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Takeaways from 2017 Legislative Session

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

The 2017 Alabama Legislative Session is over, and these are some key points to take away.

The biggest loser, by far, was former Governor Robert Bentley.  The Legislature got an awful lot of help from this newer, stronger, bolder version of the Alabama Ethics Commission. But, it was evident that Bentley was going to be impeached and removed once Special Counsel Jack Sharman released his report.  Bentley resigned halfway through the first day of the House Judiciary Committee hearings.  If the House and Senate had to waste weeks on his impeachment, given the 30-day Legislative meeting limit, the Session would have been a disaster.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Jones (R-Andalusia), State Representative Ed Henry (R-Hartselle), who introduced the articles of impeachment against Bentley in 2016, and State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R), who championed the case for impeaching Bentley and brought the case before the Ethics Commission, were all winners.  Of course, the biggest winner of all was Kay Ivey (R) who achieved her dream of being Governor thanks to Bentley’s mistakes.

The Certified Professional Midwives (CPMs) have brought a bill to Montgomery every year for the last fourteen years. Unfortunately, the powerful special interests managed to squash their efforts every time.

Finally, this year, having built enough momentum, the Midwives were able, not only to get the Legalization to the floor of one House, but to both, and have it sent to the Governor’s desk for her signature. However, it appears that special interests or whoever was advising her killed the bill by amending it, and sending it back to the Legislature; but it was too late for them to address the Governor’s conditional veto.

The Midwives will have to bring their Legislation back next year and start all over again; but the doctors, hospitals and the overpaid army of professional lobbyists who serve them, will certainly be back too, and Alabama’s infant mortality will likely remain among the worst in the nation.

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The Memorials Preservation Act was passed and sent to the Governor.  Confederate history advocates were incensed when Gov. Bentley took the Confederate flags down from the Confederate Veterans Memorial and the First Whitehouse of the Confederacy.  A wave of anti-south hysteria is sweeping the country with tremendous effect, especially in New Orleans where landmarks were destroyed by the very city government that was entrusted by previous generations to be responsible for their care. Governor John Bel Edwards (D) refused to intervene.

The Alabama Legislature, however, did take a stand passing Legislation protecting monuments that are 20 years or older.  Critics led by House Democrats thought the Legislation was an unnecessary mandate on local governments and some accused the Republican supermajority of being racist, but both the House and Senate Republican Caucuses had promised voters that this Legislation would pass, and it did.  Supporters are now waiting on Gov. Kay Ivey to sign the bill.

Alabama is a pro-Second Amendment State, but gun owners’ efforts to make Alabama a Constitutional Carry State failed in this Session. While Senator Gerald Allen’s bill, SB24, got through the Senate, Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon assigned it to Representative Allen Treadaway’s Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, where Chairman Treadaway assigned SB24 to a subcommittee and buried it there.

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The powerful Business Council of Alabama (BCA), for the second year in a row, championed a bill to dramatically increase fuel taxes to pay for more road repair and construction projects.  However, just like last year, fiscal conservatives opposed and defeated the plan, which would have financed up to $2 billion in new bond debt without a vote of the people. The program was pulled off the floor of the House when it was evident that bipartisan opposition would easily defeat it in the House.  Sponsors worry that if President Trump’s (R) massive trillion-dollar infrastructure plan were to pass the Congress, the Alabama Department of Transportation would not have the money for matching funds to participate.  That potentiality appears increasingly unlikely as Congress is bogged down in its own scandal investigations instead of debating and passing the Trump Legislative agenda.

Similarly, another massive bond issue to build four new prisons failed to be introduced on the floor of the Alabama House of Representatives.  For the second year, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) Commissioner Jeff Dunn came to the Legislature with Governor Bentley’s Great State 2020 plan to borrow $800 million (that eventually ballooned to $848 million) to build four new mega-prisons, while closing as many as fifteen existing prisons.  A broad House coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats opposed the controversial plan, which never came to the House floor.  The failure to address Alabama’s long-term prison overcrowding situation some fear could lead to the federal courts becoming involved and the state being ordered to build new prisons or release thousands of felons back into Alabama communities.  The Southern Poverty Law Center is suing the State claiming that prisoners are not getting adequate health and mental healthcare.

The Legislature did pass Legislation requiring insurance companies to pay for Autism therapy for children.  The Legislation was advocated by Autism advocates from across the State.  Senator Trip Pittman (R-Montrose) warned that the bill could potentially cause problems in the State’s General Fund as over half of the children in Alabama get their healthcare insurance from the children’s health insurance program paid for by a Federal/State Partnership and administered by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama.

