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Inside Alabama Politics – December 30, 2020

Welcome to the waning days of the Anno Domini 2020, a year many of us would like to forget but surely never will.

As bad as this year as been in many ways, it has also seen the merger and growth of Inside Alabama Politics with Alabama Daily News, which is working to deliver more quality, exclusive content than ever before. Thank you for investing in this publication as a subscriber.

The end of one political season really just means the beginning of another. With 2020 in the rear window, it’s now time to set our sites on 2022 with all our best insights, analysis and wild speculation. Let’s get started.

2022 Politics: Senate

The biggest question on the federal side is simple: will Richard Shelby, Alabama’s senior senator, run for another term in the U.S. Senate? He recently told The Hill that he’d make an announcement on his intentions in January, which raised eyebrows from Washington to Mobile. One could understand why he’d choose not to run. He’s 86 years old and would be 88 when the 2022 November election rolls around. He’s served in the Senate for 34 years, racking up more than a career’s worth of victories for his home state, and finally achieving the pinnacle of his service by chairing the Senate Appropriations Committee these last two years. But that last part also highlights why he may and probably should run again. Senate GOP rules allow senators to chair a committee for six years. Shelby will have served four by the time his term is up in 2022, meaning he could have two more years in the catbird seat, showering the state with more goodies in the twilight of his career. Most states would give anything to have their guy chair appropriations for one year, and Alabama would be lucky enough to keep it for six. Some sources tell IAP that the outcome in Georgia could influence Shelby’s decision. Should the Democrats prevail in those Senate races, the GOP would lose its majority and Shelby would go from chairman to ranking member. In such an event, he would almost certainly retire, we are told. Still others say Shelby has made up his mind that six terms is enough and that going out on top is preferable to overstaying his welcome.

If Shelby decides not to run again, it would kick off intense jockeying among state politicos running to be his successor. Who all might throw their hat in the ring? Let’s go down the list.

Congressman Mo Brooks is having something of a moment right now with his effort to challenge the electoral college results of several states. To be sure, his fight is futile. The most he can hope for in this effort is forcing the House and Senate into roll call votes on the veracity of election results from Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – votes that would make many of his fellow Republicans very uncomfortable. But, make no mistake, the quixotic quest is endearing him to Trump loyalists in Alabama and beyond, making him a formidable candidate if he chooses to run in 2022. Some tell IAP that Brooks isn’t interested in running again after a defeat in the 2017 special election that saw some pretty brutal attack ads launched in his direction. Others say he’d be a fool not to run considering he might have the silver bullet: a possible endorsement from Donald Trump.

Congressman Gary Palmer is often talked about as a contender for the Senate. Upon running in 2014, he told supporters he’d serve no more than three terms in the House, and he just got elected to his third. That would seem to make him available for a run for Senate in 2022. A Birmingham district where the money is and a staunchly conservative record make Palmer a serious candidate in any Alabama Republican primary. His liabilities are not having a statewide footprint and some personnel skeletons from years ago that might come out in a high profile race. Palmer has been moving up the leadership ladder in the House and very well could be convinced to stay there if the offer was right, according to sources with knowledge. Republicans are poised to retake the majority in 2022 and a spot on leadership or chairing a House committee could be more attractive than taking a shot at Senate.

Katie Britt’s name as a potential Senate candidate has been abuzz in chatter circles across the state the last several weeks. Britt leads the Business Council of Alabama as its president and CEO and has commanded a big presence on the state’s political and government stage since taking that role two years ago. She formerly worked as chief of staff to Shelby, a resume bullet that could be something of a double-edged sword. For those who understand the game, such experience gives her exactly the kind of knowledge and insight it will take to run an effective Senate office, especially after the state loses more than 40 combined years of experience and seniority in just two years. On the other hand, her opponents would use it as a cudgel, calling her a dreaded “insider” and Shelby’s hand-picked successor. In reality, Britt is a homegrown Coffee County native with a compelling story to tell and a tough-as-nails reputation in Washington and Montgomery. Her ability to fundraise statewide and appeal to the future of the Republican Party as a young family woman make her a serious candidate if she decides to run.

