Thursday, February 27, 2014
2014 - LEGISLATIVE UPDATE: WEEK SEVEN
The biggest news of the week from the Alabama Legislature was the movement of both the General Fund and Education Trust Fund budgets. The budgets essentially crossed paths this week with the ETF budget passing the Senate and moving on to the House, and the GF budget making an opposite journey from the House to the Senate.
The House passed the GF budget on Wednesday, February 26 with no changes to the version of the budget that was voted out of the House committee. That said, there continues to be discussion about attempts to provide additional money for the Department of Corrections. Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur), the Chair of the Senate Committee on Finance and Taxation, General Fund, has said that he expects additional money to be added for the DOC. There also may be plans to transfer some of the inmates from the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, which is still under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. The GF budget passed the House by a vote of 80-20. A conditional appropriation bill that would provide state employees with a 4 percent pay raise also passed as part of the budget package. However, the conditional appropriation would only be released if state revenues exceed current projections - which appears unlikely.
The Senate passed the ETF budget on Thursday, February 27, but first was required to cloture debate as Democrats mounted a filibuster. One somewhat humorous point regarding the Senate’s cloture of debate on the ETF was that when the petition was filed, Senator Gerald Dial (R–Linville) was speaking. Senator Dial was also one of the Senators that signed the cloture petition, and he noted at the time that this meant that he technically petitioned the Senate to make him stop talking.
The Senate approved education budget totaled $5.9 billion. It would provide a 1 percent bonus payment (not a raise) for school employees. The 1 percent bonus is a departure from the 2 percent raise sought by Governor Robert Bentley in his proposed budget. The ETF budget passed by the Senate does include a 35 percent increase in funding for pre-kindergarten programs, a priority of the Governor, to a total of $38.5 million. The ETF budget passed the Senate by a vote of 21 – 10.
As for other items of interest for the week, on Thursday, after several tries earlier in the session, the Senate passed the Taxpayer Bill of Rights II (TBOR II). The bill was substituted by agreement on the floor, and then passed. Business groups have worked for several years to pass this legislation, which would set up a more independent tax appeals process outside of the Department of Revenue. The bill, sponsored by Representative Paul DeMarco (R-Homewood) and which was previously passed by the House, was sent back to the House for a vote on whether to concur in the Senate changes. That vote could take place as early as next Tuesday.
On Wednesday, the Senate passed a series of bills dealing with public assistance and those who receive them. For example, the body approved a bill by Senator Trip Pittman (R-Daphne) that would require drug testing for those receiving public assistance (SB63). Also passed was a bill by Senator Orr that would prohibit the use of public benefits for the purchase of alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets and other items (SB116).
Finally, two measures related to Alabama’s Ethics laws received attention this week. On Thursday, the Senate approved SB by Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) that would strengthen Alabama’s Open Meetings law. The bill would, among other things, prohibit serial meetings of less than a quorum in an effort to evade the law. It would also allow a private citizen to sue for a violation of the law. On Wednesday, a House Committee chaired by Representative Mike Ball (R-Madison) took up SB36, which was introduced in the Senate by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) to close a loophole in the State’s Revolving Door law. Under the bill as introduced, the law would have been expanded to specifically prohibit departing Legislators from lobbying either body of the Legislature for two years. Prior law had been applied to only prohibit a Legislator from lobbying the body in which he or she served (i.e., the House for departing House members and the Senator for departing Senators). The bill was significantly amended on the Senate floor to include additional changes both to the Ethics law and to Alabama’s Campaign Finance law. Calling what occurred in the Senate “a circus,” Representative Ball proposed a substitute that would bring the bill back close to its original form. The Committee did not take action on the measure, but is expected to next week.
When the Senate adjourned on Thursday night, the Legislature had used 19 of the available 30 meetings days for the 2014 session, leaving only 11 meeting days remaining. The upcoming week is expected to be a two-meeting day week.