Feb. 04--MONTGOMERY -- When state legislators return to Montgomery on Tuesday, they'll have their work cut out for them.
The 2013 Legislative session is the third since Republicans gained control of both houses in 2010. The first two sessions tested the power of the new majority; lawmakers passed GOP wish-list items like the state's immigration law, and failed to pass others, like a charter school bill. This year, with little new ground to break, no elections to win and state agencies under budget strain, lawmakers are likely to have to get into the weeds of public policy.
Here's a look at some of the major issues coming up in the new session:
The budget. When Republicans took over the Legislature in 2010, many expected an era of austerity, with budget hawks slashing state agencies to save money. While many agencies did see cuts, budget-cutters were befuddled by the growing cost of the state's share of Medicaid -- the joint state/federal program that provides health coverage to people in poverty -- which has ballooned due to baby-boomer retirements and the loss of jobs to the 2008 recession.
Last year, voters approved a measure to take $437 million from a state trust fund to help pay for both Medicaid and the state's prison system, which is now at nearly twice its ideal capacity.
It's not going to be much easier this year. On Friday, Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said state General Fund revenues are likely to fall around $200 million short of state agencies' budget requests.
Medicaid reform. State officials are trying to find ways to stem the growth of the state's Medicaid costs by changing the way the state runs the program. A commission appointed by Gov. Robert Bentley is recommending that the program be divided into districts, managed by local entities, each of which would be run more or less like a managed care program. That change won't save any money in the 2014 budget year, officials say. But it's likely to be much debated in the Legislature.
Republican lawmakers have also announced their intent to file legislation requesting that federal Medicaid funds be given to Alabama in a block grant, which would give the state more choice in how to spend that money. Pleasing as the idea sounds to some on Goat Hill, it's Congress that would have the final say on that change.
Education. Economic growth, and expected growth in revenues to the Education Trust Fund, have school officials cautiously optimistic for the first time in years. Superintendent Tommy Bice is calling for a pay raise for teachers, who haven't seen their paychecks grow since the 2008 recession, and who saw take-home pay shrink when they were required to pay more toward their retirement. Bice has estimated that a 1 percent raise would cost about $35 million. Some lawmakers also hope to give a boost to the state's pre-kindergarten program, growing it from $19 million per year to $31 million. While school officials are looking forward to a year with more money, there may be more items on the wishlist than revenue growth can cover.
Charter schools, once a hot topic, are on nobody's 2013 agenda, though lawmakers will consider a bill to give school systems more local control, an idea that emerged during the 2012 charter school debate.
Guns. While Washington is debating new restrictions on guns in the wake of the Newtown massacre, Montgomery seems to be headed the other way. Even before Sandy Hook, state Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, filed a bill that would allow people to have guns in their cars at work, even if the employer prohibited guns on company property. After Newtown, Republican lawmakers announced proposals to arm teachers in the classroom and turn Alabama into a "shall issue" state, removing much of local sheriffs' authority to turn down applications for pistol permits.
Alcohol policy. A handful of seemingly unrelated bills are challenging the state's policies on buying and selling alcohol.
In some ways, Alabama is still emerging from Prohibition, with 25 counties still "dry" and wholesale distribution of liquor still done by a state monopoly, the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
A bill by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, would get the state out of the retail alcohol business, closing the state's ABC beverage stores. Orr says contracting those stores to private companies would save millions on personnel, but critics say the current setup actually makes the state money.
Closer to home, a bill filed by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, would give the Anniston City Council the power to approve sales of alcohol on Sunday -- something proponents say would help the city's tourism industry.
And while it's legal to buy alcohol in most places, brewing beer yourself, even if you don't intend to sell it, is still a felony, punishable by a year in prison. A bill in the House would change that -- but it's failed in previous sessions.
The culture war. Lawmakers will do their best this year to make sure the world knows Alabama marches to its own beat -- generally, a very conservative one.
Bills in the works would make it legal to display the Ten Commandments on public property, write the state's "right to work" laws into the Constitution, declare some federal gun regulations null and void and make sure that nobody applies foreign laws in Alabama courts.
Those bills are sure to create fireworks on the talk shows, but even if they pass, don't expect major changes immediately. Some measures, such as the right-to-work amendment, double down on existing law. Others, such as the challenge to federal gun control, are likely to land in federal court as soon as they're passed.
Capitol & Statewide Reporter: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.
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