By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – After his first session leading the Alabama Senate, President Pro Tem Greg Reed said he feels “great” about the productivity of the session that ended Monday and that the upper chamber “rallied together” despite the challenges of COVID-19.
Alabama lawmakers completed the 2021 Regular Session this week having expended all 30 meeting days within 105 calendar days allowed under Alabama’s constitution. Because last year’s session was cut short by the pandemic, the Legislature had more than the usual amount of issues to tackle beginning in February.
In an interview with Alabama Daily News, Reed said one challenge this year was tackling more than the normal legislative load because the 2020 session was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.
“In the first year of a quadrennium, you’ve got a lot of really specific things you’re trying to do the first year,” Reed said. “This quadrennium, of course, was the infrastructure, which was kind of a huge issue for both chambers and for the governor. You get to the second session, well we didn’t really have a second session. So you wind up in the third session and you had a lot of things that had kind of been held over for individual members that needed to do things in their districts, topics that were important to them, specifically that they wanted to work on.”
“I talked with Republican and Democrat members on the issues that were important to them and we got an enormous amount of those things accomplished.”
Among the big ticket items Reed pointed to were:
- Revamping and reauthorizing two key economic development statues that expired last year;
- Ensuring individuals and businesses weren’t taxed on federal COVID-19 relief funds;
- Limiting liability from COVID-19 related lawsuits;
- Legalizing and regulating medical cannabis for certain debilitating conditions;
- Creating and funding the Alabama Innovation Corporation to encourage entrepreneurship; and
- Enacting and funding targeted incentives to recruit and retain high quality K-12 teachers in STEM subjects.
He said while the Senate at times broke down in a filibuster, the business was mostly smooth.
“I just felt like we had a really strong work product and we were able to do it in a very collaborative way,” he said. “Obviously, you know, the Senate is a deliberative body. You’re going to wind up having times where folks disagree. That’s to be expected. But I just felt like that we were able to minimize the the disagreements, maximize the collaboration, and it resulted in significant effectiveness in being able to have a good product for the people of Alabama, which is the reason we’re here.”
The Senate also passed a wide-ranging gambling bill that would have instituted a lottery, regulated and expanded casino gambling and allowed sports betting. However, negotiations in the House between Democrats, Republicans and the governor’s office broke down on the 29th day of the session, killing the legislation for now.
Reed said he was disappointed to see the bill fall apart in the House but that he remains optimistic because of the lessons that were learned.
“I think we made a lot of progress on the issue, even though we didn’t pass legislation. I think we uncovered a lot of topics that are important to the stakeholders in the issue. I think we uncovered a lot of issues that are important to the people of Alabama in general related to their thought and feeling on what they want to do, whether they are for or against gaming. The idea that they’re interested in voting on this topic, I think is overwhelmingly the case,” Reed said.
“The reality is the House was not able to pass the legislation even though the Senate was able to do that. But did we learn a lot in the process? Did we gain a lot of knowledge and information? Did we see a lot of engagement and impact from different members, House and Senate, related to this topic that we have not seen before? And the answer to that is absolutely yes. So does that better prepare us in times to come to deal with this issue? I think it does.“
Reed said he was not sure whether or not Gov. Kay Ivey would call a special session specifically to deal with the issue of gambling. Other special sessions are expected on redrawing congressional and legislative districts and allocating billions in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.
Among the accomplishments of which Reed was most proud is enacting and funding targeted incentives to recruit STEM teachers in hard-to-staff areas, including rural Alabama. Alabama is currently facing a teacher shortage crisis, especially with STEM and special education teachers. More than 3,000 sixth through 12th-grade math and science teachers in Alabama classrooms are not fully certified.
The Legislature approved and Ivey signed Senate Bill 327, which creates a program to offer increased pay to middle and high school math and science teachers who meet certain qualifications. Additional money would also be available to those teachers who work in hard-to-staff schools.
“We’ve not ever done anything like that before,” Reed said. “There’s never been the ability to pull out a certain segment of the education community and be able to reward or pay them differently. I think the problem got so bad and the issues were so compounded by coronavirus that we realized we have got to do something different. We’re going to spend a hundred million dollars in the education budget on focusing on trying to accomplish one very significant task, and that is to increase the certification levels of math and science teachers, therefore allowing those educators to do a much better job, a more be more equipped to do their job in training kids in math and science, which we know is so important to those children in their future, whatever they’re going to be. In today’s world, in the 21st century economy, they got to have those skills. And so the fact that we had hundreds of classrooms that did not have certified math and science teachers in them was something that the Legislature just came to the conclusion that we have got to have a paradigm shift here. We’ve got to do something different. And I think it was well-received by all the stakeholders, educators, the business community, you know, on and on.”
One controversial education issue was delaying the Alabama Literacy Act. The 2019 law currently requires that, starting at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, third-grade students demonstrate sufficient reading skills before being promoted to fourth grade. Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, sponsored legislation to delay that hold-back requirement until 2024, arguing that COVID-19-caused learning loss would lead to more students being held back next year if lawmakers didn’t act.
The Legislature gave final passage to the bill late Monday over the objections of education reform advocates. Reed voted for the bill.
“I think the Literacy Act was very good legislation. And I have members that were very supportive and still very supportive of that legislation. But the coronavirus happens and you have to take into consideration how are we going to evaluate and manage these, you know, kids in the third grade when they’ve not been able to be in school, some of them literally for an entire year? So that presents a lot of challenges. I think delaying the Literacy Act was a wise decision. I didn’t think it needed to be delayed for an extended time, but just enough to allow educators to, you know, look at what they needed to do and allow children to kind of get back in a mode where they can get the maximum benefits.”
Finally, Reed spoke to the issue of public access to the State House. Except for some committee meetings, the public was largely kept away from the State House this session due to COVID-19 protocols. The normally packed hallways were mostly empty, save for lawmakers, staff and reporters. Legislative proceedings were streamed via video.
Reed said he is in discussions with fellow legislative leaders about allowing greater access given the improving pandemic conditions.
“I’m going to have meetings with the the Speaker. I’ve already had conversations with the Secretary of the Senate trying to look at our protocols. I think our protocols have worked just fine through the pandemic and we’ve been able to navigate that very effectively. In looking at moving forward, I think in the fact that the CDC guidelines on masks has changed and the orders have modified at the state level is significant,” Reed said. “The idea that the public would be in the State House I think is healthy for the Legislature. I think it’s important for the public. I think it’s important for those that are looking to have any impact on legislation and share their thoughts and ideas. So my my idea would be, as an overall theme, opening the State House as it was before to the general public is something that I would be supportive of. Exactly how we’re going to do that, we’ve still got to have some meetings and discuss, but that’s where I’m at.”