The legislative session starts Tuesday and it will be one unlike any other. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers will have to figure out how to conduct business while being socially distant. Plus the pandemic has raised new issues along with all the perennial measures from the budget to gambling to prisons. WBHM’s Andrew Yeager spoke with Don Daily, host of Capitol Journal on Alabama Public Television, about what to expect.
The physical space of the Alabama House will be used differently to ensure state representatives are not too close to each other. The 105 House members will be spread across the House floor, the gallery overlooking the House chamber and an overflow room. House lawmakers will also vote by electronic tablet. The Senate, with 35 members, is less constrained by space than the House.
“But all of the health and sanitation, masking and social distancing requirements will remain the same,” Daily said. “There’s an eagerness to come back to work but to do so safely,”
Temperature scans will be required to enter the state house and public access will be limited. Daily said most observers will depend on online streaming to follow what goes on in the legislative chambers and committee meetings.
Daily said lawmakers will start with several bills in response to the pandemic. One would limit legal liability for businesses by shielding them from some civil lawsuits. Another would ensure payments to individuals and businesses from the federal CARES Act would not be subject to state income tax. Lawmakers will also look at extending some economic incentives as the state tries to recover from the pandemic’s financial toll.
Alabama’s prisons have been in crisis for years, but the pressure is on after the Department of Justice sued the state last year alleging conditions are so violent they are unconstitutional. Gov. Kay Ivey moved forward with her plan to lease three new mens mega-prisons by signing a lease for two of those sites Monday. Ivey can act without the legislature’s approval, but some lawmakers expressed concern when the subject came up during last week’s budget hearings.
“Lawmakers said they needed a lot more information before they feel comfortable supporting the governor’s plans,” Daily said.
Daily said lawmakers are expected to take up a bill related to sentencing, recidivism and transitioning prisoners back to everyday life after being released.
A state lottery and gambling are perennial issues in the legislature but have never made it past the finish line. They’ll receive renewed attention this session after Ivey established a task force last year to study the issue. The panel issued its report in December.
Alabama is one of a handful of states that does not have a paper lottery, something proponents will push for again. Other gambling issues are expected, including the state’s relationship with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, which runs three casinos, and sports betting.
“Thanks to that task force … lawmakers will have a lot more very specific information to deal with in their deliberations over this issue,” Daily said.
Alabama’s two budgets have fared rather well compared to other states during the pandemic thanks to savings and an online sales tax. The outlook remains on the rosier side.
“We held budget hearings here at the state house last week and lawmakers seemed generally encouraged by the numbers they heard both from the Education and General Fund budgets,” Daily said.
The pandemic forced an abrupt end to last year’s session and one bill that was halted in the interim was a medical marijuana bill. Daily said it will be back.
“It’s controversial by nature,” Daily said.
Sen. Tim Melson of Florence, who is a physician, has championed this bill. Daily said Melson has had to work very hard to change the minds of those opposed.
“It seems to have a lot of traction and Sen. Melson at least thinks its chances are good,” Daily said.
After the 2020 census, new district maps for Congress and the Alabama legislature must be drawn. In Alabama, the process falls to the legislature. But the federal government did not get the census numbers out on time and currently aren’t projected to release them until April 30. That delay, Daily said, all but ensures lawmakers will need a special session for reapportionment.
The redistricting process will grab extra attention this year because Alabama, which is not growing as fast as some states, could lose a Congressional district depending on what the census finds.