Running out the clock: GOP leaders hope for quiet, quick session in Alabama Legislature
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Jan 05, 2014 | 3577 views |  0 comments | 33 33 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — If the Alabama Legislature made a list of New Year’s resolutions this year, “no drama” would be at the top.

Since Republicans took over both houses in 2010, the Legislature has been a hotbed of controversy. Lawmakers tightened immigration laws, loosened gun restrictions, created a school tax credit from scratch and put the squeeze on abortion clinics, all to the delight of conservatives and over the protest of the Democratic minority.

But with the 2014 election just 10 months away, the Legislature’s GOP leaders are hoping to simply run out the clock during the legislative session that begins Jan. 14.

"It's an election year, and people want to get through the session without a lot of problems and get home," said Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, the president pro tempore of the Senate.

In both the House and Senate, GOP leaders are pushing relatively modest agendas that focus on refining tax rules. They're hoping to pick up the pace of the legislative session, meeting more frequently so they can complete their required 30 days of deliberation and get out of Montgomery.

But like many resolutions, the no-drama plan may not last long. On both sides of the aisle are lawmakers who’d like to revisit the ideological battles of the last three years. Whether it’s conservative opposition to the Common Core school curriculum or the perennial Democratic proposal to create a lottery, House and Senate leaders will have to head off uprisings if they want to get through 2014 quietly.

Here are a few of the topics they'll take on:

Teacher pay raises: In 2013, Gov. Robert Bentley asked lawmakers to raise teacher pay for the first time in years. It didn’t hurt that the state’s Education Trust Fund budget, funded by income and sales taxes, saw a significant boost last year due to the economic recovery.

Bentley has said he’ll seek another raise in 2014, but Senate education budget chair Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, told The Star the state might not have additional money to spend.

Pittman said he expects revenues to increase by about $135 million beyond the $5.8 billion the state plans to spend in the current budget year. But PEEHIP, the state’s health insurance program for school employees, is seeking an additional $85 million, largely due to increases in costs under the Affordable Care Act. The state also still has to pay off about $170 million of a loan it borrowed from its Rainy Day Fund in 2009, Pittman said.

Pittman doesn’t know how much of that money the state will have to repay in the 2015 budget year. If revenues for 2014 come in above projections, much of the extra will go to pay off the debt. If revenues are disappointing, the debt could eat up any gains made in 2015.

Democrats have an alternate pay-raise plan, according to House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden. Ford said Democrats would again propose a state lottery to fund education, with some of the funds going to a 6 percent teacher pay raise.

School policy: Marsh said he has no interest in using the 2014 session to revise the Alabama Accountability Act, the $40 million school tax credit program lawmakers put in place in 2013.

But Democrats may not let the issue rest. Convinced that the tax credit plan is a loser for Republicans in election year, Ford has said he plans to propose a repeal of the act, with a plan to spend the $40 million set aside for the program on other school functions.

Still, the biggest education controversy in the 2014 session may emerge on the right. Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, has said he'll introduce a bill to ban Common Core, the multi-state academic standards that are opposed by many conservatives. Debate about Common Core took up much of the last session, and GOP leaders in the Senate have decided they'd rather move on.

"I think we've got an elected school board that should be dealing" with the issue, Marsh said.

"If it's got to be dealt with, and if the governor thinks it’s important enough, he should call a special session," he said.

Taxes: Republicans in the House have declared 2014 "The Year of Taxpayer Relief," selecting a set of tax reform bills as the core of their agenda — but the changes suggested in those bills are relatively modest.

One bill would set up an independent tax appeals court to hear the cases of people who feel they've been treated unfairly by the state Department of Revenue. (There's already a tax court, but it's within the Revenue Department.) Other bills would change the way small businesses pay sales tax — providing those businesses with a one-time $2,500 tax cut, supporters say — and give state officials the power to suspend antiquated taxes that cost more money to collect than they take in.

Democrats have dismissed those tax bills as less-than-substantial measures — Ford called them "pudding" — that provide no real tax relief. But Democrats this year may propose a tax increase of their own. Ford said Democrats plan to again introduce a bill to raise the state's relatively low tobacco tax to fill holes in the state budget.

Medicaid: Medicaid, the joint state-and-federal health care program for some people below the poverty line, is likely to vex lawmakers again in the coming year. At $615 million per year, it's the biggest chunk of the state's General Fund budget, in part because the 2008 recession led to a significant increase in enrollment. Even though Gov. Bentley chose not to expand the program under the Affordable Care Act, enrollment is likely to grow due to applicants who visit the ACA website and learn for the first time that they're Medicaid-eligible.

Meanwhile, revenue for the General Fund, which pays for Medicaid, isn't likely to grow significantly, state officials have said.

Earlier this year, Bentley appointed a panel to study Medicaid's drug benefit to see if there are savings to be found there. The panel will report to Bentley this month, finding that the state could save anywhere from $9 million to $30 million by turning administration of the drug benefit over to a third party. It's not yet clear what sort of legislation, if any, will come out of that effort — but state health officer Don Williamson has said none of the options are enough to close a projected $100 million hole in the program.

Reproductive rights: In its first three years in the majority, the GOP made multiple efforts to impose restrictions on abortion access — attempting to limit abortions after 20 weeks and eventually passing a set of clinic regulations that abortion providers said were actually intended to shut clinics down.

This year, Republicans are taking smaller steps. House leaders have thrown their support behind the Healthcare Rights of Conscience Act, a bill that would allow doctors and other health care workers to opt out of providing services that violate their religious or moral beliefs. The bill actually includes an exemption for abortion clinics, but could affect abortion referrals if passed. It could also affect patients seeking contraception from pharmacists who oppose the use of birth control.

The revolving door: After a spate of high-profile resignations from the Legislature — all from apparently scandal-free lawmakers who simply moved on to greener pastures — GOP leaders say they're making the Revolving Door Act a top priority. The bill would limit lawmakers from lobbying either house for two years after they leave office, closing a loophole that allows former legislators to become lobbyists immediately as long as they don't lobby the house they served in.

The legislative session begins Jan. 14.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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