By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Tuesday, February 7, the Alabama 2017 regular legislative session begins. Almost anything can happen when the Alabama legislature is in session and this session is no different. Here are a few of the issues facing our State Legislators.
1) Medicaid needs more money. Anybody who has been paying any attention at all the past five years knows that Alabama Medicaid has an unquenchable thirst for more and more State resources. Alabama Medicaid Commissioner Stephanie Azar was in Montgomery recently reporting of yet another impending Medicaid crisis. The Bentley Administration is hoping that the Federal government will simply block grant the State their share of the Medicaid money with no pesky strings attached about who gets coverage, deductibles, etc. However, with US Senate Democrats filibustering and delaying even routine cabinet appointees, the idea that any meaningful entitlement reforms will pass out of Congress to even get to President Donald J. Trump’s desk seems unlikely. Unless US Senate Republicans can do this through the budget process it looks like the State may still have to offer the same minimum level of benefits, the RCO plan appears to be on the operating table in its death throes, and the State is likely to be facing yet another State General Fund crisis………but did anyone really expect any different from Alabama under the Bentley Administration.
2) Building prisons is Governor Bentley’s number one legislative priority. With the State General Fund (SGF) in a chronic crisis one would think that massive capital improvement projects would be completely out of the question, but that is actually not the case. Alabama has one of the most overcrowded prison systems outside of North Korea (where the whole country is arguably a prison) and a few hellish dictatorships in the developing world. Somehow Gov. Bentley has convinced himself that the SGF can afford to borrow $800 million to build four super prisons in time to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the State without any new revenue source to pay for this. One would think that this project would be dead on arrival in the Legislature; but this highly controversial plan actually almost passed last year and the Gov. is determined to bring it back for another go at it.
3) Redistricting. The 2010 census is a distant memory for most of us; but the State of Alabama is still trying to get a legislative redistricting plan through the Federal court system. Three State Senate seats and nine house seats were recently ruled unconstitutional and the State is forbidden from using those districts ever again. That means that in the middle of the legislative session the Joint Committee on Redistricting is going to have to craft a new plan that will satisfy the Black Legislative Caucus, the Alabama Democratic Caucus, and the Federal Appeals court in Atlanta before the 2018 elections. The State will then have to redistrict again based on the coming 2020 census.
4) How to improve education in Alabama? 2016 was such a bad year for public education in Alabama that even the Governor said the schools suck and he thought that was actually a laugh line in a speech to economic developers. Whether it is charter schools, a mandatory civics class, more advanced placement classes, more tech education, a repeal of the Common Core standards, tenure reform, etc expect a number of bills to be introduced relating to education reform. Will public schools still “suck” in Alabama? We are not optimistic.
5) JIC reform. Alabama had a constitutional crisis over the summer when the Judicial Inquiry Commission once again brought a case against Chief Justice Roy Moore (R) and once again the Court of the Judiciary (COJ) found against Moore. A number of legislators are expected to introduce bills to make the JIC more accountable to the legislature.
6) Bentley impeachment. In a few days Jeff Sessions will be confirmed as US Attorney General. One of the more pressing decisions he will make is what to do with the US Justice Department investigation into Bentley and his alleged mistress, Rebekah Caldwell Mason, and their alleged financial conflicts of interest. If DOJ or the Alabama Attorney General’s office indicts the ethically challenged Governor, what does the legislature do? They were content to completely ignore all the warning signs and then the actual criminal indictments against former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard; will the legislature do the same thing with Bentley or will that force them to restart their suspended impeachment investigation?
7) The roadbuilders want more money. Cars have gotten more fuel efficient and hundreds of thousands of Alabamians remain out of the workforce and thus not out there commuting to work. That means gas tax revenues have stagnated. The roadbuilders and their political allies all over the State, including the county commissions want more money and that can only come from raising gas taxes on the people of Alabama. However instead of just raising revenues for roads going forward, proponents also want another $billion bond issue so that they can spend 20 years of future revenues in an orgy of pre-election pork barrel road projects before elections Rep. Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) championed higher gas taxes last year. He returns this year as the new Speaker of the House determined to move that legislation this year. Do legislators want to face voters next year having raised everyone’s taxes or do they want to run on the road they got resurfaced?
8) Gun permits. Alabama is a pro-gun rights State however there is still considerable debate on just what gun rights mean. Sen. Gerald Allen (R-Tuscaloosa) is back with another bill that Sheriffs are likely to oppose. Previously Allen had wanted to give Alabamians the freedom to carry their handguns with them in their cars without a concealed carry permit. That never passed. This time he is introducing legislation to allow Alabamians to carry concealed with out a permit.
9) Sanctuary cities. This was not an issue until the Birmingham City Council passed a resolution declaring that the State’s largest city would become a Sanctuary City. Gov. Bentley has said that that is unacceptable. Expect State Legislation to be introduced to compel local Law Enforcement to cooperate with Federal Immigration officials. That could be one of the most partisan issues before the Legislature this Session.
Whatever happens it will be fun.