Lawmakers get busy with controversial issues in 1st session
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama lawmakers ended a sometimes contentious and fast-paced legislative session Friday that included enacting a near-total ban on abortion and raising the state gasoline tax to fund road and bridge construction.
Fresh off the 2018 elections, lawmakers did not shy from controversial issues in their first meeting of the four-year term.
“We addressed some tough issues and we didn’t turn our back. The members in this chamber made some tough votes this year,” House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said Friday night after lawmakers adjourned.
On the opening day of the 2019 legislative session, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey immediately called a special session focused on approving a 10-cent gasoline tax increase to fund road and bridge construction.
Lawmakers later approved a near-total ban on abortion as some conservative states seek to mount new challenges to Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision that legalized abortion nationwide. It is anticipated the Alabama ban will be blocked by a judge before it takes effect in November, but supporters said their goal is to spark a legal case that goes all the way to the Supreme Court.
“It’s to address the issue that Roe. v. Wade was decided on. Is that baby in the womb a person?” said Rep. Terri Collins, the Decatur Republican who sponsored the bill.
The measure was hailed by abortion opponents who hope new conservative justices appointed to the court by President Donald Trump will lead to Roe being overturned.
But the hardline measure, which contains no exceptions for rape and incest, landed the state as the butt of a “Saturday Night Live” skit and had some national Republicans distancing themselves from Alabama by reiterating their support for those exceptions.
“It gave Alabama a black eye across the nation in how we spoke to women in this state,” Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton said.
Rep. Merika Coleman, a Democrat from Pleasant Grove, said the abortion ban was the low point of the session.
“It was an emotionally charged session,” Coleman said
Lawmakers also approved significant education changes.
Alabamians will decide next year whether to abolish the elected state school board and replace it with an appointed commission, under a proposed constitutional amendment. The proposal was championed both by Ivey and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh.
Another measure would require third graders to meet reading benchmarks before moving to fourth grade. The bill also spells out initiatives, such as requiring regional reading specialists to work with struggling students, to boost test scores
“I think we’ll look back on this session as one of the most productive,” said Marsh, a Republican from Anniston.
Alabama lawmakers also established an equal pay law that says business should not pay workers less than employees of another race or sex for the same work unless there are reasons such as seniority, a merit system or productivity to account for the difference.
Rep. Adline Clarke, the legislation sponsor, said the bill was not as strong as she would have liked. Alabama and Mississippi had been the two states without a pay equity law.
Lawmakers left Montgomery Friday expecting to return sometime in the fall for a special session on the state prison system.
The U.S. Department of Justice in April threatened to sue the state over prison conditions, saying Alabama houses male inmates in critically understaffed prisons with unconstitutional levels of violence and inmate deaths.
U.S. Attorney Jay Town, who is handling negotiations between the Justice Department and the state, said the department is working with Alabama on “a multitude of issues to determine if the state can satisfactorily address the identified constitutional deficiencies.”
Town said he remains hopeful “litigation will be unnecessary.”
Lawmakers in the regular session approved a pay raise for corrections officers and a funding increase for the prison system, but could consider sentencing reform, prison construction and other measures.
“It’s top of the priority list,” McCutcheon said.