By CAROLINE BECK and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Several legislative committees met Wednesday to consider various bills as the Alabama Legislature continues its final month of the 2021 regular session. Here’s a rundown of what happened at the State House.
Legislative Oversight Bill Advances
A bill that would create a joint legislative oversight committee to review any large expenditures from state agencies passed the Senate General Fund committee on Wednesday.
House Bill 392 from Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, was substituted in committee and passed on a voice vote with very little discussion.
The bill would require any non-education state agency or department planning to spend more than $10 million of its annual appropriation in a future fiscal year or years to first be approved by a newly-formed Oversight Committee on Obligation Transparency.
The oversight committee would include the chairs of the House and Senate General Fund committees, the chairs of the House and Senate Education fund committees, or appointees those individuals chose to serve in their place.
The committee would have 30 days to review the submissions and hold public hearings. If the committee disapproves of any proposed expenditure, the contract or agreement won’t be able to move forward until the “adjournment of the next regular session of the legislature that commences after the obligation or agreement is submitted.” Currently, the Joint Legislative Contract Review Committee can delay executive branch contracts by only 45 days.
Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, told Alabama Daily News that he voted against the bill but couldn’t point to any specific concerns he had.
“I just have issues with the bill and the ramifications of it,” McClendon said.
The bill that is now headed to the Senate specifically excludes the Department of Transportation from being subject to review by the committee.
Supporters of the bill, including House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said this was in reaction to the multi-million dollar leases Gov. Kay Ivey has signed onto recently for building new state prisons.
The governor’s office has said they have worked with legislators for months as the prison lease agreements have been negotiated.
An email to the Governor’s office seeking comment on the legislation was not returned as of Wednesday afternoon.
State Parks Bond Issue Advances
A Senate committee advanced a proposed constitutional amendment allowing the state to borrow $80 million to improve state parks.
The money would be used to expand and improve campgrounds and recreational areas.
House Bills 565 and 573 from House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, were amended to now include the Alabama Historical Commission so that $5 million can be spent on improving or renovating public historical sites and historical parks in Alabama.
The House version of the bill that passed last week specifically excluded any money from being spent on the Confederate Memorial Park in Marbury, Alabama.
In the Senate committee meeting on Wednesday, Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, passed an amendment to take out that exclusion saying that he thinks the historical commission should be the ones to decide where the money goes.
“I just would hate to see them isolated in here and say they are different,” McClendon told committee members.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, also explained that the Confederate memorial park already gets an annual appropriation from a constitutionally mandated tax revenue. Orr mentioned attempts in the past by legislators to pull the tax funding from the park, but said none have been successful.
The committee also passed House Bill 566, which makes changes to the distribution and expenditure of sales tax revenue related to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for state park maintenance.
Orr voted against the bill saying more consideration needs to be given to how many state dollars continue to go to state parks.
“I guess I’m saying time out,” Orr said. “I can see the train leaving the station out of this committee, but when does it end and at what cost?”
All three bills now go to the full Senate and, if passed, the constitutional amendment to borrow the $80 million would go before Alabama voters in the next general election.
Scholarships for STEM and special needs teachers bill advances
A bill that would provide scholarships to first year college students seeking to be STEM or special education teachers passed the Senate Education budget committee on Wednesday with a few changes from the original bill.
Senate Bill 225 from Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, now says scholarships would go to those who teach in “critical need areas” rather than just “rural areas” as the original bill stated.
Other changes were added to the bill, such as requiring annual reporting on how much is being spent on the scholarships and where they were being awarded.
Alabama Commission on Higher Education Executive Director Jim Purcell briefly spoke during the committee meeting, saying he still has some concerns with the bill. He said similar efforts in the past led to students owing the state money because they didn’t complete the requirements.
“We ended up making more enemies than friends,” Purcell said.
The bill would allow scholarships for first-year in-state college students who are planning to become a certified science, technology, engineering, math or special education teachers in grades seven through 12. They would have to pledge to teach in a critical need area for at least five years. They’d have to finish their degrees within four years, but could receive the scholarships each year.
The bill says ACHE would be responsible for administering the scholarships and there can only be 200 scholarships given at any one time.
Stutts said he would work with ACHE on the bill but said the point was to focus on recruiting high school students to be teachers in critical need areas of the state.
“I want high school guidance counselors to be able to pick students who may be thinking the only option they have is working at the saw mill but have potential to be a great teacher,” Stutts told ADN.
Stutts said the scholarships would be funded through the comprehensive gambling legislation that passed through the Senate last week.
The bill now goes to the Senate for a vote.
Committee approves bill to examine, block presidential executive orders
The House Judiciary Committee approved House Bill 319 to authorize the Legislative Council to review executive orders issued by the President of the United States and submit them to the Alabama Attorney General for review. When they’re determined by the attorney general to be an unconstitutional restriction of rights, the state and local governments may not enforce them. The bill from Rep. Shane Stringer, R-Mobile, applies specifically to orders related to epidemics, land use, natural resources, agriculture and gun rights.
The bill and vote led to a tense exchange between Rep. David Faulkner, R-Mountain Brook, and Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham. Faulkner criticized Coleman for calling the bill “stupid.”
Coleman didn’t back down.
“It is stupid to me and it will continue to be stupid to me and for lawyers on this committee to vote for this piece legislation that you know is unconstitutional. I’ll reserve those comments…”
Bill would require providers put filters on cell phones
The House Judiciary Committee also held a public hearing on House Bill 142 from Rep. Chris Sells, R-Greenville. This bill would require cell phone providers to install and activate filters on wireless telecommunications devices that block Internet access to material that is harmful to minors. Proponents of the bill said it would limit children and teens’ access to pornography. Opponents said the bill is government overreach and unnecessary because of already available parental controls.
A vote on the bill is expected next week.
Accountability Act credit bill gets first vote
A House committee gave the first vote of approval to a bill to increase the allowable tax credit for individuals and corporations that donate to private school scholarships through the Alabama Accountability Act.
The House Education Policy Committee voted 7-6 to advance the bill by Rep. Charlotte Meadows, R-Montgomery.
The 2013 Accountability Act allows for tax credit-funded scholarships for families leaving the state’s lowest-performing public schools. There also is a separate $30 million-per-year scholarship fund for private school tuition. Businesses and individuals who donate to the fund receive income tax credits. Scholarship granting organizations collect and distribute the money to low-income families. Those students are not required to come from failing schools.
House Bill 559 does not change that $30 million cap but expands the allowable credit from 50% of an individual’s tax burden to 75%, capped at $75,000. Corporations also could pledge up to 75% of their income tax liability to scholarships, up from 50% now.
The bill also extends from one calendar year to three the amount of time SGOs have to expend their scholarship money.