MONTGOMERY, Ala. - The 2019 Alabama legislative session began on Tuesday with lots to get to this session. It is anticipated that Governor Kay Ivey could call a special session to deal with an infrastructure bill now the Legislature is hard at work.
The session began with a message of unity as lawmakers prayed over those who represent districts ravaged by recent storms.
Tornado Victims Remembered
As the Alabama House of Representatives gaveled in, Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) asked the lawmakers whose districts were affected to come to the front for the opening prayer.
Later, Rep. Jeremy Gray (D-Opelika) came forward to speak.
"A tornado is not something you want, especially as a freshman [lawmaker]," he said. "I just want to thank you all for being there for me. Continue to pray for my county, the people of my district. They are hurting right now. I just ask that any way you can help - if you can help. And remember those who have passed and the first responders who are still looking for people at this moment."
Representatives applauded as he wrapped his remarks.
Rep. Joe Lovvorn (R-Lee County) is also a firefighter. He spoke to media about his experience after the House of Representatives went into recess.
"The people of Lee County have gone through a tremendous disaster that most of us can't fathom and hopefully never will," he said. "I'm a firefighter with the City of Auburn. We've been helping with rescue efforts that have now turned toward recovery efforts to start to literally pick up the pieces of the neighborhoods and try to put the lives back in place."
Lovvorn said, "The healing can't begin until we've accounted for everyone who is missing."
Lovvorn said he and the other legislators who are affected by the storms will work to do what they can to help.
"Coming from a natural disaster into this, it certainly shows us how fragile life can be and it gives me a balance of what's important. What's important is us having respect and caring for one another as a state and us as legislators working together to bring everyone together."
He added that his perspective has changed this year, but he is optimistic for what the Legislature will accomplish.
"There are areas where we need to have discussions," he said.
Before a gavel opened the session, lawmakers heard a budget presentation from Kirk Fulford, Deputy Director of the Legislative Services Agency Fiscal Division.
He shared a generally positive message of where Alabama is financially between its two budgets: the General Fund and the Education Trust Fund.
In the past, the General Fund has been revenue-challenged and lawmakers have had to go make up for a shortfall in funding. However, that's not the case this time around.
"I think it's good news. The economy has been good, tax revenues have been good this last year," said Steve Clouse (R-Ozark), House Ways and Means General Fund chair. "On the General Fund side, we don't usually get too much growth. But insurance premium tax has shown some improvement. The Simplified Sellers Use Tax is coming online and has been since October and is showing some improvement. Interest on state deposits has been good this year."
On the Education Trust Fund side, the budget could be an all-time high reaching above $7 billion. 2019 is showing another growth year, said Fulford.
"It's going to be a banner year for education and we look forward to making some very crucial decisions for the future of the state," Sen. Arthur Orr said.
With more revenue to spend, Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) expects Governor Ivey's State of the State address to include a call for a teacher pay raise.
"Their compensation has not kept track with inflation," he stated. "I think it's always good when we can pass along some of the increased revenues to the educators."
These strong budgets could be hampered by any economic slowdown, though. Fulford cautioned spending much more in case of problems in 2020. CHIP and Medicaid could bring added burdens then.
"With that and picking up $13.5 million we have to start paying back to the Oil and Gas Trust Fund from what we borrowed in 2013 and 14, those issues are going to start adding up on us so we have got to be careful," Clouse said.
Some agencies are asking for more money in 2019. One of those is Corrections, asking for $41.7 million more. This is to compensate for a rise in personnel costs, along with merit and probational raises and a pay raise for security staff. Prisons are something the governor is expected to address Tuesday.
"These are some critical areas here as we deal with our prison situation going forward," Clouse said. "That will be one thing I'll be looking for."
Orr said other funding priorities for him include increased ELL funding, an increase in Pre-K and transportation, and instructional materials.
"Classroom materials. We are not back to where we were in 2008 with supporting our teachers for classroom instructional materials across the state. That's another that you'll see a sizable move in," he stated.
The gas tax Governor Ivey proposed threatens to divide.
House Minority Leader Rep. Anthony Daniels (D-Huntsville) said there is a mix of opinions among his colleagues, but he encouraged discussion.
"We are looking forward to finding the areas of common ground and focusing on those," he said. "We have some members who support the concept of a gas tax, others who are on the fence, and other members who are going to be 'No' votes. This is our defining moment as a caucus - being able to lead from the front, not from behind, and offer input and be a part of the conversation and a part of the solutions."
Daniels didn't think the unity in the House chambers on Tuesday would last much longer as bills start being debated.
"I think there are going to be some issues that force us to break down. I think that some of it will be partisan, and some of it will be a difference in ideology," he said.
It is possible that Ivey will call a special session to deal with the infrastructure bill. Daniels addressed that.
"There has been conversation or rumors about a special session," he said. He said he received an email from the Speaker about the possibility of a special session, but criticized the ineffective communication about what would go on the rest of the week.