Five things to watch as Alabama legislative session enters final two weeks
MONTGOMERY — The 2019 regular session of the Alabama legislature is expected to wrap up next week, and there are still a lot of important issues to be decided.
Legislators have already made history by passing the Rebuild Alabama Act in a special session and have used the regular session thus far to pass bills ranging in purpose from economic development competitiveness to challenging Roe v. Wade, with dozens of local bills and constitutional amendments flying under the radar.
While the Department of Corrections crisis will likely be considered later on in the year during another special session, the Yellowhammer State is set to see a whirlwind finish on Goat Hill leading up to Memorial Day and through either Thursday, May 30, or Friday, May 31.
Here are the top five issues to watch before then:
1. Show me the money. Regular sessions start and end with the budgets, and 2019 is no different. The main hang up has been the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), with Governor Kay Ivey proposing that the $35 million program be funded out of the Education Trust Fund (ETF) this time around instead of the General Fund. Remember, this was done to offset Ivey ending approximately $30 million of the annual diversion from roads and bridge that has been covering for shortages in ALEA and court system funding.
Legislators have been haggling over whether the full CHIP amount proposed by Ivey will be funded through the ETF in the final version of the budget, with neither the Senate-passed education budget nor the House-passed General Fund budget paying for it.
The education budget is set to be amended by the House Ways and Means Education Committee on Tuesday, with that committee voting on Wednesday. The general fund budget awaits consideration before the full Senate after the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee proposed to pay for half of the total CHIP funding ($17,500,000). Keep an eye out to see if both budgets end up partially paying for CHIP or whether one will indeed pay the full amount.
2. It’s a crapshoot. The lottery hangs in the balance in the House, with a combination of hardline conservatives and the Democratic Caucus threatening the people of Alabama’s ability to vote via referendum on the issue.
Despite Democrats for decades advocating for a state lottery, it is their party’s block of votes in the House that could end up sinking the proposal this time around. There are enough Republicans with moral and fiscal objections to the lottery making Democrats’ votes very much needed to get to the 60% threshold needed for a constitutional amendment.
These Democrats have complained that the clean, paper-only proposal does not expand other gaming across the state, saying more forms of gambling like slot machines would increase revenue even more. Keep in mind that Senate Deputy Minority Leader Billy Beasley’s (D-Clayton) bill to legalize electronic bingo in Macon County failed on the Senate floor on Thursday, receiving 19 “yay” votes and only one “nay” while not reaching the necessary 60% mark of 21 affirmative votes. VictoryLand and GreeneTrack sideshows could very well lead to Democrats doing a backflip on their longstanding commitment and torpedoing the best chance a lottery has to pass in this quadrennium — and for the foreseeable future.
3. Irony? Sure, this is an exaggeration, but it seems like the legislature is taking longer to consider direly needed legislation to reform the Board of Pardons and Paroles than it took for the board to prematurely release some inmates.
The House certainly took awhile, but did finally pass HB 380 by State Rep. Connie Rowe (R-Jasper) two weeks ago. This legislation is supported by Attorney General Steve Marshall and Ivey, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) is carrying the bill in the Senate.
However, HB 380 and its companion bill sponsored by Ward have yet to even get consideration in his own committee. The lack of movement is seriously concerning many around Montgomery, as the board tries to cling onto its power with the session nearing its end.
4. Should the state school board be a popularity contest? The Senate on Thursday unanimously passed a groundbreaking constitutional amendment that proposes to turn the state school board into a commission appointed by the governor, with the superintendent replaced with a secretary chosen by those board members. The legislation, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) and supported by Ivey, would also mandate that Common Core is replaced in Alabama.
As a constitutional amendment, this bipartisan legislation would go to a referendum of the people on the March 2020 primary election date, just like the lottery if it survives the House. Observers view this measure as a major first step in turning the state’s dismal k-12 public education rankings and outcomes around.
5. It’s never over. The abortion issue isn’t going away. A bill by State Rep. Ginny Shaver (R-Centre) to safeguard against infanticide is expected to be debated on the House floor on Tuesday.
Along with a bill to eliminate the custodial rights of a parent convicted for rape or incest if the crime resulted in the conception of the child that has been passed by the House and is set to be considered by the Senate, this means that Alabama’s recently passed HB 314 will continue to factor into proceedings in both chambers.
Honorable mentions: While we listed only five issues here, the end of this regular session is going to be jam-packed with interesting legislation. A few honorable mentions that come quickly to mind are State Rep. Kyle South’s (R-Fayette) daily fantasy sports contests bill, the package of different rural broadband bills that still need final passage and State Rep. Terri Collins’ (R-Decatur) Alabama Literacy Act.
Follow @sean_yhn for live updates from the State House as the session winds down.
Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn