The Alabama Senate locked down for much of Thursday’s session debating redistricting plans. The Congressional redistricting plan that was passed by the Reapportionment Committee was introduced in the Senate and debated at length. Several alternative plans were introduced from both sides of the aisle. The process of introducing a plan via an amendment, debating the merits of that plan, and ultimately voting the amendment up or down is a time consuming process. In the end an alternative plan was introduced and passed. The new plan does not affect the 5th Congressional district lines as passed by the Reapportionment Committee, depicted here (note, this is a screen shot from the software focusing on North Alabama). Unfortunately, due to the drawn out debate on the redistricting plans, the Senate ran out of time to debate other bills. Making matters worse, yesterday was the last legislative day of the 2011 session for any bills to pass the Senate and be sent to the House. Several very good bills making their way through the legislative process are now DOA and will have to wait until next year for reintroduction. The Senate will spend the remaining four legislative days debating and voting on bills that have been transferred from the House. Of note, the State Board of Education Plan that was passed by the Reapportionment Committee was passed by the House yesterday as well. This plan will be debated in the Senate next week.After much debate the House passed the Tenure Reform Bill, SB310 late Wednesday. Several attempts were made to amend the bill passed by the Senate, none were successful. Governor Bentley signed the bill into law on Thursday. Events I plan to attend this weekend include the Madison Police Department’s grand opening of their new addition. On Saturday I will attend the Limestone County Teenage Republican Yard Sale in Athens and on Monday I am honored to have been asked to speak at the annual Memorial Day Celebration at the Tut Fann Veteran’s Home in Huntsville.The Senate returns to session on Tuesday. I hope everyone has a wonderful and safe Memorial Day weekend. Please take time to remember those who have served and continue to serve our great nation!Semper FiBill
Tuesday turned into Wednesday while we were still in session last night; I’m left with the question for today’s blog; where to start?
The Ugly - The Senate pulled an all nighter on Tuesday night. We started session at 9 AM on Tuesday and ended at 8:45 AM on Wednesday, just short of 24 hours. We continued to work on the budgets as the evening grew long and I’ve already reported on the Pro-Life bills that the Senate passed in yesterday’s blog so I’ll pick up from there.
A whole lot of political wrangling occurred throughout the night – please bear with me as I attempt to explain. As background, I need to discuss a “BIR”. The Budget Isolation Resolution, or BIR, is required each time we debate an item other than the budgets. The intent is to keep the legislature focused on passing the budgets. A super majority vote (2/3 members of each body) is required to pass a BIR, allowing further debate of a bill that does not deal with the budgets. Here’s where the political wrangling comes in…the House needed to debate and pass SB310, Tenure Reform on Wednesday. Rumor has it they have the simple majority votes to pass SB310 but not the super majority vote to pass a BIR allowing SB310 to come up for debate. To solve this problem, the Senate needed to pass the budgets, as once the budgets are passed there is no longer a requirement to pass a BIR, thereby solving the problem in the House...almost done, please stay with me!
So the Senate set out to pass the budgets; simply enough. The budgets had already passed each house but in different forms. The compromises made in the Conference Committee between the two house’s versions of the budgets were to be debated. However, in a “delay and defend” tactic, the Democrats asked that the budgets be “read at length”. We have an automated system that reads the bills but nonetheless the process to read the General Fund budget took four hours and the Education Fund budget is two hours.
Compounding things somewhat is another little tool called a “Quorum Call”. This entails a roll call, on the Senate floor 10 minutes after the request is made by any Senator. If a Quorum cannot be made the Senate automatically adjourns until the following day. An additional rule allows for a Quorum Call to be made only once every two hours. Still with me?
Okay – here’s how this all went down; in the middle of the night. The Senate started talking budgets late into the evening and realized if the Democrats requested that the bill be read at length we’d run out of day. So we purposely delayed until midnight, adjourned and reconvened at 12:01. Then we let the Ds make the request to have the budgets read…requiring 7 hours total. The Republicans called a Quorum Call every two hours to prevent the Ds from making the call. They actually ran from the chamber, not wanting to help us make a Quorum each time. Remember, if we can’t make a Quorum we automatically adjourn until 10 AM the following day. And so at 8:45 this morning our strategy paid off and both budgets passed the Senate. This opened the door for the House to take up SB310 this evening (being debated as I type this) without being blocked by the BIR process. I can’t help but share that in the Marine Corps we called tactics like this “Reindeer Games”…my patience is growing thin.
