After Spring Break, Legislators Confront Issues of Impeachment, Redistricting, Prisons and Budgets

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Governor's Office

Gov. Robert Bentley faces the press.

Legislators will return to Montgomery on Tuesday after a two-week spring break still facing the controversial issues that were on their desks at the beginning of the session.

Prison crowding, budgets, impeachment and redistricting are just a few of the weighty matters legislators must grapple with in the rest of their session.

When they return, it will be for the 14th business day, just shy of the halfway mark in the 30-day session.

So far, they’ve passed 10 bills and sent them to the governor. Four of those are local laws that apply to one county only.

The others that have been passed would: allow extradition to other states when a person is charged with a crime; tweak the state’s Medicaid fraud law; require out-of-state sellers to report their sales to the state Department of Revenue and notify Alabama customers if they owe sales tax to the state; establish a permanent study commission to determine whether more or fewer judges are needed in each sector of the state and make recommendations for changes each year to the governor and Legislature; and move the date of the school sales tax holiday earlier each year.

It’s not unusual for legislators to pass the bulk of their bills in the second half of the session. But this year they have some particularly thorny ones ahead of them.

 

Impeachment

In the next month, legislators will address the decision of whether to impeach Gov. Robert Bentley on charges surrounding allegations he had a romantic relationship with an aide.

Special Counsel Jack Sharman will present results of an investigation he has been leading to legislators in a meeting Thursday morning, he said in a memo. After three or four days of hearings, the committee would make its recommendation to the House on May 1, and the House would vote May 9 whether to impeach the governor, under the timeline Sharman laid out.

 

Redistricting

Legislators also must redraw lines for some of its districts before the end of the session.

A federal court in January struck down 12 of the districts that had been drawn after the 2010 Census. The court said race played too dominant a role in deciding district lines, and justices particularly took issue with district lines that split precincts in two or overlapped county lines.

The Permanent Legislative Committee on Reapportionment has started to look at maps and redraw the boundaries of House and Senate districts. Legislators have said that perhaps 30 of the state’s 140 districts could be affected.

Meanwhile, the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus has drafted its own redistricting plan, which one of the authors said would redraw most of the districts in the House.

 

Prisons

This is the second year the Legislature has grappled with prison crowding and a proposal by Bentley to issue $800 million in bonds to build four new prisons. The state’s prisons are drastically crowded, housing close to twice as many prisoners as they were intended for.

The Senate approved a bill right before the break that is much smaller than the governor’s original proposal. The bill envisions three new prisons for men. But two of those would have to be built by local entities before the state could build the third. The local groups could issue up to $225 million in bonds to build the facilities.

This bill does not include a new prison for women.

An alternate bill has been introduced that’s also aimed at relieving crowding, but it wouldn’t involve building prisons. That bill would pay sheriffs to house 1,500 inmates in county jails.

 

Education Budget

One of the first things on senators’ agenda when they return will be a proposed $6.4 billion Education Trust Fund budget. It has been passed in committee but faltered on the day before the break when Republican senators said they needed more time to study it. The budget is barely more than this year’s, and most items would be level funded.

The budget doesn’t give teachers a pay raise, but it does include money for about 150 additional teachers in fourth through sixth grades. It would give the state’s prekindergarten program $79 million, a $15 million increase from this year.

The budget does currently include nearly $1.6 million to continue funding the Alabama Science in Motion program, money that was not in the budget as originally proposed by the governor.

 

General Fund Budget  

The House has passed a $1.8 billion General Fund budget that does not give employees pay raises or bonuses. House members said they were trying to leave $97 million uncommitted in the budget as a hedge against potential changes from Congress and the future loss of BP oil settlement funds.

It includes about $700 million for Medicaid, the largest item in the budget. Medicaid also would get $105 million from the BP settlement. The corrections department would get more than $400 million in the budget.

It also includes a 5 percent increase in liquor taxes, which has drawn a lot of attention of late. The increase would raise the state’s markup on alcohol from 30 percent to 35 percent. The money would go to the courts and district attorneys’ offices.

 

Historic tax credit

Another bill that has been getting attention, particularly from legislators who represent Birmingham and Mobile, is one that would restore a program that provided tax credits for renovation of historic buildings.

That bill goes to a House committee Wednesday. Birmingham had been the biggest beneficiary of the program before it expired last year, and Mobile had been the second-biggest beneficiary.

A heavily amended version of the bill has been approved by a Senate committee. Among the changes made in that version would be to divide the $20 million in tax credits each year evenly among the seven congressional districts, rather than letting all projects in the state compete for the funds. Another change would require that eligible buildings be 75 years old, rather than the previous 50 years.

 

Other bills  

A flurry of other bills have drawn attention, including one that would allow people to carry concealed guns without a license. Another bill, set to be up for a committee vote April 12, would require insurance companies to cover applied behavior analysis therapy for children with autism.

In all, 774 bills have been introduced during this session of the Legislature.

 

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