by Martha Smith
The Alabama Senate will be finishing up their 2021 session this month with several important bills now sitting at the House, awaiting floor action. Of these are the Gaming Bill and the Medical Marijuana bill. If any changes are made to the bills by the House, they will return to the Senate for one week. Once there, the Senate will either concur with the changes, or they will go to Conference Committee. This committee is comprised of three members from the House and three members from the Senate. Both parties will discuss changes, hopefully reaching a compromise, wherein the bills will then go back to both bodies for a vote to concur with the agreement. “Next week we’ll meet Tuesday and Thursday, with Wednesday being a normal committee day,” Senator Steve Livingston stated. “Upon recess Thursday afternoon, we will come back on Monday, May 17th, which is the last day possible for us to have legislative session. That time gap in-between May 6th, our adjournment day, and May 17th, is based upon how the Governor has seven days to sign a bill, amend it or send it back. If we get out on the 6th, then the 13th is the last day. So, we can come back on the 17th as the last legislative day possible and either override, or veto, or make a change to it ourselves.”
The Education Budget has been transmitted to Governor Kay Ivey, but the House has not yet concurred with the Primary budget and will probably go to conference with it. The Senate must pass a Budget Isolation Resolution, with a 60% vote of the body, before moving on the budget, which may explain why the General Budget is still being held up in the House. Another reason may translate to some members opposing the Gaming and Medical Marijuana bills.
“But that’s our privilege,” Livingston stated. “They can do that, and that’s part of the tools that you can use depending on which side you’re on. Hopefully, they’ll take both, primarily the Gaming Bill, up this week.”
The general fund budget is coming in strong at $2.48 billion, with the education budget at $7.7 billion, the strongest one Alabama has had to date. When the Rolling Reserve Act passed in 2011, it meant educators would have a steady line number and would know a minimum of what they would be receiving every year, based on the numbers from the previous year, giving them an opportunity for better job planning. Before the Rolling Reserve Act, funding was based on projections of the coming year, often leading to a guessing game and discrepancies between the actual numbers needed versus the projected numbers.
Last week the Senate also passed the Preferred Benefits Plan Managers (PBM) bill. Currently, large corporations designate companies to manage their healthcare plans, and these companies hire Pharmaceutical Benefit Managers that will tell employees where they may go to fill their prescriptions. In most cases, smaller, locally owned establishments are left off of this list of accepted pharmacies, leaving a loss for them, and in some cases, inconvenience and a longer commute for patrons wishing to have their prescriptions filled closer. Rural pharmacists, locally owned and operated, were not able to serve certain customers as a result. Livingston recently consulted a pharmacist at a local pharmacy whose wife’s prescription plan has designated him to another, larger pharmacy chain.
“If you’re on the north end of the mountain, you don’t need to drive to South Pittsburg if you’ve got a pharmacist handy here,” Livingston stated. “It’s an easier way to do business, we think. Hopefully the Governor will sign the compromise bill. It took care of some of those problems, no question.”
The Construction Benefits Bill was also passed in the Senate last week, allowing local school systems to opt out of the Finance Department for under half a million dollars in construction costs. In some instances, when a roof leak was reported, by the time the approval was given by the Finance Department, the damage had grown so extensive, there would be additional repairs, like a new floor as well, driving the cost up even further.
“If you’re changing an air conditioning unit, you’re just changing an air conditioner unit. You’re not building a new building or a new wing on a school that needs all these plans. We’ll be able to do that. It will free up a ton of money in our local school systems without changing safety for our students at all, which has ultimately got to be number one,” Livingston stated.
With the pandemic, Alabama state parks have been very busy, with citizens utilizing the outdoors and whatever facilities have been available. The Senate passed three bills for the state parks, approving a bond issue. The bond will help the parks renovate and update cabins and cottages. For example, Guntersville State Park would soon boast additional cabins for rent. Voters will be able to vote on the $80million bond issue for state parks.
The preliminary numbers for the 2021 Alabama Census are in, showing the state has grown to a population of 5,030,000 citizens, and because of the outstanding voluntary participation in the survey, Alabama will not be losing any of its seven congressional seats, also allowing the state to maintain its Electoral College votes. The official numbers are expected to be handed down by September 30th of this year, painting a more accurate picture for the state. After which, the Reapportion Committee will meet to analyze the numbers and decide where district lines will need to be redrawn and what changes will need to be made.
Another bill currently in Conference Committee is Senate Bill 215, the Broadband Expansion Bill, which will receive its funding out of the Gaming Bill that is currently sitting at the House. Providing the Gaming Bill is approved by the House and signed by the Governor, the bill will utilize the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) as the broadband authority. The state is trying to expand into rural Alabama, making broadband more available to un-served Alabamians.
In Marshall County, Senator Clay Scofield, through ADECA, has hired a national firm to map the broadband availability in Alabama, making it the first state in the nation to do so. This map will show the state where the broadband needs are the greatest, allowing them to come up with a plan to provide the entire state, and those as yet un-served, with all the privileges and conveniences that come with the service.
The Jackson County Legislative Delegation is located in downtown Scottsboro at 100 East Peachtree Street, and their phone is 256.218.3090.