With 21 of the constitutionally permitted 30 days used after a three-day week this week, the 2019 Regular Legislative Session has begun to pick up the pace for a sprint to the finish. The House plans to take up only bills originated in that chamber for the first part of next week and then to turn to bills exclusively from the Senate, effectively marking the end of newly introduced legislation this session. It is rumored that the Legislature will meet for three days next week and—in a highly unusual move—for four days during the last week of the month, with a goal of ending the session by the end of May after 28 legislative days.
While the week would have been busy even without it, the passage of HB314, sponsored by Representative Terri Collins (R–Decatur), made Alabama the focus of national attention. National news media outlets filled the press rooms, passionate citizens thronged the hallways and galleries, and protestors crowded outside the doors of the State House. The bill, which would make it a felony for a doctor to perform an abortion in Alabama, has been described by its sponsors and supporters as a vehicle directly to challenge Roe v. Wade. The Senate passed the bill on Tuesday evening, after hours of debate and repeated failed attempts by the Democratic Caucus to amend the bill. Perhaps the most closely watched of the failed amendments—which would have provided exceptions in the case of rape or incest and that had originally been added in committee before being stripped last week on the Senate floor—did manage to garner a few Republican votes. The Governor signed the bill into law on Wednesday, and it will go into effect in six months.
General Fund Budget Takes a Step Forward
On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Finance and Taxation General Fund substituted and then favorably reported HB152, the state’s General Fund budget for next fiscal year. The new version of the budget, which originated in the House of Representatives and is sponsored by Representative Steve Clouse (R–Ozark), contained several significant changes from its original version. Among the biggest changes were the elimination of $20 million for the Unified Judicial System, the reduction of Medicaid’s appropriation by $5 million, and the addition of $17.5 million for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP. CHIP funding has become the focus of increasing attention in recent weeks, as it is a critical program that, until Wednesday at least, was in neither of the state’s budgets. The $17.5 million represents one half of the state’s projected share of the cost of the program. The Education Trust Fund budget has not yet been finalized, but it is expected that the remaining half of the cost will be accounted for there.
Another change of significance was the reduction—by more than 30%—of the appropriation for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, or ADEM. Historically, ADEM has been forced to make up any shortfalls in its budget by increasing fees on industry. The cut is therefore seen as worrisome to the state’s business community.
Unemployment Compensation Reform Passes
On Tuesday, the House gave final passage to SB193, sponsored by Senator Arthur Orr (R–Decatur), by a vote of 74–26. The bill, which is very similar to one introduced last year that failed to pass, would allow the maximum unemployment benefits available to individuals in the state to float based on economic indicators. Under current law, if an employee loses his or her job, he or she is typically eligible for 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. Under the proposed law, the maximum number of weeks allowed would be pegged to the state’s unemployment rate—with more weeks of eligibility available as the unemployment rate goes up. Proponents argue that this flexibility would mean that an unemployed individual would have more time to find a job in years in which finding a job is harder. The bill also contains a five-week extension of the benefit to unemployed individuals who enroll in qualified job training programs and increases the maximum weekly benefit by $10 to $275. The bill is projected to save employers, who pay into the state’s Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund, an estimated $40 million annually. The bill now awaits the Governor’s signature before becoming law.
Equal Pay Bill Clears House
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed a substituted bill that would guarantee that workers be paid equally for the same work, regardless of their sex or race. HB225, sponsored by Representative Adline Clarke (D–Mobile), initially caused concern for Alabama’s business community, as it created a cause of action against employers and a standard subtly different from federal equal pay laws. Last week, the House Committee on Commerce and Small Business offered the substitute, which is much more similar to existing federal law. Alabama is currently one of two states, along with Mississippi, that does not have an equal pay law on the books. The bill now moves to the Senate for its consideration.
Lottery Clears House Committee
SB220, sponsored by Senator Greg Albritton (R–Atmore), passed out of the House Committee on Economic Development and Tourism on Tuesday. The bill would authorize a state lottery. As it was introduced, SB220 would have limited the lottery to paper tickets only but would have allowed the state to participate in multi-state lotteries such as Powerball or Mega Millions. It would not have authorized any other kind of gaming. It was projected to generate revenue of roughly $166 million.
During debate on the Senate floor several weeks ago, four amendments were adopted that would: clarify that the bill would not affect the legality of bingo in Jefferson County or horse and dog racing in Class 1 municipalities; clarify that the bill would not affect the legality of any gambling that was legal prior to January 1, 2005; permit electronic lottery ticket sales; and allocate 50% of the proceeds from the lottery into the General Fund Budget Reserve Fund. In House committee, the allocation of the funds was altered yet again, so that 25% of proceeds would go to the Education Trust Fund and 0.25% would go to a fund to address compulsive gambling.
Because lotteries are constitutionally prohibited in Alabama, SB220 proposes an amendment to the state’s constitution. Thus, in order to pass the House of Representatives, it will need a supermajority of three-fifths of the body—or 63 votes. Furthermore, constitutional amendments are not signed by the Governor but instead put to the people for approval by popular vote. If SB220 were to pass, it would be on a statewide ballot on March 3, 2020, during the presidential primaries.
State Board of Education Reform Passes Senate
Late on Thursday afternoon, the Senate unanimously passed SB397, sponsored by Senator Del Marsh (R–Anniston). The bill would eliminate the current seven-member State Board of Education, which is directly elected by the people, and replace it with the nine-member Alabama Commission on Elementary and Secondary Education, which would be appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. Governor Ivey has repeatedly spoken out in support of the measure, which would also include a requirement to the new Commission to replace Common Core. Because the state’s Board of Education was created by the state’s constitution, the bill is a constitutional amendment. The bill now moves to the House for its consideration, if approved it would go to the people of the state for a vote.
Incentive Bill Clears House
On Thursday, the House passed HB540, sponsored by Representative Bill Poole (R–Tuscaloosa). The bill is a significant expansion of the laws that allow Alabama to offer incentives to businesses interested in doing business in the state. The bill would extend the investment credits available under the Alabama Jobs Act to rural counties, which have fewer than 50,000 residents, and to “high-tech” companies. The bill would also expand the state’s Opportunity Zone program, including reducing Alabama capital gains tax for investment in opportunity zone funds that invest predominately in Alabama. The bill now moves to the Senate for its consideration.
Rural Broadband Bill Stalls in Senate
On Thursday, the Senate adopted a substitute for—but did not vote on—a bill designed to use existing infrastructure to get broadband to rural parts of the state. HB400, sponsored by Representative Randall Shedd (R–Cullman), would authorize electricity providers to use existing rights of way and poles to provide broadband service in Alabama. Proponents of the bill argue that this approach is a common-sense solution to a persistent infrastructure problem in the state. Bringing broadband to the rural parts of Alabama has been compared to the electrification efforts of the 20th Century. The substitute reflects a compromise with legacy broadband providers, which initially opposed the bill. The bill is expected to be brought up for final passage this coming Tuesday.
The Legislature has used 21 of its available 30 meeting days for the 2019 Regular Session. The House will reconvene on Tuesday, May 21st at 1:00 p.m. The Senate will reconvene on the same day at 3:30 p.m. Next week is expected to be a three-day week, with the House and Senate both holding committee meetings and on the floor and voting on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.