Despite a few flare-ups of controversy, the Legislature had a relatively productive three-day week. The Senate in particular made quick work of a budget debate and several calendars’ worth of relatively noncontroversial legislation. The House worked late into the night on Tuesday on a calendar of almost all House-originated legislation but shut down abruptly on Wednesday night after Representative Arnold Mooney (R–Birmingham) began reading a letter calling for the censure of Representative John Rogers (D–Birmingham). Thursday morning began with an unusual address by the Speaker of the House to the members in which he called on the body to conduct themselves more professionally.
It is now widely expected that the 2019 Regular Session will end this coming week or possibly the week after. Since the only constitutional requirement for the session is that the Legislature pass both budgets, and since both are very near final passage, many anticipate that the Legislature will work for three days (or possibly four) next week and then end the session with a few days to spare.
General Fund Budget Passes Senate and Goes to Conference Committee
On Tuesday, the Senate amended and then passed HB152, the state’s General Fund budget for the 2019–20 fiscal year. The newest 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 $35 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 only the week before last, was in neither of the state’s budgets. The $35 million represents the entirety of the state’s projected share of the cost of the program. It had appeared that that cost was to be split between the state’s two budgets—indeed the Education Trust Fund budget still contained one half of that amount in house committee on Wednesday—but Senator Arthur Orr (R–Decatur), who is Chairman of the education budget committee in the Senate, amended General Fund Budget on the floor of the Senate to relieve his budget of that burden.
Another change of significance was the increase, by floor amendment, of the appropriation for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, or ADEM, from $2.75 million to $3.25 million. That increase is still well short of the $4 million requested by the Governor. Historically, ADEM has been forced to make up any shortfalls in its budget by increasing fees on industry. The reduction below the Governor’s request is therefore seen as worrisome to the state’s business community.
Bill to Eliminate Marriage Licenses Passes
The House of Representatives gave final passage to SB69, sponsored by Senator Greg Albritton (R–Atmore), on Thursday. The bill, which is seen by many as motivated by a desire to remove probate judges from any responsibility to issue licenses for marriages to which they object on moral grounds, would establish a new procedure for two individuals to marry. Under the proposed law, couples would now file affidavits, forms, and data with the state’s probate judges. Probate judges would have no authority to reject any such filing, but would simply record the marriage and forward notice of it to the state’s Office of Vital Statistics. The law would entirely do away with marriage licenses as well as the requirement that marriages be solemnized, although it would still allow for the performance of a marriage ceremony.
Equal Pay Bill One Vote from Final Passage
On Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development amended and then favorably reported a bill that would guarantee that Alabama 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 different from federal equal pay laws. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a substituted version, which is virtually identical to existing federal law. The committee amendment was purely technical, and the vote to report the bill was unanimous. 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 as a whole for a final vote to send it to the Governor.
Lottery Bill Dies in the House
SB220, sponsored by Senator Greg Albritton (R–Atmore), failed a procedural vote on the floor of the House on Tuesday. The bill would have authorized 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.
Controversy centered on the allocation of funds that would have been generated by the lottery. In House committee last week, the revenue had been altered so that 25% of proceeds would go to the Education Trust Fund and 0.25% would go to a fund to address compulsive gambling with the remaining nearly 75% to go to the General Fund. During debate on the floor, many legislators seemed to feel that more should have been given to education.
Because lotteries are constitutionally prohibited in Alabama, SB220 proposed an amendment to the state’s constitution. Thus, in order to pass the House of Representatives, it needed a supermajority of three-fifths of the body—or 63 votes. The vote that the bill failed, a procedural step known as the Budget Isolation Resolution, received considerably fewer than that.
Rural Broadband Bill Receives Final Passage
On Thursday, the Senate unanimously passed 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 Senate adopted a substitute for the bill last week, which reflects a compromise with legacy broadband providers who initially opposed the bill. The bill now goes to the Governor for her signature.
Hospital Lien Bill Receives Final Passage
HB11, sponsored by Representative Connie Rowe (R–Jasper), came out of the Senate on Tuesday 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. It now awaits the Governor’s signature.
State Board of Education Reform Bill Clears House Committee
On Wednesday, the House Committee on Education Policy favorably reported 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 as a whole for its consideration, if approved it would go to the people of the state for a vote.
The Legislature has used 24 of its available 30 meeting days for the 2019 Regular Session. The House will reconvene on Tuesday, May 28th at 2:00 p.m. The Senate will reconvene on the same day at 3:30 p.m. Next week is anticipated to be at least a three-day week, with votes and committee meetings scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. There is also a possibility that the Legislature will continue into Friday and adjourn sine die, ending the session for this year.