| The 2022 legislative session kicked off at noon on Tuesday, and conversation immediately turned to suspending the session and convening a special session to allocate federal relief funds (discussion below). The special session chatter comes amidst the 2022 candidate qualifying period that closes on January 28, and the impending May 24 primary election. These factors have combined to create the expectation that this may be an unusual – and shortened – 2022 regular session. |
Legislative Session Convenes – Immediately Turns Focus to Special Session As mentioned, in this first week lawmakers immediately began discussions behind closed doors on plans to begin a special session on spending $772 million in federal COVID relief money. The lion share of those funds come from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and the Ivey administration as well as legislative leaders began to coalesce around a plan to pause the regular session for a week to ten days and then convene a special session in order to isolate and prioritize the allocation of federal funds. The isolation tactic of a special session immediately before or during a regular session has been used previously – most recently with the successful gas tax effort in 2019 – and is often utilized in order to avoid a regular session’s procedural hurdles, e.g. Budget Isolation Resolution (BIR) supermajority votes which are required to consider non-budget items before the budgets are passed. This particular special session tactic within a regular session also helps prevent legislators from levering the priority issue in order get their particular legislation of interest passed.
As a result of the ARPA focus, it was an unusually slow week. Legislators largely skipped the typical first-week-of session meetings and took little action on bills. By week’s end it was widely discussed that Gov. Kay Ivey is expected to call the special session for next Wednesday, January 19, and it could conclude sometime the following week. That timing would allow the regular session to re-convene in the last week of January or the first week of February. It is notable that this maneuver does not toll or postpone the constitutionally-set date for Sine Die of the regular session on April 25, so when the legislature goes back into regular session they will likely meet under a condensed schedule. In addition, with looming Primary Elections on May 24, legislators will be inclined to return home to their districts to campaign – so a brisk pace for the remainder of the regular session appears likely.
Regarding the ARPA/federal funds that are the focus of the impending special session, a specific proposal hasn’t emerged yet but lawmakers have indicated broadband, water and sewer infrastructure, and health care will be priorities. Last year the state received an initial “tranche” of ARPA funds, and legislators directed $400 million of those funds toward new prisons and $80 million to hospitals and nursing homes. The $772 million that is now due to be allocated is comprised of the remaining ARPA funds from the first tranche ($580 million) and a separate $192 million capital projects fund. A draft plan was circulating among lawmakers this week that would allocate another $80 million for hospitals and nursing homes, $85 million on broadband infrastructure, $120 million on water and sewer improvements plus and another $105 million in water and sewer matching grants, and $79 million to shore up the unemployment trust fund. An additional “tranche” of about $1.1 billion in ARPA will be sent to the state in May or June, but the Ivey administration has stated they only want to allocated the funds they have received – so the additional $1.1 billion will be addressed at a later time.
State of State/Budgets Introduced
On Tuesday evening, Governor Kay Ivey delivered her annual State of the State speech to a limited audience at the Capitol building. The address marked Ivey’s fourth since she ascended to the Governor’s Office and highlighted many administrative priorities – including a 4% teacher pay raise, historic road building projects, and additional investments in mental health facilities and early childhood learning. While striking an optimistic tone and highlighting the state’s continued economic development success, Governor Ivey’s speech also addressed several of the state’s longstanding challenges, such as adequate prison staffing.
The Ivey administration’s proposed Education Trust Fund (ETF) and General Fund (GF) budgets for FY23 were both formally introduced on Thursday morning by the respective budget chairmen in the Legislature. The proposed ETF budget clocks in at $8.3 billion, an increase of approximately $627 million over the current fiscal year, while the proposed GF budget is just over $2.7 billion which represents a $300 million increase from FY22. In describing the state’s healthy fiscal position with state legislators, Finance Director Bill Poole cautioned against what he described as a “temporary circumstance” – with some revenue increases being attributable to a multi-year infusion of pandemic related relief funds. Poole further noted how conservative budgeting has allowed Alabama to withstand economic shocks and encouraged lawmakers to utilize this current budget process as an opportunity to address specific debt obligations and further bolster state reserve funds.
Gun Legislation Expected to be Controversial
This session has seen the introduction of “constitutional carry” bills in both houses. Citing the Second Amendment’s Right to Bear Arms, these are bills aimed at removing the requirement of obtaining a concealed carry permit before possessing a concealed pistol. In this election year, several lawmakers have introduced these bills in what many see as an appeal to voting Alabama gunowners.
HB6 by Representative Shane Stringer (R-Mobile) would eliminate the concealed carry permit now issued in Alabama by the local Sheriff’s offices. This bill would also eliminate the presumption of intent to commit a violent crime currently used by Alabama District Attorneys in their prosecution of defendants found without a valid concealed carry permit and in possession of a pistol. This bill also makes more favorable to the gun owner the process by which a seized or confiscated pistol is returned to the gun owner. SB1 by Senator Gerald Allen (R-Tuscaloosa) is the Senate companion to HB6. HB44 by Representative Andrew Sorrell (R-Muscle Shoals) would change certain existing presumptions in the prosecution of disorderly conduct in situations in which the defendant is in possession of a pistol concealed on their person or carried openly, and shift existing burdens of proof in certain disorderly conduct cases in which possession of a pistol are involved. This bill would likewise loosen the requirements for concealed carry permits for pistols and tighten restrictions on an employers’ ability to regulate the possession of certain firearms by employees on employer’s property. This bill currently boasts 38 co-sponsors. SB12 by Senator Tim Melson (R-Muscle Shoals) is identical in scope and effect to HB44.
The Alabama Legislature will reconvene on Tuesday, January 18, 2022.