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Ahead of special, differing opinions on additional bills

The Alabama House of Representatives’ point man on congressional redistricting says there won’t be any bills other than the new map legislation in this month’s special session. Not even a needed fix to a new criminal penalties law he sponsored earlier this year.

But at least two Senators recently told Alabama Daily News they will file legislation outside of Gov. Kay Ivey’s call for the July 17 special session. The session is required after last month’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the congressional districts approved by lawmakers in 2021 were likely a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, is the House chair of the reapportionment committee tasked with redrawing the seven congressional districts. 

“The governor has made it perfectly clear that she wants to do one subject and one subject only, and the only bill that is going to come into the chamber that will be assigned to a committee is the reapportionment bill,” Pringle told Alabama Daily News. “It is too important. The magnitude of that bill is too great to risk getting bogged down in other issues.”

The governor decides the focus of special sessions only she can call. Lawmakers can bring other bills, but they take a two-thirds vote to pass, rather than the usual simple majority.

Facing a court-imposed July 21 deadline to approve a new map, lawmakers don’t have time to get distracted in the expected five-day special session. 

Under different circumstances, Pringle would likely be first in line with a bill. His House Bill 82 approved by the Legislature in May allowed for felony manslaughter charges for people who knowingly sell or deliver synthetic fentanyl that causes someone to die.

But an older, broader version of the bill is what Ivey signed after what’s been called a glitch in the software that transmits legislation. It allows for the manslaughter charge for people who provide any controlled substance that causes a death. Unless fixed, that law takes effect in September.

“I hate it,” Pringle said. “I’d love to be able to fix that problem. It’d be an easy bill to pass and easy fix to make. But once you open that gate, everybody’s gonna wanna come through it.” 

Separately, there has been some speculation that the “ballot harvesting” bill that nearly passed in June would be resurrected in the special. But sponsor Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, confirmed last week he’s waiting until the 2024 regular session that starts in February to re-file the bill to criminalize handling someone else’s absentee ballot or ballot application.

Speaker of the House Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, told Alabama Daily News on Friday the House is taking cues from Ivey on the limited subject matter in the special. He said no House members have approached him about additional bills.

“Things could change, but that’s what we’re looking at right now,” Ledbetter said.

Senate bills

Sens. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and Chris Elliott, R-Josephine, said last week they plan to file bills in the special.

Orr said his is a simple addition to a 2023 regular session bill that allows retired law enforcement officers to earn more as school resource officers or correctional officers without suspending their Retirement Systems of Alabama benefits. Under the new law, they can earn up to $52,000 per year, while other retirees returning to state jobs are capped at about $37,000. 

“But one of the things that bill didn’t do was allow retired state troopers, who are in a different retirement plan, to be able to have the $52,000 cap when they became an SRO,” Orr told Alabama Daily News.

Orr said a former trooper who is now an SRO pointed out the problem to him. They’re not going to get the same benefit a former deputy or police officer is, Orr said. 

“It’s certainly an oversight and we need to fix it and my request to the bodies is that we need to do this before August to help with the SRO shortfalls and help put more SROs in schools,” he said.

Orr said he thinks legislative leadership will be “guarded” in what bills outside the call might advance.

Elliott’s proposal could be more complicated and controversial. He wants to take back a $5 million supplemental appropriation to the Alabama Department of Archives and History after the department in June hosted a lunchtime lecture on the history of LBGT people in the state.

Elliott said he is one of several lawmakers who have questioned the appropriateness of the event. He said state agencies shouldn’t be talking about anyone’s sexuality or orientation.

“My issue is, the underlying issue is sex,” Elliott said. “And I just don’t know that we need to have that conversation with our children right now. It’s just not stuff we ought to be talking about at Archives and History.”

The mid-day talk was part of a monthly “Food for Thought” program and grant funded, Archives and History Director Steve Murray said. The department has pledged in recent years to be more inclusive in the telling of the state’s history.

“In 2020 we promised to avoid the mistakes made in the early decades of the Archives, when the stories of marginalized people were specifically excluded,” Murray told ADN. “In addition to violating a basic notion of fairness, those practices denied government services to a large swath of Alabama taxpayers and created a deficit in the historical record of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We don’t claim to undertake this work perfectly in the 21st century, but we are pursuing it mindfully and with respect for the history of Alabamians from all walks of life.

Elliott said while he doesn’t want to negatively impact Archives’ operating budget or staffing, his intent is to send a message to it and other state agencies.

The $5 million, designated for one-time museum upgrades or purchases, was part of a record $2.8 billion Education Trust Fund bill approved in late May. The money has already been sent to agencies and pulling any back could be a complex process that could require re-opening already approved spending plans.

Elliott said he didn’t expect Ivey to include the bill in her call, but thinks his bill would have support. He’s in the process of getting co-sponsors.

“The only concern is the concept of having (a bill) outside the call, so that will be the hurdle,” Elliott said.

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