Time ticking on Weaver Sunday sales, other local bills
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
May 11, 2013 | 5166 views |  0 comments | 35 35 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — The clock is running down on Weaver Mayor Wayne Willis, but he hasn't lost the game yet.

For months, Willis has been lobbying legislators to approve a bill that would allow the Weaver City Council to approve Sunday alcohol sales. He's also pushing for a companion bill that would bring two businesses — both of which sell alcohol — into the city.

Both bills are on a list of 52 pieces of legislation that could get a vote in the Alabama House of Representatives on May 20, the last day of the Legislature's 30-day session.

“I think it's going to come down to the last second,” Willis said.

Leaders in local governments and agencies across the state are likely to be on pins and needles this week, as the Alabama Legislature approaches the close of its session. After passing state budgets last week, lawmakers adjourned for a 10-day break. When they return on May 20 dozens of neglected bills will be jostling for a vote as the clock ticks toward midnight.

Among those bills is a measure by Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, that would create a new state board tasked with bringing a commercial spaceport to Alabama. Also on the list of still-viable House bills are two constitutional amendments proposed by Dial. One would allow government institutions to display the Ten Commandments and other religious documents of historic significance; the other would write the state's already-existing right-to-work laws into the Constitution of 1901.

Rep. Randy Wood, R-Saks, tried to move Dial's right-to-work amendment toward a House vote last week. Wood said he was supporting the bill because Dial had agreed to push one of his own bills — creating a specialized license plate to benefit the State Law Enforcement Memorial in Anniston — through the Senate.

"They're both things that are pretty popular with our constituents," he said.

Dial downplayed the idea of a deal on the bills Thursday, noting that he was on the Senate committee that governs specialty plates and had long supported the idea of a plate. Neither lawmaker had an estimate of how much money the plates, if created, would bring to the memorial.

The memorial license plate bill got a second reading in the Senate Thursday, which could make it a viable bill for the final day of the session. A bill by Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, to change the distribution of gas tax revenue in Calhoun County, also got a second read Thursday. Boyd's bill would increase the amount of money going to the county and decrease the amount going to local cities — a formula already followed in most other counties.

Major work finished

There's a reason why some of those bills are coming to the forefront now, after weeks on the shelf. Lawmakers spent much of the last week hammering out agreements on major items and controversial measures that have dominated much of the session.

Lawmakers agreed last week on a final version of the state's $5.77 billion education budget, a bill that included a 2 percent pay raise for teachers — less than the 2.5 percent Gov. Robert Bentley asked for, but more than the 1 percent originally proposed in the House.

That bill included $36 million for Jacksonville State University, which is roughly what the governor recommended. The House wanted a little less for the institution, but the Senate added a $250,000 earmark for the Center for Applied Forensics, a JSU center that trains police officers in forensic skills and does some forensics work at the request of local police departments.

Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh said the center fills some of the void left by the closure of a state forensics lab at McClellan in 2011.

"If we don't step up and do something, we're left without support," McVeigh said.

Both houses agreed Thursday to a set of changes to the Accountability Act, a school tax credit bill passed earlier in the session. Although the act as originally worded is now law, the changes themselves are subject to the governor’s approval. In its current version, the Accountability Act gives a $3,500 tax credit to families zoned for "failing" public schools who move their children to non-failing public schools or private schools. The act defines failing schools as the bottom 10 percent in academic performance. State school officials have said that would put anywhere between 130 and 150 schools on the failing list.

The changes that passed Thursday, however, if signed by the governor, would define failing schools as those in the bottom 6 percent for three of the last six years. State school officials said they don't yet have a list of failing schools, but said the new bill would cut the number of failing schools by almost half.

"We would expect less than 75 schools on the list," said Malissa Valdes-Hubert, spokeswoman for the Alabama State Department of Education. School officials still don't have an estimate of how much the tax credits would cost under the new bill. State officials have estimated the cost of the original Accountability Act at between $30 million and $70 million.

Contentious year

Acrimony between the parties also helped move local bills like Weaver's to the back of the line in this session. A House Democrat held up local legislation for weeks to protest lawmakers' failure to override the governor's veto on one of his local bills. Shouting matches broke out in the Senate, where Republicans rushed major bills to a vote with a minimum of debate, while Democrats dragged out debate on minor bills, hoping to run out the clock on the opposing supermajority.

Democrats trace the bad feeling back to the passage of the Accountability Act, a bill that was largely re-written just hours before its final passage. Senate Minority Leader Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, said that vote reflects GOP efforts to shut down debate on bills throughout the session.

"We as Democrats expected to be outvoted," she said. "But I feel that we have not been given a chance to be a voice of our constituency."

Asked how he felt about the progress of the session, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, offered a tongue-in-cheek answer.

"This has been a perfect session," he said while rushing from the Senate floor to a committee meeting — a response that sparked laughter from those within earshot.

Political scientist Lori Owens said Republicans had an incentive to be bold in pushing their agenda over the past three years — their first term in power in more than a century.

"When you're in the majority, it's important to strike while the iron is hot," said Owens, who teaches political science at Jacksonville State University.

The Accountability Act, and the way it was passed, may turn off some Republican voters, Owens said. But when elections are held next year, she said, voters are more likely to line up with candidates who agree with them on perennial issues such as gun policy.

Lawmakers historically have taken a week's break before the final day of the session, a strategem that limits the number of bills the governor can veto after the session, when the Legislature can no longer override the governor’s decisions.

Some say the wait could also give lawmakers a chance to cool down.

"It could be a lovefest," Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, said of the final day of the session. He said the mood on the last day is often hard to predict.

Weaver's mayor says he'll welcome an end to the suspense.

"After all this, I need a vacation," he said.

Staff writer Debra Flax contributed to this report. Tim Lockette is The Star's Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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