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Weekly Column: Broadband, ethics, school safety are issues to watch in Legislature’s 2nd half

By Todd Stacy

The 2018 Regular Session of the Alabama Legislature passed its halfway point last week and, with no major budget fights on the horizon, non-financial issues are expected to dominate the remaining days of the session.

Broadband Internet

Lawmakers representing rural Alabama communities are teaming up to make a major push for expanding access to wireless broadband internet across the state. In recent years the state has upgraded technology in education by expanding wireless broadband to every K-12 public school and providing students with tablets and other devices. But, in many rural areas, access to broadband ends when the students leave campus.

State Sen. Clay Scofield of Guntersville is sponsoring the Alabama Rural Broadband Act, which offers tax incentives to build broadband network services in rural areas. Technology firms could see a tax credit of 10 percent of their total investment, capped at $20 million and expiring after five years. The Senate passed Scofield’s bill without opposition in early February and the House is expected to take it up in committee this week.

However, some changes to the bill might be in the works. While tax credits are seen as a positive way to spur investment in places technology firms might not otherwise go, many involved in the policy discussion would rather see a greater emphasis on grants to get the job done. The Trump Administration’s $1.7 billion infrastructure plan includes funding for broadband, but the Administration wants states to buy in with financial investments of their own. Some believe grants could be more effective than tax credits for winning federal funding.

State Rep. Donnie Chesteen of Geneva is the champion for rural broadband in the House, and he told me he’s talking through the issue with fellow lawmakers and other interested parties to make sure a deal gets done this session.

Ethics Changes

Attorney General Steve Marshall unveiled his much-anticipated ethics code update this past week. SB383, the Alabama Ethics Act, is intended to clear up confusion and close potential loopholes in the law governing how public officials conduct themselves.The AG’s office has been conducting a line-by-line review of the ethics code and preparing recommended changes for two years.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh of Anniston introduced the legislation on behalf of the Attorney General saying he wanted to give lawmakers an opportunity to review it for themselves. The bill won’t pass this session, which Marsh and Marshall both acknowledge. A task force chaired by the AG and ethics commission director will work through the proposals with the goal of moving it next year.

What could pass, however, is a smaller, more specific change to the law where the ethics code intersects with economic development. In the wake of the state’s big Mazda-Toyota project win, the economic development community expressed concerns that competitor states were beginning to use Alabama’s ethics requirements against us in industry recruiting battles. An interpretation of Alabama’s ethics code could require that site selectors and even local chamber of commerce employees register as lobbyists in order to approach the state about bringing a major project to Alabama. The fear has been that Alabama would be taken off the short list for many projects because site selectors cannot disclose the name of their potential project before negotiations begin.

Legislation backed by Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield to address this problem sailed through committee but then abruptly stalled when the Attorney General expressed concerns over some of the language. Their two offices have been in talks about how to square the problem facing economic developers with the need to maintain strict ethical standards. We could see an agreement announced as soon as this week.

Guns and School Safety

The tragic school shooting in Florida has the entire country talking about guns and school safety, and Alabama is no exception. Several bills related to this issue have been filed:

·        State Rep. Will Ainsworth of Guntersville introduced legislation that would permit teachers, administrators and other school employees to carry weapons on school grounds.

·        State Rep. Allen Farley of Birmingham is pushing a bill that would expand statewide a local Franklin County program that allows school districts to train and deputize security teams similar to federal sky marshals, where no one but top administrators would know who is armed.

·        State Rep. Mary Moore of Birmingham introduced a bill to ban the sale of all semi-automatic weapons. Her legislation would allow those who own existing guns to obtain a permit to keep them.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon has set up a legislative working group on gun and school safety. He said he wants those who are sponsoring each of these bills to talk to each other and come to a better understanding of their intentions and goals.

No bill banning guns is going to come close to passing in the Alabama Legislature. Many including Gov. Kay Ivey and those in the education community have expressed concerns about arming teachers. The “school sky marshals” bill is a novel concept that is likely to get a lot more attention over the next few weeks.

The session is expected to conclude in late March or early April.

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