Special Session #2 – November 5, 2021

Redistricting, appropriations, and vaccines…oh my!

The legislature wrapped up the second Special Session of 2021 late Thursday night. What was supposed to be a session specifically focused on redistricting and a small appropriation of federal funds turned into a multi-day debate over vaccine mandates.

Lawmakers finalized the redistricting maps on Wednesday and sent them to Governor Ivey who signed them into law. Despite efforts from a few legislators to offer alternative maps, the original maps as introduced in committee were the ones that were ultimately approved.

Several Democrats raised concerns over the racial makeup of the Congressional districts, particularly District 7, which is currently held by Congresswoman Terri Sewell. Sen. Rodger Smitherman (D – Birmingham) said the map as presented packed as many minorities as possible into District 7, which weakens their voter influence throughout the state. He offered an alternative map to reorganize the seven congressional districts, but Sen. Jim McClendon (R – Springville), C0-Chairman of the Redistricting Committee, said the alternative map would not work because it leaves the state without a majority-Black district, which lawmakers for decades have aimed to preserve in the 7th District.

Sen. Jabo Waggoner (R – Vestavia) and Rep. David Faulkner (R – Mountain Brook) also tried to make changes to the congressional maps. As presented, part of Homewood, which has been in Congressman Gary Palmer’s CD6, was moved to Congresswoman Sewell’s district. Attempts to change the map were voted down in both the House and Senate.

There were few objections to the House and Senate maps. The biggest pushback in the Senate came from Sen. Vivian Figures (D – Mobile) whose district was expanded across Mobile Bay to include parts of Baldwin County. Sen. Figures said the locals in Baldwin County were opposed to her representation of the area, which includes the city of Spanish Fort, and she was concerned that her district would eventually be lost as a majority-minority district.

In the House, Rep. Charlotte Meadows (R – Montgomery) and Rep. Dexter Grimsley (D – Newville) seemed to be the biggest losers in terms of maintaining favorable districts. Rep. Meadows’ new district is a majority black district and Rep. Grimsley’s is a majority white district, which makes it harder for them to each win in 2022 in their respective districts.

Several announced opponents were also drawn out of the districts in which they had already announced their candidacy. Josh Pendergrass, who announced his candidacy against Rep. Will Dismukes (R – Prattville) several months ago, was drawn into Rep. Kelvin Lawrence’s (D – Hayneville) new district, which now includes parts of Prattville. Susan Dubose, who planned to run against Rep. Dickie Drake (R – Leeds), lost a majority of her voter base in her Greystone neighborhood to HD48, which is held by Rep. Jim Carns (R – Mountain Brook). In Baldwin County, former Emergency Management Director Mitchell Sims, who planned to run against Sen. Chris Elliott (R – Fairhope), was drawn into Sen. Greg Albritton’s (R – Atmore) district.

The fourth map that was approved by the legislature and signed into law was the State School Board map, which received very little feedback or debate.

American Rescue Plan appropriations

Also included in Governor Ivey’s call for a Special Session was an $80 million appropriation from the American Rescue Plan (ARP_ funds from the federal government. Sen. Albritton and Rep. Steve Clouse (R – Ozark) carried the legislation, which included $40 million for nursing homes and $40 million for hospitals to be used as reimbursement for COVID-related expenses. There was very little discussion on the bill and it was viewed as a stop-gap measure until the legislature can come into Regular Session to appropriate more ARP money to healthcare providers.

Vaccine mandates

Despite not being included in the Governor’s call for Special Session, the legislature passed two bills to make it easier for workers in the state to opt out of federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates and prohibit minors from getting vaccinated against the virus without parental consent.

SB15 by Sen. Arthur Orr (R – Decatur) as originally written would have strengthened Alabama’s existing vaccine passport ban law, which says businesses and entities cannot deny service based on vaccine status, and given prosecutorial authority to the Attorney General. As passed by the legislature, however, it simply prohibits COVID-19 vaccinations for minors without parental consent. It also says institutions of education cannot ask minors their COVID-vaccination status without parental consent.

SB9 by Sen. Chris Elliott proved more complicated. The bill would allow employees to claim a religious or medical exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine through a standardized form. The bill prohibits employers from terminating an individual for refusing a COVID-19 vaccine if they complete the exemption form.

Some of the exemptions listed on the form include if a person has received monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma in the past 90 days, has a bleeding disorder or are taking blood thinners, is severely immunocompromised, or has been diagnosed with COVID-19 within the past 12 months. If the individual claims that their health care provider has recommended against getting the vaccine, they would have to get their provider’s signature on the form.

If a vaccine exemption is denied, the employee would have seven days to appeal to the Alabama Department of Labor. An administrative law judge hired by the department has 30 days to make a final ruling. The bill also requires employers to provide paid leave while the appeals process plays out, potentially allowing up to 37 days.

The bill is set to sunset on May 1, 2023 unless extended by the legislature.

The Business Council of Alabama and other business groups remained opposed to the legislation citing the conflict with federal vaccine mandates. “This version continues to put employers and particularly federal contractors in a no-win situation between existing federal rules and conflicting proposed state laws,” BCA said in a written statement. “Non-compliance with the federal mandate could result in the loss of current and future contracts and jobs for their companies and communities.”

Both bill were sent to Governor Ivey where they are awaiting signature.

Upcoming legislative schedule

Barring unforeseen events, the legislature will not return to Montgomery again until the 2022 Regular Session convenes on January 11, 2022.