Alabama lawmakers finished what they deemed urgent in the first two weeks of the legislature and passed three bills related to the COVID-19 pandemic with overwhelming support from both parties, but faced controversial issues in the weeks ahead.
They are initially taking a week off to assess how well the safe management efforts are performing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If they don't find any problems and return on February 23 as expected, they'll come up with a plan for a lottery and casinos, a major addition to gambling that would raise half a billion dollars or more a year for government programs.
The money would be used for college scholarships for high-demand careers, expanding broadband internet access, health care and mental health support, and other needs.
The bill is a constitutional amendment that will be presented to the electorate for final decision when the legislature is cleared.
In addition to the gambling bill, lawmakers will consider a number of bills on other topical or controversial issues, including Alabama's overcrowded and violent prisons, changes to electoral law related to last year's controversial presidential election, and issues that crop up every year such as: B. Guns Legislation and Medical Marijuana.
Invoices awaiting review would:
- Legalize and regulate the production, sale and use of medical marijuana.
- Allow some inmates to serve long sentences for nonviolent offenses, and petition courts for shorter sentences.
- Create a second parole board to help reduce the backlog of inmates eligible for parole hearings.
- Allow home delivery of alcohol, wine and beer.
- Restricting the governor's power to extend emergency orders without the consent of the legislature.
- Prohibit urgent changes in voting procedures within six months of an election, as happened last year due to the pandemic.
- Allow in-person voting for a period prior to election day and allow postal voting without apology.
- Modify the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, passed in 2017, to restrict removal of Confederate and other memorials.
- Ask police authorities to ban racial profiling and keep records of traffic stops to show if this works.
- Say that state and local authorities cannot enforce new federal firearms restrictions enacted after January 2021.
- Repeal the Law Requiring Permission to Carry a Hidden Pistol.
- Prohibit puberty blocking and hormone treatments as transgender therapies for minors.
- Do not hold a cell phone while driving.
The legislative period can last up to 15 weeks or until mid-May.
Some of the bills are likely to cause sharp disagreements. This will be a change from the last two weeks when Republicans and Democrats, with few exceptions, voted for three priority bills to help the state cope with and recover from the pandemic.
On Friday, Governor Kay Ivey signed the three bills. You will be:
- Exempt from state income taxes are the payments and benefits households and businesses receive from coronavirus relief laws passed by Congress
- Renew and expand laws that allow the state to offer tax credits and other incentives to help the industry recruit and create jobs
- Give businesses, healthcare providers, schools, churches, and others some protection from lawsuits from individuals seeking compensation for illness from COVID-19
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon and Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed said the legislation was an important response to the pandemic that broke last year's legislature and killed this and other bills.
"I think we achieved what we had to do," said McCutcheon. “We brought out the three main bills between the House and the Senate.
"We've made good progress on our budgets. And to be honest, what we've done in these two weeks has been really phenomenal. We did better than I thought."
Reed sent out a statement that the meeting got off to a good start.
"These are difficult times for many in our state, and lawmakers, working with the governor, have established these three priority laws to help Alabamians recover from the economic troubles created during this pandemic," he said .
“While this was a strong first session, we still have a lot of important work to do. I look forward to continuing the bipartisan collaboration we've seen over the past few weeks to continue delivering results to the people of Alabama. "
The Senate selected Reed as protégé when Senator Del Marsh resigned after holding that post for a decade. Marsh, who will not run for re-election in 2022, said he wanted to focus on key legislation during his last two years in office. He is the sponsor of the constitutional amendment to allow a lottery and five casinos that would offer a full range of casino games and sports betting.
The Legislative Services Agency estimated that the lottery and casinos could increase net revenue for the state from $ 450 million to $ 670 million. Read the tax bill that describes how the money will be used.
The senators discussed the bill on Thursday but did not vote. Marsh said he expected changes to the bill in response to what he had heard from senators, officials and others, and would return with a revised version on Feb.23.
"I need to find out what a package is that I can really get through legislation and to the people," Marsh said. “And when you look at it, you can say, 'You checked all the boxes. I am comfortable with it. I think the money is going to the right places. "
Alabama voters have not had a chance to vote on a lottery since 1999.
The Legislative Services Agency estimated the lottery would increase net sales for the state from $ 194 million to $ 279 million per year. The money would go to a lottery trust fund that would be used to pay scholarships to community colleges. The goal is to help Alabama build the workforce it needs to fill high-demand jobs in growing industries such as automotive and aerospace companies. Scholarships would also be given to students seeking an apprenticeship degree in math and science where there is a shortage of teachers.
