2017 Legislative Update: Week 1
The 2017 Regular Session of the Alabama Legislature got underway in Montgomery on Tuesday when both the House and Senate convened for the introduction of bills. After a brief session in both the House and Senate, the bodies recessed, reconvening that evening in the historic Old House Chamber of the Capitol Building to listen to Governor Robert Bentley’s State of the State address. The Legislature met two days this week, on Tuesday and Thursday, and because it takes three legislative days to pass any bills, no measures have received final passage by either body at this point. Both the House and Senate were busy though, especially on Wednesday when committees got to work on several matters considered to be high priority by the majority caucuses.
The Governor’s State of the State
On Tuesday evening, Governor Bentley delivered his State of the State address to members of the Legislature, his cabinet officers, members of Alabama’s court system and guests. The Governor began his speech discussing what he views as his administration’s achievements over the past six years. He spoke especially about the the improvements in Alabama’s job market in the six years since he took office, and economic development successes. The Governor specifically noted the investment of major companies in Alabama such as Airbus, Polaris and GE Aviation; each building facilities in Alabama and providing high paying jobs.
Following this, the Governor laid out the issues on which he wanted his administration to focus in the coming year. For example, he declared - as the House Republican Caucus had included in its agenda - that Alabama would not permit either sanctuary cities or institutions for illegal immigrants. He also noted the State’s involvement and cooperation on the devastating issue of opioid addiction and abuse, and the need to do more. Finally, he argued that affordable accessible healthcare was only possible through involvement and leadership by the States, and not the Federal Government. Of interest, although the Governor mentioned the need to improve healthcare and address the problems associated with the Affordable Care Act, he did not reference the State’s three-year plan to transform its Medicaid program to a managed care program operated by Regional Care Organizations throughout the state.
In terms of legislative goals, the Governor primarily focused on two. First, he noted that Alabama was one of only four states that imposed the full sales tax on groceries, thus placing a disproportionate burden on low income families. To address this issue, the Governor announced the formation of a task force to study how sales tax eventually could be removed from food.
The Governor also restated - and discussed at length - his Prison Transformation Initiative Plan, designed to modernize the State’s prison facilities. Alabama’s prisons are the subject of litigation, and court-ordered expenditures or even federal take-over have become a constant threat. The Governor’s plan would close nearly all of the state’s 17 existing facilities, moving most inmates into four new “mega-prisons”; one for female inmates and three for male inmates. A slightly scaled down version of the Governor’s plan failed in the Legislature on the last night of the 2016 Regular Session, but neither the lawsuits, nor the problems have relented since that time. The Governor would like the State to issue approximately $800 million in bonds to construct the new facilities. According to the Governor, the debt service on these bonds would be paid with anticipated savings resulting from the decommission of the older facilities and the consolidation of inmates into the new prisons.
Activity in the House
The House Caucus Agenda
Much of the action in the House this week focused on the Republican House Caucus’s “Alabama Proud” agenda. For example, on Wednesday, the House Committee on State Government favorably reported a bill by Representative Phil Williams (R-Huntsville) that would block any funding for colleges and universities that declared themselves a “sanctuary” for illegal immigrants. Although Representative Williams indicated that he didn’t believe any university or college was contemplating such a move, the bill was approved by a voice vote and is now in a position to be voted on by the full House.
A bill that would prevent the removal of “long-standing” monuments, House Bill 99 by Representative Kyle South (R-Fayette), also a part of the House Caucus agenda, has been introduced and is set to be addressed this coming week also in the House Committee on State Government. This bill has been introduced several times in the past few years, but this is the first time that it was included as part of the Republican Agenda. The Senate version of this legislation, SB60 sponsored by Senator Gerald Allen (R-Tuscaloosa), was also reported from its Senate Committee this week and has received its second reading in the upper body.
Also on Wednesday, the House Health Committee approved a bill that, once approved by a vote of the people, would add a “right to life” Constitutional Amendment to the Alabama Constitution. The bill, sponsored by Representative Matt Fridy (R-Montevallo), moved to the full House on a voice vote. Also approved by voice vote, was a House Caucus bill by Representative Arnold Mooney (R-Helena) that would permit health care professionals to refuse to perform certain services, primarily related to abortion, if it conflicts with their sincerely held religious beliefs.
