Thursday, March 6, 2014
2014 - LEGISLATIVE UPDATE: WEEK EIGHT
Once again, the Alabama legislature met three days this week, completing the 20th, 21st, and 22nd meeting days of the 2014 session. With just eight days remaining, the task of finalizing the budgets remains the most pressing issue. On Wednesday, Governor Robert Bentley stated that if the Senate-passed Education Budget reaches his desk as is he would amend it and send it back. The Governor’s specific objections to the budget currently before the House Ways and Means Education Committee is the failure to include a two percent raise for education employees and a $72 million increase he had recommended for PEEHIP funding. PEEHIP, the education employees’ insurance program, is facing an estimated $220 million deficit this year, and the Governor’s increase in funding was intended to offset some of that shortfall. The current version of the budget would level fund PEEHIP. With not much time remaining in the session, the current difference in opinion between the Legislative and Executive branch on the ETF budget has the potential to become a very significant problem.
On Wednesday, committees in both the House and Senate reported bills that would establish a database for payday loans in the State. These short term loans are limited to $500, but as a practical matter it was impossible to prevent a borrower from taking out multiple loans at different locations, thus avoiding the cap. The State Banking Department has implemented a database through regulation, but that program has been challenged in court, and the compromise legislation would eliminate any question regarding the Department’s authority. The Senate version of the payday lending bill, sponsored by Senator Arthur Orr (R-Deatur) also includes a requirement that expands the term of such loans to four months. While there appears to be some agreement from the industry to the database provision, that agreement does not extend to the term-lengthening part of the bill. The House version, sponsored by Representative Patricia Todd (D-Birmingham) would not increase the term of these loans.
As noted in last week’s update, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights II (TBOR II) was sent back to the House for concurrence in the changes made by the Senate last week. On Tuesday, the House approved the Senate version and the bill was sent to the Governor. The Governor has stated that he would sign the bill, which was sponsored in the House by Representative Paul DeMarco (R-Homewood). The bill establishes an independent tax appeal process, abolishing the current Administrative Law Division of the Alabama Department of Revenue.
On Thursday, the Senate approved a bill by Senator (and former Circuit Judge) Jerry Fielding (R-Sylacauga) to increase the jurisdiction of small claims courts in Alabama. Under current law, small claims courts can only hear cases involving $3,000 or less. Senate Bill 170 would double that amount to $6,000, with the intent being to lower the costs for individuals and businesses to pursue relatively smaller debts.
Several measures related to alcohol were considered this week, with mixed results (get it? mixed results?). On Thursday, the Senate Job Creation and Economic Development Committee reported legislation sponsored by Senator Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery) that would allow the direct sale of beer by a brewery for off-premises consumption. Such sales are currently not allowed under Alabama's three-tier system. The legislation would require that a brewery have an output of at least 25,000 barrels per year to qualify for the exemption. The bill, and its House companion, sponsored by Representative April Weaver (R-Alabaster) is believed to be part of the effort to attract a Stone Brewery to Alabama. The bill is opposed by beer distributors and, because of the output requirement, the craft brewers currently located in Alabama – who themselves seek the right to make sales for off premise consumption. Additionally, on Thursday the Senate voted down a proposal that would have allowed liquor tastings in State owned ABC stores. The bill could, however, be brought back before the Senate next week for reconsideration. A third bill, which also failed in the Senate on Thursday would have allowed alcohol to be sold at a lodge in North Alabama. This bill was peculiar because it only dealt with one piece of property, currently located in Senator Paul Bussman’s (R-Cullman) district. Due to redistricting, next session the property will be in Senator Roger Bedford's (D-Russellville) district. Senator Bedford sponsored the bill, and Senator Bussman opposed it - because it impacted his current district. Other alcohol-related bills this week included the final passage of legislation that would line-up Alabama’s re-corking law with Federal law on this issue (allowing restaurant patrons to carry out an unfinished bottle of wine under certain conditions), and legislation permitting entertainment districts in class 6, 7 and 8 municipalities in Jefferson County.
The House spent much of its time on Tuesday debating and then passing four measures designed to significantly reduce or eliminate the availability of an abortion in Alabama. The Fetal Heartbeat Act (HB490), sponsored by Representative Mary Sue McClurkin (R-Indian Springs) would prohibit an abortion if a fetal heartbeat can be detected. This can occur as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Similar legislation passed in North Dakota and Arkansas has been temporarily enjoined while they are being fought in court. Another measure passed by the House on Tuesday, HB489 by Representative Ed Henry (R-Decatur) would increase the waiting period for an abortion in Alabama from 24 to 48 hours.
Finally, on Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would allow any person to carry a loaded pistol in their car without a permit. Under the omnibus firearm legislation passed last year, an individual without a concealed weapons permit can transport an unloaded pistol in their car so long as it is locked in a container out of the reach of the driver and passengers. It is not clear how Senate Bill 354, which now goes to the full Senate, would interact with provisions in the 2013 legislation that prohibit employers from banning weapons on their property under certain conditions.
The Legislature reconvenes on Tuesday, March 11 for the 23rd legislative day. The Senate comes into session at 2 pm and the House at 1 pm. Next week is expected to be a three meeting-day week, which would mean that at the end of the day on Thursday only five days would remain in the session.