The Alabama Legislature is returning. Here’s what to expect.

The Alabama State House in Montgomery as seen on July 10. The Alabama Legislature will start its 2024 session Tuesday. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)
The Alabama State House in Montgomery as seen on July 10. The Alabama Legislature will start its 2024 session Tuesday. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)


The Alabama Legislature will kick off the 2024 session Tuesday with work on the state's two budgets and a host of other issues awaiting lawmakers.

Lawmakers are expected to take up legislation that would create a voucher-like program for schools in the state and possible legislation creating mandatory kindergarten or something close to it. Legislators may also consider bills on gambling, ethics, and trafficking and kidnapping.

House Republican leaders are taking some cautious steps toward Medicaid expansion, but it's not at all clear the measure will make it through the session. Democrats also plan to file gun safety legislation, though the bills stand little chance of passage. And there's no sign the Legislature plans any major action on the state's ongoing prison crisis.

Education trust fund budget

The education trust fund budget this year will probably fall short of the unprecedented growth of years previous, but lawmakers seem unconcerned.

Kirk Fulford, deputy director of the fiscal division, said net receipts for 2023 were relatively flat.

"The ETF is still returning to a more normal growth pattern after a couple of years of extraordinary growth, and that has been expected," he wrote in an email. "But normal in this sense means revenues simply could not continue to grow at the pace of 2021 and 2022."

Total education trust fund gross receipts at the end of December were $2.42 billion, down slightly from the $2.45 billion collected by the end of 2022.

Fulford wrote in an email that withholding taxes on the individual income tax side were above trend. He wrote that the payments with returns, estimated payments and S-corp categories had slowed after the abnormal growth. S corporations are corporations that elect to pass corporate income, losses, deductions and credits through to their shareholders for federal tax purposes, according to the Internal Revenue Service.


General fund budget

The $3 billion general fund budget, which pays for most noneducation expenses in the state, remains healthy, though budget makers said they want to be cautious with it.

House Ways and Means General Fund Committee Chair Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, said the budget ended the 2023 fiscal year in September with about 16% growth and a surplus of about $460 million.

The added money will likely mean a supplemental appropriation. Reynolds said legislators would give about $100 million to state prisons, facing overcrowding and violence. Another $360 million, he said, would go toward state departments like the Alabama Medicaid Agency and the Department of Human Resources. Reynolds also said some money could go to a second planned prison.

"We've got some one-time appropriations, looking at both the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and the DHR, and we've got to begin to have the conversation about funding the second mega prison, which is set to be located in Escambia," Reynolds said.

Chair of the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, said the state must be careful with how it spends the surplus as it pays Alabama's ongoing obligations, such as rising prison construction costs.

"We have a bit of a surplus and such, but we've got a lot of obligations that we got to meet," Albritton said.

He said the state has $500 million of previously appropriated American Rescue Plan Act funds being used for various construction projects around the state, and since construction costs rose in the past few years, specifically water and sewer lines that need to be replaced, he suggested the state will have to make up the difference in costs to finish these projects, and that those costs have risen as much as 30% to 40%.

"We've got a half billion dollars scheduled to go in the ground, but if you add that additional 30%, let's say, that's a pretty good chunk of change, and we don't have any more federal ARPA money," he said.

Education savings accounts

Gov. Kay Ivey supports the introduction of education savings accounts, which allows a parent to claim money intended for public education and use it for other items, including private school tuition, tutoring or counseling. The governor's office said she would unveil her plan ahead of Tuesday's State of the State address, delivered at the start of the legislative session.

In the 2023 State of the State, Ivey unveiled her plans for "school choice" options, including expanding a scholarship program the state already had.

(READ MORE: Alabama governor reaffirms support for educational savings accounts)

The four education committee heads in the Legislature have not committed to the version they want to see and appear to be waiting for the governor's proposal.

Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, the chair of the House Education Policy Committee, said she plans to revive a bill she sponsored last session that was based on an education savings account model from Utah.

"It was a really good school choice bill, I felt like," she said.

The bill would start with providing $6,900 to qualifying students. The Alabama State Department of Education would have some oversight, according to the bill.

Gambling

There will be some form of gambling legislation this year, likely emerging from the House of Representatives.

The Alabama Constitution bans lotteries and gambling. Some local amendments have allowed bingo in some counties, and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians Tribe operates some casinos, but no statewide vote has been held since 1999.

(READ MORE: Alabama legislators are discussing gambling legislation. Will it go anywhere?)

Bills to expand gambling in the state have historically fallen apart in the House of Representatives. This year, two House Republicans — Reps. Andy Whitt, of Harvest, and Chris Blacksher, of Smiths Station, are working on a "comprehensive" bill.

