The Alabama legislature convened the 2024 Regular Legislative Session on Tuesday 6 January 2024 and began addressing several highly anticipated legislative issues.  

State Budgets

On Tuesday, the Legislature received reports on the state budgets from Kirk Fulford, Director of the Fiscal Division of the Alabama Legislative Services Agency. Although both the Education Trust Fund and General Fund budgets are healthy with good reserves, Fulford warned that circumstances can change quickly and suggested that the Legislature exercise caution as they develop the FY 2024/25 budgets. 

Finance Director Bill Poole also presented the Governor’s recommendations for the Education Trust Fund and General Fund on Tuesday during the budget hearings. Poole said Ivey’s spending priorities in the General Fund include one-time capital needs, state employee compensation, Medicaid, and the Alabama Department of Corrections

Rep. Danny Garrett (R-Trussville) and Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) introduced the Governor’s Education Trust Fund budget recommendations, HB145 and SB75.  Rep. Rex Reynolds (R-Huntsville) and Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore) filed the Governor’s General Fund budget, HB134 and SB67. Both budgets are pending committee action and will likely change significantly before becoming law.

Excess revenues from 2023 in both the Education Trust Fund and General Fund allowed for supplemental spending bills again this year – HB133 and SB66 (General Fund) and HB144 (ETF). 

The Advancement and Technology Fund also provides for another $1.7 billion in one-time spending for K-12 and higher education institutions. Allocated based on student population, the money can be used for a limited list of expenses, including capital and technology projects, insurance, and security improvements.

School Choice & Education Savings Accounts

During her State of the State address, Governor Ivey announced the creation of an education savings account that will allow families to access public funds for private school tuition, homeschooling and other related expenses as her top priority. 

SB61, by Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) and HB129, by Rep. Danny Garrett (R-Trussville), will set up the Creating Hope and Opportunity for Our Students’ Education (CHOOSE) Tax Credit program, which would cover expenses including tuition, textbooks, fees for after-school or summer education programs, private tutoring, educational software and applications, and education services for students with disabilities. The proposed $100 million fund would provide up to $7,000 tuition vouchers initially aimed at low- and middle-income families and families of students with disabilities. The first 500 ESAs each year would be reserved for students with special education needs. If approved by lawmakers, the tax credit would begin in the 2025-2026 school year. Democrats have expressed concern about using public dollars for private schools. Rep. Earnie Yarbrough (R-Trinity) filed HB88, a less restrictive education savings account bill that he named the “True School Choice for Alabama Act,” on Tuesday as well. 

Comprehensive Gaming & Lottery Legislation

Ivey also expressed her support for comprehensive gaming legislation, which would require a statewide referendum to approve a constitutional amendment. The Study Group on Gambling Policy was established by Ivey in 2020 to thoroughly review and gather facts surrounding the issue. Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville) assembled another study group in 2023, the House Gaming Study Committee, to research any illegal gaming operations currently within Alabama and ultimately draft a bill for this year. Members leading the study committee’s efforts include Rep. Andy Whitt (R-Harvest), Rep. Chris Blackshear (R-Phenix City), and Rep. Sam Jones (D-Mobile).

On Wednesday, members of the study group held a press conference to discuss the specifics of the bill before it was officially introduced on Thursday. HB 151, carried by Rep. Blackshear, would legalize 10 casino locations around the state. The locations include Macon County, Greene County, Lowndes County, Mobile County, Houston County, Birmingham, the three current Poarch Band of Creek Indians’ locations, and a fourth Poarch Creek location in Dekalb or Jackson County. 

The legislation would establish an Alabama Gaming Commission, a gaming enforcement division within the commission “to police all gaming activities in this state and work to eradicate unlawful gaming and gaming-related activities.” In regards to funding, the proposed bill would also establish two different trust funds, one for lottery revenues and the other for casino and sports betting revenues. Tax revenue from casinos and sports betting would go to the General Fund Budget Reserve until the total balance in the fund is at least $300 million. All lottery proceeds will go to the Lottery For Education Fund, which will in turn use those funds to pay for a variety of education-related expenses. The gambling committee anticipates revenue totals somewhere between $800 million and just over $1 billion. 

