Alabama Legislature

Elections, Monuments and Schools, Oh My! Legislature Returns to Piles of Controversy

Alabama State House

Jan. 8, 2018 – Alabama’s state Legislature begins its 2018 regular session Tuesday, but legislators already have prefiled a slate of bills to be considered, some of which will likely attract significant debate.

Some of 2017’s most controversial stories — the 2017 election of Democratic U.S Sen. Doug Jones and the debate over Confederate monuments, for example — will continue on into the new year.

Special Senate Election

Under two Republican-sponsored bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, the governor would continue to have the power to appoint people to fill vacancies that occur in the state’s U.S. Senate seats. However, the bills would specify that the governor’s appointee would serve until the next general election.

HB17, sponsored by Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, and SB18, sponsored by Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, feature nearly identical language. The bills appear to be in response to the Dec. 12 special election, which took place after Jeff Sessions resigned from his seat in the Senate to become the Trump administration’s attorney general.

Then-Gov. Robert Bentley appointed Luther Strange to take Sessions’ place and decided to set the special election at the same time as this year’s general election. That decision was roundly criticized as not conforming with current law and allowing a non-elected senator to sit for too long in the position.

When Gov. Kay Ivey took office, she decided to schedule the election sooner, saying her decision was about “following the law, which clearly states the people should vote for a replacement U.S. Senator as soon as possible.”

Strange lost the primary to former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, whose scandal-mired campaign led to victory for Democrat Doug Jones. The result was a surprise upset, given the widespread conception of the state as a Republican stronghold.

In the wake of Jones’ unexpected victory, Ivey was criticized by state conservatives, including Dial.

“I guess she thought she’d get a contentious issue off the table,” Dial told in December. “But it elevated into a more critical issue than she could have dreamed of.”

Each phase of a special election costs at least $500,000.

Memorial Preservation

The legislative debate over Confederate monuments in the state will continue. Two bills sponsored by Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham. Both bills seek to undermine the 2017 Memorial Preservation Act, which was signed into law by Ivey in May.

HB15 would exempt public property and the governing bodies of municipalities from the requirements of that law, while HB16 would repeal it.

The Memorial Preservation Act prohibited renaming and relocating monuments that had been in place for more than 20 years. It also established the Alabama Monument Protection Committee, an 11-member panel to decide whether historic buildings and monuments in the state could be removed. Any violation of the law would result in a $25,000 fine.

A Confederate monument in Birmingham’s Linn Park has perhaps become the primary battleground for the enforcement of the law.

In 2017, then-Mayor William Bell ordered the monument to be covered; it was subsequently encased in black plywood. A lawsuit by Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall argued that Bell’s order violated the “letter and spirit” of the law.

Bell said he would look forward to “clarification as to what the municipal authority is over parks of the city of Birmingham and what we can and cannot do with any item that might sit on the park.”

Bell’s successor, Randall Woodfin, has not yet decided on the future of the monument, but he has said that, regardless of whether the statue is eventually removed, the plywood casing will not stay in place.

Alabama Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, who sponsored the Memorial Preservation Act, told WBRC that he didn’t expect “any type of action” overturning the law.

New School Systems

Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, has pre-filed SB44, which would allow only cities of 25,000 people or more to create their own school systems. The minimum size now is 5,000. The bill also would require that the city show proof it has the financial capability to support a school system.

The bill, if passed, would have barred the city of Gardendale – with a population of fewer than 14,000 – from creating its own school system. The city decided to break away and form its own system but has been battling in court this past year to make the plan a reality.

Jefferson County schools and its supporters have been fighting the plan, fearing the separation would harm the county system’s efforts to achieve full and final legal racial desegregation and end federal court supervision that began in the 1970s. Even the district judge presiding over the course said race was one of the determining factors in Gardendale’s move.

The establishment of small school systems over the years has been criticized as re-segregating the state, leading to white flight and weakening education in the urban school systems and the breakaway systems.

 Hundreds of Bills

Hundreds of bills will be introduced during the session this year, most of importance to smaller groups of people.

For instance, a bill sponsored by Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, would authorize designated members of church security programs to carry firearms, with the Alabama Peace Officers’ Training Commission to administer training. The bill also would provide limited immunity for church security officers.  It’s the second time Greer has proposed this bill; the last legislative session included an identical bill, which eventually died.

HB38, sponsored by Rep. Jack Williams, R-Vestavia Hills, would terminate the parental rights of any person committing rape.

HB26, sponsored by Rep. Rolanda Hollis, D-Birmingham, would make it illegal to smoke tobacco products in a vehicle with a minor present.

The Legislature has made brief summaries of all prefiled bills available on its website. The full texts will be available after the Legislature convenes Tuesday.