By MARY SELL and TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Hundreds of proposed bills, including high priority prison and economic development proposals, died when the coronavirus outbreak upended the Alabama Legislature's 2020 regular session. Now, when the House and Senate will return to Montgomery for a special session and what topics they’ll address are still up in the air.
Some Senate leaders, frustrated by the final days of the condensed session, say they don't see a reason to return to Montgomery this year. But others said there is business left to handle, including extending a job creation tax credit that in recent years has helped lure companies like Toyota-Mazda, Amazon, Google and Shipt to Alabama. The Alabama Jobs Act, the state's primary industrial recruitment statute, is expiring at the end of the year.
Another popular economic development tool, the Growing Alabama Tax Credit, expires in September.
"They will have to be addressed in the special session," Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, said Friday. "I think it should be a priority. It's a priority of mine, and I think that sentiment extends to the governor and the rest of the Legislature."
Passed in 2015, the Alabama Jobs Act consolidated and modernized myriad tax incentive programs used by the Department of Commerce to recruit industries. The Growing Alabama Act established a separate tax credit that local economic development organizations can use to build industrial parks or other job-attracting sites.
Poole has sponsored previous economic development bills and said lawmakers were planning bills to extend both the Jobs Act and Growing Alabama incentive prior to a coronavirus-caused seven-week break in the session.
"We were working on it and had a number of meetings and discussions about how to proceed, then we obviously got sidetracked by the virus," Poole said.
Now, Poole said, a broader discussion about incentives may be needed in the wake of the outbreak.
"An important part of the conversation now is, to the extent that we have an incentives strategy, what does the virus and everything that has occurred in the last several weeks mean for that?" Poole said. "What do we need to incentivize? Is that the same thing we were doing before? Do we need to have a strategic shift in that? I don't know what the answers are, but I think we need to have a very extensive conversation about that."
Other lawmakers agreed that the Jobs Act was a top reason to come back to Montgomery this summer.
“In terms of giving incentives for companies to come to Alabama, those incentives are running out,” Senate Minority Leader Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, told ADN . A number of counties that benefit from the Jobs Act are in Singleton's district.
Only the governor can call a special session and decide what matters will be addressed in it. Her office said there are no set dates for any special sessions, but that the Legislature would likely need to meet this year to address pressing issues, including the expiring economic incentives.
“Certainly, COVID-19 derailed issues that the governor hoped to address in the regular session, and she is in the process of evaluating the needs immediately facing the state,” Gina Maiola, press secretary for Gov. Kay Ivey, said when asked about the possibility, timing and subject matter of a special session. “Given the unique circumstances of a special session, Gov. Ivey will want to be confident in a successful plan to move forward. She looks forward to having these discussions with legislative leadership.”
Tension today, work tomorrow
One of the final votes by lawmakers upon adjournment was approval of an executive amendment from Ivey that outlines how the state will spend about $1.8 billion in federal coronavirus relief money. The Senate had originally proposed allocating $200 million to Ivey to spend immediately and retaining the rest for the Legislature to appropriate. While Ivey and lawmakers grappled for control of the $1.8 billion, she embarrassed some by revealing a “wishlist” of possible expenditures that included a new State House.
After that, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said senators were left out of discussion while Ivey and House leaders finalized the spending plan.
“Had we held the ground on the appropriation measures that we tried to pass … then the governor would have been compelled to call us back into a special and we all work together to determine how to best spend those dollars for the people of Alabama,” Marsh said. "But based on what we passed, the executive amendment, it pretty much puts the control in the governor’s hands and a select group of legislators.
"At the end of the day, the governor now has control of the COVID-19 money and she has control of the decisions on the prisons. She takes control and she can take responsibility, that’s the way I see it. I don't think it's the best process, but that's what she chose.”
Senate General Fund budget committee chairman Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, agreed. He said Ivey is moving forward with a plan to lease three new large prisons from private builders and the state budgets and coronavirus money spending have been approved, alleviating the need for a special session.
