Legislative Report – April 1, 2022

Volume 23 Number 11 – April 1, 2022

Senate approves Education Trust Fund budget

The Senate, on Thursday, approved an $8.2 billion Education Trust Fund budget by a vote of 32 – 0 with very little debate. It now goes back to the House of Representatives for concurrence or a conference committee. The House approved the budget on March 8; its version was about $589 million smaller than the Senate-approved budget.

The budget includes pay raises for all education employees, major pay raises for teachers with 20 years’ experience or more, bonuses for education retirees, a 59% increase in funding for the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative (AMSTI),  a 9.7% increase for community colleges, and a 15% increase for pre-kindergarten.

The state’s four-year colleges would see funding go from $1.330 billion to $1.448 billion, an increase of $118.2 million (8.9%). Christie Strategy Group client, Athens State University, received a $3.3 million increase over fiscal year 2022. They also received $525,000 in the supplemental appropriation.

Legislators had long planned a 4% pay raise for teachers and bonuses for education retirees. The budget would give education retirees a one-time bonus equal to $2 a month for every month of service.

The Senate-approved version of the budget keeps the 4% pay raise for teachers with less than nine years of experience. But the raises will be higher for teachers with more experience than that, and significantly more in some cases. A teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 20 years’ experience would get a $5,404 increase on Oct. 1 (10.4%). A teacher with a masters degree and 30 years’ experience would be paid $72,679 next year, a $9,451 increase (15%).

In addition, the budget replaces the current system of automatic raises for teachers every three years with a 1% raise each year for teachers with nine years of experience, and lifts a cap on raises after 27 years.

Besides the AMSTI increase, the budget also allocates $15 million to implement the Numeracy Act, a law aimed at raising math performance around the state. It also increases funding for the Alabama Reading Initiative from $80.2 million to $94.2 million, a $14 million increase (17.4%), part of implementing the 2019 Literacy Act.

The House Ways and Means – Education Committee is scheduled to review the Senate-passed bill on Tuesday. It is unknown, at this point, whether they will ask for a conference committee.

Senate advances telehealth bill 

On Tuesday, the Senate approved SB 272 by Sen. Dan Roberts (R – Mountain Brook), which places regulations on the telemedicine industry. The bill is designed to ensure that telehealth can continue to grow in Alabama while also protecting patients. Alabama is one of a few states that does not already have telehealth regulations in place.

The bill authorizes the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners and the Medical Licensure Commission to adopt rules for using technology to deliver remote care.

The original bill said that if a doctor sees a patient four or more times within a year, there must be an in-person visit. Stakeholders worked over several weeks to reach an agreement on this requirement. Ultimately, the Senate substitute dictates that if a person uses telehealth five times in a single year for the same condition with no resolution, the telehealth provider has to refer the patient to someone in Alabama who can see the patient in-person. The patient does not have to stop using telehealth. The goal with this requirement is to prevent chronic conditions from going untreated.

The bill also says that remote appointments must be initiated by patients or through referrals from existing physicians; cold calls and solicitations are prohibited.

In addition, the bill places reasonable restrictions on the prescribing of controlled substances using telemedicine. A doctor can prescribe a controlled substance using telehealth as long as they have seen the patient in person just one time in the prior 12 months. The bill also includes an emergency provision allowing a prescription for a controlled substance in a medical emergency. Other prescriptions for things such as antibiotics would be governed by the rules that control in-person prescriptions.

Mental health treatment is exempt from the legislation.

The bill is on the House Special Order calendar on Tuesday. Rep. Paul Lee (R – Dothan) will carry it in the House.

Gaming bills/lottery fail to advance

Despite the best efforts of sponsors Sen. Greg Albritton (R – Atmore) and Rep. Chip Brown (R – Dauphin Island), legislation to create a state lottery and legalize/regulate casino gaming in Alabama failed to come to the floor of the House of Representatives or the Senate this past week. After meetings of the republican caucus in the House and Senate, both sponsors and the legislative leadership declared the issue dead for this regular session.

