The Memorial Day holiday is approaching, and state legislators are saying privately that they are ready for this session to be over, but much work remains to be done.
Only 21 of a possible 30 legislative days have been used, so this session could technically last through mid-June, but this session was sidetracked by a special session to raise the gas tax in March that delayed the start of regular business a couple of weeks.
There also was an organizational session in January, the inauguration and committee days, many of them in January and February on budgets and infrastructure that don’t actually count as a legislative day; but still meant a drive to Montgomery for the legislators.
Serving in the state Legislature is just a part-time job, but this year it is feeling like a full-time job, and there is the specter of a special session to deal with the state’s understaffed, overcrowded, aging, long-neglected prisons coming in August or September. Some legislators would like to shut this session down as early as Thursday evening, but that probably is not possible as many things remain undone.
At the end of the workday on Thursday, the House leadership announced that Wednesday would be the last day that the House of Representatives will consider House bills. From Thursday on, the House will only consider bills that have been passed by the Senate. That is a signal that time is running out on this session, as the leadership is announcing that there is not enough time left for a House bill to be passed and then go through the process to be considered and passed by the Senate.
Wednesday will include a 10-minute calendar. On a 10 minute calendar, the sponsor only has 10 minutes to explain their bill, answer all the legislators’ questions and vote to pass the bill or it gets carried over. No House bills will be considered on Thursday. Any single legislator can kill a bill on the 10-minute calendar simply by going to the floor and talking long enough to burn the 10 minutes up. The only bills that can be passed on a 10-minute calendar are those with no opposition whatsoever.
Multiple legislators have told APR that the first bill on the calendar on Tuesday is going to be the lottery. Senate Bill 220 is sponsored by Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore.
Many conservative Republicans have opposed any expansion of gambling in the state of Alabama throughout their careers, and they are going to fight this bill. The establishment leadership and younger, newer, less conservative, much more moderate Republican legislators favor gambling expansion in the state. The Democrats are in favor of gambling. The leadership, the more moderate freshman Republicans and Democrats formed an alliance against conservative Republicans to pass the fuel tax increase bill in the special session and recently passed the fantasy sports contests bill in the House with a similar bipartisan coalition.
There is not that much money in this lottery proposal. Albritton estimates that it will bring in $167 million a year. Critics say that seems awfully optimistic. The leadership blocked a bill by Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, that would have authorized the four dog tracks to have video lottery terminals and would have allowed lottery players to play the games on computers and handheld devices. The Democrats favored the McClendon lottery, but that bill was frozen in a Senate committee.
The Albritton lottery is a paper lottery only. Scratch-offs in convenience stores and multi-state lottery contests like the Powerball.
State Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, has said she will not support a lottery unless the Legislature also passes a constitutional amendment legalizing electronic bingo at Victoryland in Shorter. Her House bill to do that is awaiting action by the House. Some Republicans have said they will support a paper lottery only; but will not support casinos in Macon and Greene counties. The Senate companion bill to Warren’s legislation only received 19 of the 21 votes it needed to pass the Senate.
Sen. Billy Beasley’s Victoryland legalization bill appears dead in the Senate. State Rep. Artis “A.J” McCampbell, D-Livingston, is sponsoring legislation that would legalize electronic bingo at Greenetrack and Greene County. McCampbell told the Alabama Political Reporter that the Senate version of his bill did pass the Senate, and his bill is facing a public hearing in the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee. That committee is very gambling friendly, having already passed SB220 with little opposition.
The big question for this week is: will most Republicans support electronic bingo legalization constitutional amendments in the Democratic-controlled dog track counties, and if not, will Democrats vote for a lottery bill that they do not like and receive nothing in return for their votes?
Some Republicans have told the APR that they support a lottery because it takes away an issue from Democrats. In 2018, gubernatorial candidate Walt Maddox (D) tried to base his campaign around a lottery proposal, much like Don Siegelman (D) did in 1998, the last time that a Democrat was elected governor. They believe that by passing the lottery, that takes that popular issue away from state Democrats.
The lottery and electronic bingo constitutional amendments would normally dominate the legislative week all by themselves, but the big issue for the state is that the Legislature still has not sent either budget to the governor. The House passed the state general fund budget weeks ago. The Senate delayed passing the SGF out of committee until Wednesday. The education trust fund budget has passed the Senate but is still in committee in the House.
The big sticking point for both budgets has been what to do with the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Congress changed CHIP from 100 percent federally funded to an 80-20 split. The program insures almost half of the children in the state of Alabama through ALL Kids, administered by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama. The state is going to have to pick up over $114 million a year in the cost of the program, with approximately $49 million of that hitting the 2020 budget.
Gov. Kay Ivey (R) moved $36 million of that from the SGF to the ETF. The House agreed and sent a general fund budget to the Senate without that money in the SGF. The Senate passed an education budget without that money in the ETF. As not funding CHIP is not an option, the two Houses are going to have to resolve that conundrum in order to pass both budgets.
Limited legislative time are being spent on trying to force gambling bills through the Legislature, bills that the leadership knows are highly controversial. Legislators who are planning Memorial Day week vacations may find themselves back in Montgomery for another week or two.
Warren told reporters that there was a vote count on Thursday for SB220, and it did not have the votes then. The sponsors are still lobbying members to try to get the bill passed. If it does pass the House, SB220 will still have to go back to the Senate because the House Economic Development and Tourism committee amended the bill to require that one quarter or 1 percent of the money go to fund compulsive gambling treatment programs, approximately $420,000, and 25 percent goes to the education trust fund, about $42 million.
APR asked conservative Republican State Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, what he thought about the lottery bill. He said he hopes it dies.
If the lottery passes out of both Houses in the same form, it would still have to be voted on by the people of Alabama on March 3 since it is a constitutional amendment.
The House goes back into session at 1 p.m. on Tuesday with many questions still swirling.