Ballot access legislation, sponsored by Representative Christopher John England (D-Tuscaloosa) that would have decreased the number of eligible voters in the district involved to just one percent was defeated in committee over fears that third party candidacies could cause confusion in this year’s special election for US Senate.  A Federal court has already ruled against Alabama on this issue and could ultimately weigh in on this topic.

Some education proposals were floated in this Session. Repeal of Common Core Legislation did not advance far in this Session.  The technology bill to give every child in the State access to tablets passed both Houses of the Legislature but, differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill were not resolved before the Session ended effectively killing it for the sixth year in a row.  Representative Terri Collins’ (R-Decatur) Legislation to make it easier to establish a charter school in Alabama was defeated on the House floor.  Similarly, Sen. Del Marsh’s (R-Anniston) bill to expand the donor base for the Accountability Act, which gives scholarships to children in Alabama’s worst public schools to attend a private school, failed in the Legislature.  The Legislature did increase the number of 4th thru 6th-grade teachers and the number of pre-K classrooms.  The Education Trust Fund Budget is the largest in the history of the State.  Higher education, however, was funded at 2017 Fiscal Year levels, because Legislators feel that the need is greater in K-12 where Alabama ranks among the worst performing public school systems in the country.  Over the last 15 years, higher education has had to pass more of its costs to the students and their families in the form of higher tuition.

A bill that would have significantly expanded the powers of the DHR (State Department of Human Resources) over Church-run day care was narrowly defeated. Advocates argued that increasing the regulatory powers of the State was necessary for the children.  Opponents questioned if there was any legitimate need for the Legislation and if it violated the freedoms and liberties of the Churches and the families that they serve.

Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) maintained a much warmer, more cordial relationship with Democratic lawmakers than his predecessor, Mike Hubbard.  A lot of that goodwill was lost however over the redistricting plans that were passed out of committee and then forced through the Legislature; largely along party lines. The Federal courts had ordered the redistricting after rejecting some districts in the 2012 plan.  The Black Legislative Caucus was promising to take that program back to the courts and to ask for the Federal judge to appoint a special master to write all the 2018 Legislative districts.

The General Fund is primarily level funded at 2017 levels.  Mental health and prisons both could be potential causes for concern giving pending litigation.  Alabama Medicaid is costing the State more than any other General Fund agency and could face its own budget problems depending on what sort of healthcare reform Legislation finally passes out of the Congress.  Former Gov. Bentley was lobbying the Trump Administration and the Congress for block granting the Medicaid dollars.  That could potentially relieve a lot of budget pressure on the State, it could also cost some Alabamians their access to healthcare depending on how that was implemented.  If Congress goes back to an 80:20 split on the children’s health insurance program, which could leave the State scrambling to come up with more dollars for existing Medicaid services.  There appears to be no serious move towards expanding Medicaid.

A Special Session is a possibility; but at this point, no one knows whether the greatest need will be: roads, prisons, mental health or Medicaid.

 

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Tuberville calls for term limits, balanced budget and lobbying reform

Tuberville has also made a major media buy across the state to trumpet this message.

Brandon Moseley

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Republican Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville (TUBERVILLE CAMPAIGN)

Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville’s campaign began emphasizing key structural reforms that the Republican nominee hopes to advance if elected to the U.S. Senate including congressional term limits, withholding lawmakers’ paychecks unless a balanced budget is passed and a ban on former officials becoming lobbyists.

“Only an outsider like me can help President Trump drain the Swamp, and any of the proposals outlined in this ad will begin the process of pulling the plug,” Tuberville said in a statement. “Doug Jones has had his chance, and he failed our state, so now it’s time to elect a senator who will work to fundamentally change the way that Washington operates.”

Tuberville has also made a major media buy across the state to trumpet this message.

“You know Washington politicians could learn a lot from the folks in small town Alabama, but Doug Jones … he’s too liberal to teach them,” Tuberville added.

Polls consistently show that term limits are popular with people across both political parties, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that imposing term limits would be adding a qualification to be a member of Congress and that can only be done by constitutional amendment.

It is an unspoken truth that when Americans send someone to Congress they never come back. They either keep getting re-elected like Alabama’s own Sen. Richard Shelby, who is in his sixth term in the Senate after four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. On the other hand, they may become lobbyists getting paid to influence their colleagues on behalf of corporations, foreign governments or some well funded non-government organization.

Tuberville said he would ban that practice.

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A balanced budget amendment almost passed in the 1980s and again in the 1990s.

