Mid-session legislative report

Alabama Coronavirus Update

In our last Legislative Report dated 13 March 2020, we noted that one case of Coronavirus just had been confirmed in Alabama.

A little over one month later, the state of our world has changed considerably. As this is being written, 4075 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed in Alabama. 525 individuals have been hospitalized with the disease and, sadly, 118 individuals have succumbed to the virus.

On Friday, 3 April 2020, Governor Kay Ivey formally announced a “stay at home” order for the state through 30 April 2020, asking Alabamians who are not employed in “essential businesses” to stay at home to prevent the continued spread of the virus.

Yesterday, Governor Ivey and State Health Officer Scott Harris held a press conference wherein the Governor reiterated her request that Alabamians stay at home and continue to practice social distancing. Dr. Harris also stated that while the worst projections on the advancement of the disease have not come true in Alabama, we are not yet ready to return to “normal” or anything close to it.

While we do not yet have data or information to accurately calculate the impact of the virus on our economy, early signs are that it will be very severe. Unemployment compensation filings have increased substantially and many smaller employers in hard hit industries such as retail, restaurants and hospitality, travel, and many others may not survive.

State and local leaders are anxiously monitoring tax receipts in an effort to calculate budget impacts and make plans for the future. What appeared to be a rosy financial picture for the General Fund and Education Trust Fund in early March, is rapidly becoming one of the most challenging budget environments in our state’s history.

When and How to Return to Work

Last Friday, Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth announced that he would use the powers conveyed to him as Chairman of the Alabama Small Business Commission to create an emergency subcommittee to provide the Governor and Dr. Harris with recommendations on when and how to get Alabamians back to work.

Among those appointed by Governor Ainsworth were  Sen. Garlan Gudger (R-Cullman), Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Fairhope), Rep. Danny Garrett (R-Trussville), Rep. Joe Lovorn (R-Auburn), Business Council of Alabama President Katie Britt, Alabama Retail Association President Rick Brown, National Federation of Independent Businesses Executive Director Rosemary Elebash, Alabama Restaurant and Hospitality Association President Mindy Hanan and several others.

The subcommittee is seeking input from business leaders and various business sectors throughout the state to identify an appropriate path forward to reopen Alabama’s economy. Governor Ivey has said she is open to the recommendations of the group but will be guided first by recommendations from Dr. Harris and his medical team to ensure that the public is kept safe.

Governor Ivey has also appointed her own study committee chaired by State Finance Director Kelly Butler, Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama President and CEO Tim Vines and Dr. Nancy Dudley Johns, retired Dean at the University of Virginia School of Medicine to give guidance in this regard.

Governor Ivey announced that this group would provide a “thoughtful, well planned timeline for us to open up the economy.” She also indicated that she would be working with Dr. Harris to announce an updated statewide health order prior to 28 April 2020.

Finally, the Governor has been in contact with each of the seven members of the Alabama Congressional delegation to ask for information on the impact of the virus on their districts and suggestions on how an economic reboot might be best achieved in their respective regions.

Legislative Update

On 31 March 2020, the Alabama Legislature reconvened after spring break. The Senate met briefly with significant social distancing, members wearing masks and limited staff support. The meeting date was mandatory, as the Senate had set that meeting date upon recess for spring break and it could not be legally altered without actually meeting.

Upon recess, the Senate agreed to return to Montgomery on 28 April 2020, the same date that had already been set by the House of Representatives. At this point, it is unclear whether this date will actually hold. Both the Speaker of the House and President Pro Tem of the Senate now have authority to postpone the suggested meeting date for cause.

The proposed meeting schedule for the remainder of the session is also very unclear. It is reported that the leadership of the Senate is committed to returning to Montgomery to finish the business of the session prior to the constitutionally mandated adjournment date of 18 May 2020.

Currently, there are 16 legislative days remaining in this session. It is rumored that the Senate leadership would like to work four-day weeks (four legislative days within a work week) until the session concludes on 18 May. Usually, the legislature meets two legislative days during a work week (Tuesday and Thursday) with Wednesdays reserved for committee days. Even with the enhanced schedule, several legislative days would be burned or unused during this session.

It is rumored that the Speaker of the House and other members of the House leadership are less enthusiastic about this projected schedule. Clearly, much of this discussion will be influenced by the decisions of the Governor and the State Health Officer as to the continuation of the “stay at home” order and will develop over the next two weeks as we approach 28 April.

The uncertainty over budget projections going forward into fiscal year 2021 will add to the confusion over the legislative schedule. Most observers expect the focus to be on passing “bare bones” budgets that will most likely be level funded or less from the current fiscal year.

Under those circumstances, the legislature could also attach appropriations that are contingent upon future funds becoming available or pass supplemental appropriations in a special session when they return to the next regular session in February of 2021.

It is unclear whether the legislature will take up additional measures other than local bills, when they return to Montgomery.  Which general bills the legislature might deem important enough to address is anyone’s guess, but small cell, medical marijuana, prison reform, direct wine shipment and franchise protection, broadband deployment, economic development incentives, and others are potential possibilities.

Each trade association, special interest group, and lobbyist will be jockeying for position in the remaining half of the session to identify opportunities to promote their interests. Pursuing those opportunities while maintaining proper social distancing and adhering to future public health guidelines will be a challenging, new experience.

Whether the public and representatives of various interests will be allowed to physically participate in this process is to be determined. According to the President Pro Tem of the Senate’s office, the Secretary of the Senate and Clerk of the House will have the final say on how those issues will be managed going forward.

As more information becomes available, we will share it with each of you as we manage these issues in the coming days, weeks and months. For now, please stay safe and healthy.