Let me be upfront. I’ve not been long on the corner of Dexter and Union, that shady spot in downtown Montgomery where the wheels of Alabama politics are ever turning, but I’ve learned to adapt fast. Doing so is paramount as otherwise, you may wind up beneath the heel of a shiny, leather shoe.
The lobby of the Alabama State House is like a train terminal — well-dressed men and women glide calmly through the metal detectors before making that mad dash to the elevator, jumping off at the House on the fifth floor, the Senate on the seventh or the press room on the third.
A herd of senators and representatives, lobbyists and department heads, all in perpetual motion and never-ending conversation, on their way to committee hearings and meetings and sessions and a million other places.
And then there’s the Capitol Press Corps, easily identifiable by the wind-tossed hair and heavy breath from sprinting between the Capitol and the State House, lugging cameras and tripods and laptops and notepads and recorders back and forth all day.
Before the session even started Feb. 2, big legislation was already making its way through the proper channels. State Sen. Jim McLendon (R-Springville) and State Rep. Alan Harper (R-Northport) held a press conference to announce their filing of a bill aimed at giving Alabama citizens the opportunity to vote on a lottery. The bill made no mention of where the proceeds from said lottery would go, only that Alabamians would be able to lodge their opinion via referendum.
And though that bit of legislation was the only one warranting a press conference, a variety of bills inevitably started pouring in: bills allowing guns to be carried on college campuses, outlawing the sale of fetal tissue, decriminalizing the possession of a marijuana-based medicine and more.
Days before the session, House Republicans held a press conference to announce their own agenda. Leading the conference was embattled House Speaker Mike Hubbard, who was inevitably asked about his upcoming trial and how it would affect the legislative session.
Among House Republicans’ priorities are balancing the budget, pension reform, giving tax credits to small businesses and raises to teachers and restricting the flow of Syrian refugees to the state.
Budget hearings were also underway, reinforcing everyone’s fear that this year may call for another round of special sessions. The collective sigh from everyone in the State House was palpable as the hearings dragged on and more and more red ink was uncovered — the Department of Education needs an additional $300 million; Medicaid needs another $157 million; law enforcement needs an extra $23 million — all while the thought of balancing the books with dollars from the Education Trust Fund is becoming more disgusting by the day.
As the session began, the first order of business for Senate members was to pass a resolution commending the University of Alabama for winning this year’s BCS National Championship. Within 30 minutes, both chambers had adjourned for the day. At first, this would seem like the work of the lazy employee who fakes sick so he can go home early and sit on the couch. But in reality, the first day of session is little more than a formality — the work of debating and passing bills can’t begin until those bills wind through the various committees tasked with looking them over before they hit the floor. And on Wednesdays, this is how our lawmakers are busying themselves.
That night, Gov. Robert Bentley gave his annual “State of the State” address in the old House Chambers, laying out his ambitious “Great State 2019” plan, calling for increasing broadband connectivity and access to quality health care in rural areas. He also called for increasing the number of Alabamians who attend college and reforming the state’s overwhelmed prison system.
On Feb. 3, the Senate Judiciary Committee gave a favorable report to two bills aimed at strengthening sentencing guidelines for aggravated child abuse. SB23, sponsored by Sen. Clyde Chambliss (R-Prattville), makes aggravated abuse of a child from infancy to 6 years old a Class A felony and SB22 would allow prosecutors to charge those who kill a child as a result of aggravated abuse with murder.
Last week the partisan sparks started to fly, particularly in the House. On Tuesday, Rep. Mark Tuggle (R-Alexander City) introduced SB38, which gives the power of filling the position of Taxpayer Advocate to the governor. The House Black Caucus immediately began railing against the bill, calling it a racial ploy to get rid of the black woman currently holding the position, but it passed with ease by a margin of 70 to 33. Another bill, SB36 by Rep. Kyle South, which gives a $1,500 tax break to small businesses for every new hire making more than $40,000 a year, garnered the ire of House Dems as well, for giving a tax break after raising taxes last year. Again, the legislation passed by a margin of 88 to 12.
The flurry of activity continued Feb. 10 as a repeal of Common Core failed to get through committee, though the addition of a civics test as part of graduation requirements did pass, and a lottery bill failed in one committee but passed in another. The House Committee on State Government also green lighted a bill to prohibit city governments from raising their minimum wage.
On Thursday, the Senate passed a slew of Sunset Law bills and confirmed a number of people to a variety of positions. Further, they passed a resolution commending Ken Stabler for his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and passed a law prohibiting municipalities from adding regulatory hurdles to the purchase of guns, ammo or permits.
Meanwhile, the House was again at each other’s throats over a bill from Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Birmingham) to declare Alabama’s status as a “Right to Work” state in the Constitution. Unlike the usual battles, Democrats were able to defeat the bill and see a vote delayed on legislation from Rep. April Weaver (R-Shelby) to outlaw the sale of fetal tissue.
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