Wearing face masks and stay apart, lawmakers return to short session

Published 9:49 pm Monday, May 4, 2020

Wearing face masks and sitting far apart, Alabama lawmakers on Monday resumed a legislative session that is being shortened because of coronavirus.

Legislators had taken a nearly two month break during the COVID-19 outbreak but returned to Montgomery to pass state budgets and a few other bills before the regular session concludes on May 18.

“I know this is a sacrifice you are making,” House Speaker Mac McCutcheon told members, asking them to comply with procedures set up to minimize close contact among them.

Legislators wore masks covering their mouths and noses. Members of the 105-member House of Representatives spaced themselves out over two floors at the Alabama Statehouse in order to keep distance between members.

House members were called to the voting floors 10 members at a time in order to avoid a crowd in the hallways.

However, many lawmakers did not attend Monday. Only 60 members of the 105-member House answered roll. Some suggested it was futile to pass budgets before the state had a better estimate of the impact of the virus on state revenue and expenditures.

“We have more questions than we have answers,” House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels said.

Daniels said it would be better to pass budgets, which take effect Oct. 1, in a summer special session after seeing the impact on state tax collections. Public education in the state is funded by a mix of income and sales taxes that flow into the Education Trust Fund.

McCutcheon said he thought that public schools and colleges needed a funding decision to begin planning for next year.

Legislative leaders said they expect to focus on state budgets, a bond issue for schools and little else during the legislative session.

The Alabama Senate on Monday night approved a $125 billion bond issue for public schools, universities and two-year colleges to use for improvements.

Borrowing the money will cost the state a total of about $1.59 million over a 20-year period, according to the Legislative Services Agency which analyzes bills. Senators approved the bond issue on a 29-0 vote. The bill now moves to the House of Representatives.

Ivey proposed the bond issue in her State of the State address earlier this year.

Lawmakers have expressed different ideas on how to use federal coronavirus relief funds given to the state.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh has said he hopes to put $800 million from an estimated $1.7 billion in federal relief dollars for broadband access in the state. McCutcheon said it was unclear if the Treasury Department rules will allow the relief funds to be used.

Several large policy items that lawmakers had before them this year — including medical marijuana legislation, the possible creation of a state lottery and an overhaul of the state’s troubled prison system — are falling by the wayside because of the shortened sessions.

Republican Sen. Cam Ward, who has spearheaded a state prison reform effort, said he expects the governor to call a special session later on prison issues. The Department of Justice last year threatened to sue Alabama over violent and overcrowded conditions in state prisons for men unless the state took action.

“We know at some point we have to come back on prisons,” Ward said.

Ward said he believed the Justice Department is “growing exasperated with us.”

The regular legislative session is required by law to end on May 18.