AL lawmakers consider legal casinos, education vouchers, criminal justice in 2024


Alabama lawmakers return to Montgomery on Tuesday to begin the 2024 legislative session. Here are some issues to watch for as the session begins.

EDUCATION CHECKS

Republican Gov. Kay Ivey will support legislation creating education savings accounts, which generally allow parents to claim public money and use it for private school tuition or other qualifying expenses. Ivey will unveil his proposal in his State of the State address Tuesday evening. “I am committed to continuing to make it easier for Alabama families to send their children to the best school of their choice,” the governor said last month.

Although Ivey did not disclose the scale of her proposal, she said it must be a sustainable program. Legislation introduced last year, which would have given parents $6,900 per child, was criticized by opponents because they estimate it would drain more than $500 million from public education. “We need to be really mindful of the need to make wise budgetary choices,” Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Reed said Monday.

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GAMBLING

Legislation on lotteries and casinos will be introduced again, but the bill's prospects are unclear. A group of House members attempted to negotiate a proposed constitutional amendment to go to voters that would authorize a state lottery and a number of casino sites.

“I think a lot of people in Alabama are ready to vote,” House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter said of a constitutional amendment. The Republican said the proposal would end illegal gambling operations that have spread across the state.

There has not been a statewide vote on gambling since Gov. Don Siegelman's failed lottery plan in 1999. The bills have been stalled due to a mix of d opposition and disputes over who would get the casino licenses. Republican Sen. Greg Albritton, who proposed legislation previously, said he thought the number of casino sites would be between six and eight. “If we don't pass the gambling bill this year, it will be another generation before we deal with it,” Albritton predicted.

The Alabama State Capitol is seen in Montgomery, Alabama, where lawmakers are considering bills related to education, gambling, voting and more as the legislative session begins of 2024. (Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

RESTRICTIONS FOR ABSENTEE VOTING

Republican lawmakers have renewed their push to make it a crime to help non-family members vote by mail. Republican supporters say the change is necessary to combat voter fraud, but opponents see it as an attempt to make it harder for citizens to vote.

A bill from Republican Sen. Garlan Gudger of Cullman would make it a misdemeanor to order, pre-fill, request, collect or deliver an absentee ballot for someone who is not a member of the household or a close family member. The penalty becomes a crime if the person is paid. The bill provides an exemption for election officials and for people who are blind, disabled or cannot read. The bill will be debated in committee on Wednesday.

ARCHIVES/LIBRARIES

A Senate bill would replace the board that oversees the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Republican Sen. Chris Elliott's bill would replace the current board with members appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and legislative leaders. The bill, which will also be in committee Wednesday, comes after Elliott and other lawmakers expressed displeasure that the department hosted a conference focused on LGBTQ history. A separate bill would clarify that city and county officials who appoint library board members have the authority to remove a board member at any time.

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CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Various bills have been introduced aimed at either reforming Alabama's criminal justice system or requiring harsher penalties for certain offenses. After an Alabama kidnapping hoax attracted international attention, Republican Sen. April Weaver proposed legislation that would make faking a kidnapping a misdemeanor. Democratic Rep. Chris England of Tuscaloosa has proposed legislation that would allow some prisoners serving life sentences for theft and other crimes under Alabama's strict repeat offender law to have their sentences revised.

OTHER INVOICES

The governor and lawmakers are expected to propose a pay raise for the state's teachers. Republican Sen. Arthur Orr of Decatur said legislation would be introduced to strengthen the state's weak public records law. Bills are also expected to attempt to limit the public health official's power to order pandemic-related closures. However, the board that oversees the Department of Public Health is expected to finalize rules this month that would require the governor to approve such closures.



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