The Alabama legislative session is about to begin. Here’s what to look for
The entrance to the Alabama State House in Montgomery, Alabama, as seen on January 24, 2023. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)
With so many new elected officials on Goat Hill, lawmakers have a hard time predicting what will happen in the 2023 session, beginning on Tuesday.
“You got a lot of new members,” said Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro. “Sometimes you get new members coming in, thinking they can change the world. And you’ll get a lot of different kinds of legislation that is filed.”
The legislative session should run through June.
The first year after an election is often when lawmakers try to pass controversial bills, hoping the arguments are forgotten by the next election. But in interviews over the last several weeks, senators said that the large number of new faces add a measure of uncertainty. More than a quarter of the House and the Senate will be new this year, and veteran lawmakers are hesitant to say how they might vote in the coming months.
Legislators are expected to consider proposals to expand charter school offerings or bills allowing public funds to be spent on private school tuition.
A surplus of state and federal funds are also likely to be major topics in the session. The state’s Education Trust Fund budget appears to be in good shape, and legislators have talked about different ways of using that surplus, from teacher pay raises to tax cuts. Legislators will also have to consider how to spend a round of coronavirus relief money. Bills on abortion and reforms to the justice system are also likely, though their prospects are not certain.
When it comes to standardized tests, Alabama’s educational system often ranks somewhere in the bottom of the nation. The state did improve on a recent National Assessment of Educational Progress report card, especially for fourth graders, but only because the rest of the nation fared so poorly during the pandemic, according to a report from AL.com.
Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, the chair of the House Ways and Means Education Committee, said that while Alabama has some “wonderful” school systems it also has some “abysmal” ones. He wants to focus on improving low-performing schools in the state, which he said would improve the state’s overall rankings.
“Typically, in a budget process down here, you take the formula and spit out what it is,” Garrett said. “What we’re saying is spit the formula out, but – above and beyond – that we’ve got to go to these areas that are so underperforming.”
House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, agreed that funding for schools with poor performance is important. But he said he also wants to focus more on outcomes by improving “infrastructures of success.” Daniels said it was important to him to figure out where the state is losing kids.
“What can we do to improve the infrastructure?” he asked. “And looking at infrastructures of success in other places, is the same infrastructure provided in a community where there is not success?”
The state has increased funding for its nationally-recognized prekindergarten program for over a decade. Daniels said Republican Gov. Kay Ivey should be applauded for putting more funding into pre-K programs in the state, but he said there is room for improvement.
“All Alabamians don’t have access to [pre-K]” he said. “I think that we’re trying to move in the direction of getting more Alabamians access to that quality early childhood education program.”
Legislators may consider more charter or nontraditional school options this year. Ivey said she would support such moves in her inauguration speech in January.
At this stage, it’s hard to know what form that bill might take. The state has charter and magnet schools, and the 2013 Alabama Accountability Act allows students in “failing schools” to attend other public schools or private schools.
Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, has a bill that uses education savings accounts, as first reported by Mike Cason at AL.com.
The bill allows money to follow the student to a school they attend that is not their zoned school. School districts have the ability to opt out of the plan under the bill and prevent those students from attending.
When asked if there’s a risk that high-ranking public schools will opt out of the program, Stutts told the Reflector that that’s a “possibility.”
Pay raises for teachers, other state employees
Last year, Alabama lawmakers passed historic raises for their teachers, going as high as as 21% for those with 35 years of experience. For the first time in history, legislators approved automatic pay raises each year for teachers with at least nine years’ experience.
Legislators expect further pay raises this year, due in part to increased inflation, but the scope of the increase is unclear. Garrett said it would likely be closer to a cost-of-living adjustment.
“My number one priority is I want to try to close the education gap,” he said. “So, where we had the areas that are the most hurting the most in need of help? I want to address that.”
State Superintendent Eric Mackey said that he is expecting a raise for teachers, and he’s hoping to hold onto benefits.
“I feel like there’ll be some kind of teacher pay raise,” he said to reporters after the February work session. “I don’t know what it will be. We want to protect the benefits for retirement.”
Outside of last year’s wage hikes, teacher pay raises have generally come in around 2% each year. Orr said that they are also looking to provide raises for school staff beyond the educators, such as custodial staff and bus drivers. He has also said that he’s planning to file a bill that would provide more professional standards for principals that could also provide a pay raise if completed.
“I would think we will see across the board in the education system a pay raise,” he said.
Sen. Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, the chair of the Senate Education Policy Committee, said that the growth in the Education Trust Fund is “not sustainable” and said he believes there will be a “conservative approach.” He did say that he still wants to see teachers get raises.
A 2019 state law that went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization bans abortion in nearly all cases, and makes it a Class A felony, punishable by up to 99 years in prison, for a doctor to perform one. Several bills are expected to be introduced on abortion in the session.
Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, has filed a bill to repeal a pre-Roe law that abortion rights activists fear could be used to prosecute women who have abortions. England also said Democrats will introduce a bill to allow victims of rape or incest to have abortions, as well as doctors who may deal with conditions unrelated to abortion, such as miscarriages.
