By ALEXANDER WILLIS and ANNA BARRETT, Alabama Daily News
In what was called a “historic” year, the 2023 legislative session in Alabama included record state budgets and tax cuts.
Several other non-revenue related bills, ranging from those enhancing penalties for drug-related crimes to making it easier to adopt children, made their way through the Legislature and to Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk.
“I think it’s historic,” said House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter of the session that ended Tuesday.
“If you look at the things we accomplished starting out the session; two priority bills, fentanyl and adoption, I think that was significant. You look at all the accomplishments with the tax cuts, the largest tax cut in Alabama history, rebates to the people of Alabama, along with the ARPA funds where we’re putting more into water and sewer in people’s cities… I mean, it’s been a historic session in my opinion.”
Sponsored by Rep. Ginny Shaver, R-Leesburg, House Bill 101 streamlines adoptions by setting definite time parameters to move the process along faster, reducing court procedures by allowing for electronic communications, and saving prospective parents time and money by updating the state’s adoption law language to be more clear.
Three bills targeting the selling and distribution of fentanyl saw final passage in the session. They increase penalties for trafficking the deadly drug, expand Alabama’s manslaughter charge to apply to those who sell or distribute a controlled substance that results in a fatal overdose and additional criminal charges for those who “knowingly, recklessly, or intentionally” expose first responders to fentanyl.
State to no longer award contracts to companies with certain belief-based policies
Alabama joined dozens of other mostly Republican-led states this year in prohibiting the state from contracting with companies that refuse to work with fossil fuel businesses, gunmakers, or other industries based on environmental, social and governance factors.
Known as ESG factors, roughly 99 bills have been filed this year in state legislatures across the country targeting ESG business policies and practices, up from 39 in 2022. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Mountain Brook, has said it sends a message that Alabama wants “businesses to focus on growing and expanding and not working to push any political agenda with left-wing ESG policies.”
The governor signed the bill into law on June 6, the legislature’s final legislative day for the session, calling it a “common sense” bill.
“No matter how much Corporate America and the national media want to push their social issue of the day on folks, the state of Alabama will continue protecting both our values and our businesses,” Gov. Kay Ivey said on Tuesday.
Four countries ‘of concern’ to be prohibited from purchasing certain property in state
The Alabama Property Protection Act will soon prohibit any government entity or member of a political party from China, Iran, North Korea and Russia from purchasing certain property in the state.
When first filed, the bill focused primarily on China, and would have prohibited any Chinese citizen from purchasing any property in the state. It was later amended to focus on government entities from the four countries “of particular concern.” It prohibits those counties from purchasing any agricultural and forest property, as well as any property within 10 miles of either a military installation or critical infrastructure facility.
Sponsored Rep. Scott Stadthagen, R-Hartselle, told Alabama Daily News on Tuesday that he was happy with the bill as amended, and that it still “checks all the boxes.”
Alabama expands Accountability Act
While several lawmakers lobbied this session for an expansive bill to allow for more state funding of private educations, the Legislature opted to expand this year existing school choice programs.
Senate Bill 263, sponsored by Sen. Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, if signed by Ivey will double the existing private school scholarship fund established by the 2013 Alabama Accountability Act.
The bill would lift the cap on the amount of scholarships awarded each year from $30 to $60 million, increasing by $10 million a year provided at least 90% of the cap is claimed the preceding year. It would also expand the eligibility criteria from families making up to 185% the poverty level to families making 250% the poverty level.
For a family of four, 185% of the poverty level would be an income of $55,000, compared to $75,000 for a family of four making 250% the poverty level.
Additionally, House Bill 363 focuses on the structure of the Alabama Charter School Commission and the rules for creating the public schools. Sponsor Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, said the changes were needed to the 2015 charter law to make the charter process better and potentially create more schools.
Following the final adjournment for the House this session on Tuesday, House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, told Alabama Daily News that he felt the bills on school choice were “a good start,” and that more school choice bills were likely on the table for 2024’s legislative session.
