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Session 2024: School choice expansion, gambling debate and ‘red meat’


MONTGOMERY, Ala. – When it convenes on Tuesday, the Alabama Legislature is expected to renew its focus on some unfinished business from 2023, including allowing more public money to fund students in private schools and criminalizing some absentee ballot collections. 

A lottery and expanded gambling proposal is back this year, this time starting in the House, while the Senate will kick off the session with conservative policy proposals known in political circles as “red meat” for their appeal to Republican voters.

And state leaders across the board are focused on growing the state’s workforce and increasing the labor participation rate, which at about 57% is well below the national average. To do that, they’re discussing several other service expansions, including affordable child care options, health insurance coverage for more Alabamians and worker training improvements.

Meanwhile, the first month of the session leads up to the March 5 presidential and state election primaries, creating some “interesting dynamics,” said Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper. 

“We’ve got presidential primary candidates talking about a lot of issues, on both conservative and liberal themes,” Reed told Alabama Daily News. “And you’ve got congressional races in Alabama that have heated up significantly.”

“… And I think there will be a lot of political discussions, a lot of review of different political positions, that are going to be a part of what we’re dealing with at the beginning of the session.” 

While some initiatives have amassed support from both Democrats and Republicans, others – such as the aforementioned absentee ballot bill and a returning divisive concepts bill that would prohibit the teaching of certain theories pertaining race – have already put some Democrats in a defensive posture.

“To be honest, my biggest priority is to play defense,” Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, told Alabama Daily News.

“It sounds like from the other side of the aisle there are a lot of what I call ‘red meat’ issues that are, I think, not people friendly, and I want to protect the rights of Alabamians from legislation that may be taking us backwards.”

Here are some of the issues and actions to expect in the next 15 weeks.

Education savings accounts 

Last year lawmakers proposed but did not vote on an expansive school choice proposal to allow families to put $6,900 in taxpayer dollars in education savings accounts to pay for private school or homeschool. This year, Gov. Kay Ivey has called school choice her biggest priority. Gov. Ivey has promised to bring her own bill on education savings accounts, with details unknown but expected to be revealed Tuesday during the governor’s annual “State of the State” address.

Divisions remain on the issue, particularly about a possible cost limit, accountability standards and student testing requirements at any schools accepting the funds. 

Multiple choice bills will be introduced along these lines, including the PRICE Act from last year, which could have directed more than $600 million a year from the Education Trust Fund toward private education and didn’t include testing requirements.

Any bills this session will start in the education budget committees.  

“It is important that we take a substantive step in this direction, but we must be mindful and careful not to overextend ourselves financially,” Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said. He chairs the Senate education budget committee. 

“Last year we had legislation that would have potentially cost the ETF more than $600 million and that would have been far too much for the ETF to absorb in one fell swoop.”

Meanwhile, Orr and Reed told Alabama Daily News accountability standards are important to make sure taxpayer dollars are being effectively spent.

“Our responsibility is to the children and making sure they are getting a quality education,” Reed said. 

Meanwhile, Reed said, the majority of Alabama students will stay in public schools and lawmakers don’t want to “penalize good schools with good programs.”

House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, said that while the state already offers a wealth of school choice options for parents, he was open to expanding it further.

As to what form the bill would take, Ledbetter said he imagines it would be similar in scope and execution to a $42 million school voucher bill lawmakers in Utah approved last year.

“What I would suspect that we’ll see is a lot of positives of what different states have done, and pick those and put a good bill together. So I think we’ll get a good bill and I feel good about it,” Ledbetter said, 

Singleton, who leads Senate Democrats, said that while he isn’t opposed to school choice, he would be wary of any proposal without appropriate accountability measures to ensure academic success.

“There are going to be a lot of kids who cannot go to (public school alternatives), so I want to make sure that there is equity in education across the board. I’m not against parents choosing, but I want to make sure it’s equitable,” Singleton said.

Lottery, casinos and sports betting

Another to-be-revealed and significant bill this year will likely be a proposal for a state lottery and expanded gambling options. 

“Our goal is to have it early in the session and have some resolve to it early on and get it up to the Senate,” Rep. Andy Whitt, R-Harvest, said recently.  

As gambling has been debated in the last several years, the 105-member House has usually been where legislation falls apart. In the last year, there’s a new energy on the topic as some members, including Whitt, focus on the illegal and untaxed gambling they say is going on in their communities and on the revenue the state could be collecting on a lottery, a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and online sports betting. 

With days to go before the session begins, the bill is still being finalized. Whitt isn’t talking publicly about details because they were still being discussed with House members and the Governor’s Office.

Ledbetter said that, as of Thursday, the bill was already “99.99% done,” though he was still unsure as to whether or not it would succeed this year.

“It’s been 25 years since Alabamians have had a chance to vote (on gambling), and that’s one thing I hear more than anything: just give us a chance to vote,” Ledbetter said. 

“For this bill, what’s probably the most unusual is there hasn’t been any outside entities involved, it’s all been legislative members and the governor’s staff, so I think we’ll see it, but I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In the Senate, Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, who has previously passed a lottery and gambling bill in that chamber, said he’s been consulted on the House proposal. 

“(The House) asked for two years to have this opportunity and we’re going to let them have it,” he said. He also said he’s pleased with what he’s seen in the House so far.

Reed agreed, saying if the House does pass something, the Senate will be “diligent to work on it.”

