Goat Hill Report- Week Ending March 8, 2024

The Alabama legislature has reached the halfway point of the 2024 session, completing Days 13, 14 and 15 this week out of a possible 30 legislative days. As mentioned previously, the legislature will be taking off next week, returning the week of March 18, and then taking off the week of March 25. The first half of the session has been dominated by three issues in particular: gambling, school choice/ESAs and the IVF issue which emerged suddenly in late February. Two of those issues – ESAs and IVF – have been addressed by the legislature and signed by the Governor, which should allow for consideration of other legislative issues in the remainder of the session before it concludes in mid-May. Details of this week’s action are provided below.

Legislature Passed IVF Legislation and Governor Promptly Signs It

Alabama lawmakers gave final passage Wednesday night to a bill intended to give legal protection to in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics after an Alabama Supreme Court ruling caused some to suspend services. Governor Kay Ivey announced late Wednesday night that she had signed the bill into law, underscoring the urgency of this issue for state leaders. In the wake of last month’s court ruling, lawmakers have scrambled to provide immunity that would allow clinics to resume services after the court ruled that frozen embryos held in storage have the legal status of children for purposes of civil liability under Alabama’s wrongful death of a minor law. The Senate passed SB159 by Sen. Tim Melson (R-Florence) on Tuesday, and the House passed that same bill on Wednesday by a vote of 81-12, with nine abstentions. Later in the day on Wednesday, the Senate concurred to the bill as amended in the House by a vote of 29-1, which sent SB159 to the Governor’s desk. The new law, which took effect immediately, shields providers from prosecution and civil lawsuits “for the damage to or death of an embryo” during IVF services. Civil lawsuits could be pursued against manufacturers of IVF-related goods, such as the nutrient-rich solutions used to grow embryos, but damages would be capped to “the price paid for the impacted in vitro cycle”. SB159 does not directly address the broader question of whether embryos in storage have the status of children under state law. Legislative leaders indicated that this broader question would be addressed in the future under less urgent circumstances.

ESA/School Choice Legislation Approved by Legislature and Signed by Governor Ivey

Alabama is now the 14th state in the country to fully enact an education savings account (ESA) bill – the purpose of which is to provide more educational opportunities to students and families. On Thursday morning, Governor Kay Ivey summoned school choice advocates to the Capitol building and signed her administration’s top legislative priority into law. HB129 by Rep. Danny Garrett (R-Trussville), better known as the CHOOSE Act, was originally scheduled to be on the floor of the Senate for consideration on Thursday. However, the Senate sponsor of the bill – Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) – called a special meeting of his education budget committee late Tuesday afternoon to consider the proposal. Education policy experts from both in-state and national organizations were left scrambling to get to the State House building to watch the deliberations. After the committee’s approval, the CHOOSE Act advanced to the full Senate on Wednesday afternoon for final debate. Several amendments were brought forth by both Democrats and Republicans to alter the requirements and scope of HB129, but Sen. Orr stood firm in his position that the months of work that had gone into the bill were sufficient and that further changes would not be considered “friendly.” With Gov. Ivey’s senior staff on-hand to observe proceedings and provide policy counsel, it was an important moment for Senate leadership to stand resolute with their colleagues in the House. HB129 received final passage by a vote of 23-9, with only 1 Republican member joining the Democrats in opposition. At the bill signing, Governor Ivey was flanked by local elementary school students and declared: “At the end of the day, we all want every Alabama student – no matter the zip code, no matter the school, to receive a quality education. Strong students will lead to a strong Alabama, and a strong Alabama is our goal.” The Alabama Department of Revenue will now embark on a rigorous process of administering the CHOOSE Act/ESA program, which is slated to begin at the start of the 2025-2026 school year. Months of rulemaking and procurement will be necessary to ensure that the state is prepared to properly assess eligible students seeking to participate.

Gaming Bills Substantially Revised in Senate – Outlook Uncertain

The Alabama Senate battled in a tug-of-war for more than five hours on Thursday over gambling legislation, ultimately passing a scaled-back proposal from what the House passed several weeks ago. The revised gaming package would authorize a state lottery and require the governor to negotiate a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians that would likely allow the tribe to have full-fledged casinos with table games at its three sites in the state. It would also allow seven non-tribal locations, including the state’s four dog tracks, to have “historical racing computerized machines.” This technology allows players to bet on replays of horse races, with the newest of the devices resembling slot machines. The seven sites would include the state’s four dog tracks located in Greene, Jefferson, Macon and Mobile counties, with the three additional sites in Houston, Lowndes and another site in Greene County. The Senate legislation generates significantly less revenue for the state, bringing in an estimated $350 million per year as compared to the projections of $635 million to $913 million per year from the House’s more comprehensive proposal. The Senate proposal prescribes that the gaming proceeds would be split into thirds to the General Fund, education and to roads & bridges. Another notable change imposed by the Senate is the date for the public vote on the measure, which is required to change the state constitution to allow gambling. The House proposal set the date for the General Election on November 5, but the new Senate version moves the date to a special election on September 10. Some Republicans were concerned that a November 5 gaming proposal on the ballot would drive voter turnout enough to impact races on the General Election ballot – which will feature a competitive 2nd Congressional District race that could impact the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives. Looking ahead, lawmakers are expected to use next week’s break to try to strike a compromise that can win the needed votes in both chambers. Most observers expect the House will non-concur in the Senate plan, which will send the legislation to a conference committee where a compromise plan could be adopted and submitted to both chambers for approval. Supporters are trying to cobble together enough legislative support to get the issue before voters for the first time in 25 years. Alabama is one of the few states without a lottery, although the issue went before voters in 1999 when then-Gov. Don Siegelman’s lottery proposal was rejected.

Anti-DEI Bill Passes the House

On Thursday, the House took up SB159 by Sen. Will Barfoot (R-Montgomery) which targets diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) offices and programs as well as so-called divisive concepts. The bill, which passed the Senate several weeks ago amidst vocal opposition from Democrats, would prohibit certain public entities, including state agencies, local boards of education and public institutions of higher education from maintaining a DEI office or department, or sponsoring DEI programs or programs that advocate for divisive concepts. Proponents for the bill assert that DEI programs “deepen divisions, set up race-exclusionary programs, and indoctrinate students into a far-left political ideology.” SB159 would not impose any criminal penalties for non-compliance, but rather, would strictly prohibit public entities from engaging in DEI practices or promoting divisive concepts. In the bill, eight different concepts are described as being divisive, all of which largely center around generalizations about groups based on ethnicity. House Democrats spoke in opposition for around two hours, but had their speaking time cut short with a cloture motion to shut off debate. After SB159’s passage, a group of House Democrats held a press conference where they pointed to a similar bill in Florida – the Stop WOKE Act – which was blocked by a federal court earlier this week. House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels (D-Huntsville) said he expected similar legal action on SB159 in Alabama. The bill now goes back to the Senate for concurrence and final passage.

Bills of Interest to the Concrete Industry

HB 110 related to Hours of Services Regulations nor HB 263 related to quarries in Limestone County saw any movement this week.

The Legislature will reconvene on March 19, 2024.

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