Legislative Update — Week 2
The second week of the 2020 Regular Session was profoundly impacted by the unexpected and tragic passing of Tom Collins, husband of Representative Terri Collins (R–Decatur). Almost every standing committee of the House canceled its scheduled Wednesday meeting so that members could travel to Decatur for a service in honor of his life. It was, therefore, a somber and quiet week for the Legislature.
The arrival of the third and fourth legislative days this week brought with them the passage of the first bills of the session from one chamber of the Legislature to another. In total, 17 bills have passed out of their houses of origin. The milestone is a significant one, as the coming week could potentially see the final passage (and transmission to the Governor) of the first acts of the year.
House Passes Occupational Tax Prohibition
On Tuesday, the House passed a bill that would prohibit municipalities in the state from imposing occupational taxes without authorization from the Legislature. As substituted in committee, HB147, sponsored by Representative Chris Sells (R–Greenville), would be entirely prospective and would not affect any existing occupational taxes levied by municipalities. The bill is widely perceived to be a preemptive maneuver to stop a proposed—and very controversial—occupational tax in Montgomery. The House debated the bill extensively, with Representative Kirk Hatcher (D–Montgomery) proposing a series of amendments. Nevertheless, after several hours the House passed the bill along party lines by a vote of 74–27. The bill now goes to the Senate for its consideration.
House Adds Law Enforcement to Hate Crime Statute
On Thursday, the House unanimously passed a bill that would provide for enhanced penalties for crimes motivated by a desire to harm law enforcement officers. HB59, sponsored by Representative Rex Reynolds (R–Huntsville), would add employment as a law enforcement officer to the list of protected statuses—along with those based on race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or physical or mental disability—that, when proved to be a motivation for a crime, would trigger minimum sentences. As with other existing hate crimes under Alabama law, that the crime was motivated by a victim’s protected status would itself have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The bill drew lengthy debate about the potential inclusion of other groups but ultimately passed 92–0. HB59 now moves to the Senate for its consideration.
Trans Athlete Bill Stalls in Committee
The House Committee on State Government failed to favorably report HB35, sponsored by Representative Chris Pringle (R–Mobile), on Thursday morning. The bill, which has drawn considerable opposition from various groups across the state as unnecessary in Alabama, would prohibit high school students from playing for a school athletic team for a gender other than the one on the student’s birth certificate. The committee—after a public hearing at which six witnesses spoke against the bill, and no witnesses spoke in support of the bill—voted down a motion to table the legislation. There were no further motions made, and after a lengthy interval, the Chair declared the bill to have failed for lack of a motion. The procedural outcome is an unusual one, but it does not prohibit the reconsideration of the bill at a later date. HB35 is scheduled for next week’s meeting of the State Government Committee.
Senate Quickly Confirms Nominees on Thursday
The bulk of the Senate’s work on Thursday was the confirmation of a slate of nominees for the boards of various entities. Working quickly (and voting unanimously), the Senate confirmed Delbert B. Madison and LaRaunce Anderson Fleming to the Board of Trustees of Alabama State University and Ben Thomas, Clark Sahile, and James Pratt to the Board of Trustees of Auburn University.
Senate Committee Debates Monuments Bill
On Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs debated, and ultimately carried over, a bill that would enhance penalties under the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act. The existing Act, which passed in 2017 over significant opposition, imposes a fine of $25,000 for removing, altering, renaming, or otherwise disturbing memorial buildings, streets, schools, or monuments. SB127, sponsored by Senator Gerald Allen (R–Tuscaloosa), would increase that fine to $10,000 for every day that the monument remains disturbed. The bill would also create a presumption against the granting of any waiver of the law to permit alterations or removal of buildings or monuments. The enforcement of the existing law has been the source of a legal dispute between Alabama’s Attorney General and the City of Birmingham, which has erected a black plywood structure to conceal a Confederate monument in its downtown.
Senate Committee Favorably Reports Insurance Bills
On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Banking and Insurance voted unanimously to favorably report two technical bills supported by the Department of Insurance—SB54 and SB55, both sponsored by Senator Shay Shelnutt (R–Palmerdale). SB54 would bring current laws governing how insurers that reinsure their risk account for that reinsurance when calculating their reserves into line with the Credit for Reinsurance Model Law developed by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. SB55 would specify that fees collected by the Department of Insurance from car insurance companies would be deposited in the Insurance Department Fund, and would also shift the cost of examinations and audits to those insurers. Both bills now move to the full Senate for its consideration.
Payday Lending Reform Bill Fails in Committee
On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Banking and Insurance failed to favorably report a bill that would have lengthened the amount of time payday borrowers have to repay loans to 30 days. Under current law, payday lenders may require a loan to be repaid in as little as 10 days. Proponents of the legislation argue that because of origination fees and penalties, the effective interest rate of such short loans are much higher than published rates and can trap borrowers in debt. By extending the term of the loan, they argue, the rate decreases dramatically. Opponents of the legislation argue that payday lenders provide necessary access to funds for otherwise unbanked consumers and that regulation of Alabama-based lenders only drives consumers to look for similar products online. After lengthy debate, a motion for a favorable report failed by a vote of 6–8.
The Legislature has used four of its allotted 30 legislative working days and has 94 calendar days in which to use the remaining 26. Next week is expected to be a “two-day” week, meaning that the Legislature will be in session for two days—on Tuesday and Thursday—and not in session but working in committees on Wednesday. The House will reconvene on Tuesday, February 18th at 1:00 p.m., and the Senate will reconvene on the same day at 3:00 p.m.