“We’re probably looking at (school choice) legislation next year, there’s some conversation about some different choices,” Ledbetter said.
“One of my things was right out of the gate, it wasn’t necessarily about school choice, it was about making sure we had the best education system we can have, and I think we made accomplishments this year, and school choice is part of it. We got some of that done, and I think we’ll continue to see some of that.”
Legislature, governor create 13 new circuit, district judge positions
A bill that will create 13 new circuit and district judge positions across the state saw passage from both the Alabama Legislature and the governor’s office.
Sponsored by Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, the bill was considered a compromise following years’ worth of efforts to create new judgeship positions, with opponents citing concerns over funding, among other things.
At an estimated cost of $5.4 million per year, the bill will create four new circuit judgeships in Lauderdale County; Madison County; Baldwin County; and Autauga, Chilton and Elmore counties, as well as three district judgeships in Baldwin, DeKalb and Mobile counties. All seven will have their positions filled from the 2024 election.
For the 2026 election, four circuit judgeships will be created in Tuscaloosa County; Baldwin County; Lee County; and Autauga, Chilton and Elmore counties. Also for the 2026 election, two district judgeships will be created in Madison and Shelby counties.
Drivers license bill
A bill that would allow a judge to suspend a driver’s license only if an individual fails to appear in court more than once or misses three or more fine payments has been signed by Ivey.
Advocates for the bill said it will help thousands of Alabamians keep their driver’s licenses — and potentially their jobs.
Previous law said if a court orders an individual to pay a fine as a result of a traffic infraction and he or she fails to pay, his or her driver’s license may be immediately suspended. Similarly, failure to appear in court for a review can automatically result in driving privilege suspension.
This year was the second attempt at the legislation by Sens. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, and Sen. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove
New State House
Legislators now have control of property that is currently parking lots around the State House, opening the opportunity for a new legislative building goes to Ivey to be signed into law.
Sponsored by Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, Senate Bill 222 makes multiple changes to the Legislature and how it operates. The bill would also change the Legislature’s start date for the first year of a quadrennium from the first Tuesday in March to the first Tuesday in February.
Secretary of the Senate Pat Harris previously said if a new building is constructed, it would be planned and financed by the Retirement Systems of Alabama, which has constructed and owns multiple buildings in downtown Montgomery that house state agencies. The Legislature would then lease it from RSA or refinance and take over the bonds on it.
The current State House has a growing list of needed repairs. A 2021 engineer’s report detailed nearly $52 million in improvements over the next decade to keep the 60-year-old building functional, including to the HVAC and electrical systems. That price tag didn’t include any renovations or improvements the public would see.
Trans athletes ban
Ivey signed a bill on May 30 banning trans athletes from participating on women’s college sports teams.
Co-sponsored by Rep. Susan DuBose, R-Hoover and 39 other representatives, House Bill 261 is an expansion of a 2021 ban on trans athletes in K-12 sports.
“Look, if you are a biological male, you are not going to be competing in women’s and girls’ sports in Alabama,” Ivey said in a statement after signing the bill. “It’s about fairness, plain and simple.”
‘Good time’ reduction bill
Senate Bill 1 sponsored by Sen. April Weaver, R-Brierfield, significantly cut the amount of incentive time inmates can receive.
Current law allows for the classification of inmates based on behavior. Class I prisoners — those considered the most trustworthy — can receive sentence deductions of 75 days for each 30 days actually served. Weaver’s bill changed that to a 30-day deduction for every 75 served. Class II and III prisoners receive lesser breaks on their sentences and the legislation reduced those too. It also delayed when incentive time can begin accruing.
“It clearly requires that they have to prove themselves for a set term of months before good time can begin to accrue rather than continuing the current system of just starting the clock when the cell door shuts,” Weaver previously told Alabama Daily News.
Alabama Daily News’ Mary Sell contributed to this report.