By TODD STACY and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Recent polling of Alabama voters shows that they largely approve of the actions by Gov. Kay Ivey to try to limit the spread of the Coronavirus in the state, favor a special session of Legislature to address outstanding issues and want access to lawmakers when they meet.
The poll, conducted by survey research firm Cygnal for Alabama Daily News, shows most Alabama voters approve of the state’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and generally believe that things are headed in the right direction.
The survey was conducted Nov. 16-17 among 600 likely general election voters and has a margin of error of +/- 4.0%. Republican and Democratic voters were interviewed via live phone calls, interactive voice response and text message invitation in Cygnal’s multi-mode survey method, then the survey was weighted to reflect a likely general election voter universe.
Asked about the direction of the state, 56.6% of voters said things in Alabama were headed in the right direction, while 33.8% say the state is “off on the wrong track.”
Assessing the state’s handling of the pandemic, a plurality of voters, 42.9%, said Alabama had struck the right balance in putting precautions in place, while 25.1% said the state had gone too far with restrictions and 27.3% said the state had not gone far enough.
Specifically asked about Kay Ivey’s handling of the pandemic, 63.3% of voters said they approved of Ivey’s performance while 34.4% said they disapproved.
“Generally speaking, would you say things in Alabama are headed in the right direction or off on the wrong track?”
“Which of the following statements comes closest to your opinion on how the Alabama state government has handled the Coronavirus?”
“Do you approve or disapprove of Governor Kay Ivey’s handling of the pandemic?”
Ivey’s office said the governor does not not make policy decisions based on polls, but that she sought appropriate balance with her pandemic orders.
“Gov. Ivey remains grateful to the people of Alabama for the trust they give her to lead our state and will continue to move forward with sound policy as a guide,” spokeswoman Gina Maiola told ADN. “While we are currently in a difficult season, she is looking forward to brighter days and ensuring Alabama is a great place to call home.”
The state’s current “safer at home order,” which includes a statewide mask mandate while in public and limitations on restaurant capacity, expires Dec. 11.
Approval of a special session
The poll showed voters strongly favor a special legislative session to take action on unfinished business but are also open to the use of technology, remote voting and other measures to conduct business safely. More than 78% of voters said they support Ivey calling a special session to address items left undone.
In May, the Alabama Legislature adjourned its Regular Session that was severely curtailed by the coronavirus. After only meeting sparingly for two months, the House and Senate returned to a socially-distanced State House to a handful of essential bills, including the two state budgets and the distribution plan for the $1.7 billion the state received from the federal CARES Act.
However, several other bills that could have also been considered essential were left at the wayside:
- Legislation reauthorizing two state economic development laws. The state’s signature tax incentives for luring new businesses expire at the end of the year and another incentive law aiding local industrial parks has already expired.
- A bill offering limited civil immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits to businesses, non-profits, churches, government entities and other groups.
- A pro-forma bill preventing federal relief funds related to COVID-19 to individuals and businesses from being taxed as income by the state.
These bills, which enjoy widespread if not unanimous support among lawmakers, died when House members wanted to focus the end of the 2020 session on budget-related bills and local legislation. According to the Cygnal survey, voters say they should reconvene to finish the job.
“Earlier this spring, the Legislature adjourned its regular session amid the coronavirus outbreak without addressing key legislative proposals, including those for economic development, limiting coronavirus related lawsuits, and preventing Alabamians from being taxed for any coronavirus relief funding they receive. Do you support or oppose Governor Kay Ivey calling a special legislative session to address these issues?”
Only the governor can call a special session and decide its agenda. With less than six weeks left in the year, time is running out.
“(Ivey) remains in close discussions with Legislative leadership and all options remain on the table,” Maiola told ADN.
Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said if Ivey calls a special session, senators will be ready.
“There are a number of important issues I understand the Governor may be contemplating calling a special session to address,” Reed told Alabama Daily News. “We have members who would like to see them addressed sooner rather than later and we have members who would prefer waiting until the regular legislative session in February to address these topics.
“Should the Governor decide to call a special session, the bottom line is the Senate will be prepared to work, and we will do so in a manner that respects the safety of our members, staff and the general public.”
Earlier this month Ivey and legislative leadership discussed the possibility of a special this year, but no decision was made.
“Safely accommodating the 105 House members at a time when COVID cases are on the upswing certainly seems to be a concern on everyone’s minds,” Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said at the time.
Inside Alabama Politics recently reported that discussions have taken place among state legislative leaders about how to safely conduct a legislative session, whether in a special session later this year or the regular scheduled for February, with the threat of COVID-19 still very present. The State House itself presents unique challenges due to its low ceilings, small meeting rooms and cramped hallways.
A socially distanced session is more work for the 105-member House than the 35-member Senate. Leadership and staff in the larger chamber this summer began making plans for meeting amid the pandemic.
The House recently used some federal CARES Act money on a new virtual voting system that will allow members to be spread out on the House floor, gallery and two overflow rooms and still easily vote on legislation using tablets.
Members will have to be in the State House and in a designated area to vote, Clerk of the House Jeff Woodard told Alabama Daily News.
Meanwhile, three committee rooms with streaming capabilities — including one across the street in the Old Archives Room of the State Capitol — are being added, bringing the total to four, Woodward said.
Woodard said a task force this summer looked at several possible sites around Montgomery that might be able to better accommodate a socially distanced session. He said one or two sites would work, including the Renaissance center downtown.
“We’ve done enough preliminary work to move off site if we have to, but without a lot of advance notice it’s very difficult to do,” Woodard said.
Voters would support such a move, the poll showed.
A full 83.4% said they would support the Legislature meeting in a larger building that would allow lawmakers to meet safely and the public to have access to the proceedings. Just 12.4% said they would not support such an arrangement, while 4.1% were unsure.
“If the Legislature could not meet safely in the Statehouse and could not safely allow public access into the building, would you support the Legislature meeting at a larger building that would allow the Legislature to meet safely and allow the public access?”
The minimum cost for an off-site session would be about $1.3 million, Woodard said. The state could use CARES money for that expense for a special session yet this year. But the Dec. 30 deadline to spend the CARES money means it can’t be used on the regular session that starts Feb. 2.
Voters want access to lawmakers
Whenever and wherever the Legislature meets, Alabama voters want access to the session, but are open to alternate locations to ensure safe meetings amid the coronavirus pandemic, the survey showed.
When asked, 75.7% said that the public should have access to the State House if the Legislature meets, provided everyone is wearing masks and observing proper safety protocols. That’s compared to 18.9% who said no, the public should not have access, while 5.5% were unsure.
“If the State Legislature does meet, should members of the public have access to the Statehouse during the session, provided members of the public are wearing masks and observing safety precautions?”
Asked how important it was to them for citizens to have in-person access to their elected representatives while the Legislature is meeting, 77.1% said it was important while 18.9% said it wasn’t.
“How important is it to you for citizens to have in-person access to their elected representatives while the Legislature is meeting and conducting business?”
Voters were more split at the prospect of public access only existing through video conferencing or chatroom. Asked if they considered those technological means to be adequate access and participation for citizens in the legislative process, 54.7% said yes, while 37.1% said no.
Republicans and Democrats think differently on the question of virtual access. A plurality of Republican voters, 47.8%, said they did not consider video conferencing to be adequate public access and 42.5% saying they did. Meanwhile, Democrats were more strongly in favor, with 79.1% saying they thought video conferencing provided sufficient public access and 13.9% saying it did not.