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Weekly Column: Major bills moving as session hits final stretch

With days winding down in the Alabama Legislature’s 2018 Regular Session, major legislation is starting to move and move quickly. Here’s a quick rundown of key bills and where they stand going into the final stretch.

Senate President Pro-Tem Del Marsh’s (R-Anniston) bill giving low-to-middle income Alabamians a tax break is now law, as Gov. Kay Ivey signed it on Thursday. It raises the maximum income threshold for state tax exemptions. So, for single filers, heads of household and married couples filing jointly, the income threshold at which you are exempt from state taxes will go from $20,000 to $23,000. An estimated 182,266 Alabama tax filers will see some decrease under the bill, Marsh’s office said.

The Education Trust Fund budget passed the Senate with a 2.5 percent pay raise for teachers and a funding plus-up for Alabama State University, which has seen its state allocation unfairly cut over the years. Because it is different from the House-passed version, the bill goes back to the House, which can either concur and send it to the governor or vote to go to a House-Senate conference committee to work out the differences.

The General Fund budget passed the House with a much-needed funding increase for prisons and a state employee pay raise. It awaits action by the Senate, which can either send it to the governor or ask for a conference committee. I predict the former because I doubt the Senate will want to re-open that can of worms this close to the end of the session.

Bottom line: both state budgets should be signed, sealed and delivered within ten days.

At long last, Rep. Pebblin Warren’s (D-Tuskegee) bill to require health and safety standards at church day care facilities received final passage in the Senate and should become law as soon as next week. Right now, faith-based day care centers are exempt from state health and safety requirements, and some unfortunate sickness outbreaks at such facilities have led to legislative action.

One of the most controversial bills this session has been Rep. Will Ainsworth’s (R-Guntersville) proposal to allow trained teachers to carry firearms at school. The idea polls really well among GOP voters, but is strongly opposed by many in the education and law enforcement communities. A compromise was reached to include elements of Rep. Allen Farley’s (R-McCalla) “school marshal” proposal as well as more discretion for school districts to decide whether or not to arm teachers. The bill is set to be considered on the House floor this week, but it is in line behind several other high-profile measures, including the contentious Birmingham football stadium bill.

Rep. Jim Hill’s (R-Moody) bill to reform the juvenile justice system has passed the House, and Senate sponsor Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) wants to get the bill moving in that chamber in time for it to have a chance to pass before the session ends.

The fate of a Department of Commerce bill to fix a potential pitfall facing economic developers now rests with the Senate. House Bill 317, the Alabama Jobs Enhancement Act, would allow economic development professionals to avoid having to register as lobbyists, while prohibiting public officials from using that exemption to try to skirt the state’s ethics laws. Requiring site selectors for the likes of Hyundai or Mazda-Toyota to register with the state and reveal their prospective project would spook away business, Commerce argues. The bill passed the House overwhelmingly, but then news reports and a subsequent committee hearing revealed that the Members of Ethics Commission and its Executive Director don’t see eye-to-eye on the bill. Now Marsh, the leader of the Senate, said he wants to sit down with the Ethics Commission, the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Commerce to figure out next steps.

Finally, Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Birmingham) has introduced a revised proposal to address the state’s civil asset forfeiture law. Earlier this session, groups on the left and right came together to endorse legislation to stop police from being able to seize property absent a criminal conviction. Now, the conservative side of that coalition has made an agreement with the law enforcement community that keeps civil asset forfeiture in place, but requires strict transparency on seizures and spending to prevent abuses. Sen. Arthur Orr is expected to introduce this new language as a substitute bill in the Senate as soon as Tuesday.

Barring any major setbacks, the session should adjourn “sine die” by March 29. That’s five legislative days early, which many appreciate because it saves taxpayer money and makes it harder for troublesome bills to become law.

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