Brown’s bills included a constitutional amendment giving the people of Alabama the right to vote to approve a lottery in a statewide referendum at the next general election and a separate bill to create an Alabama Lottery Commission to regulate the operation of the lottery.

The paper lottery authorized by the bill would include traditional games of chance including the multi-state games such as Powerball. Proceeds would fund an Alabama education scholarship program for Alabama students who attend in-state schools.

Earlier in the session, Sen. Albritton introduced a more comprehensive gaming package similar to the bills introduced by Sen. Del Marsh (R – Anniston) in the 2021 regular legislative session.

SB 293 by Sen. Albritton is a constitutional amendment that would have authorized a state-run education lottery and full casino style gaming at Greenetrack, Victoryland, the Birmingham Race Course, the Mobile Dog Track, and a new casino operated by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI) in either DeKalb or Jackson County.

In addition, the Albritton bill would grandfather Green County electronic bingo operators for two years while immediately outlawing electronic bingo in all other locations except PCI trust lands. The bill also authorizes two satellite casinos in Lowndes and Houston Counties, which would only be allowed to operate 300 electronic gaming machines and no casino style games.

Sports betting licenses would be issued for Greenetrack, Victoryland, the Birmingham and Mobile racing facilities and the new facility in DeKalb/Jackson county. Of note, sports betting would also be allowed on electronic devices such as cell phones.

The Albritton bill also requires the Governor to negotiate, execute, conclude, and take any other steps necessary to effectuate a compact with the Poarch Creek Indian tribe.

Gaming revenues would be taxed at 20% of net gambling revenues. While licenses would be awarded to the operators of each of the casino and satellite casino sites based on a “competitive process,” the operators of the Birmingham Race Course, Victoryland, Greenetrack, the Mobile Greyhound Racing facility and Houston and Lowndes County satellite casinos would retain the right to make a final bid exceeding the highest bidder, thereby ensuring that they would retain ownership of their facility.

Albritton also introduced a separate bill (SB 294) to create a Gaming Commission to regulate the gaming industry in Alabama.

Despite both bill packages being favorably reported in their respective committees, neither sponsor could convince the leadership to move forward with the bills during the final days of the session.

Several factors contributed to the gaming bills not coming to the floor of the House or Senate:

  • Weak support from the House and Senate leadership. While Sen. President Pro Tem Sen. Greg Reed (R – Jasper) lent his support to Sen. Marsh last year in his efforts to pass gaming, Reed is not a vocal supporter of gaming.  House Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R – Monrovia) is even less so.
  • Lack of support from Governor Kay Ivey. Governor Ivey is focused on her primary election in May and was unwilling to engage on this issue at this time.  Gaming and other controversial issues rarely move through the legislature without active gubernatorial support and encouragement.
  • Republican members with primary opposition in May had little interest in voting on this divisive issue when at least one third of party voters are opposed to it. Why engage on this issue now just weeks before the primary election when it failed to pass last year?
  • Democrat members represent the majority of smaller facilities, which would be closed under the proposed bills, and they are feeling pressure from the operators of those locations.  Also, they have not been included in the drafting of the bills, particularly on the critical issue of the distribution of the funds generated by these bills. As House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels (D – Huntsville) stated, “We are not going to vote for these bills when we have had no opportunity to help craft them prior to introduction.”
  • A coalition of opponents worked hard against the bills including the Alabama Policy Institute, the Eagle Forum, the Alabama Citizens Action Program (ALCAP) and, perhaps most importantly, the Alabama Farmers Federation (ALFA). The voices of these opponents were amplified and made more effective by the proximity to the primary election.

Most political observers believe that the issue of gaming and approval of a state lottery will be front and center in the new quadrennium next year, if not prior thereto in a special legislative session this summer or in the fall.

Upcoming legislative schedule

The House of Representatives and Senate will reconvene on Tuesday, April 5, at 1:30 and 2:30 p.m., respectively. The legislature is expected to adjourn sine die on Thursday or Friday of next week.