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Several bills still pending final approval

By Alexander Willis and Mary Sell, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Tuesday is the 30th and final legislative day of the Alabama Legislature’s 2023 session and while lawmakers’ time is limited, a number of significant bills are still one step away from final passage.

From legislation setting deadlines for government officials to respond to public record requests, to a controversial bill criminalizing absentee ballot assistance under certain circumstances, here are the high profile proposals still up in the air in the waning days of the 2023 legislative session. 

Absentee ballot assistance

What’s needed: Senate passage, governor’s signature

House Bill 209 would criminalize an individual from assisting another person in ordering, delivering or filling out an absentee ballot, with some exceptions.

Sponsored by Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, the bill would make exceptions for family members helping each other with absentee ballots, and make it a viable defense for an individual to assist someone who is blind, disabled or unable to read or write.

While the House passed the bill in early May, it saw strong opposition from Democrats who later filibustered for hours in response to its passage. Its proponents argue the bill would help prevent ballot harvesting, as well as impose more serious penalties for incidents of voter fraud. Its opponents chalked the bill up to a form of voter suppression.

Kiel told Alabama Daily News on Monday that since the bill’s filing, it had always had strong support among the Legislature and that he felt it would pass were it to reach the Senate floor.

“I’ve not had a negative word from senators after we got (the bill) passed in committee,” Kiel told ADN. “I think (the Senate) is the last hurdle to clear; I think it passes, and I feel (it will) strengthen the security of our voting process.”

The Senate’s calendar of bills for today hasn’t been released, but if the ballot bill is on it, significant debate is expected and could have an impact on how the final day goes.

Public records transparency

What’s needed: House passage, governor’s signature

Sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, Senate Bill 196 would require government agencies to respond to public record requests more promptly.

The bill would require government agencies to fulfill public records requests within 20 business days and respond to them within 10. Government agencies would be afforded up to 45 business days under circumstances where fulfilling the request would take an exorbitant amount of time and an additional 15 if the request relates to sensitive documents.

A 2020 study by the National Freedom of Information Coalition that scored states based on ease of access to public records ranked Alabama with a score of 10 out of 100, the single lowest score out of all 50 states. 

While existing law allows for Alabamians to request public records, there are no deadlines for government agencies to respond to such requests, and as such, many go unfulfilled or take lengthy periods of time.

“We are very hopeful that the open records bill will be on the House calendar for Tuesday,” Felicia Mason, executive director the Alabama Press Association, told Alabama Daily News. “There has been a lot of work done to reach an agreement and we believe we have a reasonable bill to create timelines for requesting public records.

“If we can cross the last-day hurdles, we hope Gov. Ivey will sign the bill. She has always supported government transparency and accountability in the past.”

Vaping regulations

What’s needed: Senate passage, governor’s signature

Lawmakers last week had a heated debate on the Senate floor about a bill advocates say would help those under age 21 from accessing vaping products. Opposition to House Bill 319 includes, for different reasons, vape shop owners and several prominent health and children’s advocacy groups, who say the bill benefits tobacco companies.

“What this bill simply does, it makes it illegal for retailers to sell all vape products to anyone under 21,” sponsor Rep. Barbara Drummond, R-Mobile, said in a committee meeting last month. “It’s not about tobacco, it’s a vape bill.”

The bill puts into law regulations on age requirements, but also product requirements, specifying that retailers can’t sell “synthetic nicotine or nicotine derived from a source other than tobacco.” 

The vape retailer association said limiting the products they sell will put many shops out of business and give a competitive advantage to tobacco companies.

Groups including the American Cancer Society, the Coalition for Tobacco-Free Alabama, Voices for Alabama’s Children and the Jefferson County Department of Public Health have asked lawmakers not to approve the bill.

In a joint letter, the health groups asked lawmakers to “instead focus on proven tobacco control policies, such as comprehensive tobacco retail licensure, adequate funding for the tobacco prevention and control program, 100% smoke free laws and increasing the price of tobacco products to make them unaffordable to youth…”

The bill allows for those under 21 caught with vape products to receive fines starting at $50 for first offenses up to $200. Community service hours are also an option.

Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, said Monday several amendments have been offered by Senators and he was sorting through them.

“We want to make sure we’re not hurting small businesses, but at the same time figure out who is the culprit for selling to youth,” Gudger told Alabama Daily News.

