After its third relatively calm two-day week, the Legislature seems to have settled into a steady, productive pace. That adjustment is all the more remarkable for the fact that nearly one-third of the Legislators are new to their respective chambers. With 13 of 30 legislative days used, the Legislature is now also giving final passage to more and more pieces of substantive legislation. While there is still plenty of time for new bills to be introduced—it only takes five legislative days to pass a bill all the way through the legislative process—highly controversial pieces of legislation have a lower and lower likelihood of passing into law with each passing day.
Senate Passes Lottery
SB220, sponsored by Senator Greg Albritton (R–Atmore), passed out of Senate Committee on Tuesday (by a vote of 6–5) and out of the Senate as a whole on Thursday (by a vote of 21–12 after lengthy debate). 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.
Although the sponsors stated intention was to bring the bill up for a vote without any amendments, nine were offered on the floor. Of those nine, four were adopted:
- An amendment by Senator Rodger Smitherman (D–Birmingham) that clarifies that the bill would not affect the legality of bingo in Jefferson County or horse and dog racing in Class 1 municipalities.
- An amendment by Senator Linda Coleman-Madison (D–Birmingham) that clarifies that the bill would not affect the legality of any gambling that was legal prior to January 1, 2005.
- An amendment by Senator Andrew Jones (R–Centre) that permits electronic lottery ticket sales.
- An amendment by Senator Clyde Chambliss (R–Prattville) that allocates 50% of the proceeds from the lottery into the General Fund Budget Reserve Fund.
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.
General Fund Reserve Tweak Passes Senate
On Tuesday, the Senate passed SB126, sponsored by Senator Clyde Chambliss (R–Prattville), by a vote of 27–4. The bill would change the way that appropriated, but unspent, money is treated under state law. The bill would create the General Fund Budget Reserve Fund, and every year would allocate 20% of any unspent appropriations into it. The bill would cap the size of the fund at 10% the size of the General Fund budget overall. Once fully funded, the Reserve Fund would be available for appropriations to cover the cost of emergencies and natural disasters for which federal aid is unavailable. The bill now moves to the House for its consideration.
Unemployment Compensation Adjustment Passes Senate
On Tuesday, the Senate passed SB193, sponsored by Senator Arthur Orr (R–Decatur), by a vote of 29–2. 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.
Business Code Rewrite Final Passage
On Tuesday, the Senate gave final passage to HB250 and HB251, both sponsored by Representative Bill Poole (R–Tuscaloosa). The two bills are part of a gradual, but significant, plan to modernize and update the parts of Alabama’s Code that relate to business entities. Last year saw the passage of rewrites of the laws relating to partnerships. This year, HB250 would rewrite the Alabama Business Corporation Law to bring it more closely into line with model acts that have become the national standard. And HB251 would make several technical corrections to the state’s law relating to Limited Liability Companies. Both bills now await the Governor’s signature.
Hospital Lien Bill One Step from Final Passage
HB11, sponsored by Representative Connie Rowe (R–Jasper), came out of the Senate Committee on Banking and Insurance on Wednesday with a unanimous vote. The bill would protect hospital patients with health insurance from having liens placed on the recovery they might receive from an accident. Currently, some vendors have convinced some hospitals to hold back bills for the treatment of patients with health insurance in order to try to extract an increased payment from a third party, such as a car insurance company. The bill would generally prohibit this practice, and require that hospitals submit bills to their patients’ health insurance companies. The bill is broadly supported as protecting patients’ interests.
Education Budget Package (But Not Yet a Budget) Out of Committee
A pair of bills, SB192 and SB196, related to the Education Trust Fund budget passed out of the Senate Committee on Finance and Taxation Education on Wednesday. Both bills are sponsored by the Chair of the Committee, Arthur Orr (R–Decatur). SB192 would provide a 4% salary increase for public school teachers. The bump, which applies to all K–12 teachers, community college professors, as well as teachers at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind, the Alabama School of Fine Arts, and other selected institutions, would total $161 million. SB196 provides additional education appropriations for the current fiscal year, including $199 million for local boards of education and $74 million for higher education, of which $26 million would go Alabama Community College System.
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 will start the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget. The ETF budget itself, which is projected to be the largest in more than a decade, is expected to be in committee on Tuesday.
A Different Deer Baiting Bill Receives Final Passage
On Thursday, the House passed a highly controversial bill that would allow for the hunting of deer and feral swine over baited fields. SB66, sponsored by Senator Jack Williams (R–Mobile), would allow hunters to purchase a “bait privilege license” in the same manner that they would buy an annual hunting 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. Several bills related to deer baiting were introduced this year, as they have been for the past several years. The debate around these bills has tended to be fierce. Nevertheless, SB66 now only awaits the Governor’s signature before becoming law.
Asbestos Bill Moves to the Senate
The House passed HB100, sponsored by Representative Jim Carns (R–Mountain Brook), on Tuesday after adopting a committee substitute. 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 bill now moves to the Senate for its consideration.
The Legislature has used 13 of its available 30 meeting days for the 2019 Regular Session. The House will reconvene on Tuesday, April 30th at 1:00 p.m. The Senate will reconvene on the same day at 3:30 p.m.
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