Legislative session roundup: Alabama

By the Progressive States Network

While lawmakers from both parties called this year's session "peaceful" and "amazingly productive", some observers, like The Birmingham News, were more likely to criticize missed opportunities.

Overall, the state used federal recovery dollars to avoid deep cuts to many state programs, and pass some important initiatives advanced by majority Democrats. Key budget decisions and other bills from the session include:
  • Expansion of the state's ALL Kids health care program equal to 14,000 children (the result of a budget veto override) by including children in families up to 300 percent of the poverty level.
  • An education budget that utilized federal stimulus funding to preserve key programs and prevent any teacher layoffs.
  • The Alabama Housing Initiative, a program that will help 7,000 new homebuyers through low-interest loans and reduced upfront costs.
  • HJR 592 created a Statewide Public Transit Commission to develop a framework for establishing public transit systems in the state and making recommendations before the 2011 session.
Missed Opportunities on the budget included failure to enact a proposed highway stimulus plan which would have created 27,000 new jobs and spent $1 billion on road construction across the state and failure to use $100 million in federal stimulus funds to expand unemployment benefits to 20,000 more families. Lawmakers also failed to shore up the Prepaid Affordable College Tuition, which supports 48,000 students but has lost half its value during the economic downturn. Proposals to help working families by eliminating the sales tax on groceries also failed. And, the Governor vetoed S 93 which would have created Individual Development Accounts to help families build personal assets.

Other Missed Opportunities:
  • Ethics reform, to curb the practice of lobbyists spending as much as $250 each day on "hospitality" for a single lawmaker without having to report it, failed again despite campaign promises by lawmakers. Despite ranking 49th for its ethics and finance laws by the Campaign Disclosure Project, lawmakers failed to pass other ethics and campaign finance reform bills including bans on PAC to PAC transfers, subpoena power for the state Ethics Commission, and better campaign finance disclosure reports.
  • A ban on smoking in public places failed even though the adverse affects of second-hand smoke are extremely well-documented and a natural lobby opposing the measure is presumably non-existent, considering there is no tobacco-industry in the state and only 23% of adults smoke.
Defeat of Vote Suppression Bill: On the positive side, lawmakers killed a bill requiring a photo ID in order to vote.

Telephone Deregulation: More negatively, advocacy groups strongly condemned a law removing the remaining minimal regulation of land-line telephone services.

Other News:
  • The Gun Lobby had a decent session. Lawmakers unanimously passed a bill that shields gun owners with a permit to carry a concealed weapon from public scrutiny, unless the gun owner had a criminal record.
  • To the delight of beer drinkers with a distinguishing palate, lawmakers passed a bill increasing the amount of allowable alcohol by volume in beer from 6% to 13.9%.  The legislation, resulting from years of lobbying by the group Free the Hops, will open Alabama to upscale brews like many Belgian ales and American "craft" beers.
  • Lawmakers failed to allow the voters to call a constitutional convention, even though Constitutional reform is increasingly a priority for the state.  Here is why: Alabama has the longest constitution in the world.  It has approximately three times as many words as the Constitution of India.  This trivial distinction, however, houses a stew of complications for effectively and democratically governing the state.  The constitution centralizes power in the state capital, denying county governments the ability to make even the most mundane decisions, like how to regulate rodent control.  Many issues that are dealt with by statute in other states are written into the constitution.  The tax code is a particular problem, as changes to taxation require a constitutional amendment.  This is one of the reasons lawmakers were unable to eliminate the tax on groceries this year.