Legislative Report – April 23, 2021

Volume 22 Number 10 – April 23, 2021

24th & 25th legislative days

Athletic tournaments in jeopardy over transgender sports legislation

Local officials throughout the state are raising concerns over the passage of a bill that would prevent transgender youth from playing sports of the sex with which they identify. The bill overwhelmingly passed the House in March and the Senate approved it last week; it is currently awaiting Governor Ivey’s signature.

More than 500 college athletes around the country recently signed a letter to the NCAA petitioning the organization to cancel championship games occurring in states with anti-transgender sports legislation.

Officials in Birmingham and along the Gulf Coast have voiced concerns that the NCAA could pull out of hosting college athletics tournaments in their cities if the bill is signed into law. Birmingham is scheduled to host the first and second round of the NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball tournament in 2023, and the Division 1 women’s basketball’s southern regional in 2025. Gulf Shores has hosted the NCAA Beach Volleyball Championship since 2016 and is supposed to continue through 2024. Birmingham officials also claim the World Games, set for 2022, could also be in jeopardy. The economic impact of these events on the cities and state is in the tens of millions of dollars.

Supporters of the legislation say that Alabama should not submit to threats from outside corporate interests.

Conversations with the Governor’s office and legislators continue, but it is unclear how Gov. Ivey will proceed.

House passes broadband bill

The Alabama House of Representatives this week gave final passage to SB 215, the Connect Alabama Act, sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh (R – Anniston).

The Connect Alabama Act contains several important provisions including creating the Digital Broadband Expansion Authority, a group of public officials including representatives of the executive and legislative branches of government who are charged with the responsibility of developing an overall broadband development plan for the State.

The Authority will work through a newly created Alabama Digital Expansion Division within the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), the state agency which manages the current broadband grant program.

The bill also creates a new Connect Alabama Fund that will receive state and federal funds earmarked for broadband expansion.  The legislation also creates the Alabama Digital Expansion Finance Corporation and outlines the duties of this new state entity, including bonding authority.

Finally, the legislation provides for a new statewide research and education fiber network designed to link all the state’s four-year research institutions, traditional black colleges and universities and the state junior and technical colleges.

Two sources of funding for this ambitious proposal include several hundred million dollars in the most recent round of federal stimulus funds and proceeds from expanded gambling in Alabama, which has not yet passed the House of Representatives.

Debate behind the scenes centered on various technical provisions and definitions that impact those who are eligible to receive grant funds and whether these funds would be used to serve new customers or to overbuild current infrastructure using fiber.

Ultimately, a compromise was reached that allowed the bill to move forward with only one dissenting vote.  This legislation now goes to the Governor for her signature, which appears to be a mere formality at this point.

Innovation corporation bills approved in the House

Two bills meant to promote and boost entrepreneurship in the state overwhelmingly passed the Alabama House of Representatives on Thursday.

HB 540 from Rep. Bill Poole (R – Tuscaloosa) would create the Alabama Innovation Corporation to help increase Alabama’s competitiveness in areas of technology and innovation as it relates to economic development strategies.

The Alabama Innovation Commission proposed the corporation as part of its interim recommendations on strategies that will help the state spur innovation and support talent attractions and retention.

The 2022 state education budget, which the House will vote on on Tuesday, has a new appropriation of $4 million to go specifically to the Innovation Corporation.

The companion bill, HB 609 by Rep. Jeremy Gray (D – Opelika), would allow the Alabama Innovation Corporation to make matching grants of up to $250,000 to entities that received federal Small Business Innovation Research grants or Technology Transfer Research grants. It also sets guidelines for awarding the matching grants. The Education Trust Fund includes a new appropriation of $5 million for the grant program.

Both bills are in Senate committee on Wednesday.

State parks bond issue close to final passage

The Senate Finance and Taxation – General Fund committee on Wednesday advanced a proposed constitutional amendment allowing the state to borrow $80 million to improve state parks. The money would be used to expand and improve campgrounds and recreational areas.

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Commissioner (ADCNR) Christopher Blankenship has said that attendance was up about 1.2 million for a total of 6.2 million visitors to state parks last year.

Alabama voters approved a $110 million bond issue in 1998 to help improve state parks and historical sites. House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter (R – Rainsville), the sponsor of the legislation, says now that the bond issue is almost paid off, the state can enter into this new one.

A brochure provided by the ADCNR lists their renovation plans, which include expanding campgrounds, modernizing day-use areas, adding cabins or swimming pools and providing internet connectivity to overnight accommodations.

State parks are not funded by the State General Fund, but rather through fees. They generate 80-90% of their revenue directly through entrance, rental, lodging, golf and other recreational fees.

From 2011-2015, around $15 million was transferred from the parks budget to the state general fund and in 2015, five state parks had to shut down due to lack of funds. In 2016, Alabama voters approved a constitutional amendment that would prevent future reallocating of state park funds for other uses in the state’s budgets.

There are 21 state parks in Alabama that have an estimated $375 million economic impact for the state, according to the ADCNR brochure. If the constitutional amendment is passed by both chambers, it will likely be on the ballot for a vote in 2022.

Upcoming legislative schedule

The House of Representatives and Senate will reconvene on Tuesday, April 27, 2021, at 1:00 and 2:00 p.m., respectively.