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Government spending oversight, business protection bills on Legislature’s agenda this week

By CAROLINE BECK and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama Legislature enters its fourth week today with several bills written in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic on agendas.

Meanwhile, leadership expects to see the General Fund and education budgets moving in the next two weeks. The General Fund budget will start in the House, the education budget in the Senate.

“… Everyone is cooperating and we’re all healthy today, but then again we don’t know when that will change and I want to make sure those budgets are moving as fast as possible because those budgets are a priority that we need to get out,” Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon told reporters recently.

Lawmakers will meet for three legislative days this week, then resume the normal two-day-a week schedule next week, McCutcheon said. 

The week-long spring break is scheduled for March 22.

Senate Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said the Senate will also be working on legislation concerning state agencies.

“We have state agencies that have waited two years because of our abbreviated session (last year) to be in a spot where they could bring legislation important to align state statue with federal statute,” Reed said. “They’re not the topics that get a lot of news but they’re very important to the people of Alabama in the way that government operates, so we’ve stayed focused on that.”

Reed also said Sen. Del Marsh’s, R-Anniston, expansive gambling bill continues to be worked on with members but could potentially be back on the Senate floor in the next two weeks.

“I would say there is as much activity and action going in that legislation in discussion and debate back and forth related to what needs to be included as maybe there ever has been,” Reed said.

Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, said the Senate would probably not be taking up anything “controversial” this week and keep focusing on agency bills and economic development bills.

McCutcheon said he expects discussion to start next week on the medical marijuana bill from Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, but will go through two committees, Judiciary and Health.

McCutcheon said they were doing this to address the legal questions surrounding approving medical marijuana, which the federal government still labels a schedule I drug, and to evaluate the health aspects of the drug.

McCutcheon said some members are concerned that this is a “stepping stone” to legalizing the drug for recreational use in the state.

“That’s a huge question and I know in some ways we can’t answer that question but we can look at the bill and make sure its tight enough to where that it deals only with the medical treatment part of using the drug itself,” McCutcheon said.

The House goes into session at 1 p.m today, the Senate at 2 p.m.

Legislative Oversight Committee

A bill on the House special order calendar today would create a joint legislative oversight committee to review any large expenditures from state agencies in the General Fund budget.

House Bill 392 is sponsored by Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, and would require any state agency or department planning to spend more than $10 million or 5% of their annual appropriation from the General Fund, whichever is less, to first be approved by the oversight committee on obligation transparency.

McCutcheon is a co-sponsor on the bill and said the committee would review expenditures similar to the multi-million dollar leases Gov. Kay Ivey has signed onto recently for building new prisons in the state.

“This is not to penalize the governor, but from a legislative perspective we feel like it’s just good government and good policy,” McCutcheon said. “Right now, the governor is working on a multi-billion-dollar deal for new prisons and the Legislature has had very little input on that and because of that we feel like if we are going to be spending taxpayer dollars to the tune of billions then there should be some legislative input into that.”

The governor’s office has said they have worked with legislators for months as the prison lease agreements have been negotiated.

The oversight committee would include the chairs and vice-chairs of the House and Senate General Fund committees and the ranking minority members of those same committees.

The committee would have 45 days to review the submissions and can hold public hearings. If the committee disapproves the proposed agreement it won’t become effective until the “adjournment of the next regular session of the legislature that commences after the obligation or agreement is submitted.”

If approved, the legislation would not impact the governor’s prison plans.

Emergency order protection bill

The House is also expected to vote today on a bill that would ensure some businesses can’t be closed during states of emergency while their competitors remain open.

House Bill 103 by Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, would allow businesses and places of worship to remain open as long as they comply with any emergency order, rules or regulations issued by the governor and state or local agencies.

“I saw local clothing stores, local boutiques, local sporting goods stores that were forced to close while other stores remained open selling the same products that those forced to close were selling, and I just didn’t think that was right,” Kiel told Alabama Daily News about the springtime order meant to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“If you’re gonna allow a business that sells T-shirts to stay open, then all businesses that sell T-shirts should be able to stay open,” Kiel said. “… If one business is allowed to open under certain conditions, then all businesses can be open under those same conditions.”

