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Inside Alabama Politics – March 1, 2022

Welcome to Inside Alabama Politics!

Today’s issue is the first of a two-parter. Part one is focused on the latest legislative happenings in the State House, whereas part two later this week will focus on the campaigns heating up across the state.

Enjoy!

Judicial allocation issue could come to a head

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

When the state’s record $2.7 billion General Fund budget was approved in the Senate last week, there was one no vote. 

The 2023 spending proposal has a lot of good things in it, Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville said, but his dissenting vote was about a few things not in it, including money to fund additional circuit and district judgeships in Madison County and other growing parts of the state.

“I feel like I’m stuck between two rocks here,” Givhan told Alabama Daily News. “So voting no on the budgets is a small gesture on my part to say everyone is not OK with this.”

One of those rocks is Jefferson County and its well-stacked legislative delegation. Still the largest county in the state, Jefferson County has more judges than it actually needs, according to the judicial reallocation commission created in a 2017 law.

The other rock is a refusal by some fiscal conservative budget leaders in the state to pony up millions of dollars for more judges for Madison County when they say Jefferson County has too many. 

“We have to come up with a comprehensive way of handling judges,” Givhan said. “Just to continue the status quo is wearing thin with me.”

If they wanted to, Givhan said his colleagues could put more judges where they’re needed.

“… We could take some of those funds, swallow hard, leave Jefferson County alone and go fund some new judgeships.”

Senate General Fund budget committee chairman Sen. Greg Albritton said lawmakers have already acted on the judge issue and the 2017 law needs to be applied.

“I think it’s a judicial issue, not a legislative issue,” he told Alabama Daily News recently.

“… In my mind, we have legislatively done what we need to do,” Albritton said. “We have provided the means to have that inequity resolved.”

Five years ago, Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, passed legislation to establish a Judicial Resource Allocation Commission, chaired by the Alabama chief justice, to identify areas of the state where judges are needed and where there are more than needed for the caseload.

The law also says that when a sitting judge retires or dies, the commission “shall have 30 days to determine whether to reallocate such judgeship to another district or circuit.”

No circuit or district judgeships have been reallocated since the law went into effect. Chief Justice Tom Parker told Alabama Daily News that even if the Judicial Resources Allocation Commission were able to reallocate all judgeships that need to be reallocated, there would still be a need for additional new judgeships in Alabama.

“Currently, there is a need for 12 additional circuit judgeships and eight additional district judgeships in Alabama,” Parker said. “The language in the Judicial Resources Allocation Commission Act is very limiting.  A judgeship may only be reallocated when a vacancy occurs due to the death, retirement, removal, or resignation of a judge.  Additionally, only one judgeship can be reallocated from any judicial circuit in a two-year period.”

Orr said last week the commission is not working as intended.

“And that leaves a county like Madison County in the lurch,” Orr said. “I think politically there’s an unfortunate squabble about Jefferson County not wanting to lose any of their judgeships, that revenue funding them, to high-growth areas.”

Jefferson County’s legislative delegation is large, diverse and powerful, totaling 24 Democrat and Republican lawmakers. In the Senate alone, it includes longtime Democrat leader Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, and Rules Chair Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills.

Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said if judges are needed in areas of the state, the Legislature should fund them without taking seats away from his county.

“I would support finding ways to do that,” Smitherman said. “…But I haven’t heard any argument for why judgeships should be taken away from Jefferson County.”

Smitherman also said the largest county in the state often sees complex court cases that take more time to litigate.

“The sheer volume of the cases we have here and the complexity of these cases (require more judges),” he said.

Per the reallocation law, the commission reports each year on the number of judges needed around the state. In a Jan. 5 letter, Parker recommended the Legislature create 12 circuit judgeships in seven circuits around the state, including three in Madison County, two in the circuit that includes Autauga, Chilton and Elmore counties, and two each in Mobile and Baldwin counties.  

The total cost for one year would be about $5.4 million.

The commission also recommended the creation of eight district judgeships. They’re ranked by need in Baldwin, Shelby, Madison, Mobile, Etowah, DeKalb, Cullman and Tuscaloosa counties.

The cost would be about $2.8 million, according to Parker’s letter.

According to the commission, Madison County has the largest shortage of circuit judges. It needs 10.3 and has 7. The same report says Jefferson County’s circuit court needs 19 judges but has 27. That’s the largest surplus in the 41 circuits.  Madison County is now home to the state’s largest city and 388,513 people, per the 2020 census. But it has almost a quarter the number of circuit judges as Jefferson County, population 674,721.

On the district court side, there are 68 courts — Jefferson County has two — and Baldwin County has the greatest need with two judges. The Jefferson-Birmingham court has nearly two surplus judges.