As luck would have it I had several committee meetings this morning. The early morning meetings were canceled but the mid-morning ones needed to be held. Fortunately, my first meeting was at 10:30; I got almost an hour and half of sleep!
The Good - AT-PRO received a favorable report out of the Education Budget committee. This bill has a long way to go but does the right thing with respect to doing what the original DROP program was intended to do. It has been a while since I talked on this bill. You can read about it on the March 29th Blog entry. In short, AT-PRO (SB303) follows what I understood to be the original intent of DROP, this bill is not intended as a supplemental retirement program. The intent is to incentivize a teacher who is nearing retirement to remain teaching in the classroom so that the school system can hire/transfer and train a replacement. This keeps a strong Math, Science, English, etc program in place in a school system. Key to the plan is a teacher has to be approved by the local board to participate in the plan and that upon completing, must retire. I support the intent of this bill and genuinely feel that support is growing in both the House and Senate.
The Bad…x2 – I had a tough day in committee hearings…lost two bills. The first bill that failed was a bill allowing patents limited, direct access to a physical therapist. This bill had traveled a very long, arduous road with skillful political maneuvering on both sides. I thank those that helped move this bill along. I realize there are other reasons why some may or may not have supported the bill but hey, it’s my blog. In my view, a person opposing this bill does so based on one of two things. One, they don’t think Alabama citizens are capable of making a decision of whether or not to go to a doctor or go to a Physical Therapist. Note, 47 other states allow residents some form of limited direct access to their Physical Therapist. The other reason, they are simply beholden to the wishes of the medical special interest groups in Montgomery who is protecting their clients. The bill failed with only 2 yes votes and 6 no votes, one abstention. The 2 yes votes were Republicans, the 6 no votes were split, 3 Republicans and 3 Democrats.
This was a great bill for me to carry as I learned a lot in the process. In the end I respect everyone’s position and final vote. I hope those that made early commitments to oppose the bill will not do so in the future (several waivered but stuck to their earlier commitments, opposing the bill) and I look forward to working with everyone to expand patient rights in Alabama. This is how healthcare reform needs to take place in America.
The second bill lost in committee today dealt with the law requiring posting of Legal Notices in local newspapers. This bill would allow municipalities and county commissions to publish Legal Notices via means other than the local newspapers such as the city/county website, on public bulletin boards at City Hall or County Courthouses, TV, etc. Under this bill, the city/county could determine to continue publishing Legal Notices in newspapers if desired. In my view, the law, as currently written is essentially an unfunded mandate. According to the estimates provided by city clerks, Huntsville budgets $130,000 annually to print legal notices in local papers. Let me be clear, this is not a “poke” at newspapers across the state (although some think this bill is the reason for the “anything but newsworthy” article Bob Lowry wrote yesterday – I don’t buy it). This bill simply allows those municipalities that choose to do so, to advertise Legal Notices in a more cost efficient manner. Simply put, $130,000 would do a lot for a municipal or county government’s budget but as the current law is written, they have no choice but to advertise Legal Notices in local newspapers. This bill did not have support in committee and a tabling motion was made…essentially killing it as the session winds to an end.
State Income Tax Deductable Safe Rooms? Another important bill that passed the Senate this evening was SB395. This best way to describe this bill is similar to a Health Insurance Savings Plan for your home. This bill allows an income tax deduction for a homeowner, not to exceed the lesser of 50% of retrofitting costs and improvements or $3,000 to homes to help withstand hurricanes and windstorms – to include tornados. This bill started life as a Coastal Insurance Bill – dealing only with the coastal area. An amendment allowed this bill to include all of Alabama after the recent tornados. And yes, you can build a safe room under this bill.