The National Federation for Independent Businesses is advocating for the bill’s passage.

“This is common sense legislation that would help small businesses get through another economic crisis and keep people working,” NFIB State Director Rosemary Elebash said in a written statement. “Whether you’re a grocery store or a dress shop, you should be allowed to open as long as you follow the government’s guidelines for keeping customers and employees safe.

“It also would avoid situations where the government appears to pick winners and losers, for example, by allowing a discount store that happens to sell groceries to remain open but telling a clothing store that doesn’t that it has to close because it isn’t ‘essential.’”

Special session bill in committee today

Bills in the Alabama House and Senate would allow the Legislature to call itself into a special session, not rely solely on the governor to do it.

The state constitution says that special sessions — those outside the normal 30-day regular session each year — may only be called by the governor, who sets the agenda of items to be debated and voted on during the 12-day special session.

Section 122 of the constitution also says the governor can, “… convene the Legislature at the seat of government, or at a different place if, since their last adjournment, that shall have become dangerous from an enemy, insurrection, or other lawless outbreak, or from any infectious or contagious disease; and he shall state specifically in such proclamation each matter concerning which the action of that body is deemed necessary.”

Rep. Becky Nordgren’s House Bill 21 and Sen. Will Barfoot’s Senate Bill 259 says the Senate President Pro Tem and the Speaker of the House could convene the Legislature by a joint proclamation. “On the first day of the special session, each house shall adopt a resolution by a two-thirds vote of all members elected to each house affirming the convening of the Legislature, or the Legislature shall stand adjourned sine die.”

The bills require a constitutional amendment voted on by Alabamians. The legislation does not impact the governor’s ability to call a special. Because it’s a constitutional amendment, the bill would not have to be signed by Gov. Kay Ivey.

The 2020 regular session was significantly shortened  by concerns about COVID-19. The public’s access to the State House during the condensed session was also limited.

Some lawmakers have expressed frustration and disappointment that Ivey didn’t call them back to Montgomery last year to handle legislation that got punted in the regular because of COVID.

Barfoot’s bill has been assigned to the State Government Committee and is on today’s 1 p.m. meeting agenda. It has 16 co-sponsors.

Nordgren’s bill will be in the House Constitution, Campaigns and Elections Committee Wednesday morning.

Barfoot said after learning about Nordgren’s bill, he asked her if he could sponsor it in the Senate.

Barfoot said the legislation has nothing to do with Gov. Kay Ivey or any of her decisions in the last year regarding the coronavirus pandemic, but is about future leaders.

“Whether it’s four years from now or 20 years or 100 years, we may have somebody in office that doesn’t have the leadership ability that (Ivey) has,” Barfoot told Alabama Daily News. “…This is not an indictment in any kind of way, this is not a knock on the governor. This is to say, looking forward, if something happens in the future and we have a governor that doesn’t act decisively, that might not have the best interests of the folks around the state in mind like Gov. Ivey does, then how can we as a Legislature be active and deal with some of those issues that may come up in the future?”

Barfoot said that because two-thirds of each chamber will have to agree to convening, there won’t be “runaway special sessions.”

 “I think it should be used sparingly, and I hope we never have to use it,” Barfoot said.

Bill would increase penalties for driving citations in construction zones

House Bill 245 would expand existing law regarding moving violations in designated construction zones created by the Alabama Department of Transportation or county transportation departments.

Current law says a person who commits a violation of a construction zone speed limit shall be assessed a fine of double the amount prescribed by law outside of a construction zone. House Bill 245 expands that to all moving violations committed within a construction zone.

Fines would be “the greater of $250 or double the amount prescribed by law outside a construction zone.”

Bill sponsor Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, said the bill came from the Alabama Department of Transportation.

He said there may be a push for an amendment to require ALDOT to remove construction zone signs promptly when the work is completed or halted.

“When you see a sign that says road work, there ought to be road work and you need to slow down and be careful,” Greer told Alabama Daily News.

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