Goat Hill Report-Week Ending March 1, 2024

This week the Alabama legislature completed Week 4 of the 2024 session. For the fourth week in a row, the legislature held a three-day week in anticipation of taking off two weeks in March (the weeks of March 11 and March 25). After this week, the legislature has completed 12 legislative days – which is more than one-third of the possible 30 legislative days. The session is expected to wrap up in mid-May. Three legislative issues have emerged as dominant issues in the 2024 session: gambling, school choice/ESAs and the unexpected IVF issue that has emerged in the last two weeks. All three issues are dominating the attention of legislative leaders, as well as the legislative calendar. Details of this week’s action are provided below.

Legislature Takes Up IVF Legislation Amidst National Attention

Alabama lawmakers in the House and Senate on Thursday passed almost identical bills intended to provide legal protections to in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics, legislation that supporters acknowledged was not a permanent solution to questions about the legal status of embryos created through IVF. The legislation comes in response to a Feb. 16 ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court that found that frozen embryos held in storage are considered unborn children under state law. HB237, sponsored by Reps. Terri Collins (R-Decatur) and David Faulkner (R-Mountain Brook), passed the House by a vote of 94-6. It moves to the Senate, which passed a similar bill – SB159 by Sen. Tim Melson (R-Florence) – by a 34-0 margin a few hours later after several hours of contentious debate. Democrats in the Alabama Senate had unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to state that a human embryo outside a uterus cannot be considered an unborn child or human being under state law. Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, a Democrat from Birmingham, said that was the most direct way to deal with the issue. Republicans blocked the amendment from coming up for a vote. Final passage for either bill could happen as early as next week. With the uncertainty created by the court ruling, several clinics in the state that provide IVF services have put those services on hold because of liability concerns putting many families in a holding pattern. Rep. Collins, the House sponsor, stated the bill is not a long-term solution: “This solution is for opening the clinics right away, and that’s what we’re trying to do.” Collins added that she expects the Legislature to address the long-term solution within the next year.

ESA/School Choice Legislation Approved by House

On Tuesday afternoon, the Alabama House of Representatives passed school choice legislation which will establish an education savings account (ESA) program in the state. HB129, better known as the “CHOOSE Act”, is being sponsored by the Chairman of the House Ways & Means Education (W&ME) committee – Rep. Danny Garrett (R-Trussville). The Governor highlighted the CHOOSE Act in her annual State of the State address in early February, and her staff has been working alongside Rep. Garrett and others in legislative leadership to ensure its final passage. The final vote in the House was 69-34 with several Republicans – almost exclusively from rural Alabama – either voting against the bill or abstaining from the vote. The defections were not totally unexpected due to persistent opposition from public education advocates, to include groups representing elected local superintendents and school boards. Under the CHOOSE Act, eligible families are set to receive a $7,000 tax credit per participating student to offset the cost of paying for private school tuition and other qualifying expenses such as supplies and tutoring. Beginning in the 2025-2026 school year, the Alabama Department of Revenue (who is set to administer the program) will give priority to families whose income is 300% of the federal poverty level as well as students with parents that are active-duty military. There are also 500 reserved slots for students with unique/special needs. HB129 also states that the ESA program becomes “universal” – with no income limits, etc. – in the third year of its operation.

Testing of students and accountability in reporting to the state were two major topics that House Democrats harped on during the floor debate – which lasted approximately four hours. There was less focus on the amount of funding being dedicated to ESAs than originally anticipated. Under the CHOOSE Act, the Legislature is required to appropriate annually no less than $100 million for the program. A compromise was reached in recent weeks to require the state Revenue Commissioner to monitor the annual growth of the fund more closely and to prevent the accumulation of excess, unused funds. As for next steps, it is anticipated that HB129 will be presented in the Senate’s Finance & Taxation Education (F&TE) committee on Wednesday of next week. Barring complications, it is further expected that the full Senate will take up the bill on the floor the following day – Thursday, March 6th – to move the bill to Governor Ivey’s desk at the approximate halfway point of session (on what would be Legislative Day 15 of 30).

Gaming Legislation Stalled in Senate

The Senate Tourism & Economic Development Committee concluded on Wednesday without a vote on the gambling legislation that has already been approved in the Alabama House. Substitute bills were expected to be presented in the committee meeting but were not brought up. Adding to the uncertainty surrounding the meeting and the broader gaming issue, the committee meeting was posted on the committee schedule earlier in the week but didn’t include an agenda with the list of bills it would discuss, which is legislative protocol. The posting also didn’t mention a planned public hearing. Even without these meeting details, several opponents of the comprehensive gaming legislation attended to offer remarks at the hearing, including the Alabama Farmers Federation, the Alabama Policy Institute and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. Two weeks ago, the House approved the two-bill gaming package, HB151 (constitutional amendment) and HB152 (enabling legislation), which would allow voters to approve a statewide lottery, sports wagering and up to 10 casino locations around the state. But the proposals, as pending in the Senate, still lack the necessary Republican support which has brought renewed calls from some for a lottery-only proposal. After the Wednesday committee meeting and public hearing, Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore), said he thought he had the votes in the committee for approval but that a vote wouldn’t happen that day. Albritton is the lead advocate in the Senate for the gaming legislation, and he stated there had been a lot of work to find a workable, comprehensive bill. Rumors of various alternative proposals circulated throughout the State House this week. As of midday Friday, the next Senate Tourism Committee meeting has not been announced.

Bills of Interest to the Concrete Industry

HB 110 by Representative Bedsole cleared the House on a 102 -1 vote. The bill will increase the air mile range to 150 miles from the current 75 miles that intrastate truckers must follow. The legislation is a top priority for the industry.

HB 263 by Representative Moore would limit blasting in aggregate mining operations in Limestone County to quarries that are more than 2 miles from a recognized historical structure. We are monitoring this legislation.

Primary Elections Today

Today, March 5, will be Primary Election Day in Alabama. In addition to the state’s participation in the Super Tuesday Presidential Primary, voters will also cast ballots in several other notable races including: Congressional District 1, which pits two Republican incumbents against each other in that court-redrawn district; Congressional District 2, which is the new “minority-majority district” also created by the federal courts; a hotly contested GOP primary for Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court; and President of the Public Service Commission, in addition to several county races. Our firm will provide a detailed report on election results on Tuesday evening/early Wednesday morning.

The Alabama Legislature will reconvene today, March 5, 2024.

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