Goat Hill Report- Week Ending Feb. 16, 2024

This week the Alabama legislature completed its second week of the 2024 session. The legislature held another three-day week in anticipation of taking off two weeks in March for Spring Break (the weeks of March 11 and March 25). The legislature has now completed 6 days out of a possible 30 legislative days, and the session is expected to wrap up in mid-May. Details of this week’s action are provided below.

Gambling Legislation Approved by the House, Heads to Senate

Proceeding at an expedited pace indicative of priority items for legislative leadership, the two-bill gambling package was approved by the House on Thursday. Both bills now go to the Senate for consideration. HB151 (constitutional amendment) and HB152 (enabling legislation), both sponsored by Rep. Chris Blackshear (R-Phenix City), received a public hearing in the House Economic Development & Tourism Committee on Tuesday, a committee vote on Wednesday, and they were the only two bills on the House agenda Thursday. As a constitutional amendment, HB151 required a 3/5 vote of the 105-member House (63 votes), so it was considered the biggest challenge for the viability of the gaming legislation. The constitutional amendment is necessary to remove the Alabama Constitution’s general prohibition on gambling. After an intensive effort by Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville), gaming lobbyists, and Governor Kay Ivey, HB151 passed on a 70-32 vote after some two hours of debate. If and when HB151 is approved by the Alabama Senate, as a constitutional amendment it would bypass the Governor’s desk and go directly to a vote of the people in the November general election.

HB152, which is the 143-page companion bill containing the specifics of the gaming proposal, was approved by the House on a 67-31 vote after unexpectedly few fireworks. The bill would allow up to 10 casino sites with table games and slot machines, a state lottery, and allow sports betting at in-person locations and through online platforms. It would also authorize the governor to negotiate a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (three of the 10 possible casino sites would be on tribal land owned by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians). The proposal would put a 24% tax on gaming revenues and a 17% tax on sports betting revenue, but an official revenue estimate from the Legislative Services Agency is not yet available. Supporters estimate the proposal will generate more than $800 million in annual revenue.

For the last 25 years, gambling legislation has stalled under a mix of opposition to legalized gambling and a turf war over who could get casino licenses. Lottery proposals since 1999 have become politically intertwined with the issue of whether to allow casinos. After Gov. Ivey and Republican House leaders got behind this year’s proposal, it became clear the bills would dominate the early days of the 2024 session – particularly in the House – forcing legislators and advocates with other priorities to wait for the gambling measures to be taken up in order for other items to be considered.

School Choice: Senate Considers Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)

The other high profile issue of the 2024 session is Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), and while the House focused on gambling this week a Senate committee heard from proponents and opponents of the contentious school choice issue. SB61 by Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur)was in the Senate Finance & Taxation Education Committee on Wednesday for a public hearing, although no vote on the bill was taken. Sen. Orr chairs that budget committee, establishes the Creating Hope and Opportunity for Our Students’ Education (CHOOSE) Act Tax Credit program to cover expenses including: tuition, textbooks, fees for after-school or summer education programs, private tutoring, educational software and applications and education services for students with disabilities. It also covers contracted services at public schools, including classroom instruction. Means-tested for families with an income of up to 300% of the federal poverty level in the preceding tax year, the CHOOSE Act allows Alabama families to use up to $7,000 per year on private and parochial school expenses and $2,000 for homeschool costs, and in its current form dedicates at least $100 million per year of state funds for the program. The fact that SB61 contains a funding floor but no ceiling was a major point of contention for committee Democrats and bill opponents who spoke at Wednesday’s hearing. Senator Orr made public comments later in the day that he will have a revised version of the bill, as soon as next week in the same committee he chairs, with language placing a cap on the total amount in the CHOOSE Act/ESA fund.

Senate Approves Contentious Ballot Security Bill

After more than three hours of debate – and after stalling in the Senate in the final days of the 2023 session – a controversial “ballot harvesting” bill was passed in the Alabama Senate on Tuesday by a partisan 27-8 margin. Sponsored by Sen. Garlan Gudger (R-Cullman), SB1 would make it a Class B felony for an Alabamian to pay another person for assistance with an absentee ballot, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The bill would make it a Class C felony for someone to receive payment for assisting another person with an absentee ballot, and a Class A misdemeanor for assisting someone with an absentee ballot without payment. Exceptions are included for family members, roommates and those with disabilities. The legislation is considered a legislative priority among House and Senate Republicans as well as the Governor to combat election fraud, but it is opposed by Democratic lawmakers as a vote suppression measure. SB1 now moves to the House for consideration.

Bills of Interest to the Concrete Industry

HB 110 by Representative Russell Bedsole which would increase the air mile range from 75 to 150 miles for intrastate hours of service is awaiting a hear in the House Transportation, Utilities and Infrastructure Committee. The committee is not scheduled to meet this week.

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