Secretary of State John Merrill is term limited in his current job and will need to run for something. Barring no changes in the food chain above him in Montgomery (more on that below), Merrill may throw his hat in the ring for Senate. Of course, Merrill ran in the Republican primary for Senate this past year, withdrawing from the ballot in December 2019 after Jeff Sessions entered the race and Merrill’s polling numbers never got above single digits. Merrill is known for his effort and abilities in retail politics – shaking every hand and kissing every baby in every corner of the state. Operatives love a hardworking candidate and Merrill is one, which could make him a serious contender for the seat. We are also reminded that his personal foibles, which were revealed with kid gloves during the 2014 campaign, would likely get a lot more scrutiny in a high-profile Senate race.

Erstwhile congressional candidate Jessica Taylor has also talked about pursuing the Senate seat. While she came up short of making the runoff in the AL-2 primary, she made a big impact on the state’s political scene and also received some national attention. Depending on how districts are redrawn, she could also be a contender once more for the House of Representatives or run for State Senate.

If we’ve learned anything from the last ten years in Alabama Politics it is this: whenever there is speculation about who might run for a high profile open seat, put Roy Moore on the list. Some may scoff at the suggestion considering the way his run for the Senate in 2017 ended so ingloriously. But, think about it: why wouldn’t he run? He enjoys remaining relevant and elevating the profile of his Foundation for Moral Law organization. Plus, in the wake of Donald Trump, who better to appeal to Trump loyalists than the guy who still hasn’t conceded to Bob Riley in 2006 and contested the 2017 results until no one would listen anymore? In all seriousness, Moore could run, and with his loyal base, he could have a real impact on the race.

2022 Politics: Governor

Similar to the federal side, state politics in 2022 begins with a question: will Kay Ivey run for another term as governor?

Since her election to a term in her own right in 2018, there has been a latent assumption among some in the political chatter class that Ivey would not run again. By the time 2022 rolls around, she will have served six years as governor and will be able to notch serious accomplishments, not the least of which being “steadying the ship of state” after the Robert Bentley debacle. Why not go out on top, the thinking went.

But here we are about a year out of campaigning in earnest and there is no indication that Ivey won’t seek reelection. And honestly, why shouldn’t she? Even amidst an incredibly challenging pandemic, Ivey continues to have high approval ratings. According to a recent Alabama Daily News / Cygnal poll, 63.3% of state voters approve of her handling of the state’s response to the pandemic. Among just Republicans, that approval ticks up slightly to 64.4%. It’s no secret that Ivey doesn’t barnstorm the state with the kind of breakneck schedule previous governors have, but voters have clearly likened to her steady-as-she-goes, no drama leadership style. Ivey likes the job and is good at it. Unless something radically changes, she’s well positioned to run for reelection in 2022.

If for some reason Ivey doesn’t run, several suitors will begin lining up to shoot their shot for the state’s top job. That could begin a trickle effect within the Capitol.

The most obvious contender for governor is Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, who clearly has ambitions for higher office but is also smart enough not to challenge Ivey when she’s this popular. In an October poll taken by Cygnal, Ainsworth had the highest name recognition among those polled not named Kay Ivey and Roy Moore. It was still low at 21.3% overall and 30.3% among just Republicans, but that’s something. Ainsworth might not clear the field, but he could keep some serious contenders out of it, including…

John Merrill. As mentioned above, Merrill is term limited. If Ivey doesn’t run and Ainsworth does, the most obvious path for Merrill would be to run for lieutenant governor. He would likely have some competition, including from ever ambitious state senators who see the lofty chair every day, but as a two-time statewide winner, Merrill would have an advantage.

