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Opinion | The 2021 Legislative Session: Lots of talk, little action

“There were plenty of big issues and big ideas going into this session. There were very few big accomplishments.”

The Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery.

The gambling bill died. There was never even an attempt at a bill to address horrible state prisons. The governor still has all of her executive powers in place. The state of Alabama is still refusing — against all facts and basic math — to expand Medicaid. 

And that’s basically the story of the 2021 Alabama legislative session: a bunch of things that didn’t happen. 

Sure, you’ll soon be able to get a marijuana pill prescribed by a doctor for a narrow list of ailments, and you can get alcohol delivered to your house and avoid those awkward liquor store run-ins with the other church members. But in the grand scheme of things, that ain’t much. 

And “not much” is exactly what we’ll say the Legislature did in its 2021 Session. 

There were big, grand ideas and issues to be addressed and debated when this session began. Almost all of them remain, and a special session looms to address the two biggest — prisons and gambling. 

The lack of progress was particularly appalling considering the events of the last year, as this state’s shortcomings in a variety of areas were laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic. We have massive issues with education and infrastructure in our rural areas. We have third-world level issues with health care in many pockets of this state. And upward mobility is a thing that doesn’t exist here. 

But instead of addressing those pressing issues, the 30 days of legislative debate in Alabama were mostly filled with empty rhetoric, shameful pandering and wasting time. 

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Instead of, for example, spending time debating the issue of our prisons — an issue that lawmakers love to talk about in front of cameras — they instead spent days debating the issue of transgender athletes in sports. An issue so pressing that the Alabama High School Athletic Association has never once, in its 100 year history, been asked to even offer guidance on such a matter. An issue that the legislature, because of the AHSAA’s unique standing, likely doesn’t even have the authority to regulate. 

In fact, the only action taken on prisons was a grandstanding bill that would prevent the governor from entering into lengthy, expensive contracts without legislative oversight — a direct shot at Gov. Kay Ivey’s prison lease plan. Now, I’m certainly no fan of Ivey’s plan — and generally believe it to be both dumb and illogical — but watching lawmakers pass legislation that prevents her, or future governors, from addressing an issue that the legislature is ignoring is rather unhelpful all the way around. 

But there was simply no time to get a prisons bill passed. Or one on broadband infrastructure. Or the gambling/lottery bill. Or on rural health care. Or to expand voting rights.   

But there was time for the bill declaring that Alabama wouldn’t follow federal gun laws, which every single one of us knows we absolutely would. Didn’t matter, though, we still had to treat that pandering waste of legislative space as if it were a real, serious bill. 

All while much more important and much more meaningful bills that would address actual problems in this state languished in the dark, never so much as being considered in committees. 

Bills such as one that would expand Medicaid in the state. Others that would alter the bail process and provide more opportunities for parole to help ease our prison overcrowding issues. Others that would address voting issues, including expanding voting times and opportunities — similar to changes that were made in other states. 

All the way until the final minutes of the session, our lawmakers ignored those bills in favor of nonsense. Much of the final week was wasted on three bills — medical marijuana, curbing the governor’s power to issue a state of emergency and banning vaccine passports. 

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The medical marijuana bill was absurd. It only legalizes a pill and we still spent days sending this bill through two House committees and allowing the bat-guano crazy wing of ALGOP filibuster it for a full day. 

The bill to curb Ivey’s powers was so spectacularly dumb that it failed after someone who actually read it pointed out that it would have cost us billions in federal dollars during the current pandemic. 

Meanwhile, a vaccine passports ban took up most of the morning of the final day, and it’s another bill that does zilch. Businesses can still require employees to get vaccines and can still require customers to either show proof of vaccination or wear a mask, and there are no penalties at all for anyone who violates the no-passport mandate. 

Those are the issues our lawmakers — and by that, I mean Republicans (hey, don’t hold a supermajority if you don’t want the responsibility — decided to deal with instead of a gambling bill that would have brought in roughly a billion dollars annually and create thousands of jobs. 

Gambling was going to pay for health care. It was going to pay for broadband expansion. It was going to cut taxes. 

But gambling is a big thing. And if the 2021 legislative session proved anything at all, it’s that the Alabama Legislature doesn’t do big things.

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Written By

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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