By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Several legislative committees met Wednesday to consider bills and receive public input. Here’s the latest from the State House.
Public records bill delayed
A bill that would strengthen Alabama’s public records law was delayed on Wednesday at the call of the bill’s sponsor in order to hear concerns from interested parties.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, is sponsoring Senate Bill 165, which he says will help bring more accountability and transparency to government.
“We have got to allow the public reasonable access to [public documents] in a reasonable time, and it’s that simple,” Orr said. “They’re not an agency’s documents. They’re the people’s documents.”
Orr asked for more time so that anyone with concerns or amendments to the bill could come forward before it is voted on in committee.
Brad English from the Alabama Press Association has worked with Orr on the bill and said he was hearing more opposition than support for it.
“We realize there is a lot of work to do on this, but one positive thing is that we are starting to get some dialogue from other groups, and it would be a whole lot easier to tell you who is for the bill as it exists than who is against the bill as it exists,” English said.
The bill would require agencies to respond to public records requests within 14 days and would limit the fees the agency could charge for duplications. The bill prevents any records protected by court orders or other personal private information from being released.
Agencies would not be allowed to charge more than 20 cents for black and white copies of documents and 75 cents for color copies, unless they can provide evidence for reasons to charge more. Copies of electronic records could not be charged more than one cent per page.
The bill also establishes a way to appeal record request denials, which would go through a Public Access Counselor within the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts.
Similar bills have come forward in the Legislature in the past but have run into roadblocks from smaller local governments saying this would put undue stress on their already understaffed and underfunded agencies.
Bill prohibiting job discrimination based on hairstyle advances
A bill that would prevent an employer from firing or refusing to hire someone based on their hairstyle passed a Senate committee on Wednesday.
Senate Bill 265 sponsor Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said he has heard from some of his constituents who have faced discrimination for hairstyles in the workplace. He said he faced the same in the corporate world for how he wore his hair.
The bill also says no one can be denied receiving state or federal financial assistance based on their hairstyle.
The bill states that, “the Legislature recognizes that continuing to enforce a Eurocentric image of professionalism through purportedly race-neutral grooming policies that disparately impact Black individuals and exclude them from some workplaces is in direct opposition to equity and opportunity for all.”
The bill specifically mentions hairstyles more commonly used amongst the Black community like braids, locks, twists, cornrows, afros, bantu knots and fades that cannot be used as justification for firing someone.
Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, voted against the bill saying that he thinks this will cause unnecessary litigation against employers in the state.
“I think this is going too far where we don’t need to go,” Givhan said.
Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, also voted against the bill saying Alabama is a right-to-work state and he should have control over who he hires.
“As a business owner, you can wear your hair any way you want to but I’m not going to hire you in my business,” Stutts said. “I’ve got a certain level of professionalism that I want to display.”
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, also voted against the bill saying he was concerned about burdensome litigation being placed on employers but agrees that discrimination based on hairstyle shouldn’t be allowed in the state.
The final vote on the bill was 5-4 with Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, being the other vote against. It now goes to the Senate.
Committee hears feedback on medical marijuana proposal
The House Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on Sen. Tim Melson’s medical marijuana legislation but did not vote on it.
Melson, R-Florence, explained the bill to committee members and touched on some of the more controversial parts of the proposal, like the list of qualifying illnesses which he says are specific to reduce abuse.
“By having those list of conditions, we know there’s literature to back that, and shows that it helps those,” Melson said.
The legislation currently allows for 17 conditions, including cancer, anxiety, epilepsy, menopause, a terminal illness and chronic pain, after other pain remedies have been exhausted. The bill would allow marijuana in forms such as pills, skin patches and creams but not in smoking or vaping products.
One speaker supporting the legislation was Amanda Taylor, who said she had to leave the state in order to find the proper medical treatment for multiple illnesses.
“It is not right for Alabamians to not see the compassion that other states are doing,” Taylor said. “Thirty-six states have said yes to medical cannabis. I stand up and tell you that every day of my life I work a more than full-time job, I fight six debilitating diseases and I am a productive member of this society.”
A speaker against the bill was Phil Williams, chief policy officer for Alabama Policy Institute and a former state senator. He said he didn’t object to the bill because of any medical reasons but because the legislation would grow government, place a burdensome 9% sales tax on the product and violates free-market principles, among other things.
Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, who has previously sponsored other medical marijuana legislation, said the bill is meant to help patients collaborate with their doctors on finding best treatment methods.
“What we’re trying to do here is expand it to help a lot more different people for doctors in different types of practices,” Ball said.
Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said he thinks the arguments concerning medical marijuana are similar to the arguments that were made a couple of years ago over allowing cannabidiol usage in the state.
“I look at this as an opportunity for families to take care of their children and their families,” England said. “The only way we’re going to get comfortable with it is to study it and put it in controllable circumstances.”
House Judiciary Chairman Jim Hill, R-Moody, said the bill would be voted on next week. If it passes it will then go to the House Health committee.