State Auditor Jim Ziegler is also term limited and could seek the Secretary of State’s office when Merrill clears out. However, Ziegler, known for his wily antics, could also be the fly in the ointment that makes 2022 really interesting. He’s not afraid to challenge Ivey or Ainsworth for the governor’s office, or to run for Senate for that matter. Underestimate the Zieg at your own peril.

Three men who appear be not only content but well position to run for reelection are Attorney General Steve Marshall, Agriculture Commissioner Rick Pate and State Treasurer John McMillian. All three have shown they know how to win a primary and should have no problem in 2022. Should Ivey run again and the open race for governor be delayed until 2026, look for Marshall to be courted into a considering a run.

 

What to expect from the session

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

With just 34 days remaining until the 2021 Regular Session of the Alabama Legislature, it is still unknown what the session will look like given the still-raging coronavirus pandemic. Both the House and Senate have taken measures to ensure member and staff safety with social distancing and a mask requirement. That’s a lot more easily accomplished in the 35-member Senate, where no more than 40 people, including staff, need to be in the chamber at the same time. It’s not so easy in the 105-member House, which is why Speaker Mac McCutcheon and House Clerk Jeff Woodard have installed voting tablets and prepared to spread out lawmakers throughout the 5th and 6th floors, from the House Chamber to the gallery and two adjoining rooms upstairs. In the Senate, Secretary Pat Harris has been working with UAB scientists on a sophisticated cloud application that would ensure everyone coming into the building is safe to enter.

Even with the precautions, the State House just isn’t set up well for a socially distanced session. It is also doubtful that the public, to include lobbyists, will be allowed in the building, though opinions differ between the two chambers on how that could work. All this is leading to discussions about different alternatives that could allow for a safer and more productive session.

Lawmakers are in a tough spot. They want and need to show results after a shortened session in 2020. And nobody wants the 2019 gas tax to be the only signature win of this term. However, having a session without opening the doors to the public is also unseemly, as recent polling has shown.

Under the constitution, the Legislature is required to convene on Feb. 2. However, it doesn’t require them to stay in session. It also doesn’t say where they must meet. One option being discussed is meeting for the five legislative days it would take to pass essential bills and then adjourning until a later date. The essential bills would be the two economic development statutes (Alabama Jobs Act and Growing Alabama Tax Credit) that are only being held up by executive order at the moment, a bill to ensure Alabamians aren’t taxed for COVID relief funds, liability protection for Alabama businesses and nonprofits, and legislation reprograming federal CARES Act funds. The idea being that the Legislature could reconvene later in the year when the vaccine is more widely distributed and a session would be more, well, regular. The last day lawmakers could reconvene in the Regular Session would be May 19. Under this scenario, lawmakers would have a week or two at most to conduct business in the regular, with most health experts saying the vaccines will be widely available starting in late April or early May.

Another alternative still being discussed is conducting the session at the Renaissance convention hall in downtown Montgomery. Originally, this idea was panned because it would cost upwards of $1 million, money the state couldn’t get from CARES Act funds because the session would take place after the Dec. 30 spending deadline. However, now that Congress has extended that deadline by one year, the state could absolutely use CARES Act funds to rent out the Renaissance. Sources tell IAP that more and more rank-and-file members are expressing an interest in this option – even if it is only for five days – given the cramped conditions in the State House. However, as an legislative staffer will tell you, that’s easier said than done. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes with paperwork: enrolling, engrossing, to say nothing of cross-chamber messages.

According to well-placed State House sources, leadership remains in a “wait-and-see” mode. They might not make a decision on the schedule until a week out of session, or just gavel in and go as long as they can. In any case, 2021 is looking to be the year of special sessions. There could be as many as four special sessions: finishing regular legislative business, addressing prison problems, redistricting and gambling.

 

To vax or not to vax

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

Good news if you’re a “critical” congressional staffer. The attending physician of Congress announced this week that two staffers in every House and Senate office will be eligible for getting the coronavirus vaccine. So now every comms director, legislative director and district director gets to draw straws for who is most “critical.”

