MONTGOMERY - With less than a week remaining in the 2021 Regular Session, the Alabama State Legislature still has a number of weighty issues left to consider, including both budgets and legislation related to gaming, medical cannabis, pharmacy benefit managers and a number of other significant issues.
Although this is subject to change, it is also expected that the Legislature will meet for the next two weeks, take off the week of May 10, and reconvene on May 17, at which point they will adjourn sine die.
Here is a summary of noteworthy actions taken by the Legislature last week.
(This summary is provided by the Economic Development Association of Alabama.)
The House overwhelmingly passed SB 215 on Thursday. The bill known as the Connect Alabama Act was introduced by Sen. Del Marsh and carried in the House by Rep. Danny Garrett. The bill, which was substituted on the House floor, creates the Alabama Digital Expansion Authority (Authority or ADEA), which will oversee the expansion of high-speed broadband and other related opportunities in the state.
ADEA - along with a new broadband division within the Department of Economic and Community Affairs - is also charged with developing and administering a statewide connectivity plan and distributing broadband grant funds and other resources. The legislation also creates the Alabama Digital Expansion Finance Corporation to issue debt to fund eligible projects.
Two companion technology/innovation bills easily passed the House on Thursday. HB 540 establishes the Alabama Innovation Corporation, a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership in Alabama that will serve as a catalyst for Alabama's growing innovation economy. The intent of this public-private partnership is to serve as a tool to help accelerate Alabama's development of a technology-based economy.
HB 609 creates a program to match federal awards to Alabama-based Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) or Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant recipients. The SBIR and STTR programs are federal programs awarding over $3.6 billion annually to more than 5,000 companies.
Small businesses are eligible if they engage in research and development. Federal awards range from $50,000 to $250,000 for Phase I (concept) grants, and $500,000 to $1.5 million for Phase II (prototype) grants. The bill establishes state matching grants of up to $250,000 to entities that received federal SBIR or STTR grants. The FY22 education budget currently appropriates $4 million for the Innovation Corporation and $5 for the grant program. HB 540 and HB 609 now move to the Senate for consideration.
A controversial bill that would expand legislative oversight of executive branch expenditures was substituted and passed this week by the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee. HB 392 would establish the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Obligation Transparency to review and approve any non-education state agency or department expenditure in excess of $10 million.
If the newly formed oversight committee disapproves of a proposed expenditure, the contract or agreement would be delayed until the "adjournment of the next regular session of the legislature that commences after the obligation or agreement is submitted." HB 392 can now be considered by the full Senate. If passed by the Senate, the bill would have to return to the House to concur with the Senate changes.
Civil asset forfeiture
The Senate passed a bill on Tuesday that would establish new rules regarding what law enforcement can take from people charged with low-level drug offenses. SB 210 would set a minimum value of items that can be seized, create a more streamlined process for "innocent owners" to get their property back, require prosecutors to obtain a post-seizure court order with a specified timeframe, prohibit prosecutors at the state and federal level from going after the same property, and ensure the value of items seized is proportionate to the crime.
SB 210 as originally written would have ended civil asset forfeiture for criminal drug offenses, instead making the process part of the criminal court procedure. The bill as substituted passed the Senate unanimously and now moves to the House for consideration.
Hospital/Nursing home visitation
The Senate unanimously passed a bill Tuesday that would require health care facilities to allow visitation of at least one caregiver or visitor to patients or residents during times of emergency. HB 521 passed the House on April 7 and now goes to Governor Ivey's desk for her consideration.
The Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would require police agencies to record racial data during traffic stops. SB 91 would define and prohibit "racial profiling" by law enforcement officers, require law enforcement to adopt written policies regarding the same, provide a process for complaints and require statistical reporting to the Attorney General. The bill now moves to the House for consideration.
STEM/Special needs scholarships
The Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee amended and unanimously approved a bill this week that would provide scholarships for first-year college students seeking to be STEM or special education teachers. SB 225 as amended would provide incentives to students who agree to teach at a "school of critical need" for five years immediately after certification. The bill can now be considered by the full Senate.
Charter school funding
The House voted to stop debate Thursday on HB 487, which would have updated Alabama's charter school law to allow some local school funding to follow students to public charter schools. The bill was supported by school choice advocates and opposed by the Alabama Education Association. The procedural vote likely killed the bill for the remainder of the session.
The House Health Committee approved a bill that would prohibit government agencies from issuing "vaccine passports" and prohibit businesses from requiring vaccination documentation as a condition for admission or providing goods/services. SB 267 includes various exceptions, including for existing public school and healthcare provider requirements. The bill unanimously passed the Senate on April 8 but was substituted in the House committee. The substitute bill can now be considered by the full House.
Governor Ivey signed HB 404 into law this week. The bill allows compensation of college student-athletes when their name, image or likeness is used in promotional material. The rules will not apply until the NCAA adopts rules allowing the compensation as well. There can be restrictions on the type of entities/activities student-athletes are allowed to promote, and the compensation would have to come from a third party instead of from the university. Student-athletes could also hire an agent/lawyer for help with contracts.