The Legislature settled into a more familiar rhythm this week, with votes on the floors of the two chambers on Tuesday and Wednesday and the bulk of committee meetings on Wednesday. The shift was noticeable after the disruption of the special session on the gas tax, a week off for spring break, and two unusual three-day weeks (during which the Legislature was in session on Wednesday in addition to Tuesday and Thursday). With nine legislative days used out of a constitutionally permitted 30, and with more than 700 bills introduced but none enacted, the session is well underway but slightly behind where it might usually be.
General Fund Budget Package Passes House
By tradition, the House and Senate take turns originating the state’s two budgets. This year, the House started the General Fund budget and the Senate the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget. On Tuesday, the House unanimously (103–0) approved the FY2019–20 General Fund Budget, HB152, sponsored by Representative Steve Clouse (R–Ozark). The budget now moves to the Senate for its approval. The current version of the budget, which totals $2.1 billion, is very similar to the one that Governor Ivey proposed at the start of the Regular Session and is roughly $90 million larger than last year’s. The budget includes an additional $40 million for the Department of Corrections to hire 500 new officers, an increase of $9 million for the Department of Mental Health, and $5.7 million more for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency to hire new state troopers. The increase for the Department of Corrections came on the heels of a report from the Department of Justice that essentially threatens federal intervention if Alabama does not address its overcrowded prisons and the treatment of its prisoners by May.
Medicaid, which has put pressure on the General Fund budget by steadily increasing its budget requests for the past several years, had a significant roll-over from last year. As a result, the Agency actually reduced its request for the coming fiscal year. It would receive $703 million in the current version of the budget, down from $755 million. The proposed budget also includes $105 million as a set-aside for projected increases in both the cost of Medicaid and the state’s share of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in FY2020–21.
Along with the General Fund budget, the House also unanimously passed three related bills all also sponsored by Representative Clouse. HB166, HB176, and HB177—a 2% cost-of-living pay increase for state employees, and the hospital and nursing home Medicaid assessments, respectively—all passed with very limited debate. The wage increase was the second in as many years. The two assessment bills are considered absolutely critical to the way that Alabama funds its Medicaid program.
Asbestos Litigation Bill
The House Committee on Commerce and Small Business held a public hearing on HB100, sponsored by Representative Jim Carns (R–Mountain Brook) on Wednesday. The bill, known as the Asbestos Trust Claims Transparency Act, would require plaintiffs in asbestos actions to file with the court all available asbestos trust claims and produce all trust claims materials before trial. The purpose of the legislation is to prevent those plaintiffs from making duplicative or inconsistent claims in court and against asbestos trusts for the same injuries. The committee did not vote on the bill, but it is on next week’s agenda for a vote.
Plastic Bag Preemption Bill Clears Committee
On Wednesday, the House Committee on State Government favorably reported HB346, sponsored by Representative Nathaniel Ledbetter (R–Rainsville). The bill would prevent any level of government below the state from prohibiting, imposing a fee on, or otherwise limiting the use of any particular kind of food or beverage containers. The bill was introduced in response to a concern that Mobile and Baldwin Counties are considering banning the use of plastic bags. The bill would ensure that any such policy would be statewide, and would therefore not advantage or disadvantage businesses across county lines.
Two Ethics Bills in Committee
Last year, in response to an apparent shift in the way that economic development professionals were to be treated under the state’s ethics laws, the Legislature passed a law clarifying that economic developers are not lobbyists. As a result, they are exempt from the requirement that they publicly disclose their employers. Last year’s bill came at the urging of Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield, who argued that such disclosures would require economic developers to breach confidentiality agreements in order to do business in Alabama, putting the state at a competitive disadvantage in recruiting investment. That law expired on April 1, 2019. The Senate Committee on Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development favorably reported HB289, sponsored by Representative Alan Baker (R–Brewton), which would revive last year’s bill, making the distinction between lobbyists and economic development professionals permanent, but clarifying the circumstances under which that designation applies. The bill now only awaits final passage by the Senate before it goes to the Governor for her signature.
The Senate Committee on the Judiciary discussed and carried over SB230, sponsored by Senator Greg Albritton (R–Range), which would be a far more comprehensive overhaul of the state’s Ethics Act. The bill has received significant attention for its idea of shifting the overall framework of regulation of the interactions between public officials and lobbyists and their employers. Under the proposed law, lobbyists and their principals would be required to report in writing the value of anything of value given to any public official or public employee or his or her family but would loosen the restrictions on the giving of things of value. It is not expected that the bill will be brought up again.
Online Sales Tax Tweak Clears Committee
The House Committee on Ways and Means General Fund favorably reported HB183, sponsored by Representative Rod Scott (D–Birmingham) on Wednesday. Among other things, the bill would prevent customers from bringing a class action for being charged the incorrect amount of Alabama tax by online sellers.
Thursday was Sunset Day in the Senate
Each year, the legislature must renew the enabling legislation that establishes various state agencies, boards, and commissions. On Thursday, the Senate took up a calendar made up exclusively of such bills, which are generally noncontroversial. Bills, which all originated in the House, to continue the Security Regulatory Board, Athlete Agents Commission, the State Board of Occupational Therapy, the Alabama Board of Examiners of Landscape Architects, the Board of Dental Examiners, the Board of Massage Therapy, the Board of Bar Examiners, the Board of Pharmacy, the State Board of Engineers and Land Surveyors, and the State Board of Registration of Architects all passed. They now await the signature of the Governor before becoming law.
Deer Baiting Bill
On Thursday, the House passed a highly controversial bill that would allow for the hunting of deer and feral swine over baited fields. HB197, sponsored by Representative Danny Crawford (R–Athens), would allow hunters to purchase a “bait privilege license” in the same manner that they would buy an annual license. Under certain circumstances, that license would permit them to kill or catch deer and wild hogs on private land using bait such as corn or wheat.
The Legislature has used nine of its available 30 meeting days for the 2019 Regular Session. The House will reconvene on Tuesday, April 16th at 1:00 p.m. The Senate will reconvene on the same day at 3:00 p.m.
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