Even better news if you’re a committee staffer. Every chairman and ranking member can have four staffers vaccinated, for a total of eight per committee.

Committee staff always gets the good stuff. Remember how, when writing the Obamacare law, Congress included a provision that made all members and staff take part in the health care law? It was called the Grassley amendment, and its authors made sure it applied to members and their personal staffers, but cleverly left out committee and leadership staff. That’s why the latter continue to enjoy that good ol’ federal employee health plan, rather than Obamacare, to this day.

So, kids, if you want to work on the Hill, start plotting your way to a committee gig for better pay and better benefits.

Members of Congress themselves have already been prioritized for the vaccine, if they so choose, as part of continuity of government contingencies. White House and senior national security officials are also prioritized.

The Alabama Legislature, however, will not be among the first to get the vaccine. According to State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, the state is following closely to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols which at the moment do not call for local and state government officials to receive the vaccine. However, that could change by February, Harris said.

“Phase 1-B is likely to contain certain populations of essential workers and it is very possible that Legislators would be included in this group,” Harris wrote in an email to Alabama Daily News. “The overriding issue at present is the scarcity of vaccine, but it is nevertheless likely that Phase 1-B will begin sometime before February.”

 

 

Bill would ‘modify’ teachers’ retirement benefits

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Some lawmakers will try again in 2021 to change the retirement benefits for newer teachers in an effort to attract and retain more educators.

Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton, said House Bill 93 focuses on correcting some of the imbalances between Tier I and Tier II benefits, but it doesn’t create a Tier III as legislation he proposed in 2019 and 2020 did.

House Bill 93 would allow Tier II teachers to collect their retirement after 30 years of service, as opposed to waiting until age 62 under current rules, and allow them to rollover unused leave each year, which isn’t currently allowed under Tier II but is under the older Tier I.

“Those were two of the overarching disparities that needed to be addressed given that you have educators in the same line of work and performing the same essential duties, but yet on two different tracks in regards to their retirement,” Baker told Alabama Daily News.

Unlike his previous bills, HB93 does not increase the 1.65 multiplier, which determines how much retirees earn. The legislation does increase teachers’ contributions to their retirement from 6% to 6.75%.

The bill also changes the beneficiary benefit of retirement-eligible teachers in active service to “Option 2,” allowing the beneficiary to receive 100% of the teacher’s salary should he or she die. Currently, beneficiaries receive 50% under Tier II.

“This can help retain retirement-eligible education employees that want to continue working but are worried about not being able to provide for their families if something happens to them prior to retirement,” David Bronner, RSA’s chief executive officer, said in the December issue of RSA’s monthly newsletter. “With the health uncertainties for many older employees, this change would be extremely important.”

Bronner has written in favor of Baker’s bill in several recent issues of The Advisor.

“The major issue facing the RSA is improving Tier II retirement benefits,” Bronner said. “… The proposed improvements can be made without large increases in costs to employers but would have a significant impact by allowing 30-year retirement and conversion of sick leave for retirement credit.”

Baker said the legislation would cost the state less than his previous proposals that were approved in the House but had opposition in the Senate.

According to information from RSA, if Baker’s bill becomes law, the 30-year retirement and sick leave conversion portions in the first year would represent a cost increase of about $5 million, about $3 million of that coming from the Education Trust Fund. The beneficiary change would increase costs by about $12.9 million in the first year, with about $7.9 million coming from the ETF.

Tier II retirement benefits went into effect for new teachers in 2013 in an effort to save the state money on retirement costs. Teachers who were already in the classroom at that time got to stay in the more generous Tier I.

The bill has nine co-sponsors, including House Education Policy Committee chair Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur.

“Potentially, we may have reeled in a little too far,” Collins said about Tier II. “There may be some room to improve for people in Tier II.”

If educators can’t rollover their unused leave, they may take the days off simply to not lose them.

“In this current time for sure, we need everyone doing the great job they’re doing,” Collins said.