Though not part of the House Caucus agenda, another piece of legislation purporting to vindicate the religious rights of child care services providers is advancing quickly in the House. House Bill 24 by Representative Rich Wingo (R-Tuscaloosa) would permit a child placement service in Alabama to refuse to place a child under any circumstance that conflicts with the service’s religious views. Although the bill is designed primarily to allow certain services to avoid placing children with same sex couples, it is not clear exactly how far a service could go in refusing placements based on religion. Opponents of the bill have pointed out that it conflicts with federal law and regulations, and that it might therefore cost the State millions in federal child services funds. The bill, however, is in line to be addressed by the House. The bill also has been adopted by the Senate Republican Caucus as part of its agenda.
Accountability Act Changes
On Thursday, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) introduced a bill that would make significant changes to the Alabama Accountability Act (“AAA”) that are designed to increase the amount of tax credits claimed - and the amount of money raised by Scholarship Granting Organizations (“SGOs”) in the State. The AAA was passed several years ago, at the time generating some controversy and a legal challenge that was ultimately unsuccessful. A part of that law allows for tax credits to be taken by individual and corporate income tax payers when contributions are made to SGO’s. The SGOs use the funds generated by these contributions to give scholarships to allow students of limited financial means to attend private schools. The total amount of tax credits permitted each year is capped at $30 million. The $30 million cap has not been reached in recent years, however, and in an effort to rectify that, Senator Marsh’s bill would make utility tax liability for large corporations also eligible for a tax credit under the AAA. Proponents of SB123 argue that it is simply a means to increase the funding under the AAA in order to ensure that more students are able to take advantage of scholarships. Critics argue that by achieving its stated purpose of generating more contributions, SB123 would siphon additional money from the public school system. Additionally, some argue that the bill would shut out individual donors who want to help provide a quality education to Alabama’s students - in favor of large corporate donors. The bill was assigned to the Senate Finance & Taxation Education Committee and has not yet been set for a hearing.
Judicial Override of the Jury - Imposing the Death Penalty
On Wednesday, a bill by Senator Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery) that would remove Alabama trial court judges' authority to impose a death sentence when the jury recommends against it was narrowly approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Attorney General’s office appeared at the hearing and argued against the legislation. Alabama is the only remaining state in the country that allows a judge to override the sentence recommended by the jury to impose a death sentence. A similar bill has been introduced in the House by Representative Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa). That measure is on the House Judiciary Committee Agenda this coming Wednesday.
New Offices and Appointments
Three Alabamians received high profile “promotions” this week in rapid succession. The dominoes begin to fall (or rise) on Wednesday, when Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as the United States Attorney General under President Donald Trump. Attorney General Sessions took the oath of office the next day at the White House, creating a Senate vacancy to which Governor Bentley quickly appointed sitting Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange. Senator Strange has been appointed to seats on the Senate Committees on Armed Services, Agriculture, Energy and Natural Resources and Budget.
When Attorney General Strange was sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence in Washington on Thursday afternoon it left a spot for the Governor to fill at Attorney General. On Friday, Bentley named Marshall County District Attorney Steve Marshall to serve the remaining two years of now-Senator Strange’s AG term. Marshall is fully expected to run for a full term in the Attorney General’s office in November 2018. Marshall, who started his career at Maynard & Gale, has been the Marshall County District Attorney since 2001, and is a past President of the Alabama District Attorneys’ Association.
The House and Senate reconvene on Tuesday, February 14. The House begins its session at 1:00 pm, and the Senate will gather one hour later at 2:00. It is generally believed that the bodies will meet just two days again this coming week, focusing on committee work on Wednesday. The Legislature has met for two days thus far this session and has 28 meeting days remaining before it must adjourn. The Legislature is permitted to meet 30 days over a 105 calendar day period that runs to Monday, May 22.
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