The 2020 Regular Session of the Alabama Legislature begins tomorrow at noon. This is the second regular session in the current four-year term for Alabama’s 140 legislators. Though representatives and senators return to Montgomery years away from their own re-election, the atmosphere remains somewhat politically charged due to the congressional and presidential contests on the March and November election ballots.
One of the most surprising aspects of this year’s session is that policy-makers will debate over appropriations from operating budgets that, by Alabama standards, are flush with cash. Thanks to smart spending and a booming economy, lawmakers will literally have hundreds of millions in extra State General Fund and Education Trust Fund dollars available for allocation. And by most accounts, those additional funds, along with legislators’ attention, will be focused on three major topics: education, prisons, and mental health reform.
- Senator Del Marsh (R-Anniston), the Senate President Pro Tempore, has publicly stated that education-related legislation will be his number one priority for the session, citing Alabama’s lagging national rankings as the catalyst for his focus. Marsh has not released any legislation publicly. But given that he was a chief proponent of the Alabama Accountability Act several years ago, it’s likely that a Marsh-led initiative would focus on education accessibility. If that’s accurate, then topics such as school choice, charter schools, and funding will be on the table.
- From constructing new venues to funding current operations, legislators won’t be able to leave Montgomery without having a healthy debate on the status of Alabama’s prison system. While overcrowding and prison conditions are not new topics, this year’s discussion will also be influenced by a potential intervention from the U.S. Department of Justice, who sued the state over inmate deaths and staffing shortages, among other things. Look for Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) to be a leading voice on these topics.
- At a recent meeting in Montgomery, political insiders heard the topic of mental health brought up by House and Senate Republican and Democratic leaders, as well as by a voice not normally known for wading into the mental health debate: the State Superintendent of Education. In fact, in his funding request for next year, Supt. Eric Mackey has earmarked nearly $10 million for mental health services in K-12 schools. Look for the conversation about solutions to the state’s mental health needs to be front-and-center during this session.
Representatives and Senators are sure to devote additional energy to many other items as well, but two stand out. First, proponents of gambling and the lottery will have several proposals to choose from. For instance, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians has publicly floated the idea of entering into an exclusive compact with the state, thereby allowing Alabama to receive tax revenue from gaming operations on tribal land. Additionally, Rep. Steve Clouse (R-Ozark), who chairs a budget-writing committee, has introduced a constitutional amendment that would create a lottery, with the proceeds evenly split between pre-K sites and needs-based college scholarships.
Second, the subject of medical marijuana will take center stage again this year. Sen. Tim Melson (R-Florence), himself a medical doctor, led the charge on this legislation in 2019. While his bill passed the Senate, it failed to pass the House. Since then, Melson and a team of subject-matter experts formed a commission to study the issue of legalized medical marijuana. While the idea has several proponents in the House and Senate, it still faces a tough road. But all indications are that Dr. Melson will spearhead this effort again in 2020.
The session must end on or before May 18. Until then, stay tuned to what’s happening in the State House through our weekly Capitol Notes e-newsletter, published each Friday during the legislative session.