“We’ve got a process in place, we have to bite the bullet and put the judgeships that are already being paid for in the counties that have the higher needs,” Orr said.

Givhan sponsored two bills this session to get more judgeships. Senate Bill 82 is a constitutional amendment that, if approved by voters, would allow the Legislature to make an initial appointment to a newly created judgeship to be filled in the same manner as a vacancy. The bill was approved in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week and awaits a Senate vote.

Senate Bill 103, as introduced, provides for one additional circuit court judgeship in the Madison and Baldwin county circuits and the Autauga, Chilton and Elmore counties circuit. The cost would be about $1.3 million per year.

In addition, this bill provides that the Judicial Resources Allocation Commission reallocate the first vacant circuit judgeship, that becomes vacant after the effective date of this bill, to the 23rd Judicial Circuit. Givhan’s bill was in Senate Judiciary Committee last week, but he moved to carry it over, meaning it wouldn’t get a vote.

“I wanted to get the conversation started,” Givhan said.

Albritton bringing gambling options to Senate

By MARY SELL and TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, said he’ll share on Tuesday three draft gambling bills with his Senate colleagues and see what has support.

“I’m going to take them to my caucus and say, ‘Here’s the choices, what do you want to do?” Albritton told Alabama Daily News on Monday.

His intent is to then file the bill that has the most support.

What might those options be? Albritton is tight lipped, wanting to offer his caucus colleagues the space to make up their minds. But well-placed State House sources have offered ADN/IAP some insight as to what could be coming.

Two are fairly obvious, sources say. Albritton most assuredly has a straight paper lottery bill, similar to ones that he’s filed before. It also stands to reason that he would bring a wide-ranging lottery, casino and sports betting bill similar to the one the Senate approved last year.

But what will the third option be? Could it be a middle way? A Goldilocks measure that is strategically built so that no side gets everything they want?

Some have suggested a “lottery plus” plan that involves a more expansive lottery, plus some constitutional clean ups on the casino issue. Others say it could be a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

Reading between the lines of Albritton’s comments over the last several weeks, his motivations become apparent. He doesn’t particularly care for the lottery and understands the revenue is limited, but he also knows it is the most popular piece among voters and rank and file lawmakers. He sees casino gambling as here to stay and in need of increased regulation and taxation. And he sees sports betting as money with wings leaving the state for Las Vegas in a truly booming industry, much like the lottery was 20 years ago. The state of New York recently reported that since early January when it legalized online sports betting, it’s taken in nearly $80 million in revenue.

The politics haven’t changed much here. While the most popular, the lottery-only option always gets stuck because the other factions, namely casinos and now sports betting, need a lottery to better guarantee success.

Last year, Alabama Senate approved a wide ranging gambling plan that included a state lottery, expanded casino operations and legalized sports betting. However, it failed to reach a vote in the House before the regular session ended. In many ways, the timing was as much or more important than the votes. Had the updated bill been ready to go in the House with two weeks left in the session, it probably passes. That timing issue hasn’t changed, either, which is yet another challenge for Albritton and others who want a gambling bill this year given that there are only 15 legislative days left.

Asked what he wants to hear in the closed caucus meeting today, Albritton said, “We want that (bill) and we’ll vote for it.”

“That’s what I anticipate and hope to hear.”

Senate puts more reporting requirements in 2023 budget

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

There is more money in the 2023 General Fund budget working its way through the Legislature. And more reporting requirements.

Senate budget drafters added some accounting stipulations in next year’s budget for several agencies, including the one in charge of the governor’s mansion. Lawmakers also want to know more about the Alabama Department of Corrections’ hiring efforts.

Senate budget chairman Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, said the requirements are an effort to keep track of public dollars.

The short-staffed ADOC already has to give lawmakers and the federal court regular updates on its employee roster. Next year’s budget says the agency in fiscal 2023 needs to report to lawmakers monthly “on the number of officers at the end of the month, the net increase from September 30, 2018, the monthly retention rate, and the amount and type of retention bonuses paid in accordance with a 2019 bonus structure.

Lawmakers also want information about recruitment and hiring efforts.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson late last year extended from 2022 to 2025 a deadline for the state to boost the number of correctional officers in its prisons.

Thompson said staffing has barely increased in three years, and the system has filled less than half of the positions necessary to meet the requirement of 3,826 full-time-equivalent officers, the Associated Press reported in December.

Lawmakers also want in 2023 quarterly reports from the Governor’s Mansion Authority regarding “amounts expended and the status of mansion repairs and improvements.”

The authority is responsible for maintaining the about 120-year-old mansion. It’s getting about $805,000 in next year’s budget.

