Friday, May 15, 2015
Solutions abound for Alabama’s general operating budget shortfall, but agreement is scarce. As each of the eight legislative days remaining in the 2015 regular session pass, chances of a budget special session increase.
In absence of agreement on revenue measures, the House Ways and Means Education Committee on Thursday approved a General Fund budget (HB135) with deep cuts to state services. The vote was the first on a spending plan for the state’s general operations. The governor vowed to veto what he called the “unworkable” budget, which is $204 million less than the current one. The austere budget tops the House’s agenda for next Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Senate Tourism and Marketing Committee on a 5-3 vote Thursday approved a plan for a state lottery plus Las Vegas-style casinos at four existing state dog tracks in Birmingham and in Mobile, Macon and Greene counties (SB453). The gambling solution could generate as much as $375 million, but not in time to save the 2016 budget. The speaker of the Alabama House says a lottery won’t pass in the lower chamber, and the president pro tem of the Senate says the more than $130 million in taxes proposed by House Republicans can’t clear the upper chamber.
A proposed change in the revenue structure for the state failed this week. After a public hearing Wednesday, the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee voted 8-5 to indefinitely postpone SB12 by Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, which would have put recurring revenue from both state budgets into a single fund. Seventy-eight percent of the Alabama Recurring Revenue Fund would have gone to the Education Trust Fund, while 22 percent would have gone to the General Fund.
On a more agreeable note, the House Ways and Means Education Committee is expected to vote Tuesday on the $6 billion education budget (SB182), which the Senate passed unanimously this week.
Legislation Seeking Voluntary Sales Tax Collection
by Amazon, Other Remote Sellers Gains House Sponsor
Rep. Rod Scott, D-Fairfield, this week introduced the House version of legislation to give certain mega online retailers a tax break if they will start collecting taxes from Alabama customers. HB660 is the companion of SB437 by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, which the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee has already approved. HB660 has been assigned to the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee.
The goal is to collect at least some of the estimated $200 million in sales taxes that currently are not being collected annually in the state by certain large, online retail merchants without stores in Alabama. It is unknown if a voluntary program would result in any tax collection.
Federal legislation allowing states to require remote retailers to collect and remit sales taxes has stalled, and many states have reverted to enacting “Amazon bills” in an effort to get non-nexus retailers to compete on a level playing field with local, brick-and-mortar retailers, who must collect taxes.
House OKs Extending Jefferson County Sales Tax
The Alabama House on Tuesday approved HB573 by Rep. Oliver Robinson, D-Birmingham, which allows the Jefferson County Commission to refinance its $1 billion school construction debt and pay it off by extending a one-cent sales tax. Proceeds of the extended tax would go to schools, transportation, the Birmingham Zoo, roads and industry recruitment. Each local lawmaker also would share a portion of the proceeds to use for projects in their districts. The Senate Jefferson County Local Legislation Committee will consider the bill Tuesday.
Catfish Origin Notification Broadens Aug. 1
Monday, the governor signed into law legislation requiring restaurants, grocery delis and other food service establishments to notify customers of the country of origin for the entire catfish species order, Siluriformes.
Act No. 2015 – 156 by Rep. A.J. McCampbell, D-Livingston, which the state’s catfish producers pushed, adds 35 additional families of catfish to those about which food establishments must inform their customers of the country of origin. The new law takes effect Aug. 1.
Posters and requirements related to current catfish labeling and notification can be found under Regulations in the Advocacy section at alabamaretail.org. If those regulations change as a result of the new law, your Alabama Retail Association will share that information with the affected businesses.
As of Aug. 1, Unemployed
Can Work Some Without Benefit Loss
Act No. 2015 – 157 by Rep. Jack D. Williams, R-Birmingham, allows the unemployed to do some work and still draw unemployment. As of Aug. 1, those drawing unemployment checks will be able to earn up to a third of their weekly benefit – a maximum of about $88 per week currently – without losing their benefits. The goal is to help the unemployed transition to full-time work.
