State budgets, legislative authority, gambling bills in State House next week

State budgets, legislative authority, gambling bills in State House next week

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama House is expected to vote next week on the 2022 General Fund budget while the Senate’s priorities include gambling legislation and bills that could blur the lines of authority between the legislative and executive branches of state government.

After moving fast through the first four weeks of the 2021 session, lawmakers are expected to slow down to a more normal pace as the mid-point approaches. 

“We’re hopeful by spring break we’re going to move (the budgets) out of the house of origin,” Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, told reporters on Thursday.

Budgets 

The House is expected to vote on the record-setting $2.4 billion budget on Tuesday. House General Fund Chairman Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, gave House members a budget spreadsheet of the proposed budget before they adjourned on Thursday.  

The proposal approved in committee would increase the fiscal year 2022 budget by $78.9 million from the fiscal year 2021 budget, putting the budget at a record-setting $2.4 billion. It’s also about $15 million more than what Gov. Kay Ivey proposed in February, an increase that is spread out in increments to various state agencies. 

The Senate education budget chairman Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, told members on Thursday the “ark was closing” and that any members who had requests or concerns about the ETF needed to see him before the weekend.

The education budget hasn’t been taken up in the Senate committee yet but Gov. Kay Ivey’s proposed $7.65 billion fiscal year 2022 budget showed a total increase of $440.8 million from the 2021 budget.

Ivey is proposing an increase of $309.9 million for K-12 schools, a $115.9 million increase for higher education and $14.9 million for other related increases.

Legislative control

Scofield said it was likely that the Senate would take up two bills that would curtail some of the governor’s executive power when it comes to state emergency orders and calling the Legislature into a special session.

Senate Bill 259 from Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, which would allow the Legislature to call itself into a special session, was passed in committee last week. The bill would allow the Senate President Pro Tem and the Speaker of the House to convene the Legislature by a joint proclamation and approval by a two-thirds vote of both chambers.

A similar house bill from Rep. Becky Nordgren, R-Gadsden, failed to pass committee this week after some legislators said it was an overreach of power with unintended negative consequences. Nordgren has refilled the bill.

Another bill from Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, would give the Legislature more say in extending state emergency orders, like the ones put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Senate Bill 97 passed out of committee along party lines and would limit state emergency orders to 14 days and requires legislative approval for extensions. If the Legislature is not in session during the crisis, the bill says an extension can be approved by a joint proclamation by the senate president pro tem and the speaker of the house.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said he doesn’t think Ivey has overreached in her authority when enacting the emergency orders during the pandemic, but that lawmakers are reacting to the concerns they hear from constituents.

“These bills you’re seeing come out, they’re not in any way trying to criticize the governor they’re just trying to evaluate what we’ve done, where we are and how can we do it better,” McCutcheon told reporters.

Senate Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said he encourages discussions over the exact roles the legislative branch and the executive branch should play in government but does not think Ivey has overstepped.

“If we have other pieces of legislation that give us more clarity in areas to define the governor’s role and the Legislature’s role or define the department of public health’s role or other state agencies that may be engaged in a scenario like an emergency or a pandemic, I think to talk through those things is healthy and I think you are going to continue to hear that from the Legislature,” Reed told reporters Thursday.

Scofield also did not criticize Ivey and said the bills were about preparing for any future disasters.

“Frankly, I think, whether we agree or disagree, she’s done the best she can and none of us have been here before and hopefully we won’t be back here. But if we are we need to have things set up to where we do it better,” Scofield said.

Ivey press secretary Gina Maiola did not say if Ivey supports the two bills or not but that she has spoken to the McCutcheon and Reed who were “receptive so that we can ensure this is being done in a thoughtful manner, not on impulse.”

“Gov. Ivey believes strongly that our Legislature – like other branches of government – play an important role in the functions of our state,” Maiola said. “However, the reason the executive branch of government has the authority during a state of emergency to make certain decisions is because it is an emergency.

“The governor believes the Legislature is initiating this from a good place. In fact, after this pandemic is behind us hopefully soon, Gov. Ivey wants the Legislature to convene a group to conduct a thorough review of emergency handling so that any changes made can be made to best benefit the people of our state.”

Gambling bill vote Tuesday

Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, updated reporters Thursday on the developments of his gambling legislation which he says will be on the Senate floor Tuesday. Marsh said he expects it to pass. 

“At the end of the day, we will have a document that finally has controls on gaming in the state of Alabama and will have a strong commission to oversee that and work through the puzzle of making sure those revenues go to where the state would like to see them,” Marsh said.

His bill would allow for a lottery, expanded casino gambling and legalized sports betting. 

Marsh said his goal now is to work gaining support for the bill in the House chamber where expansive gambling legislation has died in previous sessions.

McCutcheon said House members are still waiting to see what is in the final bill but voiced some hesitancy in possibly confusing voters with such an expansive piece of legislation.

“The last thing we want to do, and I’ve said this for several years, if you’re going to put this lottery and gamming issue out for the people to vote on, let’s not have such a complicated bill that the people get lost on what they’re trying to vote for,” McCutcheon said. “Many people could go to the polls thinking they’re voting on just a lottery but yet there is going to be other components to that.”

If the gambling legislation passes it would have to be approved by a majority of Alabama voters in the next general election.

Both chambers will return back to the normal two-legislative-day weeks next week and will take a week-long spring break on March 22.