COVID-19 played havoc with last year’s on-site meeting schedule for the Alabama Legislature, and the possibility still persists that the Feb. 2 start of this year’s session may be followed by remote communication and some early down time — though the state has so far made no decision that could affect lawmakers’ efforts to return to normal activity at the Statehouse.
When they do convene for this year’s session, legislators have a handful of statewide priorities to tackle — none bigger, according to Rep. Randall Shedd (R-Fairview), than averting a potential federal takeover of Alabama’s prison system.
“My biggest legislative worry for the state has been that our fed courts would take over our prisons, and I hope we can address whatever we need to do to avoid a federal takeover in this session, Shedd said Friday. “I know Governor [Kay] Ivey and her team are working hard on it on their end, and I know there’ll be legislation that’s introduced this year that attempts to address it. What the details are, though, I don’t think we’ll see in a completed form until we have a bill in front of us.”
The pandemic has altered more than just scheduling for many small business owners, schools, churches, and other places where people gather or make their living. Rep. Corey Harbison (R-Good Hope) hopes to support potential legislation that could chart a path back to work for Alabama residents whose earning power has been limited by last year’s lockdowns.
“I think we’ll be looking at offering some type of immunity from complete shutdowns,” said Harbison. “There probably will be a legislative push to do away with the governor having absolute power to shut the state down, and effectively shut businesses down, for an extended amount of time. It’s no reflection on Governor Ivey, and honestly, I’d imagine that she’d welcome having the legislature join in to shoulder some of the burden for a responsibility that affects so many people. But I think as a matter of serving business owners, the legislature will be taking a closer look at her scope of authority there.
“It’s a sad situation when you see businesses that’ve been family owned for generations, and a lot of them end up failing because of shutdowns. When, meanwhile, you’ve got large, corporately-owned chains that are enjoying record sales. That’s not what I envision for our state or even our country, and I believe we need to support these small businesses — not to have an advantage over the corporate-owned businesses at all, but to make it so that one doesn’t have an advantage over the other, just because of a public health order.”
Forging the best use of federal funds to chart the next step in providing rural broadband service is another of Shedd’s legislative priorities. As local residents begin this year to sign on for internet service provided via electric cooperatives in Cullman and Morgan Counties, Shedd said there’s still work to be done to bolster rural internet infrastructure locally and throughout the state.
“Broadband has been my big work for a while, and it’s like I tell folks from my time years ago with the county commission: we worked to get water lines, just like previous leaders worked to get electricity. Now it’s broadband, which affects business, education, and pretty much everything. Fortunately, parts of my district in Cullman and Morgan Counties are able to utilize the infrastructure in place through the Joe Wheeler and Cullman Electric Cooperatives, but there’s still a large part of my area over in Blount County where folks don’t have that, and that’s something we’re working to address.
“We’re also trying to figure out how we can navigate some possibilities for the federal funding that’s coming down the pike, so we’ve got some issues ahead where we’ll be working to try to maximize that — and that will probably require legislation from us.”
Both Shedd and Harbison said this year’s session will likely see statewide bills that seek to address a pathway for legal medicinal marijuana use, as well as a likely-intense competition between lawmakers as the legislature takes up the issue of legalized gambling in some form.
Harbison said it’s too early to know what types of bills could be introduced to legalize one or more forms of gambling, let alone how the legislature would agree to apportion the state’s take of gambling revenues.
“At this point, I think a lot of people would rather have a vote on a voluntary tax, which is what gambling amounts to, instead of seeing the state push more mandatory taxes,” he said.
“There are so many different ways that it could go and things it could include. When it comes down to how the money would be spent, I would expect that it’s going to be contentious. Any legalized gambling bill would mean a lot of money is at stake for different interests and different parts of Alabama, and I’d expect that to be a fight.”