Since that failure, Congress has increasingly passed bigger and bigger budget deficits. The U.S. government borrowed more money during the eight years of President George W. Bush’s presidency than the government had borrowed in the first 224 years of the country combined.

President Barack Obama followed and the TARP program propped up the post-Great Recession economy. Rather than cutting the deficit, President Donald Trump invested billions in the military and a tax cut without cutting domestic spending. The 2020 coronavirus crisis has further grown the budget.

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The government has borrowed trillions to prop up the economy and provide stimulus while investing billions into medical research and treating the virus victims. Congress is currently debating a fifth stimulus package that would add more to the deficit.

Both a balanced budget amendment and a term limits amendment would have to be ratified by the states if passed by Congress. Tuberville is challenging incumbent Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama.

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House passes General Fund Budget

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

The Alabama House of Representatives passed the state General Fund Budget on Tuesday.

The General Fund Budget for the 2019 fiscal year is Senate Bill 178. It is sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose. State Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, carried the budget on the House floor. Clouse chairs the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee.

Clouse said, “Last year we monetized the BP settlement money and held over $97 million to this year.”

Clouse said that the state is still trying to come up with a solution to the federal lawsuit over the state prisons. The Governor’s Office has made some progress after she took over from Gov. Robert Bentley. The supplemental we just passed added $30 million to prisons.

The budget adds $50 million to the Department of Corrections.

Clouse said that the budget increased the money for prisons by $55,680,000 and includes $4.8 million to buy the privately-owned prison facility in Perry County.

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Clouse said that the budget raises funding for the judicial system and raises the appropriation for the Forensic Sciences to $11.7 million.

The House passed a committee substitute so the Senate is either going to have to concur with the changes made by the House or a conference committee will have to be appointed. Clouse told reporters that he hoped that it did not have to go to conference.

Clouse said that the budget had added $860,000 to hire more Juvenile Probation Officers. After talking to officials with the court system that was cut in half in the amendment. The amendment also includes some wording the arbiters in the court lawsuit think we need.

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The state General Fund Budget, SB178, passed 98-1.

Both budgets have now passed the Alabama House of Representatives.

The 2019 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, 2018.

In addition to the SGF, the House also passed a supplemental appropriation for the current 2018 budget year. SB175 is also sponsored by Pittman and was carried by Clouse on the floor of the House.

SB175 includes $30 million in additional 2018 money for the Department of Corrections. The Departmental Emergency Fund, the Examiners of Public Accounts, the Insurance Department and Forensic Sciences received additional money.

Clouse said, “We knew dealing with the federal lawsuit was going to be expensive. We are adding $80 million to the Department of Corrections.”

State Representative Johnny Mack Morrow, R-Red Bay, said that state Department of Forensics was cut from $14 million to $9 million. “Why are we adding money for DA and courts if we don’t have money for forensics to provide evidence? if there is any agency in law enforcement or the court system that should be funded it is Forensics.”

The supplemental 2018 appropriation passed 80 to 1.

The House also passed SB203. It was sponsored by Pittman and was carried in the House by State Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton. It raises securities and registration fees for agents and investment advisors. It increases the filing fees for certain management investment companies. Johnson said that those fees had not been adjusted since 2009.

The House also passed SB176, which is an annual appropriation for the Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The bill requires that the agency have an operations plan, audited financial statement, and quarterly and end of year reports. SB176 is sponsored by Pittman and was carried on the House floor by State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chatham.

The House passed Senate Bill 185 which gives state employees a cost of living increase in the 2019 budget beginning on October 1. It was sponsored by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville and was being carried on the House floor by state Rep. Dimitri Polizos, R-Montgomery.

Polizos said that this was the first raise for non-education state employees in nine years. It is a 3 percent raise.

SB185 passed 101-0.

Senate Bill 215 gives retired state employees a one time bonus check. SB215 is sponsored by Senator Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Guntersville.

Rich said that retired employees will get a bonus $1  for every month that they worked for the state. For employees who retired with 25 years of service that will be a $300 one time bonus. A 20-year retiree would get $240 and a 35-year employee would get $420.

SB215 passed the House 87-0.

The House passed Senate Bill 231, which is the appropriation bill increase amount to the Emergency Forest Fire and Insect and Disease Fund. SB231 is sponsored by Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kyle South, R-Fayette.

State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chathom, said, “Thank you for bringing this bill my district is full of trees and you never know when a forest fire will hit.

SB231 passed 87-2.

The state of Alabama is unique among the states in that most of the money is earmarked for specific purposes allowing the Legislature little year-to-year flexibility in moving funds around.