Alabama’s district attorneys are getting $35.8 million in the 2023 budget. Meanwhile, lawmakers want a report on the “amount of funds collected and the expenditure of any funds received from pretrial diversion or other revenue-raising measures.”

 

Some in House wary of possible ‘death tax’

Some House Republicans are wary of a bill on the special order calendar Tuesday they say contains a hidden “death tax” that primary opponents could exploit in the upcoming elections. House Bill 47 from Rep. K.L. Brown of Jacksonville has to do with the way the Alabama Funeral Services Board is governed. Brown is an undertaker by trade and often has legislation impacting the industry.

The bill also transfers the Department of Insurance’s responsibilities in endowment care and preened sales contracts to the Alabama Board of Funeral Service. It also transfers the fees and sets new funeral and interment fees, which some Republicans are concerned can be used to claim the Legislature voted for a death tax if it passes.

Expect to hear some pushback on an otherwise mundane bill when the House convenes on Tuesday.

 

Literacy Act brinksmanship

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

One issue to watch as the legislative session glides into its second half is the Alabama Literacy Act and efforts to amend it. As a refresher, last year Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, succeeded in passing a bill that delayed the retention provision of the Literacy Act by two years. That’s the provision that says if a student isn’t reading proficiently by third grade they won’t be promoted to fourth grade. Smitherman successfully argued to enough colleagues that a delay was necessary because COVID-19 school closures have left students unprepared. Others, including Gov. Kay Ivey, argued that the state should wait to see the actual testing data before amending the law. Ivey vetoed the bill in perhaps her most significant use of the stamp as governor. Later, after the first testing data came out, Ivey followed the recommendation of the Literacy Task Force and recommended a one year delay.

Part of what made Ivey’s veto so significant is that it was sure to anger one of the state’s most powerful senators in Smitherman. While Democrats may be in a super minority, individual senators have learned how to wield considerable power in different ways. Smitherman is an intimidating lawmaker, both physically and politically. His booming voice can make a table vibrate and give an unwitting opponent chills. He’s willing to go to the wall to get his way, including by working as hard as he can to destroy unrelated projects of those who stand in it.

And so it was curious as this year’s session began that Smitherman filed a bill that would delay the holdback provision by a full three years until spring 2025. Eventually, Smitherman in committee accepted an amendment cutting the delay to two years. That bill passed the Senate with Republicans split on the issue. Rep. Terri Collins, the original author or the Literacy Act, included a one-year delay in her larger bill making technical changes to the law. Rightly sensing a collision course, House and Senate leaders asked the two to sit down and negotiate. Having already been burned by the governor last year, Smitherman isn’t backing down an inch. Meanwhile, House and Senate leaders urged Collins to yield and take the delay portion out of her bill, which she did. It was a late night and many in the chamber and the media didn’t know what was happening, but a floor amendment to Collins’ bill simply removed any mention of a delay. The idea was to let the Smitherman bill proceed in the House with the delay-specific language while the Collins bill on policy changes proceeds in the Senate.

So now there are two Literacy Act bills, one with policy changes everyone wants and the other delaying the holdback provision by two years, which Republicans are divided on. And here’s the rub: under current law, the holdback provision goes into effect this spring, meaning in a few months.

What happens in the next few weeks will be interesting. Collins’ bill is in committee today (Tuesday). Smitherman’s bill is in Collins’ Education Policy Committee tomorrow (Wednesday). Collins herself might not stop the delay bill, but that doesn’t mean Republicans unhappy with a two-year delay won’t try to stop or amend it themselves. In fact, many House Republicans were prepared to vote against her bill when they mistakenly thought it had a two year delay. They may well want to trim the Smitherman bill down to a one-year delay on the House floor. Should that happen, House and Senate leadership are in a pickle. Do they tempt the wrath of Smitherman and press the one-year delay or risk disappointing rank-and-file Republicans. For what it’s worth, some of those Republicans tell IAP that they are weary of leadership being willing to cloture on issues like medical treatments for transgender youth that apply to a few people but not on education issues that apply to many.

And don’t forget about Ivey in this scenario. Should Smitherman’s bill pass, she could send it back with an executive amendment seeking to cement her one-year delay. Remember that Ivey is in a reelection campaign in which education issues have been brought up. She may relish a chance to use her veto/ executive amendment authority on this issue once again. The Legislature has most of the leverage in veto overrides considering it only takes a simple majority in both chambers, but that would be a significant step to take for a Republican supermajority.

 

AEA’s influence grows in House

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News 

One of the quietest, and yet, most impressive successes of this current quadrennium has been the reemergence of the Alabama Education Association and its influence in the Legislature, particularly in the House. Several sources have remarked to IAP how AEA has discreetly become arguably the most influential group inside the House Republican Caucus, at least as it concerns issues they care about. The group has done this by smartly rebranding away from the arrogant, antagonistic ways it was known for as the GOP first took control in 2010 and into 2014.

“You win more bees with honey,” one State House observer told IAP and AEA has plenty of honey to spare. It is generously donating to House Republicans without abandon and, most importantly, it is no longer taboo for a Republican to accept teacher union money. A contribution of $10,000 or $15,000 is a big deal to a House member facing a reelection challenge and, right now, AEA is the only organization writing checks that large. Sources tell IAP you’ll see the full effect of this when February’s finance reports are revealed later this week. Wise observers tell IAP that part of what makes that possible is that Republican voters are so riled up over national politics and hot button issues that they either aren’t concerned or aren’t aware of the education battles of the past. And there’s not a group out there spending money to make them aware or concerned about it.

AEA has also shifted from picking fights with Republicans to finding ways to help them. Years ago, AEA lobbyists would have gone all out to kill any bill that took a dime from the Education Trust Fund. Then, after the vote, the communications team would have blasted any Republican who supported it by calling them anti-teacher in their district. Now, AEA avoids such fights. While they may oppose a tax cut bill in principle, it’s not the hill to die on considering the Legislature is going to do it anyway. Why not keep your powder dry for an issue you can really be more effectual on, like charter schools, education savings accounts, or Literacy Act delay? Instead of fighting, they are helping by offering to schedule lawmakers to speak to teacher and education worker groups in their districts. That didn’t happen with a whole lot of Republicans years ago.

Like the trial lawyers before them, AEA has pulled off an effective rebrand to not only compete but win in a Republican- dominated Legislature – and in a way in which few can tell the difference.

Gun bill rankles House GOP Caucus

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

Perhaps the most talked about issue this legislative session has been concealed carry permits, and specifically the renewed push to end the requirement that gun owners obtain one to carry concealed handguns. The issue isn’t new. Sen. Gerald Allen has sponsored so-called “Constitutional Carry” legislation for several years. It typically passes the Senate and gets bogged down in the House, where the law enforcement community has effectively argued against it.

This year the effort picked up momentum in the House, as members of House leadership started backing the proposal, specifically House Speaker Mac McCutcheon and Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter. They pointed to the new database that will allow officers to know whether or not a person they are dealing with is not allowed to carry a firearm.

However, many Republicans still had concerns about the bill, particularly in light of objections from their hometown sheriffs and police chiefs. The issue came to a head in a House GOP Caucus meeting in which some members felt there should have been a more robust discussion of the conceal carry bill, to include the objections from law enforcement, before it was adopted as an official caucus agenda item. Sources tell IAP that less than half the caucus was present at a House GOP retreat in North Alabama when the issue was discussed and officially adopted.

At the end of the day, the bill moved forward and the vote sailed through the House. Sources tell IAP the commotion seems to have calmed in the aftermath, maybe with a little help from Democrats hating the riot and transgender bathroom bills even more. Still, it was an interesting power play from House leadership, which rarely forces through contentious legislation, especially considering there is still an active race for speaker.

 

Ballot access and the Republican Party

There have been a few changes in State House races since qualifying ended in later January. Most notably, the Alabama Republicans Executive Committee removed four candidates last week based on their previous political history.

State Senate candidate Tripp Powell said Monday he won’t be running as an independent in Senate District 21 after being removed from the Republican ballot. The party pointed to previous donations Powell made to Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, who was the democratic nominee for governor in 2018. Incumbent Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, now has no primary opponent and faces Democrat Lisa Ward in November.

Challenger Teresa Rhea was also removed in Senate District 10, leaving incumbent Sen. Andrew Jones without a challenger.

Citing his past activity as a Libertarian, the ALGOP removed Anson Knowles as a candidate in House District 10 where Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, is not seeking reelection.

Former Democrat Rep. Elaine Beech will not be on the GOP ballot as a challenger in House District 65. Beech was seeking to challenge Rep. Brett Easterbrook, who she lost to in 2018.

In a few short decades, Republicans have found themselves in a similar position that Democrats were in for generations in Alabama as the dominant party in which the primary pretty much decides the election. That’s difficult enough to handle before adding on top of that the fact that many current Republicans were once Democrats.

How the ALGOP adopts and enforces ballot access rules will become more, not less important in the years ahead. Remember this is a party that kicked Sen. Harri Ann Smith off the GOP ballot for supporting Democratic Congressman Bobby Bright and then years later allowed Bright himself to run for Congress as a Republican.

Updated qualified candidate lists are here:

 

Updated State Senate Races

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Updated House Races

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