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Six things to watch for this legislative session

Alabama’s 2022 legislative session begins Tuesday at the Alabama State House in Montgomery.

While it is not as contentious as Congress in Washington, D.C., it will have its moments, especially as the 2022 election cycle is now underway.

Here are some of the things we at Yellowhammer News are watching:

1) The COVID Question: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

For the third year in a row, COVID-19 protocols will play a factor in the regular legislative session. But the protocols are not uniform throughout the Alabama State House.

The upper chamber, occupied by the Alabama State Senate, will institute a mask-preferred policy. However, the lower chamber, occupied by the Alabama State House, is requiring masks in common areas.

Though the public in Alabama seems desensitized to the threat of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, those in Montgomery are taking precautions. But there are political sensitivities at play.

Some Republican incumbents behind the scenes are concerned about the possibility of another closed session similar to 2020, and how it might be perceived.

There is fear that a closed session might be used by Republican primary challengers as an attack, alleging the good ol’ boy network that resides in the Montgomery swamp is wheeling and dealing out of the specter of the public in smoke-filled backrooms.

The Alabama Department of Public Health and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris have thus far been reluctant to weigh in on the Omicron variant of COVID threat as it pertains to the legislative session.

If they did, it could give cover to the legislature to limit access to the Alabama State House once again. However, such drastic action may be opposed by Gov. Kay Ivey.

2) ARPA funds and a special session within a session: Gov. Ivey’s trick play —

In 2019, Gov. Kay Ivey and Republicans in leadership in the Alabama Legislature insisted the one thing that we could not live without was the Rebuild Alabama Act.

“It’s time to make our crumbling infrastructure system a problem of the past,” Ivey declared in her 2019 State of the State speech. “This is a challenge that is felt by every Alabamian, clearly making it a bipartisan issue. As governor, I say enough is enough. Now is the time to Rebuild Alabama.”

The problem for lawmakers was they were being asked to increase Alabama’s fuel tax, making that the first vote of this quadrennium, and the first vote for some newly elected lawmakers.

Rather than go through the usual process, which at the time would have required the adoption of a budget isolation resolution through a three-fifths vote of the legislature, Ivey called a special session within moments of completing her State of the State speech.

The goal was to avoid the parliamentary protocol and not allow it to be tied up by lawmakers using their powers to slow down or thwart the process.

Although Ivey and leadership fell short of the goal of unanimity on passage of the Rebuild Alabama Act, it worked, and the law was signed by the Governor seven days after her State of the State address.

Now with a traunch of $580 million in so-called ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) federal relief funds on the table, Ivey is believed to be eyeing a special session within the session, and it has the support of some in the legislature.

Some lawmakers tell Yellowhammer News that they are skeptical of the special session approach.

Watch for late January, perhaps beyond the Alabama Republican Party primary qualifying deadline for Ivey to make the call.

The early word is such money will be applied to the ongoing rural broadband internet initiative. State Rep. Steve Clouse (R-Ozark), the House General Fund committee chairman, also said to expect a portion of the money to be applied to rural sewer and water infrastructure.

Oh yeah, there is more federal money where that came from, as well.

The government spending money may sound like a seamless task, but don’t underestimate the potential for controversy when politicians and money are involved.

3) Constitutional/permitless carry: When will the sheriffs make a stand? —

This is supposed to be the year Alabama finally gets a so-called constitutional (or permitless, depending on your side of the issue) carry bill through the legislature.

In the past, State Sen. Gerald Allen (R-Tuscaloosa) has made it a perennial effort, where it would either die in a Senate committee or pass but die in the House.

However, this is believed to be the breakthrough year in the House because one-time opponents of permitless carry have evolved on the issue given the state is implementing a so-called prohibited firearm-holders database, which in theory would alleviate some safety concerns of abolishing the permit requirement.