I started the day with a committee meeting for the General Fund at 0830. Senator Sandford introduced SB428 which allows for state employees to “opt out” of participation in the State Employee Retirement System. As currently written, the law requires all state employees to participate. In some instances, both the husband and wife work for the state, equating to 10% or more of the family income contributed to retirement. I like this bill as it allows the state employee the option to decide what is best for their situation rather than requiring them to participate.A Pro-Life Day in the Senate
The Senate went into session at 0900. After dispensing with several local bills the Senate moved into a debate of several “Pro-Life” bills. The first bill up was SB202 by Senator Reed. This bill relates to the Affordable Health Care Act (aka Obama Care) and operation and maintenance of “health insurance exchanges." Health insurance plans offering abortion coverage are allowed to participate in a state's exchange and to receive federal subsidies unless the Legislature affirmatively opts out of offering these plans. This bill specifically provides that the State of Alabama opts out of allowing abortion coverage by exchange participating health plans. Those opposed to the bill based their position on the fact that some people will need federal subsidies in order to be able to afford to have an abortion. The flaw in that logic is that an abortion is acceptable. The Bill passed in a 25 – 7 vote. The next bill taken up was SB281 by Senator McGill. The intent of this bill is for private health insurance plans and policies offered in Alabama shall only offer abortion coverage through the purchase, by an individual policyholder, of a separate rider and through the payment of an additional premium for such coverage. Those opposed to this bill provided varying arguments…all of which were thinly veiled Pro-Choice arguments. The bill passed in a 25 – 7 vote. The next bill debated was SB298 by Senator Allen. The intent of this bill is for to establish the Abortion-Inducing Drug Safety Act which would make it unlawful to administer any abortion-inducing drug to a woman without her receiving an exam by a physician and provide a physician with guidelines to follow in administering an abortion-inducing drug. Again, those opposed to this bill provided varying arguments, thinly veiled Pro-Choice arguments. The bill passed in a 26 – 6 vote. SB301 by Senator Williams was debated next. This bill provides that the term "persons" as used in the Code of Alabama shall include all humans from the moment of fertilization in the womb. The bill passed in a 23 – 7 vote. The next bill was SB308 by Senator Scofield. This bill requires a physician to perform an ultrasound, provide verbal explanation of the ultrasound, and display the images to the pregnant woman before performing an abortion. This bill does not prevent a pregnant woman from averting her eyes from the ultrasound images when shown to her and would not apply to an abortion performed in the case of a medical emergency. I have reservations with the part about the requirement to display the ultrasound imagines to the mother but had little support to amend the bill as introduced. The bill passed in a 26 – 3 vote. By all counts we had a banner day today protecting the unborn children in Alabama. I am proud to have been a part of these histoic votes and thank my fellow Senators for their work and support on these bills.
Apparently it was considered a slow news day by the Huntsville Times Montgomery reporter, Bob Lowry. The Senate passed 5 Pro-Life bills and what did he report on? The fact that I and a couple of other Senators sleep in our offices (no surprise to regular readers of this blog)…some real, investigative reporting here Mr. Lowry. I apologize for working 15 - 18 hour days and being efficient in Montgomery, folks! The Democrats, lead by Senator Smitherman, are determined to filibuster every bill we bring up. Other bills we’ve worked this evening include the House versions of the budgets and illegal immigration bills. As both the Senate and House have different versions, we had to vote to move them into conference committees to hammer out the differences. The bills will then come back up for final concurrence on changes agreed to in committee. Tomorrow is a rare Wednesday legislative day (meaning we will be in session). We still have several bills in the works that we hope to pass to the House before the end of the week. We will also hold committee meetings tomorrow making for a full day. I’ll chair the final Veteran’s and Military Affairs Committee meeting of the session and attend the Children and Youth Affairs and Small Business Committee meetings. I’ll also present the AT-PRO Bill to the Education Fund Committee tomorrow morning. I’ll post more on that tomorrow. It's a little after 9 PM and we are still at it tonight...
