Budgets, major bills pending in final weeks of legislative session

Budgets, major bills pending in final weeks of legislative session

By HEATHER GANN and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – About two weeks remain in lawmakers’ annual spring legislative session and several high-profile bills, including the state’s 2023 budgets and several potential policy changes regarding education, await votes.

Here is some of the legislation that will get attention in the remaining seven possible legislative days.

Budgets

Both the record-setting $8.1 billion education budget and the $2.7 billion General Fund budget await final passage, though the 2023 spending plans are ahead of where they often are at this point in the session.

The House-passed education budget is expected to be in Senate committee this week, chairman Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, told Alabama Daily News. A few changes are expected, including to teachers’ salary structures.

Currently, pay increases are built into teachers salaries every three years. In an effort to attract and retrain educators, Orr said that needs to be more frequent.

According to a dashboard created by the Southern Regional Education Board, Alabama’s average starting salary is higher than any of its surrounding states. But as teachers stay in their careers, the salaries get less competitive.

“I’m a firm believer that you get what you pay for,” Orr told Alabama Daily News.

There are no step raises after 27 years and unless they get a Legislature-approved cost of living increase, a teacher with a bachelor’s degree is capped at 54,981. That means a teacher who starts at age 22 doesn’t get a guaranteed raise after age 49.

“If we’re trying to retain teachers and we have a problem with recruitment, it seems to me that we would remove that cap,” said Orr.

Meanwhile, the General Fund budget has been sent to a conference committee to work out differences between the Senate-passed $2.66 billion version and the House-passed $2.7 billion version. Lawmakers in the two chambers have been in agreement about most provisions throughout the budgeting process.

Competing gambling bills

There are two very different gambling bills in the Senate and House, both of which are at least three more votes from final passage. That either gets approved is a long shot, but both bills will take up some time and energy this week.

Both the House and Senate GOP caucuses will meet to discuss the proposals Tuesday morning, but Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, said Friday he’s “doubtful” anything passes this session.

“I’m not pulling the plug and I’m not giving up, but the handwriting seems to be on the wall,” Albritton told Alabama Daily News.

Albritton has an expansive proposal to authorize a state lottery, sports betting, eight full casinos with slots and table games and two smaller gambling sites that could have up to 300 slot machines each.

In the House, Rep. Chip Brown’s proposed constitutional amendment is a lottery alone. On Thursday, he said he was confident he could get the bill approved in the House and hoped it would happen this week.

“It’s time the people of Alabama had an opportunity to vote on this,” Brown, R-Hollingers Island, said.

In a recent Alabama Daily News and Gray Television poll, 43.5% of Republican voters said the state should legalize and tax a lottery, sports betting and casinos, while 20.5% said the state should pursue only a lottery and 25.7% said they are against expanding any form of gambling.

Literacy Act delay

Senate Bill 200, sponsored by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, would postpone until the 2023-2024 school year implementation of the requirement that third graders who aren’t proficient in reading be held back from moving on to fourth grade. This was amended from Smitherman’s original suggestion of postponing until the 2024-2025 school year, and a similar bill, House Bill 220, was previously sponsored by Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur but was eventually amended to remove the postponement request.

Smitherman argued during the legislative session that the delay needs to be enacted due to students missing out on parts of their education during COVID-19. The bill has been approved by the Senate and has received favorable review from the House Education Policy Committee and awaits a full House vote.

Charter school funding

Senate Bill 302, sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, would allow county level tax revenue to go to charter schools which are public schools that are granted more autonomy to operate outside the traditional rules of public schools. The eight charter schools that Alabama currently recognizes receive federal and state funding, but not local funding.

“In a nutshell, what this bill says is that as a student goes to a public charter school, those county dollars go with that student,” Marsh said on the Senate floor earlier this month.

Marsh’s bill has been approved in the Senate and now moves to the House where Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, is sponsoring it.

Numeracy

Senate Bill 171, also known as the Numeracy Act, is an attempt to improve students’ math education and performance in grades K-5.

The bill creates an Office of Mathematics Improvement within the Alabama State Department of Education with a director appointed by the state superintendent. It also:

  • Requires all K-5 teachers to dedicate 60 minutes per day to math instruction for a total of 164 hours per academic year;

  • Provides regular math screenings for K-5 students;

  • Provide “intensive mathematics interventions” to students identified with math deficiencies;

  • Requires that, subject to state funding, each K-5 school assign one math coach for every 500 students;

  • Mandates that university education programs teach the same approved math curriculum to new teachers before they enter the classroom.

A substitute version of the bill is expected to be voted on in the House on Tuesday and then will return to the Senate for agreement.

‘Divisive concepts’

A bill recently approved in the House would prohibit Alabama schools and agencies from promoting or advancing certain concepts regarding race, sex, or religion in teaching or training.

House Bill B312, sponsored by Rep. Ed Oliver, R-Dadeville, has also been referred to as the “divisive concepts” bill and has been a subject of controversy both online and on the floor with several democratic lawmakers questioning whether the law is constitutional and saying that it is a law aimed to ban Critical Race Theory teachings.

The banned concepts would include that the United States is “inherently racist or sexist” and that anyone should be asked to accept “a sense of guilt” or a need to work harder because of their race or gender, the Associated Press previously reported.

The bill now moves to the Senate.