The new law alters the formula for calculating the individual weekly unemployment benefit payment if the beneficiary earns money, either through forced hours reduction or a part-time job. Any money earned beyond one third of the weekly benefit would result in that dollar amount reduction in the unemployment benefit. The maximum weekly unemployment benefit in Alabama is $265, so the law allows $88.33 in earnings before any penalty will be taken from that maximum benefit. Since 1963, the amount an unemployment beneficiary could earn weekly without penalty to their benefits had been $15. The governor signed the law Monday.
The Senate companion was SB46 by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville.
Senate Votes to Raise Exemptions for Debt;
House Offers Substitute and Delays Consideration
Thursday, the Alabama Senate unanimously approved SB327 by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, which would increase Alabama’s debt exemptions. The bill now advances to the House Judiciary Committee.
Ward’s bill increases Alabama’s homestead exemption from $6,000 for a surviving spouse and $5,000 for a debtor to $30,000 for surviving spouses and an individual debtor; and the personal property exemption from $3,000 for a debtor and $3,500 for a surviving spouse to $10,000 for either.
Tuesday, the House agreed to take up the companion bill, HB396 by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, before the state budgets, then carried it over to consider a substitute measure. The House substitute carries a $15,000 homestead exemption and a $7,500 personal property exemption. A married couple could claim a total of $30,000 for the homestead exemption and $15,000 for the personal property exemption. The sponsor asked that the bill be carried over to give representatives time to study the substitute. Hill said the bill also would not allow personal property to be exempt from garnishments.
Revisions to Motor Fuel
Marketing Act Get Speedy Action
Fuel perks legislation moved rapidly through the House and a Senate committee this week. The bill allows retailers that sell fuel plus other goods to discount gasoline below the market price as long as the retail price of the fuel doesn’t dip below the actual cost of the fuel.
Rep. Mac McCutcheon, R-Huntsville, said his bill, HB411, simplifies and “clears up gray areas” in the Motor Fuel Marketing Act law, which allows for fuel reward programs. A retailer with gasoline pumps at their store can lower the fuel price and “make up the loss on steaks” or other goods, said McCutcheon.
The bill changes the fuel cost definition from whichever is lower, the invoice cost or the lowest replacement cost, to the lowest of the “most recent invoice” or the “weighted-average cost,” which he referred to as the “cost of the fuel in the tank at the time” the discount is offered.
The House unanimously approved the bill Tuesday, and the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee approved it 13-2 Thursday, sending it to the full Senate for consideration. The Senate companion, SB434 by Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, also is ready for Senate consideration.
Panel Votes to Limit Frequency and
Require Notice of Police Jurisdiction Changes
Legislation requiring municipalities to give residents and businesses fair notice of changes in police jurisdictions is ready for Senate consideration. The Senate County and Municipal Government on Wednesday approved a substitute version of HB377 by Rep. Ron Johnson, R-Sylacauga. The bill, among other provisions, would allow a municipality to change its police jurisdiction only on Jan. 1 of each year. It also requires municipalities to notify residents and businesses of the jurisdiction change 30 days BEFORE enforcing certain ordinances, collecting license fees and levying and collecting taxes within the new jurisdiction. The notice also must be posted on the state-operated Atlas Alabama site and in a newspaper of general circulation in the affected area. A municipality also may opt out of having a police jurisdiction altogether in a noncontiguous property annexation.
The Senate companion SB325 by Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, was on the Senate’s agenda Thursday, but the upper chamber adjourned before reaching that point on its calendar.
Substitute Gun Legislation Clears House
Substitute legislation rewriting portions of Alabama’s gun law goes to the Senate after a 58-33 approval Tuesday by the Alabama House. HB47 deals with firearms possession in secure facilities, record keeping, a minor’s possession and inheritance of pistols and carrying a loaded firearm when drunk among other provisions. The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee has the bill on its agenda for Tuesday.
The bill specifies that someone in lawful possession of a firearm can have the weapon and ammunition locked in a compartment of their private vehicle parked at a secure facility, which includes parking lots protected by guards and inside a fence where weapons are prohibited inside the building. The House tabled an amendment to exempt U.S. Department of Defense contractors from this provision.
