As may have been noticed, my political dispatch from downtown Montgomery did not appear last week, undoubtedly leaving the hungry political beasts starved for the statehouse lowdown so nourishing for the soul.
Journalism is a craft which I find immensely important and rewarding in ways that few things are. However, being a father often trumps the personal desire to stick my nose in politicians’ business and last week saw just such an episode.
As Alabama lawmakers tackled the General Fund budget and other vital issues, I sat in the hospital alongside my wife and son, trying to determine when my young lad will be able to go under the knife for a minor heart defect. Needless to stay, scooping the competition seemed ignominious compared to devoting my attention to my wiggling 8-month-old.
But I digress; the action last week certainly made up for my absence the week before and the state’s lawmakers tackled a series of controversial and critical legislation, not the least of which was Gov. Robert Bentley’s signing of “Winston’s Law” on March 1. The law, originally sponsored by Sen. Clyde Chambliss (R-Prattville) and Rep. Paul Beckman (R-Prattville), increases penalties for aggravated child abuse.
The House Judiciary Committee heard from a mass of people regarding two bills this week, one that would allow grandparents to have access to their grandchildren and another that addresses child custody rights in divorce cases. Neither made any headway.
Much of the public outcry over the child custody bill, which claims to seek more equitable splicing of time between divorced parents, was over the fact that the bill does little to urge judges to abide by such recommendations. A slew of parents and lawyers railed against the legislation and a vote was delayed until next week’s meeting.
Much the same scene played out when lawmakers took up a bill that would create appeals procedures for grandparents whose access to grandchildren has been taken away for no justified reason. To say that the testimony was gut-wrenching is an understatement of epic proportions — many of the bill’s proponents openly wept as they detailed the time away from their grandchildren. But opponents claimed that the bill usurps the rights of parents to decide who can and cannot see their children and the committee delayed voting on the measure until next week’s meeting.
The bulk of my week was spent in the Senate press gallery, that walk-in closet the press calls home two days a week, and the body did not disappoint as the session resumed. Sen. Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery) howled about recent NAEP scores, which detailed the proficiency of Alabama fourth- and eighth-graders in math and reading, listing Alabama last in the nation.
“We are serving up our children a poisonous meal from which they will never recover,” Brewbaker said, as he promised to resign his chairmanship of the education committee and celebrated the recent retirement announcement of state school Superintendent Tommy Bice.
The body also heard a resolution from Sen. J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner (R-Vestavia Hills) urging Congress to lift the Cuban trade embargo. The press gallery nearly sobbed as a news release regarding the PREP Act, which sets up methods for evaluating teachers based on “students’ achievement growth” and other measures, arrived from Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston). The sobbing wasn’t so much in regard to the legislation, which is a reiteration of rumored legislation the Senator has been mulling since before the start of session, but because it was Election Day and, thereby, an already overwhelming day for the press.
And while all of this was happening, the Senate was beginning to tackle the Alabama Heritage Preservation Act from Sen. Gerald Allen (R-Tuscaloosa), which would outlaw the removal of historical monuments from public property. Democrats began filibustering the motion immediately and Marsh stepped in to end the debate and adjourn the session for the day.
On March 2, as the dust settled from the previous day’s election, the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee heard discussion on the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative Act, which tackles Bentley’s plans to close the majority of Alabama’s existing prisons and replace them with four new “super prisons.” The bill drew outrage from architects, contractors and engineers who bemoaned the legislation’s call for using one company for design and construction. No vote was taken and the bill will come up again next week.
The proposed education budget, which provides an additional $14 million for Alabama’s pre-K program and gives a 4 percent raise to public school teachers, also came before committee this week. Despite public dissidence over not securing more for pre-K and libraries and discord over $109 million for seemingly non-educational programs, committee members gave the bill a favorable report and sent it to the full House.
A favorable report was also given to a bill that would require the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency to open drivers’ license offices in every county at least two days a week, despite ALEA’s claim that the move would cost an additional $1.35 million annually.
Lawmakers got to work early March 2 and, in the Senate, the first item up for discussion was Allen’s monuments bill. Again, Democrats protested that the legislation celebrates slavery and takes power away from municipal governments. Also drawing ire from the left was a motion to cloture debate on the topic after only 30 minutes. Despite teeth-gnashing from Senate Dems, the bill passed along party lines. The Senate then passed a heap of bills in a nearly empty chamber, often with just over a dozen Senators present.
Two floors down in the House, lawmakers passed the Wired Act, which pulls $12 million from a school technology fund to assist schools in rural parts of the state in matching E-rate funds required for updating aged technology.
Next week is sure to be a doozy, as both chambers are angling toward finalizing budgets before spring break, despite the possibility of more quarrels over decisions to not adequately fund the state’s beleaguered Medicaid system.
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