By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. - State lawmakers walked one by one into their respective chambers, each keeping a strict distance from one another and many wearing protective masks and gloves as the House and Senate met at the State House Tuesday.
The Legislature was forced to convene Tuesday in order to formally adopt a joint rule allowing for the postponement of a legislative session during a state of emergency. Fifty-eight of 105 House members were in attendance, each asked to sit with a seat between them in chairs specially marked by neon green sticky notes. Twenty-two of 35 Senators were present in the much more spacious upper chamber, enough to conduct the limited business of the day: deciding when to reconvene the 2020 Regular Session amid the outbreak of the new coronavirus.
Both the House and Senate agreed to meet again on April 28, hoping the worst of the outbreak will be over by then. However, if it isn't, a special rule adopted Tuesday allows the leaders in each chamber to agree to postpone the session further without again gathering lawmakers in Montgomery.
The Legislature has until May 18 to complete the Regular Session with 16 of the 30 allowed meeting days left available. After that, special sessions called by Gov. Kay Ivey would be needed to complete legislative business.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he hopes further postponement won't be necessary because the Legislature needs to pass budgets.
"We fully expect to pass the budgets in this legislative session," Marsh said. "I met this morning with the education [budget committee] chair, I've spoken with the General Fund [committee] chair, and we are all in agreement that we want to get these budgets passed."
The only action lawmakers are constitutionally required to do each year is approve the state’s education and General Fund budgets. Marsh said that "barebones" versions of the budgets could be approved in May to give school systems and state agencies some certainty going into the next fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
He said that previously expected funding increases - including expected pay raises to teachers and state workers - must be put on hold until budget writers know more about the coronavirus’ impact on state tax revenues.
"I'm just going to tell you, both budgets will be barebones," Marsh said. "With the uncertainty in the economy at this point, we can't justify any kind of pay raises or any commitments of revenues until we see what's happening with this economy."
Going into the session, revenue projections showed that lawmakers would be able to craft budgets with near-record levels of funding for schools and state programs. Now, as a once booming economy has in many ways ground to a halt, state revenue projections are expected to be lower, though legislative leaders don't yet know how much.
"I don't mean to be the bearer of bad news, but I think it would be irresponsible with the economic uncertainty we are in to put any increases on either budget," Marsh said.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the Alabama Department of Public Health had reported nearly 1,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 20 reported deaths and 13 confirmed deaths due to the illness.
Lawmakers met as much of the state stayed home. "Non-essential" businesses and schools have closed in an effort to flatten the upward curve of new infections from the deadly epidemic. Its peak in Alabama is still expected to be weeks away.
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said he was satisfied with the legislative plan moving forward, but expressed concerns about the limited hospital space and testing equipment in his west Alabama district and all of rural Alabama.
"It's very concerning," Singleton said. "Tuscaloosa is the largest hub for my area with the largest hospital, and if everybody from the surrounding area were to converge upon Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa just wouldn't have enough beds."
Singleton said he had spoken with Ivey's office about possibly converting Alabama National Guard armories into make-shift hospital space.
"We are not getting enough (COVID-19) tests in rural Alabama, but we are beginning to see a rise in confirmed cases over the last 48 hours," Singleton said.
Marsh said other issues lawmakers could take up when the session resumes include economic development bills, changes to unemployment laws to help laid-off workers and possible changes to the state's voting system to ensure public safety. He also acknowledged that the public health situation might not have improved enough by April 28 for the Legislature to return.
"If in fact the on April 28th it is deemed not a safe situation for bringing everybody back in, I could come down and meet with the Speaker and we could delay it as long as we needed to. I hope that doesn't happen, but that is the safeguard we just put in place," Marsh said.
The usually-crowded State House was eerily empty Tuesday. No lobbyists could be seen wandering the halls and no members of the public were allowed in the building as the proceedings were streamed online. State House security took individuals' temperatures upon entering the building to ensure no one with a fever walked in and disinfecting stations were placed at the entrances to allow lawmakers to clean their hands and phones.
Several members of the House could be seen wearing protective gear, including masks and plastic gloves. House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, addressed the body wearing a large white protective mask, an ominous sign of the times amid the coronavirus outbreak.
"We are in a real crisis right now in our state, but there are those out there who are working on the front lines who I think we should recognize here publicly," he said. "We want to thank the doctors, nurses and health care workers, emergency first responders, fire, police, military personnel, our grocery store workers, our farmers and pharmacists, truck drivers, home health care workers, mail carriers, and all those who aren't able to stay at home. Thank you for your service to our state."
There were poignant prayers, both planned and spontaneous and from both Republicans and Democrats, for the swift end to the pandemic.
Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Birmingham, led the Senate's opening prayer, asking for God's "healing hand" on the state and nation. Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said on the Senate floor that he wanted "to pray for the Lord Jesus to be able take this virus away. He's got the power to do it."
Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, used part of his time at the microphone to ask Senators to pray, asking for blessings for doctors, nurses and all those "on the front lines" of the epidemic.
"Continue to give them the strength that they need, and we ask you to touch the hearts and the hands of the doctors, that they may save people's lives," Smitherman said.
In the House, State Rep. Kirk Hatcher, D-Montgomery, led lawmakers in a prayer for peace and healing.
“Lord, you have the whole world in your hands,” Hatcher said. “In this time of despair, on behalf of all those who can hear my weak voice, we pray that your blessing would comfort us.”