“She’s got the prisons, she’s got the COVID money, she’s got the budgets …. What else is there?”
Albritton said lawmakers were well aware of the sunsetting incentives and the Senate pushed to renew them this month and pass a few other priority bills.
"These were bills that needed to get accomplished," he said. "The House was adamant that we weren’t going to do anything but the budgets and local bills."
Now, he's not sure the validity of calling a special session at an additional expense for items that could have been handled in the regular.
Others in the Senate expect at least one special session.
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said he expects at least two, one on business-related legislation, including a bill protecting entities from coronavirus-related lawsuits, and another on criminal justice reform. Ward has warned that the state must act to improve conditions in its crowded and dangerous prisons or risk federal action.
A lawmaker for nearly two decades, Ward said conflicts between chambers or the governor’s office will blow over.
“Tension today doesn’t stop work tomorrow,” he said.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he wants to see a special session include his bill offering limited civil immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits.
Originally, Orr said the bill would protect businesses from individuals who try to claim they contracted the virus at the establishment. Now Orr says the bill is being expanded to include non-profits, churches, government entities and other groups.
“This bill is extremely important for making sure cases that are brought alleging COVID-19 infections have a higher standard of proof,” Orr previously said. “We do not need thousands of tenuous lawsuits against Alabama churches, government bodies, nonprofits or other organizations.”
There are two separate but related prison issues lingering in Montgomery: Legislation to address various reform efforts and Ivey’s proposal to have private companies build three large prisons for men at sites to be determined.
Earlier this month, the Alabama Department of Corrections opened bid proposals by two private companies to build the prisons. ADOC declined the Associated Press’ request to make the proposals public saying that a “confidential evaluation period has begun,” which has caused some lawmakers to question the transparency of the process.
“When you’re talking about billions of dollars, I think every step of the process should be open and transparent to the point where the person running the process can’t say, ‘We can’t tell you that right now,’” Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said.
"Considering that over the last two sessions we have failed to come up with substantial substitute legislation to reduce the prison population, I don’t necessarily think that if you put us in a session and say ‘you need to deal with prisons,’ you’ll get anything different from what you’ve already got,” England said.
Part of the reason Ivey and ADOC are moving forward with the prison construction plan through the state contracting process is due to multiple failed attempts over the last several years by the Legislature to pass prison construction legislation. Ivey can enter into the contracts and leases without lawmakers’ approval, but they are the ones that allocate prison funding each year through the General Fund budget.
“I'm more than willing to listen and we want to solve the problems with prisons,” Marsh, the Senate leader, said. “But at the same time, we've got a lot of needy departments at the state level, we've got mental health, (department of human resources), you’ve got children’s services. And, we need to have an understanding of how much money we want to dedicate, allocate to the prison system without doing damage to the other departments of state government.
“I can tell you, our members are going to be very hesitant to move dollars out of areas that we see are benefiting the people of this state to pile into a prison plan that we had no participation in.”
The House Perspective
House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, said that because budgets were approved in the last days of the session, he’s not sure lawmakers will be called back to Montgomery this year. If they are, it should probably be later in the summer or fall when a clearer picture of damage to the state economy is known.
“I think now, it’s just a wait and see game. We don’t know what’s going to happen with the pandemic, and we’re waiting to see what happens with finances,” Ledbetter said
Ivey and many House members, including Democrats, had suggested waiting until summer to pass the budgets in a special session rather than push to finish them in the last days of the regular session.
House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, recently said lawmakers shouldn’t be called back before income tax filings are due in July and more revenue reports are available.
“I think May, June and July will tell us where our floor is,” Daniels said.
Several mental health-related bills were also House priorities in February but got derailed by the shortened session. Ledbetter said they’d be back. The 2021 state budgets do include $18 million for new mental health crisis centers and $5 million for mental health services in schools.
"I feel comfortable that, with the support we had from the governor’s office, we’ll have success in getting those pushed through,” Ledbetter said.
Alabama Daily News reporter Caroline Beck contributed to this story.