Ethics Commission requirements

What’s needed: Conference committee, governor’s signature

Senate Bill 103 would require the Alabama Ethics Commission to disclose evidence, if discovered, that may exonerate an individual facing investigation by the commission.

Created by the Alabama Legislature in 1973, the Ethics Commission investigates conflicts of interest and other corruption allegations against public officials. In 2022, the commission said it is not required to disclose exonerating evidence to those accused of wrongdoing, a statement largely responsible for the drafting of the bill.

Sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, the bill sailed smoothly through committees as well as the House, being approved by the House unanimously on May 31. The Senate, however, did not concur with the bill that same day, sending it to a conference committee. Should that committee produce a compromise version, it would need final votes in both the House and Senate. 

Kindergarten attendance

What’s needed: Senate passage, governor’s signature

House Bill 43 would require Alabama students to either attend kindergarten when entering the public school system or pass a readiness assessment before entering the first grade.

Bill sponsor Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, has pushed for the bill’s passage since at least 2019, though has taken it further this year than any previous, having passed the House and garnered the governor’s support.

While all that remains is passage in the Senate, Warren has accused her Senate colleague Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, of halting the bill’s progress by way of filibustering. Smitherman expressed concerns over the bill related to forcing students to attend kindergarten before first grade, saying that doing so would be “setting up these kids to fail.”

Massage board regulation, fee bill

What’s needed: Senate passage, governor’s signature

Every year, lawmakers pass a pile of bills to extend the authority of dozens of occupational boards that license and regulate many professionals in Alabama. They’re usually a nonevent, but this year, the bill to extend the state’s massage therapy  board and reduce the fees it can charge professional massage therapists has led to a showdown between the board and some lawmakers.

The Senate earlier in the session moved to reduce a 2022 fee increase and make some oversight changes to the appointed board. Last year, fees for an initial massage therapist’s license went from $100 to $250. Biannual renewals went from $100 to $300. 

After negotiations with the House in April, a group of representatives and senators proposed a sunset bill that would take the fees to pre-2022 levels.

The board and hired executive director Keith Warren have lobbied in the last month for the fees to stay at the 2022 increase.

If the Senate doesn’t vote on House Bill 192 today, the board will cease to exist later this year.

Education savings account bill

What’s needed: Senate passage, governor’s signature

House Bill 334 would create education savings accounts to allow K-12 students with special education needs, students in foster care, students who are homeless and students in military families who were not enrolled in public schools in Alabama the previous year to take state money to private school and non-traditional school settings.

The program in its first year would cost the state $3 million and increase in subsequent years, according to a fiscal note. The bill is significantly smaller than a school choice proposal offered earlier in the session, but supporters, including sponsors Reps. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, and Terri Collins, R-Decatur, have said it is a good way to start and possibly expand education savings accounts in the state.

Bill mandating phones, tablets be sold with adult content filters enabled

What’s needed: Senate passage, governor’s signature

Called the Protection of Minors from Unfiltered Devices Act, House Bill 298 would require all smartphones and tablets sold in Alabama to have an adult content filter enabled upon purchase. Under the bill, violations of the requirement could constitute a civil penalty of up to $50,000 for the device manufacturers such as Apple or Samsung.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chris Sells, R-Greenville, said the legislation was designed to restrict minors’ access to pornography, and that the adult content filter could easily be switched off by an adult. The bill saw a lopsided approval in the House on May 16 with a vote of 70-8, with 24 lawmakers abstaining from the vote.

The bill passed a Senate committee on May 24, and now requires only Senate approval before being able to be sent to the governor’s office for final approval.

Distracted driving bill

What’s needed: House passage, governor’s signature

Senate Bill 301 would impose criminal penalties for drivers who are observed physically holding any wireless telecommunications device such as a phone or tablet.

Sponsored by Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, the bill would make it a Class C misdemeanor for drivers to hold a phone while operating a motor vehicle, punishable by a fine of up to $50 for a first offense, and up to $150 for a third offense. The bill is similar to House Bill 8, sponsored by Randy Wood, R-Anniston, which ultimately died on the House floor back in April.

Waggoner’s bill, on the other hand, saw unanimous approval on the Senate floor, as well as a House committee, and now only requires House approval before it’s ready to be sent to the governor’s office for final approval.

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