The cruelty, the decency, and the unfinished work of the 2023 Alabama Legislature
The chamber of the Alabama House of Representatives in the chamber of the Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Stew Milne/Alabama Reflector)
The 2023 session of the Alabama Legislature stood out for two reasons: major pieces of legislation passed, and there was very little drama.
To hear House leaders explain it, that was deliberate. House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, and House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, said in separate interviews that they worked together to keep the most controversial bills off the floor.
“We didn’t want to just bring something up that’s going to blow up the House floor if we knew it,” Ledbetter said. “If (Daniels) gives us a heads up and says ‘This is something that’s going to be contentious,’ I mean, there’s no use putting it on the floor.”
But even if it was a quieter session, it was also one marked by the passage of several significant bills. Some were cruel. Some were decent. Some died but are likely to return. And some are half-baked.
Transgender college sports ban: The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Susan DuBose, R-Hoover, sailed through the Legislature with hardly any pushback. Too bad, because it’s the most singularly awful bill of the session.
There’s no point to this legislation other than demonizing transgender Alabamians. It rests on premises that can charitably be called flimsy. If there’s any value to the bill, it’s that it reveals how many of our lawmakers are good with bullying young people.
Anti-loitering bill: Get arrested for begging once, you get cited. Two or more times, and the state could send you to jail for three months. That’s the thrust of a bill sponsored by Rep. Reed Ingram, R-Pike Road — legislation that emerged from controversies over panhandling in Montgomery.
Alabama is already struggling to manage the tens of thousands of people convicted under the state’s current laws, and this won’t help.
Anti-China bill: China was Alabama’s second-biggest export market in 2022, so of course the Legislature would try to pass a throwback to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. As filed, the 2023 measure sponsored by Rep. Scott Stadthagen, R-Hartselle, would have banned Chinese citizens from owning property in Alabama. Amid criticism, the bill was changed to ban high-ranking officials of China, Iran, North Korea and Russia from owning land in Alabama.
As originally written, the bill was undeniably hateful. The version that passed is just odd. If a foreign country really wanted to invade the United States, are its officials really going to establish a beachhead at a strip mall off I-65?
Dead but likely to return
Criminalizing absentee ballot help: Republican officials, nodding at Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, have spent three years working to make voting an exhausting and potentially terrifying chore. Hence this bill from Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville.
The legislation would have subjected anyone helping a voter fill out an absentee ballot to jail time. Outrage from voting rights groups and people with disabilities led to exemptions and watered down penalties. The bill died on the last day of the session.
But anyone who knows Alabama’s awful track record on protecting voting access should be concerned. The legislation seems likely to return next year, especially if the Republican presidential race gets driven by paranoid nonsense about nonexistent voter fraud.
“Divisive concepts:” A bill that managed to be vindictive and vague all at once, this legislation, banning the teaching of so-called “divisive concepts” in history would open the door to harassing educators trying to present the American past with dry eyes. Republicans seem slightly less passionate about this topic than in 2021, and Democrats have successfully blocked it for two years. But the sponsor says it could return.
Anti-LGBTQ legislation: Bills that would have defined sex by the presence of gametes and banned drag shows where minors are present didn’t move far in the session. But Alabama legislators come up with new ways to attack transgender youth each year. Expect another round of attacks in 2024, and expect Alabama’s LGBTQ community to continue fighting.
Grocery tax cut: There’s plenty of legitimate criticism you can levy at the grocery tax cut. It doesn’t get rid of the whole levy. It doesn’t touch local grocery taxes. People will still pay a tax most other states don’t levy.
But what we have is a start.
Reducing the state tax from 4% to 3% will help shoppers, especially people with low incomes, save a few dollars in the long run. Bringing it to 2% (provided the education budget grows next year) will put still more dollars in their pockets. And freezing local levies is a signal that the government wants to put this tax on the road to extinction.
It’s not all it needs to be. But it’s a lot better than what came before. Sometimes that’s all you can expect from the political process.
Driver’s licenses: There’s a point where you get so obsessed with punishments that you start getting in the way of practicality. If you want to show how tough you are on crime, putting those in the criminal justice system in positions that make it so they can’t hold down a job doesn’t seem like the best way to do it.
So legislation that will limit the ability of judges to suspend licenses for nonpayment of fines or nonappearance in court is a net positive. Driving is essential to earning income. And making a living is essential to staying out of prison.
Up in the air
Abortion: Don’t give Alabama lawmakers credit for spiking a bill that would have charged women who have abortions with murder. It was the least they could do.
And I mean that literally. Alabama’s near-total abortion ban does prohibit such prosecutions. But legislators could have been even clearer on the intent and repealed a pre-Roe statute that could subject those having abortions to jail time. They didn’t.
Gun violence: Alabama has the fourth-highest rate of firearm deaths in the nation. A horrifying shooting at a Sweet 16 party in Dadeville in April left four people dead and 32 injured, in a place just an hour’s drive away from the State House. There were some reasonable gun safety bills filed in the session. So naturally, Republicans cringed in terror of the NRA and did nothing.
Prisons: There’s still a deadly crisis going on in the state’s corrections system. The Legislature did nothing about it. If you told me they’re secretly waiting for the feds to intervene and order changes, I wouldn’t call you crazy.
Public records: Alabama has hands-down the worst public records laws in the nation. There’s nothing on the books that requires agencies to respond to public records requests. And we’re going to keep it that way for the rest of the year. A bill sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, that would have set timelines for agencies to respond to public records requests failed on the final day amid what legislators characterized as last-minute disagreements with the governor’s office.
It’s a missed opportunity at accountability. A government that’s doing everything above board should not have an hesitancy pushing a decent open records law across the line.
We haven’t seen the last of the Legislature this year. A special session on redistricting in July is a near-certainty.
And barring anything else, the Legislature will commence its 2024 session in February. We can hope they tone down the cruelty and ramp up the decency next year. But with a presidential election looming, there will be plenty of attempts to score political points.
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