By KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama lawmakers return to Montgomery on Tuesday for the 2021 regular session that will be conducted differently because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Access to certain areas of the statehouse is limited and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey will give a televised State of the State address instead of appearing before lawmakers. Legislators plan to meet for two weeks and then take a break to review COVID-19 precautions.
Here are some key issues to watch during 2021 when lawmakers return to Montgomery.
Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh is introducing legislation to establish a state lottery and allow casinos in the state. Alabama is one of only about five U.S. states without a lottery. Marsh said the bill directs the governor to negotiate a compact with the Poarch Creek Indians. It also allows gambling at several non-Native American sites. Lottery revenue would provide merit-based college scholarships while other gaming revenue would be used to expand high speed internet in the state.
“I see this as an opportunity to do these things without taxing the taxpayer,” Marsh said. The senator added he is trying to get agreement among the “major players” in the state after previous bills failed amid a turf war over who would run casinos. If approved by lawmakers, the proposal would go before voters.
Republican lawmakers said a top priority will be legislation to shield companies and others from civil liability during the COVID-19 pandemic. SB 30 by Republican Sen. Arthur Orr would provide immunity for businesses, health care providers and others from certain damages claimed by individuals who allege that they contracted or were exposed to the virus. The bill is expected to be debated in the first weeks of the session along with another to exempt federal coronavirus relief funds from state income tax, and a bill to renew industrial incentives.
Alabama lawmakers will have to draw new congressional districts following the 2020 Census. Alabama expected to learn this spring if the state will lose one of its seven congressional seats because of population changes. If that happens, it will spark the difficult task of deciding which district to eliminate and how to consolidate the remaining ones. Many lawmakers anticipate the issue will be addressed in a special session later this year.
Republican Sen. Tim Melson has introduced medical marijuana legislation, SB 46, to allow people with a qualifying medical condition to purchase marijuana, in forms such as gels or tablets, for medical use from licensed dispensaries. A similar bill cleared the Senate last year with a 22-10 vote but did not get debated in the House of Representatives.
Alabama faces a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice over prison conditions. Some lawmakers are expected to propose sentencing and parole changes. Democratic Rep. Chris England has introduced HB107 to repeal the state’s Habitual Offender Act. Republican Rep. Jim Hill has introduced HB 24 to provide for the resentencing of certain individuals convicted of nonviolent offenses. The Republican governor has indicated that she will sign an agreement to lease new prisons from a private corrections company, but some lawmakers object to leasing prisons.
Democratic representatives have introduced several bills to allow early voting and to allow people to vote by absentee ballot without having an excuse. Currently, to vote by absentee ballot in Alabama, people must swear that they can not get to the polls because they are ill, working long hours or out of town. Republicans have a supermajority in both chambers in the Legislature, so the bills would have to win substantial GOP support to pass.
Democratic Rep. Juandalynn Givan has introduced HB8, which would alter the state law banning the removal of Confederate monuments and allow the monuments to be given to the Department of Archives and History or the Alabama Historical Commission. Republican Sen. Gerald Allen has introduced SB5 to allow people to carry a concealed handgun without getting a permit. Republican Rep. Wes Allen has introduced HB1, which would prohibit medical professionals from treating transgender children with hormones, puberty-blocking drugs and gender-reassignment surgery.