Long list of issues falls by the wayside as virus upends session

Long list of issues falls by the wayside as virus upends session

By MARY SELL and CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Less than three months ago, medical marijuana, education reform and the possibility of a state lottery were expected to be headlining issues of 2020 legislative session. Projections for increased tax revenue meant larger General Fund and education budgets for 2021 and raises for state employees and teachers were anticipated.

But when the new coronavirus interrupted daily life, it also upended the state’s economy and this year’s regular legislative session.

Legislative leaders announced Thursday that the session will resume on May 4, a week later than they had planned. Alabama’s constitution limits the number of days in a regular session and this one has to end on or before May 18.

Senate President Del Marsh said it was important for the Legislature to use what remaining time they have left to pass budgets that give schools and state agencies some certainty going into the next fiscal year.

“We need to meet,” Marsh said. “I am hopeful we can meet to pass the budgets and some other non-controversial items. We know there are risks and we’ll have to deal with those, but in many ways next week is no different than a month from now. We won’t be fully out of the woods until we have a vaccine.”

In addition to the budgets, local legislation that has already been advertised will be considered, House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said Thursday, but nothing else.

That leaves a long list of legislative items unresolved, setting up the need for special sessions to be called later in the year.

Prisons

Improving Alabama’s prison system and avoiding a federal takeover had been a stated priority for most legislative leaders this session, and some had hoped the high stakes nature of the issue would allow it to be considered during the remaining time this session. A slate of prison and criminal justice reform bills had already begun moving rapidly with each chamber passing companion versions through committee, meaning the legislation is only a few more steps away from final passage. Now it appears a special session will be needed if reform bills and funding increases are to pass.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who is the Senate lead on prison reform, said U.S. Department of Justice officials have told lawmakers that they expect some kind of progress on prison reform, despite the coronavirus complication. 

“‘DOJ has told us, ‘We don’t want to hear your excuses on coronavirus,’” Ward said, adding that the feds had grown frustrated with the lack of movement on prison reform for multiple years. 

“If we carry out no action whatsoever, we’ll be in trouble. I think they’ll take us to court and I think they’ll win.” 

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he thinks there’s at least a possibility that a prison-focused special session will be needed later this year.

In mid-May, two firms are supposed to deliver to Ivey their proposals to build three large prisons, which would then be leased to the state.

“That problem (the state’s crowded and old prisons) has not gone away and will not go away and it may require more attention and deliberation than we’re able to do in the regular session,” Orr said.

Ivey has said the state has $78 million a year to spend on new prison leases, which comes from savings gleaned from shuttering the old facilities. But there appears to be interest among some lawmakers, because of current low rates, in the state borrowing the money for prison construction.

“I think we need to see what the proposals (from the private builders) are,” Orr said. “Gov. Ivey has worked very hard and we’ve waited this long.”

Gambling

Successful lottery legislation wasn’t a sure thing going into February, but sponsors now say efforts are dead for the year and Alabamians who want a statewide lottery will likely have to wait at least another year.

Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, had hoped to get a constitutional amendment allowing a statewide lottery on the November 2020 ballot, when the presidential election will draw high voter turnout.

“I don’t see any hope for it this year,” Clouse said. Even if lawmakers meet in a special session later in the summer, Clouse said a lottery bill would need to be approved before July to get it on the November ballot.

Lottery efforts in recent years have fallen apart in the State House and this year there were multiple bills in the Legislature.

“We’re working against time, we’re working against the governor, we’re working against all those other forces that have been there, so I just don’t see us progressing there,” Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, said Wednesday. He also has a lottery and casino gambling bill. 

Gov. Kay Ivey in February assembled a group to study the possible fiscal impacts of a lottery and expanded gambling in the state. She said she wanted more information before any action is taken. Inside Alabama Politics reported last month that “behind the scenes” negotiations were also ongoing between the various gambling factions.