Legislators would work out more details in separate laws. Marsh said his intention is to get this passed before the amendment comes to the vote so that voters know the details.
The bill would allow casinos on the state's four greyhound routes in Birmingham, Macon County, Greene County and Mobile, and one-fifth in northeast Alabama, operated by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.
Senators speaking on Thursday generally praised the bill, but some complained that their districts didn't have a casino and were losing revenue they now get from bingo. The bill would ban electronic bingo except in casinos.
Marsh said he could change the bill to allow up to two more casinos, but he firmly believed voters wanted the number to be capped.
For several years now, legislators have been taking steps to expand high-speed Internet access. They created the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund to offer grants to bring fiber links to areas where providers may not be doing business because the investment is not profitable. However, the funding is only a fraction of the need. The pandemic has increased the importance of broadband as public schools switch to online classes and many adults work from home.
Marsh's bill would use nearly half of casino revenue to expand broadband, until that total reached $ 1 billion. An accompanying bill would create a new state agency, the Alabama Digital Expansion Authority, to develop short-term and long-term plans to expand the broadband network and allow the state to issue bonds to that end. Read the summary.
The gambling bill would also direct money to rural health care. Marsh said Ivey wanted this to be part of the plan because she wanted to help rural hospitals.
Funding would also go to mental health services. Marsh said this was the result of talks with the House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, who made efforts to expand mental health care.
If the plan is approved, the governor would sign a deal with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians that would allow the tribe to offer the full range of casino games at their tribal electronic bingo casinos in Atmore, Wetumpka and Montgomery.
The plan would also allow betting on sports events in casinos and online.
Marsh said he wanted his bill to come as close as possible to a final document when it passed the Senate, but said he understood that the House would likely want to make changes.
House Speaker McCutcheon made no commitments to endorse or speculate on the bill. McCutcheon said the broad nature of the bill – with the lottery, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, the four greyhound trails, and bingo in the county – is an important point.
"It would be too early for me to comment on what I would and would not support," said McCutcheon. “I know, and that's what I said from the start, that we have to bring all these different units together to sit down at the table and not fight against each other, but look for the things that bring us together so that we can hope have to insist on something. "
Prisons are an important issue. The Justice Department sued the Alabama Justice Department last year for violating the constitutional rights of inmates by failing to protect them from violence. Alabama prisons house far more inmates than they were built and their oversight suffers from a severe shortage of law enforcement officials.
The House Judiciary Committee approved about half a dozen bills related to the prison issues. They would give judges more discretion in sentencing probation officers. allow some nonviolent offenders to seek courts for shorter sentences; Encouraging corrections in the community and other programs that distract offenders from prison; and temporarily establish a second parole board to help reduce the backlog of inmates eligible for parole hearings.
McCutcheon said he expected these bills to be considered in the house.
Ivey has signed leases for two new men's prisons and is negotiating a third. The rental contracts do not require any legal approval. Lawmakers have said they are concerned about the cost, which is estimated to be around $ 3 billion over 30 years. McCutcheon said the house had a backup plan for the leases, but no bill was put in place.
At least two bills propose amendments to a law that bans cities and counties from removing historical monuments that are 40 years or older from public ownership. Legislature passed the Memorial Preservation Act in 2017 in response to Confederate statues that have fallen in other states. The law provides for a $ 25,000 fine for memorial removal. Still, Birmingham, Mobile and Madison Counties destroyed Confederate monuments last year.
The House Judiciary Committee did not approve a bill by Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, that would repeal the Memorial Preservation Act and allow cities and counties to move monuments to parks, cemeteries or similar sites, or to transfer ownership to other cities. Counties or a state authority. However, the bill is in a subcommittee and could still be examined.
Another bill takes the opposite approach, making it harder to move monuments by increasing penalties for removal. Rep. Mike Holmes, R-Wetumpka, is the sponsor.
McCutcheon said he did not want to speculate on what the House would do but that he expected representatives to discuss the issues.
“I think there is a good way that this problem can be addressed. And I think there is a good chance that some changes will come about. I don't know to what extent that will be, ”said McCutcheon.
The spokesman said Givan's bill has some value because it would increase local scrutiny but not endorse it.
"Many members have said that this is positive. They want more local control because not every area in the state is created equal." But here, too, the bill has to go through the process, ”said McCutcheon.
A Senate committee approved a bill banning drugs, hormone treatments, and operations that block puberty for minors seeking transgender therapy. The House Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on a similar bill but did not vote.
A bill to legalize and regulate the manufacture, sale, and use of medical marijuana products has been approved by a Senate committee and is subject to Senate scrutiny. It passed the Senate for the past two years but died in the house.