Parents’ Right to Know bill

Other notable bills from this week include a bill sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed (R-Jasper) that would require classroom curriculum to be posted on the school website at the beginning of each school year or within 30 calendar days after a new or revised curriculum is adopted. The posting would be verified by the local superintendent of education and local board of education. SB48, called the “Parents’ Right to Know” bill, also requires each classroom teacher, upon request, to allow the parent of a child enrolled in the class to examine all instructional and supplemental materials and books available to students in the classroom. A parent may file a complaint with the local superintendent if a classroom teacher does not comply.

Bill to Mandate Additional Labeling for Origin of Seafood

Rep. Chip Brown (R-Hollingers Island) introduced a bill that would require restaurants and grocery stores to display the country of origin of the seafood they sell. HB66 would require restaurants to label the country of origin of seafood in plain sight of a consumer. Comparatively, grocery stores have a slightly less stringent requirement set in the bill as the seafood label or bins containing the product would require the import location. Businesses that don’t comply with the proposed law would face civil penalties, including $1,000 fines for repeat offenders. Many trade associations and advocacy groups have already expressed opposition to the bill stating that the bill requirements would place an undue burden on small businesses and restaurants as fresh seafood can change daily. 

Other Topics of Interest for Session

Workforce Development & Labor Participation Rates

Workforce development and improving Alabama’s labor participation rate has become a top priority for many of the state’s elected officials and a central topic of conversation surrounding the 2024 regular legislative session. Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth has been leading this charge in conjunction with Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, House of Representatives Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, and the Governor’s Office. 

The Lieutenant Governor’s Commission on 21st Century Workforce was established in 2019 and charged with charting a path to improve and modernize workforce competitiveness. Earlier this year, the Commission released a comprehensive plan with recommendations aimed to fundamentally transform Alabama’s workforce development initiatives. 

The Lieutenant Governor’s Commission on 21st Century Workforce full plan can be viewed here. Some of the major recommendations include:

  • Merge Unaligned and Duplicative Workforce Development Agencies – Consolidate the Department of Commerce’s Workforce Development Division, AIDT and the Department of Labor into a new Alabama Workforce Authority (AWA) to be led by a Cabinet-level Secretary of Workforce Development appointed by the Governor.
  • Workforce Pathways Diploma, Reinvest in County Career Tech Centers – Highlight the value of Career and Technical Education (CTE) by developing a diploma pathway that supports students accessing skills training during high school. Reinvest in county CTE centers to ensure students are trained for in-demand careers.
  • Childcare Tax Credits – Develop tax credits that incentivize employers to fund childcare and incentivize childcare providers to expand access and quality. Tax credits would be made available for employers that provide on-site childcare or stipends to employees for childcare expenses.
  • Housing Tax Credits – The tax credit will serve as a catalyst for funding the construction and refurbishment of workforce housing units.

While legislation has yet to be introduced, it is anticipated that members of the leadership will announce their legislative recommendations after addressing a few “red meat” items. 

Mental Health Funding Sources

With the rise in mental health awareness and services across Alabama, the Department of Mental Health has become a budget priority in recent years. Last Monday, Commissioner Kim Boswell presented the Department’s FY25 budget requests which include:

  • General Fund Request: $30,733,225.00
    • Workforce Investments: $19,464,145.00
    • Crisis Care: $10,000,000.00
    • Enhanced Supports for Developmental Disabilities: $1,266,080.00
  • Education Trust Fund Request: $8,425,000.00
    • MHSU Workforce Investments: $7,625,000.00
    • Nurse Delegation Program: $800,000.00

A major priority for the Department of Mental Health is expanding and providing additional funding for the Alabama’s 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Last year, a bill to establish an additional tax on telecommunications consumers was introduced.  Despite significant support, legislative leaders held the bill so policymakers could reevaluate the rate amount, actual costs attached to the crisis centers, and other possible funding sources. Legislation has not been introduced regarding 988 at this time and the Department did include a $3 million appropriation in their annual budget request. 

The comprehensive gaming legislation has surfaced as a major alternative funding source both for 988 and other mental health services. Currently, the bill would allow a portion of the tax revenue from gaming – casinos and sports betting – to be allocated through an annual supplemental appropriation bill where priorities like mental health could be addressed. 

The House and Senate will reconvene on Tuesday, February 13th for the 4th legislative day.