"We will be drastically reducing the number of locations that you can voluntarily go in and play a game," Blackshear told the Alabama Reflector. "At those locations, you voluntarily walk in to play a game, you may potentially have more options of playing than you currently do."

There is conservative opposition to the measure from powerful lobbying groups, such as Alabama Farmers Federation and the Alabama Policy Institute, as well as from some lawmakers.

Kindergarten

Alabama, like most states, does not mandate kindergarten attendance, and previous efforts to pull more children into the grade have not been successful.

But Democrats and Republicans both seem committed to the issue this year. Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, who has pushed for mandatory kindergarten for years, said she will bring a similar bill this year.

In the past, Warren had sponsored a "first grade readiness" bill, which would require kindergarten or some proof of being ready for first grade, such as a test. Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, has opposed the bill in the past. A message seeking comment was left with Smitherman.

Chesteen said he is planning to sponsor a Senate first grade readiness bill. He said the Alabama Literacy Act will be fully implemented this year, so he wants to make sure students have a firm foundation in reading. Among other provisions, the law will require holding back some students who are not reading on grade level by the end of the third grade.

"That's a priority with our caucus is to make sure that we can get this first grade readiness bill passed and have an assessment for those students that are going into first grade," he said.

Prisons

Alabama's prisons remain plagued by overcrowding, violence and a shortage of corrections officers.

But legislators have offered next to nothing in the coming session to address the prison crisis, which has drawn a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice.

"I don't have any direct knowledge of any," said Rep. Russell Bedsole, R-Alabaster, a law enforcement officer who serves on both the House Judiciary and Public Safety and Homeland Security committees. "I feel like in the last session, going back to one of the previous special sessions where we dedicated some funding for the construction of new prisons, and the governor took care of administering a pay raise for corrections officers."

Legislators have passed bills in recent years to increase pay and incentives for corrections officers in the hopes of addressing the shortage. A few legislators cited an increase in the recruitment numbers for corrections officers as progress the Alabama Department of Corrections is making to address the ongoing concerns from many in the public regarding the safety and effectiveness of the prisons.

(READ MORE: People incarcerated in Alabama's prisons face heat dangers as hot weather continues)

The Alabama Department of Corrections declined comment on their recruitment figures. The department said in a news release in January it had 66 trainees graduate from the Alabama Criminal Justice Training Center at Wallace State Community College in Selma.

According to a court document filed in January 2023, the department needs to fill more than 2,000 posts. That would bring the system to more than 3,100 full-time equivalent corrections officers.

"I do know that the Department of Corrections just entered their largest class of corrections officer trainees just this weekend of 120," said Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro. "While we need a whole lot more, I think we are going to see some legislation around that and around corrections."

Bedsole said lawmakers are watching the construction of a new men's prison in Elmore County and the effect of legislation aimed at bringing in more corrections officers.

The Elmore County prison, expected to open in 2026, would be built to house up to 4,000 people. Supporters have argued the new design would be safer for incarcerated people and those working in the prisons.

Medicaid expansion

Alabama House lawmakers are beginning to talk about closing the coverage gap, or expanding Medicaid, more openly.

House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, previously said the cost of health care has increased significantly and that a "private-public partnership makes a lot of sense."

"We've got to have the conversation. We can't not have it," he said at a Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast in January. "I think we'll continue to work on private-public partnerships, certainly something that we need to look at. I think it can give people that's in the gap better insurance than Medicaid."

Rep. Paul Lee, R-Dothan, chair of the House Health Committee, said GOP lawmakers have been more open to the idea as they have encountered people who lack health insurance and lack access to affordable health care, Politico reported Wednesday.

(READ MORE: 10 Medicaid holdout states scramble to improve health coverage)

Lee held a committee meeting in 2023 to discuss challenges the state faces because it has not expanded Medicaid, the first time the Legislature formally discussed the issue.

Albritton, however, said he did not expect Medicaid expansion to happen.

"Our problem right now is that we don't have enough competition in that market, and the government taking it over is the wrong direction," he said.

The cost to run Medicaid in the state is increasing, he said, projected at about $100 million more for the net fiscal year because of expiring pandemic-era benefits, such as lower matching funds.

The budget for the Alabama Medicaid Agency for the current fiscal year is $863 million. A 2022 Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama report projected the state share of expanding Medicaid would have been about $208 million that year and rising to about $243 million in 2027.

The council also estimated Medicaid expansion would yield annual savings of almost $398 million a year over six years, create over 20,000 new jobs annually and have an economic impact of $1.89 billion each year during that time.

"Listen, Medicaid is a problem. We're just trying to keep track of it and keep the services going that we have. Extending or expanding right now, in my mind, because of cost, is just not feasible," Albritton said.

Read more at AlabamaReflector.com.

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