No matter how the final proposal looks, it will face fierce opposition from conservative groups. The Alabama Policy Institute has come out forcefully against expanding gambling, publishing a report on the “perils and exaggerations” of the industry. The Alabama Farmers Federation has also lobbied against it, with its membership recently voting to reaffirm its decades-long stance against expanding gambling.

Workforce expansion

Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth last month rolled out a multi-prong approach to getting more Alabamians engaged in the workforce. Bills are expected soon. 

The plan includes new tax credits to incentivize businesses to provide on-site childcare or childcare stipends to employees, to offer mental health and addiction diversion programs and to construct and refurbish workforce housing units.

The childcare stipends were especially praised by Ledbetter, who named improving workforce development as among his highest priorities this year.

Alabama could use 200,000 employees today, so I think it’s imperative for us to get on that pretty quick,” he said

Reed said that as site selectors and CEOs think about where they want to locate their $100 million facilities, Alabama wants to be able to show a ready workforce. 

“We need to prove that we can do that not only now, but will be able to do that in the future,” Reed said.

Singleton called Ainsworth’s workforce development proposals “a great plan,” but much like other proposals currently in the works, said he wanted to ensure its benefits were distributed fairly across the state, and not isolated to already wealthy communities.

“We’re tired of being looked over in the rural communities, probably 80% of the landmass in this state is rural, and so when you start talking about jobs coming into areas, we want to be represented at the table just as well as urban areas,” Singleton said. 

Health care and mental health

Health care, and by extension, mental health resources, have also been a major topic of discussion among lawmakers both Democrat and Republican.

On health care, Democrats have long held the position that the state should expand its Medicaid program, which would provide coverage to an additional 200,000 Alabamians who fall under what’s known as the health coverage gap. Republicans have traditionally opposed the idea, though some have, in recent months, demonstrated an openness to more nuanced proposals.

At a meeting of the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce in January, Ledbetter said talks were ongoing related to the idea of expanding Medicaid in the state, but via a public-private partnership similar to what Arkansas lawmakers implemented in 2014.

Legislation is unlikely to materialize, however, with Ledbetter noting talks were still in the very early stages. Strong support among Republicans has also yet to materialize, Reed added.

“I think the idea of expanding Medicaid is a topic that many of the Republican members are not really enthusiastic about,” Reed said. 

“That doesn’t mean we’re not focused on issues related to health care in general and rural health care, on ways to continue to expand programs to increase nurses, health care providers … EMTs, ambulance services. I think the idea of Medicaid expansion is a topic that’s not receiving a lot of discussion by Republicans on the seventh floor.”

Like the majority of Democrats, Singleton said he would still advocate for Medicaid expansion, but said he would settle for any improvement on health care access in the state, something he named his “No. 1” priority.

Expanding mental health resources has amassed more bi-partisan support.

“I think Alabama has certainly moved the needle from where we were (on mental health), which was basically nothing,” Ledbetter said, referring to the considerable state investment over the last four years that placed mental health therapists and coordinators in every school district in the state, as well as created the 988 crisis hotline.

“I think we’ve got to continue that. We’ve made a lot of adjustments, but I think there’s a need out there. As good as I think the crisis centers are going to be, that still doesn’t satisfy the long-term need, so I think that’s one thing we need to really look at.”

One proposal to fund mental health resource expansion has been to add a surcharge on phone bills. A bill doing just that, which would have added a $.98 monthly fee on phone bills, failed last year, but would have generated $69 million annually, enough to expand the 988 crisis hotline, add 30 mobile crisis teams to cover the entire state, and construct a new crisis diversion center.

On that proposal’s return this year, Ledbetter said he remained open to the idea.

“I think our Mental Health Department does a great job, but having permanent funding is not a bad thing, so we’ll have a look at it,” Ledbetter said.


The General Fund and Education Trust Fund budgets are expected to get serious consideration later in the session. 

Supplemental spending bills stemming from surplus revenue are expected for both budgets, though the one-time spending won’t be as large as last year’s allocations. As revenues slow from all-time, pandemic-related highs, lawmakers expect a cautious, conservative approach. 

“We’re still living high off the CARES and ARPA monies and have in fact become addicted to that,” Albritton said. “So, we’re trying to find a way to get back to normalcy.” 

General Fund revenues are still increasing, up about 7.4% so far in fiscal 2024, almost all of it is coming from interest on state deposits. Yet, lawmakers have been warned that once the Federal Reserve reduces rates, the growth will also fall. 

Asked what state agencies could expect in 2025, Albritton said he’s not willing to commit to any funding increases yet. And those requesting increases will have to show what they’ve done with recent allocations, he said.

“I’d like to see a real good plan from every agency on how we’re going to be moving forward (with funding increases,)” he said.

He said pay raises for state employees in 2025 are being discussed.

Revenue into the ETF so far in 2024 is flat, but lawmakers were cautious in their budgeting this year and even without much growth, obligations will be met. 

Looking to 2025, Orr said he expects some “extra capacity.” 

“I would anticipate an educator pay raise across the board because the revenues are there to support that,” Orr said.

He also expects additional money for schools’ operational funds and an allocation to a semi-regular fund that K-12 schools and colleges can use for specific technology and capital projects.

“I would envision a substantial investment of Advancement and Technology funds occurring this year, which will help schools with security needs, capital needs and technology needs across the districts.” 

Lawmakers and the public will get fiscal forecasts for 2025 from Director of Finance Bill Poole and Legislative Services Agency Deputy Director Kirk Fulford Tuesday morning.

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