I’ll return to Montgomery on Monday for a meeting with Limestone County Officials and the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT). I will then join the Republican Caucus for dinner and discussion as we plan to round out the 2011 legislative session which comes to a close in early June. The Senate returns to session on Tuesday and will be in session for three days this week. We have a significant amount of legislative work to complete, of which I will touch on throughout blog posts later this week. I’ve stayed busy with meetings and events across Senate District 2 over the last two weeks that the Senate was not in session. Highlights include visiting Clements High School, Piney Chapel Elementary School, Endeavor Elementary School, Cedar Hill Elementary School and Sparkman 9th Grade Academy. I was able to attend the Tennessee Valley Republican Club and Madison Republican Men’s Club’s monthly meetings as well as the WVNN “Legislative Get Together” at Bridge Street. I attended the Athens “State of the City” luncheon and a meeting with elected leaders across Limestone County regarding roads and infrastructure supporting economic development. I attended the Congressional and State Board of Education redistricting meeting held in Huntsville. I also attended the annual Police Memorial Day and monument dedication in Ardmore, Alabama. Additionally I visited with several people, and churches in neighborhoods affected by the recent tornados. I visited both the FEMA centers in the district (Limestone County Event Center and Monrovia Church of Christ) to introduce myself and ensure the FEMA staff had everything needed to complete their mission. I attended the annual Sherwood Park Community Pride Day in Huntsville. I was honored to provide greetings at the Athens State University graduation and was able to attend the Bob Jones High School graduation at the VBC. Unfortunately I will not be able to attend the Sparkman High School or Monrovia Middle School graduation ceremonies (the only other ceremonies I received invitations to attend) due to my work schedule in Montgomery this week. I wish the best to all graduates across the District – job well done!Redistricting – I spent two days in Montgomery last week as a member of the reapportionment committee. We worked on and approved two plans that will be introduced to the legislature this week. One plan is for Congressional redistricting, the other for State School Board. A copy of the two plans, focused on North Alabama, can be viewed here (BOE and Congressional). Please note, we are in the early stages of this process, changes to these plans may occur as the plans move through the legislative process in the final days of the current session. I am honored to be a part of this historic process.On the topic of redistricting, the redistricting committee will begin work on the state legislature redistricting next year. Our goal has been to complete the congressional and State Board of Education during the 2011 session as these new lines need to be set prior to the 2012 elections. The state legislative lines should be complete during the 2012 legislative session.Potential outcomes of the redistricting process have started to raise some concerns. In an article in Sunday’s Athens News Courier on redistricting, former Limestone County Probate Judge Mike Davis is quoted as saying. "Is it fair to wholesale slice up the fifth-largest growing county in the state in the name of representation?" "In reality, there is no representation when it comes to local matters. What kind of interest does a representative who is elected from another county with the majority of registered voters have for the people of another county who has less registered voters and whose interests are in direct conflict? Where is their loyalty and interest going to lie?"
While I respect Judge Davis’ 30 years of service as a Democrat serving the people of Limestone County as their Probate Judge, and not having an opportunity to speak with him concerning his comments, I find them somewhat troubling. His concerns are based simply on the assumption that a legislator is not going to support their constituents. In the article Davis goes on to say, "We need a representative who lives here who has the right to play in the game with Madison County on local legislation".
First, I’d like to remind Judge Davis that Senate representation has not lived in Limestone County for at least the past 12 years as former State Senator Tom Butler (D), Madison lives in the city of Madison. Second, I simply ask that Judge Davis and others give the newly elected leadership a chance – there may have been issues in the past with local legislation but, as the Senator who represents the largest population in Limestone County, I feel certain that I can and will represent the interest of the people, regardless of where I live.
You see, I live in Senate District 2 which is comprised of Limestone and Madison Counties. I will continue to work to represent the people - all of them. Judge Davis may not realize that 63% of Limestone County registered voters turned out to vote in the 2010 election - I certainly have not, and will not forget that!