Under Tier II, teachers must be 62 years old before they collect benefits, rather than being able to retire at any age after 25 years of employment, as the original Tier I allowed.

Baker said hopes the changes would make being an educator in Alabama more attractive to young teachers, incentivizing those educated in the state to stay and attracting some from other states.

“I think most of those that go into the education field, it’s not really for the retirement package but more so for the job they can perform, that is in helping educate children,” Baker said. “But, having said that, I do think that this is a strong step toward evaluating the role the teachers play in the development of students and their educations.”

Sen. Donnie Chasteen, R-Geneva, will sponsor the bill in the Senate and Baker said the proposals in it have been discussed with Senate members for several years. He said he expects this bill to be “more palatable” to members of the Senate than previous versions.

“It appears the Tier II modifications give us the best chance to move this forward in improving the pensions for educators,” Baker said.

Last year, state education leaders released information about the state’s teacher shortage, including:

Since 2010, there’s been a 40% decrease in students entering teacher education programs;Eight percent of teachers leave the profession each year, only about one-third of those departures are due to retirement;

Thirty percent of Alabama classrooms are taught by “out of field” teachers with no background in the subject they’re teaching.

The Coronavirus has changed how legislators will meet starting in February and their first priorities will likely be several bills related to the virus.

Rep. Bill Poole, chairman of the House education budget committee, said he hasn’t yet studied Baker’s new bill.

“I would fully anticipate that the House Ways and Means Committee, which has taken up the prior Tier II, Tier III bills and consider them, to take this up and have public hearings and look at it very, very closely and given significant consideration,” Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, said.

Poole said officials revenue estimates for fiscal year 2022 aren’t yet available but he expects “a positive” year.

“We budgeted very conservatively for FY ’21 in light of the pandemic heretofor,” Poole said. “Our revenues have exceeded what we projected in the midst of the pandemic so consequently, I think, in anticipation of economic growth, hopefully post-pandemic over the latter part of this fiscal year going into next, I’m anticipating a positive budget year.”

Wine, beer home-delivery bills coming in 2021

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

A state lawmaker is proposing home delivery of beer and wine in a bill pre-filed for the 2021 legislative session.

“You’ve got a number of companies and businesses that deliver groceries,” Rep. Gil Isbell, R-Gadsden, told Alabama Daily News. “This would include beer and wine.”

Isbell said there are still ongoing discussions with several groups, including the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, about House Bill 101 and changes could be made.

Isbell sponsored the bill in the 2020 session and HB101 is a version that received committee approval.

Isbell said COVID-19 and the restrictions on gathering outside the home has changed some outlooks on alcohol purchasing in the state.

“The way I look at it, if the citizens want it then that’s what we need,” Isbell said. “Under this COVID situation, I think ABC has looked at it things a lot differently.”

Earlier this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ABC Board allowed restaurants and bars to sell alcohol to-go.

“The ABC Board has been working with several legislators, as well as the joint study committee headed by Sen. Jabo Waggoner, to develop an acceptable and safe home delivery bill,” said Dean Argo, government relations manager for the ABC Board. “Rep. Isbell’s legislation is a good starting point for discussions. We look forward to working with him and others to craft a bill that authorizes and ensures the responsible and convenient delivery of alcohol to the home.”

The bill requires a $1,000 annual delivery licensing fee and includes a limit — 48 12-ounce beers and six 750 milliliter bottles of wine — in a 24-hour period.

“It’s about the convenience, we’re in a busy world,” Isbell said. “If you’re married, you’re both working and you got children, you’re calling in orders to the grocery store to have it delivered.”

The bill requires an agreement from the retailer and delivery service and training for those delivering.

Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, has tried for several years to pass a bill allowing for direct shipment of wine from producers or retailers to Alabamians’ homes. She said she’d sponsor the bill again in the session that starts Feb. 2.

“The only bill I continuously hear about from people all over the state is the direct shipment bill,” Collins said recently.

