Two members of Mobile County’s legislative delegation are questioning the wisdom of bringing state lawmakers back to Montgomery on Monday, May 4 due the lingering threat of COVID-19.
The Legislature, which hasn’t fully convened since a scheduled two-week recess March 12 that grew into a longer hiatus due to COVID-19, had initially planned to return to session April 28. As Alabama’s number of cases and deaths from the disease continued to grow, that was pushed back even further.
Earlier this week Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, and Senate President Pro-Tempore Del Marsh announced members of the House and Senate budget committees would meet next week before the full legislature returns for an abbreviated session May 4 through May 8.
Despite the extended break, Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, and Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, have both said they believe it would be wiser to delay finishing the current session until this summer, which would still allow lawmakers time to vote on the state’s budgets and a handful of local bills.
In a letter to Marsh, which was sent to the media Friday afternoon, Figures questioned whether it was safe to go back early next month with the COVID-19 pandemic still lingering over Alabama.
“There is no way for us to socially distance ourselves in the chamber, especially in a building that is already unhealthy with (mold), etc.,” she wrote. “The vast majority of the Alabama Legislature is either 60-(plus) years old and/or have underlying health issues. Many of our members, as well as staff, have small children at home and/or elderly family members for whom they are responsible. Why would you put all of those lives at risk for something that can wait?”
In a phone interview with Lagniappe, Pringle also questioned the safety of returning to the capitol building right on the heels of the April 30 expiration of Gov. Kay Ivey’s stay-at-home order.
“That building was never supposed to be a place where the Legislature meets,” he said. “It’s the old highway department building. Two people can’t pass through the hallways, let alone when there are large crowds there because we’re in session.”
In a conference call with Speaker McCutcheon, Pringle said legislators were told they would watch debate from their offices and only come to the chamber to vote. He said members were also told to wear masks and that only legislators and a limited number of staff members would be allowed in the building.
“I can understand the need for us to deal with local bills, as some deal with economic development, but this is a quagmire we’ve never been in before,” Pringle said. “I have a real problem with the public not being allowed in the building when we’re doing the people’s business.”
Pringle also questioned why the state would consider its General and Education Trust Fund budgets in May, when the full impact of the pandemic’s effects on the economy remains unknown. He said he doesn’t understand the benefit of preparing two multimillion dollar budgets with “make believe numbers.”
In her letter, Figures raised a similar point about the budgets and suggested waiting until at least September. Pringle suggested things could be stable enough for lawmakers to return in July. Like Figures, Pringle pointed out that many members of the body have underlying health conditions that put them at a higher risk for severe complications from COVID-19.
At issue for the Legislature, though, is a state constitutional mandate that requires all bills in progress during the session to be automatically killed at midnight on May 18, when the session reaches its 105th day. Pringle strongly suggested changing that mandate and meeting again in the summer.
While he understands the concerns, Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, is moving forward. Albritton, chairman of the Senate’s General Fund budget committee, called a meeting on Tuesday, April 28 to discuss the 2021 budget. He told Lagniappe he doesn’t see the financial situation getting any clearer before the budget would go into effect in October.
“When would we pass [the budgets]?” Albritton asked. “July, August? The state starts school in August. When are you going to pass the budget? Even if it’s July you’re only going to have June numbers.”
Rather, Albritton said, he has a revised 2021 fiscal year General Fund budget, which uses Ivey’s priorities, but scales them down by about $300 million.
“All you can do is what we’re doing and plan for the year,” he said. “All we have to do is plan conservatively. We can make adjustments if we feel we need to.”
Organizers for the committee meeting, which is set to take place while Ivey’s stay-at-home order is still in place, will provide masks and gloves for lawmakers, as well as space participants six feet apart, Albritton said.
“We’re going to make every effort to make sure we’re compliant with social distancing,” he said. “We have plenty of masks and everything else.”
It’s important, Albritton said, to move as quickly as possible on the budgets to make sure they pass before the May 18 deadline. The long COVID-19 break did not help in that regard.
“We’re behind the 8-ball as far as that is concerned,” he said. “I’m trying to make sure we have as few hiccups as possible.”
As for transparency concerns, Albritton said the meeting would be broadcast on Alabama Public Television. It would also be livestreamed on the legislature’s website, he said.
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