support it if it had really tight restraints on it, and I don’t think it does. I’m afraid it doesn’t have the right people on the commission.  One thing I don’t like about it, is that we voted for Carly’s Law years ago, so I wish he would have just passed separate legislation to extend Carly’s law by itself instead of having all this tied together.”

Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, voted against the gas tax because he didn’t like the possible 1-cent increase every two years to keep up with construction cost increases. He also opposed the medical marijuana bill.

Those aside, he gives the session a “B.”

“We passed very strong pro-life legislation and we’ve made some steps to reform education at the state level,” he said.

Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals, gave his first session a “B-.”

“We passed some good bills like the strongest abortion law in the nation, campus free speech, unemployment benefits reform, and the civil asset forfeiture reporting. However, I’m disappointed that constitutional carry (to allow concealed firearms without a permit) did not pass the House or Senate.  I also opposed the gas tax increase that I believe a majority of Alabama did not support. I believe we need more bills that repeal previous laws, cut expenses and restore freedoms.”

Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, gave he and his colleagues a “B.”

“No one wanted to do a gas tax, but it was the right thing to do,” Melson said. “I think the appointed state school board is probably the right thing to do.

“The abortion bill, quite frankly I kinda wish we hand’t done that bill,” Melson said. Some lawmakers wanted exceptions for rape and incest victims or to ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat was detected. He noted that the bill was sponsored by a woman and had the support of the female governor.

“But we did it with a strategic purpose and we all fell in line,” Melson said about the possible Supreme Court challenge.

“I think this group, in this first year of the quadrennium, has said, let’s get these issues out on the floor and in the public an in committees and work on them, instead of behind closed doors,” Melson said.

Mike Ball, R-Madison, said “B” because of the medical cannabis committee legislation, decent budgets and a gas tax issue that’s settled for now.

“I wish there was more transparency and I wish we would have made more progress on the ethics issue, but that time will come,” Ball said. “As sessions go, I can’t remember a better session because these things are always mediocre and disappointing by design, so it was a fine session.”

“If I gave it a letter grade, I would definitely give it a C,” Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, said. “When we talk about the national press that we got on the abortion bill, that was definitely a stain on this legislative session.  We did some positive things as well but it’s been one of my personal best as it relates to passing bills that I care about like removing the racists language from the state constitution and the human trafficking legislation as well. But again to look at that abortion bill and the financial strains that it will cost the state when we are already a financially strained state.”

Alabama Daily News reporter Todd Stacy contributed to this report.