By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
The 2018 Alabama Regular Legislative Session begins in just 11 days on Jan. 9, 2018, and this is an election year so formal major party qualifying begins on the same day. The elections mean that the session begins earlier than normal and will likely end even sooner so that incumbents can get back to their districts to campaign. There are a lot of issues facing the legislature, however.
The biggest concern is the overcrowded corrections system. Alabama has a lot of prisoners and an aging, poorly maintained a collection of prisons that were not designed to accommodate the numbers of prisoners we have locked up…..most of them violent. The state under siege by liberal groups that are demanding reforms. A federal judge has already ruled that the mental health care that we are providing our captive criminal population is woefully inadequate. It is likely that the court will find similar failings with Alabama’s prisoner health care and with prison staffing. Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn and then Gov. Robert Bentley have carried a controversial plan to borrow a billions of dollars to build four new super prisons to replace 17 of the state’s old smaller prisons. That would have dropped the prisons to just 138 percent of capacity which would have satisfied the Justice Department, but that costly plan died in the Legislature. It is believed that new Gov. Kay Ivey will propose building new prisons but likely without requiring the legislature to pass a bond issue. Finding more money for prisons is clearly the biggest need that the state faces.
While prisons are likely the greatest need; the county commissions and business and industry want to find more money for the state’s roads and bridges. Roads are paid for with gas taxes; but unfortunately today’s automobiles are more fuel efficient than autos were 20 and 30 years ago. In both of the last two sessions the Legislature has rejected plans to borrow over a $billion in bonds for roadwork to be paid for by raising fuel taxes. The powerful Business Council of Alabama (BCA) has been pushing gas tax increase for both of the last two sessions and it is believed they are going to be pushing a similar plan this session.
Alabama Medicaid is a recurring problem for the state. The state avoided a fiscal disaster when former Gov. Bentley rejected Medicaid expansion. The state could never have come up with the money to have paid its portion of the Medicaid match; but it meant that a lot of poor Alabamians can’t get insurance coverage under Obamacare and the state’s hospitals get stuck with more patients that have no coverage of any kind. It appears that Congress will fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program; so that disaster has been avoided however the healthcare reform package the state had hoped would pass the Congress stalled in the Senate, so the flexibility and Medicaid block grants the state was hoping for did not come and are not likely to come this year. The problem with Medicaid is that the cost of the program keeps increasing faster than the revenues earmarked for the State’s General Fund (SGF) so Medicaid keeps eating a larger and larger portion of SGF.
The Alabama College and Career Ready Standards have not resulted in any noticeable improvement in the state’s education outcomes. Too many college-bound students arrive in college and have to take remedial classes and too many workforce bound students graduate without any workforce career path. Governor Bentley actually admitted to a gathering of economic developers that: “Our schools suck.” Economic recruiters are telling state officials that the schools’ inability to produce competent graduates in numbers is making it harder for them to lure new employers. Whether that is due to the standards themselves, implementation by the local school districts, not enough school choice, or a lack of willingness to work with the legislature by the state school board is widely debated. Senator Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, has introduced legislation to simply abolish the state school board and bring the schools into the cabinet. That and other proposals on how to improve Alabama’s chronically underperforming public schools will undoubtedly be considered by the Legislature going forward. The booming economy means that this should be another record year for the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget.
Guns will be an issue. Last year the Senate passed constitutional carry to allow all Alabama citizens to carry firearms without the need of a concealed carry permit. That bill went to the Republican-controlled House where it was buried in a subcommittee so never got to the floor. Law enforcement is opposing this bill; but gun groups, led by the NRA are pushing for this to be passed during this election year.
Mental health is another chronically underfunded SGF program where the state does not have enough funds to provide minimal services. Mental health advocates will likely be asking the legislature for more funds, where those funds come from given Medicaid and prisons and the state’s archaic budgeting system is debatable.
Hunters will be back asking to hunt deer and hogs over bait. This has been introduced the last two years and never can quite get done. Rep. Jack Williams, R-Wilmer, has pre-filed this bill so it will be back before the Legislature in 2018.
Reforming the state’s juvenile justice system is another issue before the legislature. The juvenile justice task force found that the state is locking up too many juveniles for minor offenses. They get locked up with serious offenders and often emerge much more hardened. The task force believes that the state can save money and have better outcomes with more community corrections and mentoring programs and less incarceration. State Senator Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, and state Representative Jim Hill, R-Springville, chaired the committee and are expected to introduce legislation to implement the task force’s recommendations.
Monuments will be back before the Legislature. In 2017 the Alabama Legislature passed legislation giving the state the authority to forbid local governments from removing or altering memorials and monuments. At issue is primarily Confederate monuments. Some in the Black Community want to see Confederate monuments removed and schools named after Confederate heroes renamed. State Representative Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, has introduced two bills to undo or limit the 2017 bill.
The DROP program may return. One of the first things that the Republicans did when they took over the legislature was to abolish the DROP program, which was costing the Retirement System of Alabama (RSA) money it did not have in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Now the economy has improved and recruiting and retaining qualified employees is becoming more difficult. State Senator Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville, has introduced a bill to bring DROP back for tier I and II employees.
These are just some of the many issues facing the state Legislature in 2018.
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.
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.
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.
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.
House passes General Fund Budget
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.
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.
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.
Day Care bill delayed for second time on Senate floor, may be back Thursday
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.
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.
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.
Fantasy sports bill fails on Senate floor
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.
- 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.
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.