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Busy day of committee work in State House

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News 

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – It was committee day in the State House Wednesday as several House and Senate panels met to consider proposals moving through the legislative process. 

Here’s a rundown of notable action. 

Transgender K-12 athletes

A bill that would require K-12 student athletes to participate in sports as according to the sex assigned to them at birth passed the Senate Education Policy Committee on Wednesday.

House Bill 391 is sponsored by Rep. Scott Stadthagen, R-Hartselle, who said the bill is about protecting female athletes in the state.

“You see these young women who have strived in a particular sport and it is taken away from them in high school by what’s going on in this country,” Stadthagen told committee members.

The bill passed with nine members voting for the bill and one abstention from Sen. Kirk Hatcher, D-Montgomery.

Hatcher said the bill was discriminatory against transgender youth and that he does not think transgender athletes are trying to steal any opportunities away from female athletes.

“I don’t believe that most people would make decisions that would make them gluttons for punishment,” Hatcher said.

Stadthagen said the bill allows female athletes to participate in a male-only sport if that is the only team their school has, for instance, girls could participate on a boy’s football team.

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, voted in favor of the bill because he said he had been “in these scenarios before” and thinks female athletes cannot compete against transgender female athletes because of physical differences.

“A girl cannot play with someone like that,” Smitherman said.

Stadthagen said there were about six transgender female athletes that petitioned to play female sports in the state last year.

The Alabama High School Athletic Association already has a similar policy that participation in athletics should be determined by the gender on the student-athlete’s birth certificate. That policy is based on the Alabama State Department of Education policy for school enrollment, according to AHSAA.

Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, said she thought the AHSAA policy already covers this kind of policy and thinks this bill is trying to prevent something that isn’t a problem in the state.

“You’re anticipating that it’s going to be a problem,” Figures said. “Why not wait until it’s a problem when it’s a problem?”

Stadthagen said even though it’s already policy, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t change in the future and this bill would prevent that from happening.

The bill now goes to the full Senate for a vote. It has already passed the House.

Mandatory Kindergarten

A bill that would require a child to complete kindergarten or otherwise demonstrate readiness before moving onto the first grade passed the Senate Education Policy Committee on Wednesday.

House Bill 208 from Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, says children can bypass kindergarten and move onto the first grade if they can pass readiness assessments surrounding reading, math and writing that the Alabama Department of Education will create.

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, voted against the bill saying he does not think any child should be held back and this bill could hurt economically disadvantaged children.

“Until we get some money, until we get some infrastructure that provides for the opportunity to get the child exposed to the kind of academic pre-training they need before being evaluated, I’m going to be vigorously against this bill,” Smitherman said.

Warren defended the bill by saying it is better to catch problems with the child when they are younger than later in their life.

“I think its best that we catch them early, not wait until they get to the third grade and have them repeat, because there are parents now that ask to keep their kids in kindergarten for two years because they know that will give them a solid foundation to make them successful,” Warren said.

The bill passed with a vote of 7-2, with Sen. Tom Butler, R-Madison, the other no vote.

The bill now goes to the full Senate for a vote. It has already passed the House.

Medical marijuana bill delayed again

The House Judiciary Committee didn’t consider Sen. Tim Melson’s, R-Florence, medical marijuana bill on Wednesday after multiple members came forward with amendments.

Committee Chairman Jim Hill, R-Moody, said after hearing about the amendments he wanted to allow more time for work to the bill. He said the bill will be considered next week.

“I think it’s important for it to be heard and dealt with in a timely manner,” Hill said.

If the bill passes out of this committee it will then go to the House Health Committee.

Police background database bill close to final vote

A bill that would create a centralized database of background checks and disciplinary records of law enforcement officers passed the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

The bill was substituted to match the bill that passed out of the House on Tuesday from Rep. AJ McCampbell, D-Demopolis.

The bill passed on a voice vote with no vocal opposition and is one House floor vote away from being sent to the governor.

Senate Bill 158 is sponsored by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, who said the database would be held by the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission. The bill also creates civil penalties for those agencies that fail to report to the database.

Agencies would have to report certain complaints, disciplinary actions, and background information to APOST.

Smitherman said he has worked with the Governor’s office, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, the Alabama Sheriff’s Association and the Alabama Association Chiefs of Police, who all support the bill.

Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, thanked Smitherman for all his work on the issue and said this will help law enforcement across the state in catching bad actors.

“I think this has the best potential to help the tiny town where you wind up with police officers going from one town to another trying to evade detection,” Ball said.

Double voting bill clears Senate with stricter penalty

A Senate committee on Wednesday approved a bill making it a crime to vote twice in the same election in or outside of Alabama.

As passed by the House, House Bill 167 from Rep. Chris Blackshear, R-Smiths Station, made double voting a Class A misdemeanor. The Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development Committee amended the bill to make it a Class C felony.

The amendment means that if the bill passes the Senate, it will go back to the House.

Blackshear previously said that even though fewer than 10 people were found to have been guilty of double voting in the 2018 election, it still is a problem that should be prosecuted.

Habitual Offender bill goes to the House

A bill that would repeal the Habitual Felony Offender Act and allow for resentencing of those now in prison under the law passed the House Judiciary committee on Wednesday after heated debate.

House Bill 107 is sponsored by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, who said the Habitual Offender Act has resulted in arbitrarily long sentences that judges have no discretion over, even if it is needed. 

Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, argued that the bill was too far-reaching and would enable lesser sentences for offenders to be handed down.

“You’re saying that no matter what they have done, you cannot consider their history in issuing sentences, and that’s exactly what this does,” Simpson said.

England said that Simpson’s argument was disingenuous and that the bill would not be tying judges or prosecutors’ hands from handing down a tough sentence.

“Because habitual offender exists, we have gotten addicted to it, as if it’s the only way we can manage the criminal justice system,” England said. “A number of judges have said it’s not necessary if the goal is the punish someone for a criminal offense.”

The bill has been being tweaked since the beginning of the session in a subcommittee with members who had issues with it, including Simpson.

The state’s Habitual Felony Offender Act dates back to the 1970s and requires stricter penalties for those convicted of multiple felonies. For an offender with three prior felonies, subsequent conviction for a Class A felony leads to mandatory life without parole. The same offender would receive a life sentence for a subsequent Class B felony conviction. 

The law has been modified occasionally, including in 2015 when lawmakers created a new class of felony for non-violent crimes, including thefts and forgeries, that don’t qualify for a life sentence. The law change was not retroactive.

Certain groups have argued that because of HFOA there are inmates languishing in state prisons for crimes that did not result in victims being injured, and the act has worsened the state’s overcrowded prisons.

The bill passed with a vote of 8-5 with Rep. Tim Wadsworth, R-Alley, Rep. Mike Holmes, R-Wetumpka, Rep. Wes Allen, R-Troy, Rep. Phillip Pettus, R-Killen, and Simpson voting against the bill.

Alabama Daily News reporter Mary Sell contributed to this report. 

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