What to expect as Alabama’s legislature goes into its election year Session
Agenda Bills Coming First Out of the Gate
Republicans are going to come right out of the gate this week with bills from their “Commonsense Conservative” agenda specifically related to tax relief. Rep. Barry Moore’s Tax Relief Act and Rep. Jim Patterson’s Tax Elimination Act will likely move very early in the session, as will Rep. Paul DeMarco’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights.
If history is any guide, House Republicans will plow through their entire agenda in the first couple of weeks of the session. Last year they quickly passed all ten of the bills on their agenda, but only six of them went on to pass the Senate and only five were ultimately signed into law by the Governor.
Common Core Fight Rages On
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, has publicly stated that he hopes to avoid contentious issues because legislators are anxious to get back to their districts to campaign.
But while it’s unlikely that any piece of legislation will spark the kind of fights we saw last year with the Alabama Accountability Act, Sen. Scott Beason’s continued push to repeal Alabama’s version of Common Core Standards promises to keep the halls of the State House buzzing with conservative activists. Marsh says he won’t bring the bill up for a vote because Republicans are so divided over it. Common Core is by far the most emotionally charged current political issue in the state. That alone is plenty of reason to keep an eye on it during the 2014 session.
Too Early to Tell on Teacher Pay Raise
Another education-related issue that will be in play this year is a potential pay raise for school teachers. In 2013, the legislature passed a budget that gave teachers a 2 percent raise, the first they’d seen in six years. Governor Bentley says he will include another pay raise in his budget this year. House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, is calling for a 6 percent raise. Bentley says that won’t be possible because of budget constraints. When it comes to budgeting, both Bentley and Ford have the luxury of floating spending proposals without the pressure of executing them. Legislative Republicans will ultimately craft the state’s budgets, and the budget chairmen seem uncertain right now on whether the state will have enough money to hand out any raises. Tight budgets are squeezed further this year due to skyrocketing healthcare costs brought on by ObamaCare. Democrats love this issue politically because it gives them an opportunity to paint Republicans trying to balance the budget as anti-education.
Modernizing Economic Incentives
The most significant legislation related to jobs this session could end up being a proposal to overhaul the way Alabama offers economic incentives to major industries considering locating in the state. Although landing Airbus was a major coup, economic developers have privately expressed frustration with the way the state currently has to structure its incentive packages. Numerous sources have told Yellowhammer that legislation is quietly being worked on to put Alabama on a level playing field with other states.
Asphalt vs. Concrete
A little known issue that’s been bubbling below the surface since last year is a so-called lifecycle budgeting bill being pushed by out-of-state — and some out-of-country — concrete companies. Opponents of the bill say it’s a government mandate that picks winners and losers in the pavement industry and flies in the face of free market principles. Proponents say it’s a way to save the state money over the long haul. One thing that’s indisputable though is that there are no concrete companies in Alabama, while numerous asphalt companies located in the state would take a hit. Both sides are bringing the big guns into the fight. Former Gov. Bob Riley and his lobbying outfit are representing the cement industry. They are pitted against the asphalt industry’s lobbying firm of Swatek, Azbell, Howe & Ross, which includes longtime Riley adviser Dax Swatek. This is set up to be one of the more interesting behind-the-scenes battles of the session.
Calls for Medicaid Expansion Fall on Deaf Ears
Democrats have indicated that they will continue their push for the state to expand Medicaid under ObamaCare. Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, said it will be her caucus’s top priority. The PR campaign will continue over the next 6 months, but insiders say expansion advocates are simply holding out hope that Gov. Bentley will reconsidering his opposition to the expansion after he wins re-election. The Governor has ratcheted up his rhetoric against the expansion in recent months, especially after leftwing public officials and members of the media started attacking him. It’s hard to imagine him changing directions at this point.
Revolving Door Comes to a Stop
In response to numerous legislators leaving office mid-term to take jobs as lobbyists, Sen. Del Marsh is sponsoring a bill to close the “revolving door” between elected office and the governmental affairs world. “The Revolving Door Act” bans former legislators from lobbying either house of the legislature for two years after leaving office. House Republicans have also included the bill in their legislative agenda. It’s being sponsored on the House side by Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton,
Finally, the top issue this session — as it should be every session — is the state’s budgets.
The state is constitutionally required this year to pay back the rest of the money owed to the state’s Rainy Day Fund out of the education budget. It’s too early to tell what that amount will be because we don’t yet know how much money the state will bring in this year, but it could be as much as $128 million. That, combined with the spike in state employees’ healthcare costs brought on by ObamaCare, means the education budget will be as tight as ever.
The General Fund budget is unfortunately in even worse shape. The rising costs of Medicaid are swallowing a greater chunk of the General Fund each year. After level-funding most agencies last year, it’s very likely that some will receive a cut in this year’s budget.
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