The Alabama State Senate adjourned just before midnight last night. We were able to debate and pass several bills yesterday – the most significant of which were Forever Wild, Tenure Reform and Illegal Immigration.I slept in my office last night as Montgomery is three hours from my home in Madison. I’m not as young as I once was and a three hour drive at midnight is simply too dangerous so I opted to stay here. Before heading home I decided to update the blog from yesterday...if I don't do it now it likely will not get done.I’ve loaded the bills that were passed last night (as amended) below so that everyone can read them. Illegal Immigration – This bill passed in a 23 – 11 vote…a straight up/down party line vote with Independent Smith voting with the Republicans. Goes back to House for concur or non-concur vote. If a majority of the House concurs it will go to Governor Bentley for signature. If they non-concur, a conference committee will met to negotiate differences.Forever Wild – This bill passed in a 34 – 0 vote. The house passed the original version a couple of weeks ago that would have reauthorized the program “as is”. The votes were not there in the Senate to do this but after a long debate, a compromise was reached allowing the people of Alabama to vote to reauthorize the program, or not, in the 2012 General Election. Goes back to House for concur or non-concur vote. If a majority of the House concurs it will go to Governor Bentley for signature. If they non-concur, a conference committee will met to negotiate differences.Tenure Reform – this bill changed dramatically from what was first introduced and I support the end product. We simply need to reform the current tenure laws. This bill passed narrowly in an 18 – 16 vote. All Republican Senators voted for the bill except Holley, Reed, Ward and Whatley. This Bill is now headed to the House for committee and floor debates.I have a noon press conference in Huntsville with the Madison County Delegation regarding the tornado damage and recovery operations. On Saturday I will attend two Town Hall meetings with Congressman Brooks and FEMA reps. The first of which is at 11:30 at the Monrovia Community Center, the second at 2:30 at Tanner High School. I hope to attend the Whistle Stop BBQ later Saturday, I had been invited to be a “Shade Tree” category tasting judge at 3:30 but need to be in Tanner for the Town Hall Meeting first. The Senate has recessed for the next two weeks allowing the reapportionment committee to focus on our work. We will attend several regional Town Hall meetings on reapportionment next week. The first is in Huntsville on Monday at the VBC at 6:30 PM; everyone is invited to attend. The committee plans to meet in Montgomery the following week for a couple of days to draft a plan that will be presented to the Senate and House for congressional and state school board reapportionment when we reconvene on the 24th of May.I will work throughout the District on disaster recovery when not attending reapportionment meetings over the next two weeks. I look forward to catching up with everyone.
Today was a typical committee day in Montgomery. I started the day at 0830 with an Education Policy meeting. Next was a Children, Youth Affairs Committee meeting at 0930. The Senate went into session at 1000 but I also had a bill in the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee at 1000. As a bonus, the Senate Chambers are on the 7th floor and the House meeting was on the 1st floor…this made for a fun morning going up and down seven floors making sure I was in the Senate Chambers for votes and waiting for my bill to come up on the agenda in the House Committee. Today was the first day that I found myself wishing for a “member only” elevator as I pondered waiting for an elevator or using the stairs! In the end our Brewpub bill successfully passed the house committee and now awaits final action on the House Floor before going to the Governor.The Senate debated renewal of the Forever Wild Program. Readers may recall my editorial on Forever Wild from a few weeks ago (linked here). My position has not changed. I continue to receive numerous emails on this issue, from both sides of the vote. Readers may not realize that the Republican Caucus is strongly divided on this issue. For example, today the republicans opposed to the bill filibustered the bill for several hours until a procedural call forced the Senate to adjourn until tomorrow. We’re filibustering our own bill…I’m new here but my honest opinion is that we are spending far too much political capital, against each other, on this issue. I maintain that the best course of action is to create an opportunity for the people, state wide, to vote on the issue as was done 20 years ago; support for this option is rapidly growing. I later attended a joint Senate and House Republican Caucus lunch meeting and then attended the reapportionment committee meeting where we hammered out guidelines for public hearings. The public hearing for the 5th Congressional District will be held on Monday, May 9th at 6:30 PM at the VBC. Note, this meeting was previously announced for Tuesday at noon. I contended that a noon meeting in the middle of the work week was counterproductive to our goal of encouraging maximum public attendance. Please plan to attend the meeting and share your thoughts on redistricting of the 5th Congressional District based on the 2010 Census data. On another note, today I received word that Congressman Brooks will hold Town Hall meetings in two areas of Senate District 2 on Saturday, May 7th. These meetings will focus on disaster relief with members of FEAM and the Small Business Administration present to answer public questions. The first meeting will be held at 11:30 at the Monrovia Community Center. The second meeting will be held at 2:30 at the Tanner High School. I plan to attend both meetings.Tomorrow morning I will chair the monthly Joint Contract Review meeting at 0830. The Senate goes back into session at 1030. We have several items to finish up – including final action on a bill addressing the current school year.Both the House and Senate will recess later tomorrow, allowing those of us on the reapportionment committee to focus on town hall meetings and other reapportionment work for a couple of weeks. We will reconvene the last week of May, meeting through the final days of May and into early June before adjourning for the 2011 session. We have a lot of work before us and my hope is that we can put aside our differences, capping an already productive session by passing important legislation that is making its way through the legislative process.
