We are now in a new year and much has changed from previous years. There are a number of issues that are likely to face the state of Alabama in 2021 and beyond.
Effort to improve conditions in Alabama prisons
The Department of Justice has sued the state of Alabama saying that conditions are so bad inside the Alabama Department of Corrections that they constitute “cruel and unusual” punishment under the U.S. Constitution. The state needs more prison guards in the worst possible way, as well as better health care, mental health care and drug treatment options for the men and women that it incarcerates.
The state of Alabama has been working on a plan for years. The Trump administration finally got so exasperated with state officials and their “working on a plan” that has never materialized that the Bill Barr-led Department of Justice threw up its hands and brought a suit in federal court to force Alabama to address the situation.
There is enormous potential for a financial disaster here. Gov. Kay Ivey is moving ahead with a plan to build costly new mega prisons. Few like that plan, but no one has come forward with a plan of their own. Replacing the aging state prisons by itself does only so much to make the prisons safer or settle the concerns of the DOJ and federal courts. Even with new prisons, staffing concerns and inadequate health care could continue.
In 2019, the governor established a task force to make recommendations on improving the state’s justice system so that fewer people go to prison and so that the prisoners we do have are better able to transition back into society without re-offending and getting sent back to prison. That task force had a number of recommendations that were introduced in the 2020 legislative session.
The Legislature never addressed any of those proposals because COVID-19 shortened the 2020 session, and Ivey never called a special session to force the Legislature to look at the issue. Justice reform will be back in 2021. State Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, has already announced that he will introduce legislation to address overcrowding at county jails. One way ADOC has addressed its own overcrowding has been to let prisoners languish in county jails.
Economic recovery from COVID crisis
During the first months of 2020, we experienced one of the best economies the country has seen, and certainly, the strongest Alabama has ever experienced. But then COVID-19 hit in March and businesses were hit with challenges that no one ever studied in business school. Businesses were shuttered by order of state and local governments for weeks, and then they faced occupancy limits for months.
Economic disparities that had been declining since the recovery from the Great Recession suddenly worsened as hourly workers and part-time workers were the first people laid off. Many businesses that appeared healthy a year ago are on the verge of bankruptcy. There will likely be a number of bills introduced in the Alabama Legislature to limit COVID-19 liability for businesses and to incentivize and stimulate the Alabama economy.
Expansion of broadband options into rural Alabama is another issue that will take prominence as state deficiencies in access to e-learning and telehealth were exposed by the COVID-19 crisis.
Medical marijuana legalization
In 2019 and 2020, the Alabama Senate passed legislation to make medical marijuana legal in the state of Alabama. It never got out of the Health Committee in the Alabama House of Representatives.
Marijuana advocates will be back in Montgomery with a renewed push to provide a legal option for citizens of the state to access medical cannabis.
“We are continuing our effort to make sure that people with a real medical need receive the treatment that they need,” said Chey Garrigan, executive director of the Alabama Cannabis Industry Association. “32 states and the District of Columbia have already passed medical marijuana legislation.”
2022 Senate election
The 2020 elections ended this month in Alabama with the swearing-in of Sen. Tommy Tuberville, Rep. Barry Moore and Rep. Jerry Carl. A Jan. 5 runoff election in Georgia will decide which party controls the U.S. Senate for the next two years. President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated on Jan. 20 as president of the United States. But the 2022 election cycle will begin the next day.
The 2022 major party primaries are May 24, 2020. There is potentially nothing bigger than the 2022 Senate election. Incumbent Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican, is 86 years old and is unlikely to seek re-election. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, showed that a Democrat can pull in a huge amount of money from out of state for an open Senate seat, even in very Republican Alabama. There will likely be a number of contenders to emerge for Shelby’s Senate seat if he announces that he will not be running for re-election.
COVID-19 vaccine distribution
Developing and testing effective vaccines for a disease that was unknown to science in eight months’ time may have been the biggest medical achievement in decades. Distributing the vaccine across Alabama and convincing the people to actually get vaccinated, when many of them are highly distrustful of the medical community in general and particularly of vaccines, will be the biggest challenge the Alabama Department of Public Health has faced in modern times.
Until there is a more effective treatment in place, vaccination is the best hope of a return to some degree of normalcy as social distancing alone has to this point not effectively slowed the spread of the novel strain of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.
Every decade, Congress, both chambers of the Alabama Legislature and the Alabama State Board of Education have to be reapportioned and redistricted. That time is at hand. State Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, along with his counterpart in the Alabama House, is tasked with leading the redistricting process in the state of Alabama.
McClendon said that redistricting will be done based on the data from the 2020 Census and that data will not be available until April. McClendon said that redistricting plans will be prepared by this summer and predicted that the Legislature will address redistricting in a special session called by the governor in August or September. McClendon does not know yet whether the state will lose one of its seven congressional districts.
Gambling is a much-discussed issue every year around the start of the legislative session, but normally the Alabama Legislature does not act on it. This year could be different after the Governor’s Study Commission on Gaming released a report projecting the state could make $600 to $700 million by legalizing casinos, sports gaming and passing a lottery.
Many legislators favor a lottery, but not casinos and many legislators, who favor gambling in general, won’t support a gambling bill that does not benefit their preferred gambling interest — whether it is the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, Victoryland or Greenetrack. There is not presently a bill that all of the gambling interests in the state support.
Now it is possible that Republicans in the Legislature may pass gaming legislation to take an issue away from Democrats in the 2022 election. Democrats, on the other hand, might not be inclined to support legislation that could be used by Democratic candidates in 2022. Quarrels on how to spend the new revenues from gambling is another contentious issue that has doomed gambling bills in past legislative sessions.
The state has a new senator in Tommy Tuberville, two new congressmen in Barry Moore and Jerry Carl, a new State Senate president pro tempore in Greg Reed, R-Jasper, and the United States has a new president in Joe Biden. The Alabama Republican Party will soon have a new leader and voters will elect two new state senators. New leadership means new dynamics and new priorities. That could affect a number of issues going forward in the state.
The Biden administration
The power of the president of the United States and the people that he puts in places of power cannot be understated. A new regulatory environment under President Joe Biden will likely affect farmers, the forestry industry, how we generate electricity, the cars we can purchase, health care and manufacturing as well as social issues like abortion and gun rights. Even more mundane issues like FCC rules, tax policy, budget priorities, prisons, Indian gaming policy, rural development, labor policy, agriculture policy, trade policy and DOJ priorities will all change to varying degrees with a change in administration and could have effects on the people in the state of Alabama moving forward.