By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
The Alabama Senate has again delayed a long-awaited vote on a bill to regulate church-affiliated daycares after some members of the caucus, concerned that the bill would intrude on faith-based daycares, appeared ready to fight the bill.
The bill was up for a vote in the Senate on Thursday, but Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville — who is carrying the bill in the Senate for House Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee — agreed to carry the bill over through the weekend to work on an amendment with Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville, who has been a staunch opponent of regulating faith-based day cares.
Shelnutt rarely speaks during Senate debates but made his way to the podium Thursday, debating three non-controversial, uncontested local bills in a row and even going so far as to have one of them read at length, a parliamentary move typically reserved for the most heated debates and one that threatened to delay a packed Senate schedule.
The daycare regulation bill — which was proposed following the deaths and illness of several children at unlicensed daycares across the state — has been a hotly debated piece of legislation that has over the past two sessions pitted more moderate and left-leaning members of both chambers against conservatives who say the bill is an intrusion on religious liberty.
Some members of his own caucus accused Shelnutt of trying to kill the bill.
“For the benefit of the body, I think I smell a rabbit here,” said Sen. Phil Williams, R-Gadsden, who was handling one of the local bills Shelnutt was holding up.
Shelnutt, who was largely responsible for killing a similar bill last year, did not expressly say he opposed the bill and later backed off from his threatened delay after Dial agreed to work with him on some of his concerns.
Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, was concerned that the bill would die if it was carried over again, but Dial said he had made a commitment to Warren that he would carry the bill for her through the end.
“If this bill goes to the grave, I’m going with it,” he said.
Warren’s bill, which passed the House last month, would bring more previously unlicensed religious day cares under the supervision of the Alabama Department of Human Resources.
The bill has been nearly two years in the making. It passed the House last year but died during a 10-minute calendar in the Senate as the Legislature neared the end of the session last year.
The bill is already much weaker than last year’s version, and any amendments from Shelnutt — a conservative Republican senator who has objected to government regulation of religious institutions — would likely weaken it even more.
The legislation, if it becomes law, would require some for-profit religious daycares and those that receive federal or state funding to go through DHR’s licensing process and abide by the department’s minimum safety standards. Some religious daycares — those that don’t receive federal or state funding — will remain exempt from state licensing processes.
After the bill failed in last year’s legislative session, a 5-year-old boy, Kamden Johnson, was found dead, lying on the side of the road three miles from his unlicensed Mobile-area day care, Community Nursery & Preschool Academy on Hillcrest Road, in August.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said the bill would likely return to the floor next Tuesday after Dial and Shelnutt worked out their differences on an amendment.
“I think it’s going to pass,” Marsh said.