I arrived in Montgomery at 10:30 today, just in time to participate in a Commerce, Transportation and Utilities Committee meeting. I then attended the Republican Caucus meeting at noon. The Senate went into session at 2 PM and adjourned at 5:40, in time to cross the street to the Capitol where Governor Bentley addressed a joint session of the Senate and House and the people of Alabama at 6 PM.Tomorrow, I’ll start with committee meetings at 0830. I have back-to-back-to-back meetings until we go into session tomorrow...should be a busy day!Tornado Recovery - My family’s prayers are with those who lost family members and suffered property damage from the tornadoes last week. I have been singularly focused on disaster operations since last week. We now know that it was an EF5 Tornado, with winds in the 200MPH range, that crossed Limestone and Madison Counties along a 132 mile path across the state.
I participated in daily conference calls with the Governor’s Office and State Emergency Management Office each morning. I would then hit the road, traveling across Limestone and Madison counties to visit with residents impacted by the storm. I normally started in East Limestone at the command post set up at the Volunteer Fire Dept and worked my way West, through affected neighborhoods, completing the Limestone tour in the Tanner community. I would then turn around and head east, keeping the storm damage to my left, zigzagging from road to road across the region, stopping along the way to check in with residents impacted by the storms. I would ultimately end at the eastern edge of the district in Madison County. I stopped at homes where people were outside working, visiting numerous homes in each subdivision and in many rural areas along the way. My goal was to ensure the immediate needs were being met via local and state authorities, and to ensure residents knew to call the FEMA number to register for additional assistance. I called in to several radio programs each day, passing along updates and information on locations for water, ice, tarps and continuously reiterating the need for residents to register with FEMA. I was able to attend two press conferences, one with Governor Bentley in Madison County and one with Limestone County officials at Tanner High School. On one day I traveled with Rep McCutcheon, Commissioner Menefee and two Limestone County Commissioners. I met several times with Commissioner Strong. He and his team did an amazing job!
My oldest daughter was able to ride with me on two days. She is a student at the University of Alabama and survived the Tuscaloosa storm in a utility closet with several friends. The house they were in suffered significant damage and we are blessed that she and her friends came through the storm unscathed. It was good for her to talk with residents as we toured the area. We visited with several people who actually showed us where they sought shelter in their home (or what was left of it) during the storm.
The volunteer efforts across the region were simply amazing and made me very proud of our community. Likewise, the coordinated effort of county and local officials was nothing short of exemplary. I’m also very thankful to the many law enforcement officers, power line workers and other professionals from other communities and states who are working in our community. I’m particularly thankful for Governor Bentley and his staff for working with the President to include both Limestone and Madison County in the Individual Declaration. This will allow affected residents to receive additional federal befits in the weeks and months ahead. Please continue to pass along the FEMA number (1-800-621-3362) to those who suffered storm damage. Residents can also register online at www.DisasterAssistance.Gov. Attached is a FEMA fact sheet on benefits available from this program. Most important, please continue to keep those affected in your prayers and continue to contribute in any way you are able to do so in the days, weeks and months ahead. Behind on Emails – Like most across the Tennessee Valley, I have been without power, cable and internet since Tuesday evening. Our power returned late Sunday and cable and internet returned late Monday evening. I was unable to access email until today, when I arrived in Montgomery. I’ll continue to get caught up on emails as my schedule allows. School Year? – We are working several options to address the additional days lost in this year’s school calendar. I will support efforts to minimize further impact on families due to the extraordinary weather events we have faced. However, I want to ensure we “cover all bases” with any action taken. I’ll continue to provide updates as they become available.AT-PRO - as an update to AT-PRO, I’ve attempted to schedule a work session during the past two weeks on this proposed bill with fellow members of the legislature in both the House and Senate. Today’s meeting was scheduled at 4 PM but the Senate continued to work until later in the evening, forcing me to once again reschedule. My goal is to refine the bill, even before moving forward in the committee process. I will continue to work on the bill and reschedule a work session later this week in order to gain bi-partisan support to move this forward.