By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Tuesday, April 4, 2017, the Alabama Legislature returns after a two week spring break.
The legislature has a number of issue to deal with.
The first of these is the budgets. The Senate was debating the education trust fund (ETF) budget on the last day. Now it moves to the House for their consideration. The House on Tuesday, March 14, passed the State General Fund Budget (SGF); but it still has to be taken up by the Senate. The SGF is Spartan. The state needs to spend more money on Medicaid, prisons, mental health, and State Troopers; but there really is not any money in the budget to fund those agencies at the levels that administrators would like.
The State suffered a bitter disappointment when the US House of Representatives failed to act on repealing and replacing Obamacare. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley had been promised much greater flexibility in how the State operates its Medicaid program, preferably block grants with less federal strings attached so that the state would have the freedom to pass more costs onto beneficiaries and to set its own standards on the income levels needed to qualify for the enormously expensive entitlement. Now all of those Medicaid reforms have been postponed perhaps indefinitely and the State is struggling to keep pace with the escalating costs of the program: by far the most expensive item in the General Fund.
The elephant in the room is what to do with embattled Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R). Even though the state Attorney General’s Office, the US Justice Department, and the Alabama Ethics Commission all have ongoing investigations in to possible misconduct by the 73 year-old Governor, he still has not been indicted for anything to this point. Undeterred by that the House Judiciary Committee has announced that they are doing their own investigation and have scheduled hearings for this month to decide whether or not to impeach Gov. Bentley. The Judiciary Committee is promising to have all of this wrapped up by Mid May so the House can vote to impeach or not to impeach (if this gets that far) by May 9. Bentley’s legal team is already attempting to throw up legal road blocks to try to delay and stall the process for time…..they have already had eleven months to prepare a defense. The big question in the Bentley case is will the attorneys allow: Bentley; his alleged mistress, Rebekah Caldwell Mason; her husband, Jon Mason; etc. to testify in a open hearing while knowing that Federal and State prosecutors are still out there listening and comparing all of that testimony with what they already have learned thru their investigation and the secret grand jury process. Whether or not that constitutes “double jeopardy” under the law will be hotly debated both in the legislature itself and likely in court when the Bentley legal defense team trys to get the courts to intervene in the impeachment process. None of this has been ruled on before because Alabama has not impeached anybody in over a hundred years.
Permitless carry is still moving its way through the Legislature. Both the House and the Senate Republican Caucuses promised gun owners before the session began that they would end the requirement that gun owners must purchase a concealed carry permit in order to carry concealed (open carry is already legal in Alabama) or to keep a loaded handgun within reach. So-called “Constitutional Carry” is supported by grass roots gun rights groups across the State; but is being opposed by the Alabama Sheriffs Association and other Law Enforcement groups.
Will the Legislature pass laws ensuring that faith based Adoption Agencies continue to be granted the latitude to place children in homes as they see fit or will State agencies be placed in a position to force the religious groups to place children in the homes of families that do not practice traditional marriage? Legislation is moving through the process but is being opposed by both gay rights groups and the Social Workers Union.
Will the Legislature pass a tax increase? Powerful special interests including the Road Builders, the Business Council of Alabama (BCA), and the County Commissions are putting a lot of pressure on legislators to pass a controversial bill that would raise the State’s tax on fuel. The gas tax money would then be immediately spent on a massive bond issue so there would be a lot of election year road projects; but all the new revenues would be tied up to service the massive new debt. Many conservative groups have opposed this legislation on the grounds that it raises both the burden on the taxpayers and increases the debt.
Similarly, Governor Bentley’s plan to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to build fancy new prisons has passed the State Senate though in a somewhat downsized version. Now the enormously controversial plan to build costly new prisons while shuttering old prisons moves to the Alabama House of Representatives. Privately some legislators have told The Alabama Political Reporter that they don’t trust the ethically challenged Bentley Administration with the money to build new prisons and may just punt this issue to the new Governor in 2019.
Republicans have promised Confederate history groups that some protections for monuments and memorials will finally pass during this Legislative session. Various versions of the “monuments bill” or the Memorial Preservation Act are also moving through the legislature. They are however being opposed by the County Commissions and some city governments who oppose having a new state board having the say on whether they can tear down or move monuments and statues or rename public buildings no matter how old they are.
Expanding school choice is another issue that is still before the Legislature. A new version of the Alabama Accountability Account allowing even more money to be diverted from the traditional government run top down school systems to fund scholarships for families to flee failing public schools is currently before the legislature. School choice advocates are pushing legislators to expand who qualifies for the scholarships and to actually begin to see charter schools established in the State. School choice reforms are however being opposed by the school employees unions, the public school superintendents, and the school boards association. Despite the efforts of grass roots groups, overturning the state’s unpopular college and career ready standards which are aligned with Common Core appears to have completely stalled in the Legislature in this Legislative year even though there has been no measurable improvement in test scores since the State adopted the new standards and even Gov. Bentley admitted publicly recently that: “Our schools suck.”
Gambling is another issue before the Legislature; though many sources tell The Alabama Political Reporter that there is little appetite for dredging up the gaming issue after the lottery Special Session exposed deep divisions even among gambling supporters as to what a lottery means. No one expects a lottery or gaming bill to pass either House during this session.
To stay up to date on all of your Legislative news throughout the session keep visiting The Alabama Political Reporter for unmatched coverage of the Alabama Legislature and State government.