She said Alabama is one of only a handful of states that doesn’t allow wine delivery at home.

“If you travel, you should be able to ship it home,” she said. “Or if you have a favorite, you should be able to order it.”

In 2019, Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, created a task force “to determine whether the direct shipment of wine would benefit the state as a whole, while protecting current businesses and ensuring that alcohol is delivered in a responsible manner.”

Waggoner this month said the group will have legislation in the upcoming session.

 

Melson bringing back medical marijuana bill

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said he’ll file in the 2021 legislative session the same medical marijuana bill that passed the Senate in March.

“I’m not planning to change it,” Melson told Alabama Daily News recently. “I’m looking forward to getting it introduced and seeing what happens.”

His 2020 bill passed the Senate 22-to-11 in mid-March, before reaction to COVID-19 shortened the session and killed dozens of bills.

The “Compassion Act” creates a nine-member Medical Cannabis Commission to oversee regulations and licensing for medical marijuana cultivators, processors and dispensaries and requires a statewide seed-to-sale tracking system for all cannabis in the state.

More than a dozen qualifying medical conditions and symptoms are listed in the bill, including post-traumatic stress disorder, autism spectrum disorder, Crohn’s disease, HIV/AIDS-related nausea and cancer-related chronic pain and nausea. Patients must have the okay of approved doctors to qualify.

For a doctor to prescribe a patient to use medical marijuana, it has to be proven that all other methods of treatment are unsuccessful.

The bill does not allow for the smoking or vaping of marijuana or edible forms of the drug. However, treatment in the form of pills, gelatinous cubes, gels, oils or creams, transdermal patches and nebulizers would be allowed.

Users would receive a state-issued medical cannabis card and an electronic patient registry would be created.

The bill allows for 34 total dispensaries in the state and mandates no more than 70 doses per patient at one time.

The marijuana would be grown in-state by farmers and the process to create the product would be conducted by Alabama businesses.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall sent a letter to legislators early this year saying he opposes the bill. He said marijuana is an addictive substance and drew parallels with the ongoing opioid addiction crisis. He also noted that federal law continues to ban marijuana.

A spokesman for Marshall recently said his opposition to the legislation stands.

Melson, one of two medical doctors in the Senate, said more studies continue to show the benefits of medical cannabis to treat certain diseases.

“Hopefully, we can get it passed and help some people who need it,” Melson said.

The session begins Feb. 2 and will be altered by COVID-19 precautions.

 

Potpourri

Jason Isbell to Maynard Cooper & Gale

After seven years with the Alabama Banking Association, Jason Isbell has made the leap to the big time being hired as the new lobbyist and lawyer at Maynard, Cooper & Gale. The Maynard lobbying shop has been in something of a transition ever since Ted Hosp left to join Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama two years ago. Edward O’Neal also departed the firm for an opportunity out west earlier this year. Isbell has worked his way up from interning in the old Legislative Fiscal Office to becoming one of the most respected government professionals in Montgomery. He’ll join the Maynard team led by Raymond Bell and accompanied by Meredith Wills.

 

William Heartsill joins Reed’s staff

Soon-to-be Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed has hired William Heartsill as his new communications director. A native of Vestavia Hills, Heartsill most recently served as press secretary to Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Prior to his work with Sen. Alexander, Heartsill served in various intern capacities with Auburn University’s Board of Trustees and Office of Public Affairs, in addition to the Republican National Committee in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Auburn University.

 

Carol Bullard, Jill Stallworth join Ward at Pardons & Paroles

They might revoke Cam Ward’s access to the State House if he keeps stealing away top staff. The new Bureau of Pardons and Paroles director has hired longtime legislative assistant Carol Bullard as his chief of staff at the agency. Jill Stallworth, who has been working in Sen. Jimmy Holley’s office, is also departing the State House to work for Ward at Pardons and Paroles. Word to IAP is there may be more State House staffers making the move in the near future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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