BY PHILLIP RAWLS
MONTGOMERY, Ala. —
Shortly after the Legislature's 2013 session ended, the public address system in the Senate began playing a recording of Otis Redding singing the bluesy lyric, "They call me Mr. Pitiful."
It was fitting music for the Democratic minority in the Legislature, which failed to pass its top priority: expanding the state Medicaid program for 300,000 Alabamians under the federal Affordable Care Act.
"As a whole, this was the worst session we've had in terms of bad legislation and bills that could have passed," Senate Minority Leader Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, said Tuesday.
For Republicans, it was the opposite. They passed the Alabama Accountability Act, loosened restrictions on guns, started the consolidation of state law enforcement agencies, and kept a promise about paying back money.
"It's definitely been the best session in the three years we've been in power," Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said after the session ended at midnight Monday.
House Speaker Mike Hubbard went one step further. "This is the most productive session since I've been in the Legislature," said the Auburn Republican, who spent 12 years in the minority before the GOP won control in 2010.
Marsh said he understood the Democrats' view about it being a bad session because he was in the minority until Republicans took control.
"If I were a Democrat, I might think the same thing. When you are not in power, it's a different game," he said.
Marsh said the highlight was Republicans passing the Alabama Accountability Act over the objections of Democrats. The bill, which Marsh helped write, gives schools flexibility in complying with state education laws and creates state tax credits for parents who choose to send their children to private schools or non-failing public schools rather than public schools rated as failing.
On the last day of the session, Republican Gov. Robert Bentley tried to get the Legislature to delay the tax credits for two years because he said starting them now was fiscally irresponsible without giving failing schools time to improve. The House and Senate rejected his proposal.
"The override vote in the House proved that we overwhelmingly believe that students deserve school choice now, and not two years from now," Hubbard said. He added that there were no hard feelings between lawmakers and the governor's office.
Bentley suffered a second setback on the final night when the Legislature overrode his veto of a bill to allow armed teachers and volunteers in Franklin County schools.
In addition to the Alabama Accountability Act, major issues decided during the session included:
BUDGETS: The Legislature passed and the governor signed both state budgets on time. The $5.77 billion education plan will spend 3.6 percent more than this year, will provide a 2 percent cost-of-living raise for K-12 employees, and will expand the state's pre-kindergarten program. The $1.74 billion General Fund is 0.4 percent larger than the current budget, but does not include a pay increase for state workers.
SCHOOL SECURITY: In response to the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, lawmakers passed a bill to allow schools to hire armed security guards who have police training. In response to Dale County school bus driver Charles Poland Jr. being killed while trying to protect his students, the Legislature voted to increase the penalties for trespassing on a school bus. But a bill to allow $50 million in bond sales to improve security at school entrances died in the Senate.
SCHOOL SPENDING: The Legislature approved borrowing $30 million through bond sales to repair six schools damaged by tornadoes in 2011 and 2012, but another bond issue died that would have allowed the sale of $100 million in bonds to pay for switching public school students from traditional paper textbooks to electronic textbooks on computer tablets.
CAMPAIGN FINANCE: With the 2014 elections approaching, the Legislature made major changes to Alabama'scampaign finance laws, including removing a limit on how much corporations can donate to a candidate. Individuals could already give unlimited amounts.
GUNS: At the urging of the National Rifle Association, lawmakers eased the state's restrictions on guns, including allowing workers to keep guns locked in their vehicles while on the job and requiring sheriffs to give a reason when they reject a pistol permit application. The Legislature also approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would mandate Alabama's courts use "strict scrutiny" when reviewing any new gun control laws. That would require that proponents of the laws show a compelling interest for the regulations and that the laws be narrowly tailored. A bill to nullify federal gun laws in Alabama passed the Senate but died in the House.
REPAYMENT: The first bill passed requires the Legislature to pay back of $437 million being taken from a state savings account called the Alabama Trust Fund to prop up the state General Fund budget for three years. Republican leaders promised that would be their top priority when voters approved the use of the money in a statewide referendum last year.
CONSOLIDATION: Government consolidation was a major theme for Republicans. They passed bills to merge many of the state's law enforcement agencies and to create an information technology secretary in the governor's Cabinet to bring more coordination to the state's computer systems. But a bill died that would have merged many of the Legislature's support functions. Marsh said it will be a priority next year.
STATE PARK: At the governor's urging, the Legislature agreed to use money from the BP oil spill to build a convention hotel and conference center at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores.
MEDICAID: The Legislature didn't expand Medicaid like the Democratic minority wanted, but it did pass the governor's bill to reorganize Medicaid into eight regional programs. The governor, who's a physician, hopes to save money by switching Medicaid from a fee-for-service program to a managed care program.
WELFARE: The Senate passed, but the House let die two bills to ban the use of welfare benefits in liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs and to drug test welfare applicants who have had a drug conviction in the last five years.
Associated Press writer Bill Barrow contributed to this report.