By MARY SELL and CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama lawmakers on Tuesday kickoff a legislative session like none they’ve seen before.
COVID-19 protocols are limiting public access to the State House, the number of committees that can meet at a given time and, some say, the amount of bills lawmakers will be able to consider.
While a typical session lasts about 15 weeks with a one-week spring break, this year’s schedule is largely tentative, as leaders acknowledge a virus outbreak could disrupt the session at any time. For now, leaders are planning to meet the first two weeks of February to pass essential bills.
Sen. Greg Reed, expected to be elected the Senate President Pro Tem when the Legislature convenes, said lawmakers will work “efficiently and effectively” and as safely as possible for two weeks, then take a week-long break to reassess their COVID-19 protocols and priorities.
Lawmakers are expected to focus on bills to: Clarify that federal COVID relief funds received by Alabamians and their businesses aren’t subject to state taxes; provide entities with liability protection from COVID-related lawsuits; and revise, revamp and expand economic incentives offered to businesses.
“And then there may be other things that we’re looking at,” Reed said. He said Senate and House leadership are having conversations about bills they’re in agreement on “so that we have a good work product for that first couple of weeks.”
But how long the Legislature actually meets will depend on COVID and if there are significant cases in particular State House offices.
“There are certain departments, take like (the Legislative Services Agency) that works on legislation, if they had a COVID outbreak in that department it could literally shut the whole session down,” Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, told Alabama Daily News.
“So it’s just going to depend on where it is and how we’re handling it and the severity of it, of course.”
Rep. Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, who leads House Democrats, said he thinks the restrictions on the session because of the virus could lead to the progress of more bills that have bipartisan support.
“I think you’ll see more bills where there’s agreement,” he said. “We don’t want to slow things down, we want to keep things going.”
A different ‘State of the State’
The legislative session usually begins with great pomp and circumstance, as a joint session of the House and Senate convenes in the historic Capitol building for the governor’s “State of the State” address. Like many other aspects of the session, this year’s speech will be different.
Because of COVID concerns, there will be no gathering of lawmakers, Cabinet officers and Supreme Court justices for the speech. Instead, Ivey will deliver the message via live video.
“It’ll just be me and the camera here in the State Capitol, so it will be an unusual State of the State in that regard,” Ivey said. “I’ll use the State of the State to touch on issues and to thank the people of Alabama for responding in such a positive fashion with COVID.”
After proposing budgets, the governor’s role in the session turns to advocating for bills on her agenda, negotiating with lawmakers over legislative language and, sometimes, sending bills back through her veto. This year, Ivey might play an outsized role in setting the legislative agenda through her authority to call special sessions.
Should the virus cause prolonged interruptions in the regular session, multiple special sessions may be needed later in the year to finish legislative business. At least one special session is already expected on redrawing congressional and state legislative districts. Official 2020 Census data needed to draw the maps isn’t expected to be delivered to states until later this year.
“It’s going to be unavoidable,” McCutcheon said about a special session. “They’re saying it could be March, maybe even into April before we get the numbers and with those things in mind, there is no way we are going to be able to rush something like that. That’s going to take some work.”
When asked if she has promised legislators that she will call a special session if this regular session is again cut short by COVID-19, Ivey said “we’ll just have to read the tea leaves.”
Abundance of issues, scarcity of time
As of Friday morning, about 300 bills had been pre-filed for the session and many more are expected, including some that could garner significant debate.
Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, is expected to have an education reform bill and a wide-ranging gambling proposal, an issue that has also been a focus of Ivey.
Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, last week filed legislation legalizing and regulating medical marijuana. Melson said despite changes in how the session will operate, his bill is still a priority for him.
“Those people who convinced me we needed it two years ago still have the same problems,” Melson said.
Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, recently filed a bill to amend the state’s “dips and dunks” process for parole or probation violators to hopefully ease crowding and financial strains on county jails.
Medicaid expansion remains a priority for Democrats, Daniels said.
“And prison reform is always one that I care deeply about.”
But debating and amending such significant bills won’t be easy given the social distancing constraints on lawmakers. Also, public access to the State House will be severely restricted, limiting public input on major issues.
Albritton is the Senate General Fund budget committee chairman. His is one of the busier, most well-attended committees. Asked how the COVID protocols will work and impact his committee, Albritton said, “Not very well, thank you.”
