Alabama Legislature

Literacy, Reading Proficiency, Free Speech and Budget Bills Win Legislative Approval

MONTGOMERY — Bills to improve student literacy and hold back third-graders who can’t read proficiently, define free speech on college campuses, and allocate the state’s $2.1 billion General Fund budget received final passage Thursday as lawmakers wind down their 2019 legislative session.

Friday is likely the last day of the session, and some major legislation is still pending, including the state’s education budget. Lawmakers from both chambers will meet Friday morning to work out differences in the $7.1 billion education budget, and a final vote is expected by the end of the day.

Here are some of the most significant bills that received final passage Thursday.

Student literacy

A bill to improve young student literacy and require schools to retain for another year third-grade students who are not proficient readers now goes to the governor.

The bill by Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, requires schools to provide summer reading camps to all K-3 students who struggle with reading.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, carried the bill in the Senate. Later, Orr said the legislation will bring immense focus on literacy in the lower grades.

“(Students) are four to five times less likely to ever be able to read if they can’t read by the third grade,” Orr said on the Senate floor.

Starting in the 2021-2022 school year, third-grade students will have to demonstrate “sufficient reading skills” for promotion to fourth grade. There are exemptions for special-needs students and students with limited English language skills. No student can be held back more than twice because of the legislation’s provisions.

The Alabama State Department of Education estimates it will cost $90 million annually.

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, questioned whether the retained students will get the help they need under the bill.

“You’re setting them up to fail because you won’t give them the resources they really need,” Smitherman said.

Orr said there will be new money allocated for professional development and other items but current Alabama Reading Initiative money in the education budget will also be used.

In 2017, 31 percent of Alabama fourth-graders were reading at or above proficient designation, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress results.

“That’s unacceptable. We must improve and this will bring a concentrated focus on literacy,” Orr said.

A new commission will make recommendations to the State Board of Education about how students will be tested.

Superintendent Eric Mackey said there are too many yet-to-be decided variables to know how many students could be held back under the bill.

The bill on Thursday passed unanimously in the Senate and 90-3 in the House. Reps. Jamiel Kiel, R-Russellville, Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals, and Wes Allen, R-Troy, voted against it.

Campus free speech

The Legislature voted to require state colleges and universities to implement free-speech policies on campuses.

House Bill 498, sponsored by Rep. Matt Fridy, R-Birmingham, passed the Senate 24-1 and passed the House 73-26. It comes in response to the national trend of political demonstrations and protests at colleges to block certain groups or speakers from coming to campus.

Colleges and universities are to “develop, adopt, and enforce” policies that ensure intellectual freedom, allow the expression of ideas some may find offensive, allow students and faculty to freely express political positions, ensure outdoor areas are open for public demonstration and allow “any speaker whom students, student groups, or members of the faculty has invited” to speak and be protected on campus.

The Senate adopted an amendment that delayed the implementation of the bill until July 2020 to allow universities time to comply with the law.

General Fund

The state now has a $2.1 billion 2020 General Fund budget. It includes a 2% raise for state employees and slight increases in funding for most state agencies.

It also includes $35 million for the state’s share of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP. Whether it would be in the General Fund or education budget has been a point of contention between some in the legislative leadership.

Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, had opposed the health care cost being in the General Fund, but he said a compromise was reached. Another bill will allow, starting in October 2020, revenue from an insurance premium tax — about $31 million a year —to go to the General Fund instead of the education budget.

“I always thought that that should be in the General Fund,” Clouse said about the revenue.

The General Fund also keeps $35 million in the Alabama Department of Transportation instead of transferring any to the state courts.

Clouse said there was an agreement between lawmakers and Gov. Kay Ivey during consideration of the gas tax increase.

In order to garner support for the 10-cent-a-gallon gas tax approved earlier this year, Ivey in February suggested stopping at least some of a $63 million annual transfer from transportation to the courts and law enforcement.

Ivey’s budget proposal left $35 million in ALDOT that had been going to courts. But a Senate-passed version of the budget kept $20 million in courts.

“We agreed that we’d move the court back the (Alabama Department of Transportation),” Clouse said.

Clouse has already sounded the alarm on the 2021 budget, in which there will be higher state expenses for Medicaid, CHIP and likely prisons.

PayDiscrimination

The House agreed to the changes made by the Senate on Rep. Adline Clarke’s, D-Mobile, pay discrimination bill. The bill would forbid employers from paying different wages to employees based on their sex or race.

The bill would allow employees with proof of wage discrimination up to two years to file a lawsuit over discriminatory actions.

Alabama and Mississippi were the only two states in the nation that didn’t have their own equity pay law separate from federal law.

“It’s a great day in Alabama,” Clarke said after the bill passed.

Civil Asset Forfeitures

A bill that would require law enforcement authorities to track and record how often they seize the property of people who haven’t been convicted of crimes went to the governor for her signature.

Civil asset forfeiture is the practice of law enforcement seizing property through a civil action for suspected criminal activity. Orr, the Republican from Decatur, had originally sought to require a criminal conviction for property seizures. Law enforcement opposed that. The revamped bill tracks cases instead of banning or altering the practice.

“It’s a small step forward,” Orr said Thursday. “I appreciate the district attorneys working with us.”

Under the bill, consistent reporting of seizures will be required.

“Then we can go from there, once we have the data,” Orr said. “I believe the public will be interested in what the data says when we get it.”

Advocates argued the practice was abused and the government should not take a person’s property without a criminal conviction.

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said during the discussion of the bill that while he supports the legislation, the real problem is how the state funds law enforcement.

“The way our system is set up we incentivize certain activities to supplement the money that we don’t provide in the General Fund,” England said.  “So again, at times law enforcement has been accused of supplementing what they don’t get by seizing assets and then liquidating them.”

Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals, also said that he supports the intent of the bill but thinks more needs to be done to address civil asset forfeitures.

“Of all the things I imagined myself doing in my first year in the Legislature, I never imagined coming to the microphone and saying that I agree with The Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU, but they are 100 percent correct on civil asset forfeiture,” Sorrell said. “I agree with my Democrat friends that this is not the final step we need to make, but it is a step.”

Prosecutors and law enforcement authorities argued the civil seizures are a valuable crime-fighting tool and that people have due process.

The bill passed 102-0 in the House Thursday.

Pardons and parole

Also sent to Ivey Thursday was a bill she advocated. House Bill 380 alters how the Pardons and Paroles Board and its executive leadership are chosen, giving more responsibility to the governor. The bill creates a director of pardons and paroles position appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, which would replace the current executive director chosen by the board.

The bill also specifies when prisoners can be eligible for parole. Those convicted of violent crimes and other Class A felonies would be forced to serve 15 years in prison or 85 percent of their sentences before being eligible for parole.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, sponsored the bill in the Senate. On the Senate floor, he rattled off the name’s of violent offenders who were up for parole after less than 10 years in prison, including a man who had violent infractions while in prison. He was released and later killed a woman in Alabaster.

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, spoke against the bill and the amount of power it gives the governor.

“We don’t want any checks and balances, we don’t want any accountability,” Smitherman said.

Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said the state’s bigger problem is the management of its prisons. He said that’s where change is needed.

Alabama Daily News reporter Todd Stacy contributed to this report.

 This coverage of the 2019 session of the Alabama Legislature is provided by the Capitol News Service of Alabama Daily News, based in Montgomery. BirminghamWatch is publishing reporters’ news and analysis, but not commentary, from this new partner.