By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
Alabama State Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said he’s giving up his top spot in the legislative body to focus on broadband expansion and education reform legislation in his final two years in office.
Meanwhile, those selected for new Senate leadership roles say they’ll be focused in 2021 on helping the state navigate the continuing pandemic that is altering the upcoming legislative session.
Marsh, the Anniston Republican who’s been Senate president pro tem since 2011, told the GOP Senate Caucus on Monday he’s stepping down from the leadership role. The current Majority Leader, Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, will become President Pro Tem when the 2021 session begins in February. Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, will become Majority Leader.
Marsh told Alabama Daily News he’s working on two major pieces of legislation related to broadband expansion and education reform.
“I really want to see a fast expansion of broadband and I think to do that you have to have a funding source to make that happen,” Marsh said. “I’d hoped that we would have used some of the (federal CARES Act money) to do that. The administration didn’t feel comfortable using the money in that area. I think we should have, but we didn’t. So, I want to find us a steady funding source to keep us at the forefront of technology.”
Citing the state’s low rankings in national education assessments, Marsh said it’s a problem that needs to be fixed.
“We have got to address that issue and whatever reforms it takes, and what combination of things we can do to address it, I want us to do it,” Marsh said.
Marsh said he can better focus on those bills if he’s not “trying to keep the trains running” on the Senate floor.
“This kind of is my last shot to really pass what I think would be meaningful reform,” Marsh said. “And that’s what I want a chance to do, I want to give it my best shot.”
Marsh said he plans to have the legislation ready for the February session and that passing significant bills is more likely in 2021 rather than 2022 when lawmakers are running for reelection.
Marsh said he’s already met with lawmakers on both sides on the aisle about what could be the signature bills of his six terms. He said broadband expansion is likely an easier sell than education reform.
Scofield has previously sponsored expansion-related legislation.
“No question, I think the pandemic has pushed broadband way to the forefront,” Scofield said, adding that high speed internet has become critical infrastructure to connect people to their jobs, education and health care.
“I think (COVID-19) pushed it from some people looking at it like a luxury to most people looking at it like a necessity.”
Reed and Scofield’s selections were unanimous on Monday. Senate Republicans maintain 27 of the 35 seats in that chamber, so what happens within their caucus is effectively what will happen on the Senate floor in February.
Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, a former president pro tem himself spoke well of all three Republicans Tuesday night.
“We hate to see (Marsh) go,” Smitherman said about the man he sometimes butted heads with on the floor. “He’s done such an outstanding job working with everybody, each branch of government, each side. He has an uncanny ability to pull people together.”
Smitherman said he knows the amount of work required from the pro tem and understands why Marsh wants to step back to focus on his own bills.
Smitherman said he’s worked well with Reed, who is a member of the Jefferson County delegation, on several issues.
“I don’t see any deviating from that ability to come together and get things done,” Smitherman said.
Scofield worked with Democrats as Confirmations Committee chairman, Smitherman said.
“I think he’s going to be a very good leader,” Smitherman said. “He’s a sound sensitivity, as it relates to confirmation and diversity. He’s done it the whole time he’s been there, done it willingly at that. So, I don’t see anything changing as he moves up the ladder.”
Focus on economy, recovery
Reed said the state’s economy and its growth and the ability to weather the challenges presented by COVID-19 are going to be topics of priority in the February session.
“Those are topics that are front and center with the people of Alabama and I think that we will see in the next legislative session that those topics are going to be important to the members,” Reed said.
“I think it’s clear from the people of Alabama in this coming session: protecting our economy, growing our economy and putting people back to work; being able to mitigate the effects of the virus as much as possible and focus on health care for folks that are dealing with the crisis.”
Besides organizing caucus strategy, the majority leader also helps members in their reelection campaigns. Terms end in 2022.
“The Senate and the Republican Caucus has to lead,” Scofield told Alabama Daily News when asked about the upcoming session, COVID-19 and reelections.
“Before we even think about our reelections, we have to lead the state of Alabama out of this pandemic. That has to be of paramount importance.”
“If we do our jobs, and we lead this state out of this pandemic, then they will reward us with reelection, I firmly believe that. But we have got to prioritize the economy and get the economy back on track on the other side of this. … We have to make sure that people and businesses have the resources that they need to come out of this and get people back to work. That is going to be our top priority.”
The state’s unemployment rate in October was 5.8 percent, compared to pre-COVID rates in the 2% range.
Scofield said earlier in the year he supported the possibility of Gov. Kay Ivey calling a special session this year to address key issues, including: Reauthorizing two state economic development laws; limited civil immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits to businesses, non-profits, churches, government entities and other groups; preventing federal relief funds related to COVID-19 to individuals and businesses from being taxed as income by the state.
“Whether it’s a special session or whether we go into regular session, we have to prioritize those agenda items,” Scofield said Tuesday.
The spring session was dramatically shortened and hundreds of bills died as COVID-19 precautions were put into place. Asked how a socially distanced Senate could function for a full session and what public access might look like, next year, Scofield said the situation evolves each day and it’s hard to say what March or April might look like.
“We’re going to have to be adaptable,” Scofield said. “The public needs to have access to their leaders they need to have access to to allow their voices to be heard. … As far as public access to the building, I think that needs to be our priority as well but we do need to keep everyone safe.”
Reed said that while lawmakers need to do the business of the people starting in February, access by the public is also a priority — and a challenge. Safety among the 140-member Legislature, hundreds of staff members and the public will require new technology and protocols to ensure social distancing in the often cramped building.
“I do think having the building available to the general public while we’re doing the people’s business is very important,” Reed said.
Reed praised Marsh for his “extraordinary” leadership during the last 10 years and said he learned a lot from him. Reed has been majority leader for six years and said he also developed his own style that has been successful, including in working with the minority caucus and its leaders.
“I don’t see any major changes in the way we would do things. I think the goal is to get the job done, they’re able to do it in a very efficient and effective way for the benefit of the people and to be able to make sure that members of the body, Republican and Democrat, are able to voice their thoughts and opinion and allow information to be debated and discussed.”
Senate leadership does have some committee chairmanships to fill before Feb. 2, including on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, was recently appointed to head the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. Reed said committee changes will be announced closer to the session.