Education, controversial bills and ‘more money than we’ve ever had’ define session

Education, controversial bills and ‘more money than we’ve ever had’ define session

By MARY SELL and MADDISON BOOTH, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – State Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, at the end his sixth four-year term going back to 1974, said the Alabama Legislature’s session that ended Thursday night was unlike any he’d previously seen.

“We had more money than I ever dreamed we’d have, both in the education budget and General Fund,” said Greer, who serves on the House General Fund budget committee. “That was the key factor in the whole session, more money than we’ve ever had.”

The election-year session also saw the passage of conservative priority bills.

“Maybe we overdid some of that, but I voted the way my constituents asked me to vote,” Greer said.

Bolstered by record state revenues in both the Education Trust Fund (ETF) and General Fund, the Legislature passed select tax cuts that officials say total about $160 million and increased funding for education. There were pay raises for teachers and state employees and one-time bonuses for retirees, too.

The GOP majority prioritized on the last day of the session bills to ban gender transition medical care for minors, prohibit discussion about gender and sexual orientation in kindergarten through fifth grade and requiring public schools to make students use the bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to the sex designated on their birth certificates.

“Those were very important items to the Alabama Senate and we worked on them diligently,” Senate President Pro Tem. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said on the final night of the session.

Thursday was tense at times as those bills moved in the House and Senate.

“The last session day was not representative of the session,” Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, said that night. “We’ve actually had a strong education session.”

Collins chairs the House Education Policy Committee.

“We’ve passed over 20 bills that will make a positive impact for students,” she said.

The session that began in early January was wide-ranging, for sure.

Lawmakers created a database to track people who abuse the elderly and also legalized fentanyl testing strips in hopes of reducing accidental drug overdoses.

They put a requirement that people on state unemployment apply for at least three jobs per week and moved to prevent cities from excessively fining motorists.

They did away with permits to carry concealed handguns and designated more money in both budgets for mental health treatment in the state.

They put $200,000 in the ETF to supply free feminine hygiene products to students in low-income schools, funded an expansion of postpartum Medicaid coverage from two months to one year and forbid Alabama prisons and jails from shackling pregnant inmates.

“It was an incredibly busy and productive session for the usually quiet fourth year of the quadrennium,” Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Daphne, said. “I applaud our senate leadership for their ability to navigate a multitude of complex and sometimes contentious issues successfully.”

Rep. Rolanda Hollis, D-Birmingham, called the session bittersweet. She was able to get passed her bills putting free feminine hygiene products in some low-income schools and defining proper treatment of pregnant correctional inmates.

But she said fighting against legislation like the anti-critical race theory bill, which ultimately failed, vexed her spirit.

“For me, this session had its ups and downs,” she said.

Budgets and pay bumps

Infused with federal COVID-19 relief that has come to the state since 2020, lawmakers passed record $8.2 billion education and $2.7 billion General Fund budgets while trying to bank additional money for rainier days.

While billions of federal dollars have flowed to the state since the pandemic began in 2020, Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Huntsville, on Thursday said lawmakers deserve credit for budgetary changes they implemented over the last decade and the state’s current flush accounts.

“The progress we’ve made is not necessarily because of the federal dollars, but because of some long-range planning we’ve done over the years,” McCutcheon said.

And now lawmakers are bracing for a potential recession and the end of federal pandemic relief money.

“We know this economy is not going to be strong (indefinitely); we know there are going to be some down years,” McCutcheon said.

State employees and all teachers will get at least a 4% pay raise while a salary structure change for more experienced teachers means increases of up to 21% in an effort to keep educators in the classroom.

“I think it is one of the best sessions we’ve had since 1983,” Alabama Education Association Executive Director Amy Marlowe told Alabama Daily News.

“I can’t say enough good things about this session,” Marlowe said.

Lawmakers and education advocates have discussed for years the state’s teacher shortage and how to get and keep good educators.

“When I heard that one education organization had remarked that the changes to the pay scale were ‘historic’, I chalked it up to political hyperbole,” Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, who pushed the pay increase, said. “But based on the number of people from around the state who have contacted me with positive gratitude, I’m beginning to think it might make a difference with our teacher career and retention issue.”

Democrats commended the increased classroom spending and more money for STEM programs and pay increases.

“This is a budget reflective of things that are going to help move Alabama’s education system forward,” Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, said.

Numeracy, education bills

Orr’s Alabama Numeracy Act to invest more money in math education and put more requirements on instruction, especially for struggling students, has already been signed into law. The bill will allow the state to intervene in schools that do not show improvement in math education over time.

“I hope the Numeracy Act will be another positive influence on our students and help prepare them to be successful in life,” Orr said.

Lawmakers also changed the 2019 Literacy Act, pushing back the law’s provision holding back third-graders struggling to read from this spring to spring 2024. Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, fought for the two-year delay while Republicans wanted one.

Collins said she’s extremely proud of the math bill and others she sponsored or co-sponsored, like bills to put auxiliary teachers in K-3 classrooms and award students fluent in two or more languages a Seal of Biliteracy on their diplomas.

Tax cuts

“The primary headliner from this session, I think, is the amount of tax cuts we’ve done,” said Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range. He’s chair of the Senate General Fund committee.

One of those cuts is named for Greer, who has advocated for years that Alabamians’ income from defined contribution deferred compensation plans, such as 401Ks, should be tax exempt from income tax, the same as those with defined benefit plans, including pensions from the federal or state government.

The Lynn Greer Retirement Income Tax Cut Act of 2022 by Greer and Orr exempts the first $6,000 of all retirees’ earnings from state income tax.

“It’s a start,” Greer said. “We just need to be fair.”

Lawmakers also untaxed the American Rescue Plan credits for Alabama families and approved tax cuts for small businesses and farmers.

In all, the cuts total about $160 million, leadership said.

“The highlight (of the session) for me has been the effort to reduce taxes for individuals and businesses….and the overwhelming support to raise pay for educators in our state,” Rep. Debbie Wood, R-Valley said.

ARPA

Lawmakers and Gov. Kay Ivey in January paused the regular session for a one-week special session focused on spending about $772 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money on a mix of broadband, water and sewer projects and health care reimbursements. Another special session to allocate an additional $1.1 billion in ARPA funding, which the state hasn’t yet received, may happen later this summer.

Broadband 

Multiple bills to improve the state’s ongoing broadband expansion efforts were easily approved in an effort to spend more state and federal money on getting high-speed internet in more parts of the state.

 “We can thank the Biden administration for that,” Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, said about federal funding increases for broadband access.

One of those bills still needs Alabamians’ approval.

Senate Bill 125 is a constitutional amendment that will be on the November ballot that could further expand broadband access by allowing state and local governments to spend federal grant money for broadband expansion through grants to a private company. Current constitution language prohibits local governments from granting “public money or thing of value in aid of, or to any individual, association or corporation.”

Telehealth

Senate Bill 272 allows the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners and the Medical Licensure Commission to adopt rules for using telehealth delivery, which became a higher priority in the state due to the pandemic.

The bill requires that if a physician or medical practice sees a patient remotely more than four times in 12 months for the same condition, the doctor must see the patient in-person within 12 months or “refer the patient to a physician who can provide the in-person care within a reasonable amount of time, which shall not exceed 12 months.” The bill does not limit the patient’s future telehealth visits.

“This is not meant to supplant in-person visits to your physician of choice,” bill sponsor Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Mountain Brook, previously said.

[Note: needs end sentence – The Legislature’s last day, called sine die, was April 7. For the bills passed on or near the last day of session, Gov. Ivey has ten days from the last day to sign or pocket veto the bills.]