MONTGOMERY, Ala. - The Alabama Legislature began its special session on Wednesday, as proclaimed by Governor Kay Ivey late Tuesday night after her State of the State address. Per her call, lawmakers will deal directly with a proposed 10-cent gas tax increase and other measures aimed at infrastructure.
Wednesday was a quick session in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The majority of the work during the rest of the day was in meetings to gain an understanding of the bill and who can support it.
But it was immediately clear that changes will have to happen to gain real traction.
Lynn Greer (R-Rogersville) is Chair of the House Committee on Transportation, Utilities, and Infrastructure. He hinted that the vote count is still unstable.
"I think it's still very close. I really do," he said. "Yesterday morning it looked like we were having trouble possibly getting it out of committee. This morning it seemed more favorable. We'll just have to see what happens."
Rep. Rich Wingo (R-Tuscaloosa) said he would only vote for the gas tax bill if it includes some specific language.
"I'd like to see a two-pavement system in this state," he said. "Alabama is one of the few states that does not have concrete road builders." He added, "There are some changes I would like to see before I can support this bill." He said without those, he would not vote for it.
Rep. Bill Poole (R-Tuscaloosa) who is carrying the bill in the House, said it would include changes to the language on electronic vehicles. This would be a departure from the bill Gov. Ivey proposed, widely criticized by state environmental groups. He said that a server problem prevented him from introducing the bill upon the start of the session on Wednesday, but copies would be available to legislators later in the day for review.
For Rep. Parker Moore (R-Decatur) this is all a trial by fire. He is one of the freshmen on the floor, now hurriedly swept up into the race to approve an infrastructure plan.
"Right now I'm still trying to get a feel for the people in my district and trying to gather as much information as I can here," he said. "We're encouraged to do all of our research. Ask any questions that we have."
Some Democrats in the House reportedly have even argued that they would vote for the bill only if they saw some concessions from the other side, including some commitments on Medicaid expansion. That could prove tricky, as Republicans we spoke with Wednesday were against that idea.
A special session means these bills get focused attention, free from the distractions of a regular session where multiple unrelated bills are considered at the same time. It compresses the timeline, because the special session can go on for no more than 12 legislative days.
But the fast-tracked timeline could present some hardship in getting a grasp on the legislation the House members could vote on as early as Friday.
"It's a little quick for us freshmen to try to gather everything together and figure out what's going on since this is our first time down here," Moore stated.
Others took a more direct issue with the timeline and the disorganization of the abrupt special session.
"I've been very disappointed with not really understanding all the things that are going on," Rep. Anthony Daniels (D-Huntsville) said Tuesday hours before the special session was declared. "There was no conversation about staying through Saturday. " He added that he got an email from the Speaker about a possible special session, but he did not believe there was enough communication.
"In fact, I'm leaving here on Thursday and going to Huntsville. I don't plan my life a week at a time," Daniels added Tuesday. "I have two young children, and a wife, and family priorities. I'm re-prioritizing myself to being more time with family and doing what I can while I'm here," he said. "I just hope that as we move forward, there will be more organization."
House members said they could see a bill on the floor as early as Friday, or even come back to work on it Saturday. Then the Senate would have its turn.
Meanwhile, the Senate is considering a related bill that would increase oversight on the Alabama Department of Transportation.
"I'm working on some things that I think are important to be included in the legislation," said Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur.)
Thursday, the bills go to their respective committees.
Rep. Greer indicated that anything could happen.
"I don't know what will happen in committee," he said. "We are obligated to give it a fair hearing and we will definitely do it. Personally, I'm for the basic legislation. I think the day has come in Alabama when we have to think about jobs, we have to think about infrastructure and improving this state, moving forward."
He said the work continues Thursday as the committee works to propose changes. There could be some bartering and negotiating to make enough happy to bring it back to the floor.
For those who support the gas tax increase, the argument is it's less about raising taxes and more about bringing roads, bridges, and ports up to par with what is needed for Alabamians to safely navigate the state as well as bring in more economic development.
"Most people have kids and grandkids. They've got to think about the future of this state," he said. "There are certain areas where it is unbelievable what's happening, like in Limestone and Madison County. We could have that in other areas of Alabama, but we are going to have to improve."
He added, "None of us want a tax, but the day comes occasionally when we have to do what the people elected us to do, and that’s represent the people. And if it comes down to a gas tax, then we’ve got to do that."