Medical marijuana

A bill to legalize medical marijuana to treat some conditions passed the Senate in March, but a proponent on Wednesday said its chance of passage in the House is probably slim now because of the short session. Passage in the House was expected to be a heavier lift than in the Senate, even before the coronavirus derailed the session.

Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, said its a matter of priorities and how much attention the bill can get.

“If leadership wants to get it done, we can get it done,” Ball said on Wednesday. “We’ve got a good bill, I wish we could get it done.”

Raises

In February, Ivey’s proposed state budgets included 3% raises for teachers and 2% raises for state employees.

Those, along with requested increases for many state agencies, are likely gone.

“I think all the pay raises are off the table now,” Clouse, the House General Fund budget chairman, said.

Clouse and Albritton, the General Fund committee chairman in the Senate, said when lawmakers do get back to Montgomery, level funding from the current fiscal year will be the starting point of budget discussions.

General Fund and education budget leaders have said to expect stripped-down budgets to pass in the remainder of the session. More money could be added later this year or in early 2021, if it’s available.

The 2021 fiscal year starts Oct. 1, but Albritton said it could be months after that that the whole impact of the coronavirus and shut down of many businesses is known.

“The toughest part for us in state government is going to be Oct. 1 to Dec. 31,” he said.

“… We still haven’t hit bottom, we haven’t gotten to the other side,”

Albritton said he’s afraid there’s been “structural damage” to the state’s economy and small businesses.

“If you were a small business person and had to close, had to find another job and still have bills to pay, are you going to be anxious to open back up?” Albritton said.

Still, there will be some increases in the 2021 budget. Medicaid will need more money and the Alabama Department of Corrections is under federal pressure to increase staffing in its crowded and dangerous prisons.

Meanwhile, mental health services were a priority for lawmakers coming into the session. The Alabama Department of Mental Health requested $18 million to create three crisis diversion centers around the state.

“I think that’s still a priority,” Clouse said. “We’ll see when we get in there.”

Education reform

Early this year, Marsh said he was working on education legislation that would focus on accessibility to quality education. Alabama recently ranked dead last in math and near last in reading on the National Assessment of Education Progress.

Marsh and Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur have been using the low rankings as a call to action to pass school reforms. It was going to be a top priority in the second half of the session, but Wednesday Marsh said his education reform plan would not be included among essential legislation.

“I think the session is going to have to be limited to the budgets and bills that are already in play,” Marsh said.

Tier III Retirement Benefits

Legislation that creates a new tier of improved retirement benefits for education employees was able to pass out of the House unanimously earlier this year, but is likely dead this session due to the coronavirus.

The bill from Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton, would create a “Tier III” level of benefits that would increase the multiplier, which determines how much retirees earn, from Tier II’s current 1.65% to 2%. His bill applies to all education employees, including support staff and administrators.

Some lawmakers expressed concern that the benefits should only apply to classroom teachers only if the point of the new benefits was to hopefully attract more teachers to the state.

During the 2019 legislative session, that fight over classroom teachers or all education employees is what eventually killed the bill.

Under the proposed Tier III, an employee must either have 30 years of creditable service or reach the age of 62 to obtain benefits.

5G Expansion

Legislation that would have created a state-wide standard for deploying 5G cellular infrastructure in the state has also been put on hold because of the coronavirus.

The bill would have created a request process for cities to follow when approached by wireless providers like AT&T and Verizon and set a cap on the fees municipalities can charge companies for the use of city owned rights-of-ways.

The bill was approved in the Senate and in a House committee in March and was awaiting a final vote in the House when lawmakers left Montgomery.

The legislation has continued to raise problems with the League of Municipalities and the mayors of Alabama’s five largest cities.  They say the bill is giving up their right to control rights-of-ways and that negotiating with providers on a case-by-case basis is what’s best.

Orr has said that the need for 5G technology in the state is a “public good” and by not creating a path for easier expansion, Alabama is missing out on economic growth opportunities.