VOLUME 24 NUMBER 9 – MAY 19, 2023

The Alabama Legislature reconvened its regular session on Tuesday 17 May 2023, working through the 20th, 21st, and 22nd legislative days.

House approves bill requiring manufacturers to enable content filters on smartphones

On Tuesday, the House passed legislation that would require makers of cell phones and tablets to manufacture devices that automatically enable a filter that prevents the user from accessing sexually explicit content or pornography unless the purchaser changes the device settings. HB298, sponsored by Rep. Chris Sells (R-Greenville), would impose civil penalties of up to $50,000 per infraction on producers of smartphones and tablets, in addition to punitive damages under certain circumstances. The content filter would be active for all smartphones and tablets sold under the proposed law, whether they were purchased by adults or children. 

During a public hearing earlier in the session, representatives from the telecommunications and manufacturing industry spoke in opposition to the bill questioning whether the bill violates the interstate commerce clause and stating that the mandate on manufacturers to make adjustments for devices sold or activated only in Alabama would be impractical, if not impossible,  

The bill passed the House with a vote of 70-8, with 24 members abstaining. 

House Judiciary Committee approves bill to add licensing and age verification for adult material sites

A bill with similar intent to HB298 was addressed during a public hearing on Wednesday. HB441, sponsored by Rep. Ben Robbins (R-Sylacauga), would prohibit the distribution of pornography to minors under the age of 18. The legislation would require a licensing fee to distribute pornography material in Alabama in addition to creating an age-identification process to confirm a viewer’s age before accessing the material. While the Sells bill passed overwhelmingly, there appears to be some support for Rep. Robbins’ bill compared to Rep. Sells’ legislation as it targets the pornography industry rather than imposing mandates on manufacturers. The legislation received a favorable report from the Judiciary committee and now advances to the House for a vote. 

988 Funding Bill Advances Out of Senate Committee

After weeks of conversations, HB389 sponsored by Rep. Rex Reynolds (R-Huntsville), was carried over indefinitely so that work could continue on the effort to fund 988 crisis call lines and centers while the legislature is not in session.  At this point, the issue appeared to be settled, at least for the time being. Despite the fact that the constitution of Alabama requires revenue raising measures to be introduced in the House of Representatives, a Senate version was introduced by Sen. Garlan Gudger (R-Cullman) on Tuesday. SB328 was referred to the Senate Fiscal Responsibility & Economic Development committee which is chaired by Sen. Gudger, and the bill was placed on the agenda within 24 hours. Another public hearing was hastily held where the Alabama Department of Mental Health and advocates for additional mental health services as well as representatives of the telecommunication industry shared their views pro and con.  

As introduced, the bill would add a monthly fee of 98 cents to all phone lines in Alabama to fund the 988 hotline. Representatives of the telecommunications industry have consistently expressed their strong support for mental health and the need for the new 988 hotline but still hold concerns regarding the high surcharge fee as it would be the most expensive in the country. The Senate bill received a favorable report out of committee and it remains to be seen whether the Senate leadership will move this controversial bill to the floor in the final days of the session.

Senate passes bill to establish sunset dates for new tax incentives

On Thursday, the Senate passed SB 299 by Sen. Aurthur Orr (R-Decatur) that would establish sunset dates for tax incentive programs and provide required guidelines for reporting regarding all new incentive legislation. The bill establishes a sunset date of December 31, 2028 for all tax incentive programs, including those that already exist in Alabama law. This legislation reflects the view of the leadership and the overall legislature that tax credits and incentive programs should be evaluated every five years to determine whether they are achieving the desired result.  The legislation now advances to the House of Representatives.

Senate approves anti-ESG bill after hours of filibustering

An anti-ESG (environmental, social, governance) bill sponsored by Sen. Dan Roberts (R-Mountain Brook) passed the Senate on Thursday after hours of filibustering by democratic leaders. SB261 will “prohibit governmental entities from entering into certain contracts with companies that boycott businesses because the business engages in certain sectors or does not meet certain environmental or corporate governance standards or does not facilitate certain activities.” The bill would require companies doing business with state entities to provide written verification that the company will not participate in economic boycotts as defined by the bill. The bill authorizes the Alabama attorney general to use “all remedies at law or in equity to enforce this act” and requires the attorney general to oppose federal laws that would infringe on the bill.

Sen. Bobby Singleton (R-Greensboro) began the filibuster stating that he thought the legislation was a “bad bill” and it would hinder Alabama’s ability to recruit businesses and promote economic development. Sen. Rodger Smitherman (R-Birmingham) also discussed with Sen. Sam Givhan (R-Huntsville) , who was handling the bill for the sponsor at the podium, saying he did not understand why this bill was needed or why some of the concepts such as abortion were included in the bill. 

After over two hours of filibuster, the bill was approved on a party-line vote of 27-8 and now moves to the House of Representatives for potential consideration.

It is also anticipated that both the education and general fund budgets will be in committee next Wednesday with a potential vote on Thursday. Many observers also expect to see movement regarding the reduction and ultimate removal of the state sales tax on groceries in the near future.

The Legislature will reconvene next Tuesday 23 May 2023, for the 24th legislative day.