The SGF includes appropriations for the Alabama Medicaid Agency, the courts, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, the Alabama Department of Corrections, mental health, and most state agencies that are no education related. The Alabama Department of Transportation gets their funding mostly from state fuel taxes.

The Legislature also gives ALEA a portion of the gas taxes. K-12 education, the two year college system, and all the universities get their state support from the education trust fund (ETF) budget. There are also billions of dollars in revenue that are earmarked for a variety of purposes that does not show up in the SGF or ETF budgets.

Examples of that include the Public Service Commission, which collects utility taxes from the industries that it regulates. The PSC is supported entirely by its own revenue streams and contributes $13 million to the SGF. The Secretary of State’s Office is entirely funded by its corporate filing and other fees and gets no SGF appropriation.

Clouse warned reporters that part of the reason this budget had so much money was due to the BP oil spill settlement that provided money for the 2018 budget and $97 million for the 2019 budget. Clouse said they elected to make a $13 million repayment to the Alabama Trust fund that was not due until 2020 but that is all that was held over for 2020.

Clouse predicted that the Legislature will have to make some hard decisions about revenue in next year’s session.

 

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Day Care bill delayed for second time on Senate floor, may be back Thursday

Sam Mattison

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By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter

The day care bill, which would license certain day care centers in Alabama, was once again delayed on the state Senate floor after one lawmaker requested more information.

Its brief appearance Tuesday ended with state Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, saying a compromise had not yet been worked out with the bill’s detractors.

Alabama’s Senate has been hesitant to act on the legislation because of complaints of state Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville, who has been an opponent of the bill since its introduction last year. The bill’s delay on Tuesday marks the second time its been taken off the Senate’s agenda.

The bill has had a rocky time in this year’s session, but the bill’s sponsor state Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said she is still confident about its passage out of the Legislature.

Warren, D-Tuskegee, filed the bill this session with the support of influential lawmakers including Gov. Kay Ivey, who told reporters last year that she though all day cares should be licensed.

Mainly sparked by the death of 5-year-old boy in the care of a unlicensed day care worker, the bill had great momentum coming into this year’ session.

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Despite the growing support from lawmakers, Religious groups had concerns that the bill would increase state-sponsored reach into religious day cares in churches and non-profit groups.

Spearheading the dissenters was Alabama Citizens Action Program, a conservative religious-based PAC.

Warren, proponents, and ALCAP announced a compromise to the bill while it was still in the Alabama House.

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Announced by ALCAP originally, the new bill was a weaker version in that it did not require that all day cares in the state be regulated. Instead, religious-based day cares would only need to be registered if they received federal funds. At a Senate committee meeting in February, Warren said a similar requirement was about to come from federal law in Congress.

The bill moved through the House in a overwhelming vote in favor of the proposal and passed unanimously out of a Senate committee a few weeks ago.

Warren, speaking to reporters after its passage from the House, said she was unsure if the bill would encounter resistance in the upper chamber.

It was the Senate that killed the daycare bill last year amid a cramped last day where senators took the bill off the floor. The bill may face similar complications this year, as lawmakers seem to be preparing to adjourn within a few weeks.

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Fantasy sports bill fails on Senate floor

Sam Mattison

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By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter

Would-be Fantasy Sports players in Alabama will have to wait to legally play in the state following a Senate vote on Tuesday.

The Alabama Senate decisively killed a bill to exempt fantasy sports from the state’s prohibition on gambling.

Not even entertaining a debate on the Senate floor, the proposal was killed during a vote for the Budget Isolation Resolution, which is usually a formality vote preluding a debate.

Fantasy sports are contests where participants select players from real teams to compete on fantasy teams using the real-world players’ stats.

Since 2016, the practice has been illegal in Alabama following a legal decision by the Attorney General’s Office that categorized it as gambling.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, predicted the bill’s failure during a committee meeting two weeks ago, where the bill passed unanimously.

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Sen. Paul Sanford speaks to reporters after a Senate Committee meeting on Feb. 28, 2018. (Samuel Mattison/APR)

Speaking to reporter’s after the committee meeting, Sanford said the decision to file the bill was mainly a philosophical belief that the practice shouldn’t be illegal.

Sanford, a fantasy sports player before its ban, said that fantasy sports are a way to bring people closer together and not a means to win money. The Huntsville senator is not seeking re-election.

The bill’s failure in the Senate follows its trajectory last year too. A similar version of the bill, also sponsored by Sanford, failed in the Senate during the final days of the 2017 Legislative Session.

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Since Sanford is retiring, it is unclear if the bill will even come back next session, or if it will even have a Senate sponsor.

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