Newly-elected Rep. Ernie Yarbrough, R-Trinity, said he plans to file an “abortion-as-murder bill.” The bill had not been filed as of Friday morning. But End Abortion Alabama, an anti-abortion group that announced Yarbrough’s legislation, appears to be targeting a section of the 2019 law that prevents women who have abortions from being prosecuted or sued in court.
It is not clear whether Republican leaders plan to prioritize the issue. House leadership last year generally avoided abortion legislation, saying at the start of the session that they believed Alabama already had a strong anti-abortion law.
Rep. Parker Moore, R-Hartselle, filed a bill that would allow judges to impose more severe convictions for repeated offenders of less severe crimes.
The Legislature in 2015 approved a Class D felony classification for certain crimes like possession of marijuana. Class D felonies have a maximum prison sentence of five years in prison and a maximum fine of $7,500. The new classification was part of a package aimed at reducing overcrowding in the state’s prisons, which has led to a wave of violence and a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Moore’s bill would allow a court to sentence a person convicted of a third Class D felony as if it were a Class C felony. That would raise the punishment to a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
“Once an individual gets one or two Class D felonies, they’re just kind of a habitual offender,” Moore said. “They just keep reoccurring and they’re staying within that threshold because they know that there’s really no consequence.”
Class D felonies are typically reserved for non-violent crimes or ones that do not have a victim, such as theft or drug possession for personal use. Class C felonies include crimes such as robbery with use or threat of force or first-degree stalking.
England said he will focus on what he called “recurring problems” in Alabama’s criminal justice system. He pre-filed a set of bills that address these problems.
He introduced HB-14 to require a unanimous jury for death penalty cases. HB-16, another pre-filed bill focused on criminal justice, would create a Criminal Justice Policy Development Council, which would require the Board of Pardons and Paroles to use guidelines created by the new council for parole release decisions.
Lawmakers have also filed a bill to suspend the state’s early release program until 2030.
Income and sales tax growth have given legislators plenty of options for the state’s education budget. Republican lawmakers are considering tax rebates, but the shape of those rebates isn’t clear.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, the chair of the Senate Finance and Taxation Education committee, said that they haven’t figured out who the tax rebates might go to— taxpayers or all citizens— or the amount of those tax rebates. He’s said that he expects a “ballpark” around $500 million.
“I think we could see a substantial rebate– a rebate being a one time occurrence,” he said.
Orr also said that he knows people who would like that number to be higher or lower.
Garrett said the topic is more complicated now because he’s hearing from members of state government and from constituents that reinvesting that money might be more beneficial to communities than a one-time tax rebate. He said that discussions are ongoing and that he is in favor of both, but that “investing long-term makes less sense” to him.
Alabama legislators must decide where to put the state’s next share of relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (APRA) of 2021. The funds must be spent by 2026.
Kirk Fulford, deputy director in the fiscal division of the Legislative Services Agency, said that the state has received its second installment of $1.06 billion in ARPA funds. That money still needs to be appropriated.
Singleton said that he expects that those funds will go back into infrastructure.
“We’ll probably be doing some of the same things that we’ve done in the past,” he said.
That includes funding for hospitals, nursing homes, water systems, sewer systems, broadband and rural firefighters.
Orr said that there will probably be a special session on the ARPA funds, and he thinks there will be “four large baskets:” hospitals and the healthcare systems, water and sewer grants, broadband and a “catchall.”
Like years past, there’s likely to be a discussion around gambling this session. And like previous years, passing any bill on the subject could be difficult.
Lotteries and gambling are banned under the Alabama Constitution. A statewide lottery vote has not been held in Alabama since 1999. Constitutional amendments have authorized electronic bingo parlors in some counties, but the Alabama Supreme Court has adopted very narrow readings of those laws and declared electronic bingo illegal.
Bills to create a lottery and legalize gambling have collapsed in disputes over the number of authorized establishments. A comprehensive package supported by then-Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston in 2021 fell apart over arguments over the number of casinos in the bill.
Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, introduced a similar bill last year. But it drew opposition from representatives of bingo parlors in Greene County, a rural county in west Alabama, who said the bill would effectively shut them down.
Albritton said he hopes another gambling bill will emerge this year. But it won’t come from him.
“I’ve done my part in that,” he said.
He said that he would support a “comprehensive” bill that would include a lottery, the state gaining control of all “gaming,” dealing with the 19 counties that allow gaming under constitutional amendments, the state having a contract with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, a federally-recognized tribe that runs casinos in Atmore, Elmore and Montgomery counties; and online and sports betting. \
“We’ve done this so many times that we have all the language that you can imagine available,” he said.
Gina Maiola, communications director for Ivey, said that Ivey supports Alabamians having a say on gambling and that “she believes that a comprehensive package that authorizes, regulates and taxes all forms of current and potential future forms of gambling would be in Alabamians’ best interest.”
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.