He said the constraints will force lawmakers to “be more selective in what we do and the (bills) we give attention to.”
Albritton said he’s not challenging leadership or the decisions made because of the virus, including distancing between people in the building. “But if we intend to get anything done, we’re not going to be able to do it with the restrictions that are there,” he said.
Albritton last year began holding committee meetings with agency leaders to discuss funding issues ahead of the session to avoid “rushed and compressed” meetings in the session. He said he’s now open to having more committee meetings, rather than just the usual Wednesday meeting, if needed to vet bills.
“That may be unpopular, but the committees have to do their work before bills get to the floor,” he said. “And if we do a poor job there, everything falls apart or things get through that shouldn’t.”
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said protocol tweaks may be needed to ensure lawmakers can complete the session.
“It’s going to be important that we get through a full session,” Singleton said. “There is some priority stuff we need to take care of and if we can get though a full session taking care of what’s needed for the state of Alabama, I think we can see the economy grow and I think we can also make sure that safety and security net is there for our school system.”
Reed said the situation is not perfect, but State House leadership and staff have “done everything we can to be as open and as accessible and give members as many opportunities as possible to move legislation that’s important to them.”
“So, if we have to work early if we have to work late using (the meeting space allowed), that’s what we’re going to do.”
McCutcheon said that as more people get vaccinated in the coming weeks, State House restrictions could ease. On Friday, the Alabama Department of Public Health announced that state lawmakers will be among the next category of eligibility for vaccinations in February when the supply is available.
“I’m hoping that we will see a downturn in the number of cases and that when we do the third week assessment that we can loosen up some of these restrictions and open the process up more,” McCutcheon said.
“But then again, we don’t know.”
The Legislature’s stated priority bills are either related to the pandemic or got sidelined by the coronavirus-caused slowdown of last year’s session. Sen. Arthur Orr’s limited liability bill originated last session. Orr, R-Decatur, said it is intended to provide protection from frivolous lawsuits to entities that followed COVID-19-related safety guidelines, but is not an “immunity bill” for businesses.
“There are a lot of organizations, — churches, businesses, local governments, county, cities. those in the health care world — that are all extremely concerned about the potential for a tsunami of lawsuits, making claims against them,” Orr, R-Decatur, said.
“They need some minimal protections if they have been good actors and following all the guidance and guidelines as they were promulgated by the federal and state health authorities.”
Daniels said he’s had good conversations about some of the priority bills expected early in the session, including Orr’s bill. The House Democratic leader said he expects there will be some questions about that one in the coming weeks.
“We just want to make certain that we are not making it easy for people not to be responsible as to their protocols in their businesses, and that they are not immune to a lawsuit for negligence,” Daniels said.
Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, filed a bill revising, renewing and creating several economic development incentives. The bill was drafted in collaboration with the Alabama Department of Commerce.
Reed will sponsor it in the Senate.
“We’re offering incentives based on a commitment of performance from the industries,” Reed said. That’s unlike previous incentives that required the state borrowing money to give companies.
“We’re offering them an opportunity that if they come in if they do what they say they’re going to do, then you have an opportunity for them to win these incentives,” Reed said.
The bill will start in the House.
“I think there may be a few little tweaks in them, but there has been a lot of work done on those bills and I think they are at the point now, the drafts that I’ve seen look good, and I think we’re in a position to where we are about ready to pass them,” McCutcheon said.
The Alabama Jobs Credit and Investment Credit, used to land some of the biggest new employers in the state’s recent history, was set to expire at the end of last year. The smaller Growing Alabama Credit expired in September. Ivey used her emergency powers to temporarily extended them in December, a legislative fix is needed to set the credits in state law.
Daniels also said Democrats have been advocating for years more incentives targeting minority owned businesses. Lawmakers need to act to ensure that no money that flowed to Alabamians or businesses through the federal CARES Act is subject to state income tax. While there is new unanimous agreement that this needs to be done, several varying bills have been pre-filed.
Alabama Daily News reported in August that if lawmakers don’t act, some Alabamians and businesses would be taxed on CARES Act funds. Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Mountain Brook, in August said he was working with Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, on legislation that combines the tax exemptions with a previously filed bill to reduce Alabama’s corporate income tax rate and eliminate the federal income tax deduction for businesses. Roberts’ bill has been pre-filed.