Spending, school choice among key session issues in Alabama
Alabama lawmakers have kicked off the 2023 legislative session
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama lawmakers began the 2023 legislative session on Tuesday. Here are some issues to watch in the session that can last through mid-June:
PANDEMIC RELIEF FUNDS
Lawmakers are expected on Wednesday to begin a special session on allocating the remaining $1.06 billion in state relief funds from the American Rescue Plan. Lawmakers will take up a proposal that steers money to water and sewer projects, along with broadband and healthcare needs. Republican Sen. Greg Albritton said there have been disagreements among lawmakers “because it is the last batch.”
The state has a $2.8 billion surplus in the state education budget and no shortage of ideas how to use it. Lawmakers are expected to debate a plan to provide one-time tax rebates. Republican Sen. Arthur Orr, who chairs the Senate education budget committee, said rebates of $200 for single taxpayers and $400 for married couples, with the possibility of more for families with dependents, are under discussion. Lawmakers are also considering permanent tax cuts. House Democrats are pushing to remove the 4% state sales tax on food. Orr said he believes that will be discussed, but likely in a phased-in approach. Pay raises are also expected for education employees. Legislative leaders have also said they intend to be cautious with spending choices, over fears of a potential economic downturn.
Republican lawmakers are expected to introduce "school choice" proposals that range from providing money to help parents pay for private school to expanding the number of charter schools in the state. The push comes as at least a dozen other conservative states are considering similar legislation in what is emerging as a landmark year for school choice battles. Republican Sen. Larry Stutts, of Tuscumbia, is finalizing a proposal to allow parents to use about $6,000 a year in state tax dollars to send their children to private schools through education savings accounts. "Parents want the ability to choose," Stutts said.
BAN ON ‘DIVISIVE CONCEPTS’
Legislation has again been introduced to ban the teaching of so-called "divisive concepts" about race and gender. It would prohibit anyone in local school systems, state agencies and public universities from being forced "to accept, acknowledge, affirm, or assent to a sense of guilt, complicity, or a need to apologize" because of their race, gender or national origin. Similar legislation was introduced last year and drew criticism from educators and others who said it would have a chilling effect on honest classroom lessons and discussions about the nation's history.
IMPACT OF NEW MEMBERS
The dynamic at the Alabama Statehouse this year brings an air of unpredictability because of an unusually large number of freshmen. There are 31 new members in the 105-member House of Representatives and six in the 35-member Alabama Senate. The House also has a new leader, following the election of House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter. Republicans maintain strong majorities in both the House and Senate.