Legislators did what they had to do last week and then went home, finishing the annual regular session a couple of weeks early so they could shift their attention to the 2018 election season.
They adopted the $2 billion General Fund budget a week earlier and the $6.6 billion Education Trust Fund budget on the final day, though arguments over a racial profiling bill threatened to derail the process.
The racial profiling bill, sponsored by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, would have required law enforcement agencies to keep records of their traffic stops as a guard against officers stopping people based on their race. Smitherman delayed debate on bills in the Senate in an attempt to force the House to deal with his proposal. The protest drove the Legislature into another meeting day, but ultimately it failed.
Another controversial bill that stirred debate in the last few days of the session had a different outcome. The Legislature passed a bill to exempt “economic development professionals” from lobbying registration requirements. Supporters said the bill was needed because there was confusion about who had to register as a lobbyist and because the registration requirement discouraged companies from looking for development sites in Alabama. Opponents said the bill opens a loophole in the state ethics law and causes more confusion about who does and does not need to register.
Many other bills that started out the session high-profile died for lack of action, including measures that aimed to change state ethics laws. A bill that would have substantially rewritten the ethics law was withdrawn by the sponsor, who agreed to hold his proposal over for a year while a commission studied the ethics law and made recommendations for changes.
Legislators also introduced a flurry of bills in reaction to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. They included a bill to raise the minimum age for buying certain types of weapons, beef up security at schools and allow teachers to carry guns on campus. In the end, none of the measures passed.
Also defeated was a controversial attempt to impose work requirements on able-bodied adults who get food stamps.
Legislators also did not pass a proposed constitutional amendment that would have imposed a fee in lieu of property taxes on land owned by the Forever Wild land conservation program. The proposal was projected to cost the program $500,000 to $600,000 a year, an amount opponents said would have endangered its ability to buy more property. They also pointed out that other state lands are not taxed. Supporters said the fee would return needed dollars to counties that would have collected taxes on the land.
The Legislature passed a $2 billion General Fund budget and gave state employees 3 percent raises. The total tops this year’s appropriations by more than $150 million and includes $93 million held over from this year’s budget.
Prison System: The Department of Corrections is one of the main beneficiaries of that extra money. Prisons are allocated $472 million from the General Fund, an increase of more than $55 million from this year. Additionally, the Department of Corrections is getting supplemental funding of $30 million.
The system is slated to spend at least $40 million of its budget to improve mental health care for inmates. The state is under a federal court order to improve mental health services after a judge last year called them “horrendously inadequate.”
Another $4.8 million is intended to buy and operate the privately owned prison facility in Perry County.
Ethics Commission: The Ethics commission will get, $2.025 million in next year’s General Fund budget, down from $2.6 million this year.
Alabama Department of Environmental Management: ADEM is slated to get $575,000 in next year’s General Fund budget, the same amount as this year. That money funds the agency’s Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation program.
ADEM officials had requested a total of $7.8 million from the state. The lion’s share of the agency’s money, an estimated $154 million next year, comes from federal sources and fees.
Education Trust Fund
The Legislature approved a $6.6 billion budget for the Education Trust Fund, about $216 million more than this year and the largest budget in a decade. Included in the budget is a 2.5 percent employee pay raise.
Pre-K: The budget would increase funding for pre-K by $18.5 million, which officials have said should allow the program to add about 120 additional classrooms to the 940 it operates now.
Barring the governor calling a special session, which would be rare in an election year, the Legislature is gone until early next year. But this isn’t the last you will be hearing from them. In fact, many legislators will be bucking for more attention in the next few months as they campaign for votes to put them back in the Statehouse or in a different office.
Party primaries will be June 5, with runoffs July 17. The general election this year is Nov. 6.