One of the constitutional carry bills, HB44, filed by the outgoing State Rep. Andrew Sorrell (R-Muscle Shoals), has 38 co-sponsors, including House Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia), who was formerly a hostage negotiator for the Huntsville Police Department.

That is reason to believe there is a reasonable likelihood of consideration by the House in 2022.

The long-standing opponent of permitless carry has been the powerful Alabama Sheriffs Association, which has been successful in fending off any push within the legislature.

Very few sheriffs have spoken out against the bill publicly. One exception has been Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran, who fired State Rep. Shane Stringer (R-Citronelle) from his department last year for supporting constitutional carry.

With potentially millions of dollars in permit revenue at stake, expect the sheriffs to make one more stand. But don’t expect it until after the January 28 Republican Party qualifying deadline.

Once incumbent Republican sheriffs, some with considerable political influence in their county, have a better sense of who or if they could face in a GOP primary, they could be more available to speak out against a permitless carry bill without fear of it being used against them in a primary contest.

Despite the support in the House, passage isn’t a given.

“This isn’t going to be a pushover like people think it is,” one lawmaker told Yellowhammer News.

4) Alabama Legislature vs. The Biden administration: Jabs and guns —

Some Republican lawmakers tell Yellowhammer News that one of the main efforts the party will undertake this session will be to continue to combat what they see as federal overreach.

Republicans will take another crack at strengthening state law to combat the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates as a means of bolstering Attorney General Steve Marshall’s ability to take on legal challenges against the Biden administration’s edicts.

Expect the Second Amendment also to play into the discussion of ways to counter actions from the Biden administration.

Last week, the House GOP Caucus released its policy agenda, which called for passing legislation to shield Alabama law enforcement from having to enforce what the state would deem to be an unconstitutional gun control executive order issued by President Joe Biden.

It is an election year, after all.

5) Gambling isn’t going away: Expect an obligatory gesture —

Did you hear? The lottery is popular with voters. Why can’t they just do a simple lottery this year?

That is such a simplistic question for a complicated issue.

We, the voting public, may want it, but apparently, there are not enough of us.

Every year, we have this tired discussion, and every year the clock runs out before the legislature can take it up.

For the gambling prohibition to be removed from the Alabama Constitution of 1901, you need a constitutional amendment on the ballot, which would be put up for a vote of the people.

A three-fifths supermajority is required to get through the legislature and onto the ballot. However, while Republicans have the numbers, they do not all agree on gambling, as it is not a traditional issue that conservatives support.

Thus, it will require buy-in from Democrats in the legislature.

Democrats have been receptive to gambling bills, but for fear of ceding a competitive advantage to the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, who operate three casinos in Alabama, allowed under federal law, they have sought protections for two casinos in Democrat-controlled areas of the state — Victoryland and Greenetrack.

All this for a lottery, right?

State Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore) says a gambling bill will be introduced, and others in the Senate have said it could resemble the 2021 effort passed by the Senate but was deemed “unworkable” by the House.

6) Education bills: Yes, Alabama is still last in K-12 rankings —

A reoccurring refrain about Alabama education is how poorly the state ranks head-to-head against the other 49 states, the District of Columbia and military schools.

One of the unfulfilled promises of the Republican majorities in Montgomery was to improve the state’s standing nationally.

Key GOP lawmakers have signaled their support for a “pause” on a Literacy Act provision that requires third-graders to read at a third-grade level before being promoted to the fourth grade.

It seems simple enough until educators and administrators have expressed concerns about how woefully unprepared they would be if there were an unusually high amount of third-graders being retained this year.

Some for fear of this unpreparedness and some for fear the law will expose potential gross deficiencies in Alabama’s public education system are seeking a pause in that requirement.

The stated reason is difficulties with the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges of at-home learning.

A similar pause was passed by both chambers of the legislature but vetoed by Ivey in 2021. Ivey has since expressed a willingness to consider signing into law a delay in the future.

That may very well happen, but don’t expect it to happen without some resistance.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

Dylan Smith is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanSmithAL