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Lawmakers end session with tensions, eye on elections


MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama lawmakers had vowed to steer clear of controversy in an election year session. They found it anyway.

In a scandal-battered state, lawmakers said they were looking toward a low-key session that focused on budgets. It remained that way largely until near the end when they adjourned Thursday amid last-minute disputes over ethics legislation, the demise of a racial profiling bill and some sniping between the House of Representatives and Senate over the pace of votes.

The House spent part of Thursday debating a bill to exempt economic developers from the state ethics law. Supporters said it was needed to clarify recent questions about whether the developers should register as lobbyists, something they said would hurt the state’s job recruitment efforts by exposing potential deals in the works. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey praised the bill’s approval, saying the state is committed to “attracting world-class jobs for all Alabamians.”

Opposing lawmakers cautioned that approving an ethics exemption was “bad optics” as lawmakers head into election season. Republicans won a legislative majority in 2010 by campaigning against Montgomery corruption.

“The horse you rode in on could be the horse you ride out on,” said Rep. Chris England, a Democrat from Tuscaloosa.

After past high-profile battles over abortion and other social issues, lawmakers seemed to put more emphasis on economic issues this session.

Amid rosier budget projections, they approved pay raises for public school and state employees and bonuses for retirees. Lawmakers approved a Republican bill cutting income taxes for low-income households. The amount was worth an average of about $22 for low-income families.

Lawmakers also voted to boost prison funding in the face of a federal court order to improve mental health care.

“The budgets were good budgets. The challenge is next year,” said Republican Sen Trip Pittman, who chairs the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee.

Pittman said he was proud the state was able to give raises and bonuses to public employees.
Alabama’s general fund budget was bolstered since lawmakers purposely decided last year to leave $93 million in reserve. That money won’t be available next year.

Some big issues were left unresolved.

Efforts to overhaul the state ethics law and the juvenile justice system fell apart, or were abandoned, before the session’s conclusion. Lawmakers said both will be revisited next year.

Several gun and school security proposals were introduced in the wake of a deadly shooting at a Florida high school that claimed 17 lives. Most were shelved as lawmakers deferred to the work of a task force. Democrats got no traction on gun control efforts in the Republican-controlled legislature. An effort to arm teachers divided Republicans and did not get a vote. Lawmakers did approve a measure to allow schools to use a state technology fund to pay for school resource officers or other security measures.

The session was conducted against the backdrop of an election year as lawmakers go straight from Montgomery to the campaign trail. Legislators face primaries in June and the General Election in November.

Lawmakers noted that they used only 26 of the allowed 30 meeting days of the session.

“We did the business of the people of the state of Alabama. We finished four days early and saved a couple hundred thousand dollars for the taxpayers. To me that’s a win all the way around,” Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said.

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