HB47 also includes provisions originally in HB328, dealing with the parameters for minors possessing pistols and the elimination of much of the record keeping for pistols. Under the House approved legislation, dealers, law enforcement and the secretary of state would have to destroy all records of pistol, revolver or silencer sales 180 days after the bill becomes law.
Thursday, the House approved HB506 by Rep. Napoleon Bracy, D-Prichard, which would reduce unemployment benefits for those receiving a pension or retirement benefits only if those benefits were 100 percent employer financed. The bill awaits assignment to a Senate committee.
“If a person is laid off and has a pension or 401K, they can draw down on it without being penalized,” Bracy told House members.
Act No. 2015 – 161 by Rep. April Weaver, R-Brierfield, updates the state law regarding use of automated defibrillators. Under the new law, which is effective Aug. 1, physicians would no longer have to be involved in the use of an automated external defibrillator. Current models essentially talk operators through the proper process. The legislation also encourages, rather than requires, owners to receive training on the use of automated external defibrillators and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. It does require defibrillator manufacturers to provide in-house training to companies that buy the defibrillators. It also includes a “Good Samaritan” exemption from liability for any individual who renders emergency treatment with a defibrillator. The Senate companion was SB213 by Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence.
Marsh Proposes Limiting
Portion of Budget Going to Medicaid
Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, this week introduced SB476, a constitutional amendment that would limit Medicaid to 10 percent of the total budget appropriations. The Alabama Department of Corrections would be capped at 5.5 percent. Any funds above those amounts would require a three-fifths vote in both the House and Senate.
Three-Tiered System, Other Aspects
of Alcohol Law Subject of Study
The 2015 legislative session has seen a prolific number of alcohol-related bills, many of which have moved through the legislative process. Those that would bypass the state’s three-tier system, however, have not fared well. Currently, the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board allows a three-tier system of producers, distributors and retailers. Products can only be sold to distributors who sell to retailers. A new study commission will examine that system.
Act No. 2015 – 144 creates a nine-member Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Study Commission. The commission will conduct three public hearings and visit two states to determine the best way to reform Alabama’s alcoholic beverage laws to make them competitive with other states. Privatization of Alabama’s state stores is specifically excluded from the study. The public hearings will be held in Huntsville, Birmingham and Mobile. The commission of legislators and an agency official is to publish its findings by Dec. 31.
The House Judiciary Committee approved the Senate version of legislation to make powdered alcohol illegal in Alabama. SB365 now moves to the full House for final consideration. Powdered alcohol is a new product expected to launch this summer. On first offense for possession, selling or use of the substance, individuals or businesses could face a Class A misdemeanor fine, which is up to $6,000. On second or subsequent offenses, a business or person caught selling powdered alcohol would be charged with a Class C felony. The House companion is HB421. HB382 is a similar.
Coinciding with national Craft Beer Week, the Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development Committee approved a substitute version of SB452, which allows brewpubs to sell reusable, off-premise draft beer containers known as growlers. The bill limits the daily amount a customer could buy to 128 ounces, or two 64-ounce growlers. Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, told the committee that if the bill became law it could provide data for the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Study Commission.
Legislation related to alcohol sales flowed freely this week.
Three bills were signed into law this week regarding Sunday sales:
- Act No. 2015 – 158 gives the Sylacauga City Council the authority to ask voters if they would like to allow alcohol sales after 1 p.m. on Sundays.
- Act No. 2015 – 176 allows the Bay Minette City Council to call an election in the next year asking city voters to approve on-premises Sunday alcohol sales.
- Act No. 2015 – 178 allows the Valley City Council to ask voters at the next regular or special election to approve Sunday alcohol sales after noon.
Entertainment district legislation also moved this week. Patrons of licensed establishments may carry open containers of alcoholic beverages within the boundaries of an entertainment district.
- HB446 and SB379 allow the Hoover and Vestavia Hills city councils to designate up to three entertainment districts per city. Both bills passed in their respective chambers Thursday. The Senate Jefferson County Local Legislation Committee will consider the House bill Tuesday.
- HB620 allows the Jasper City Council to designate up to two entertainment districts.
Several bills regarding the sale of draft beer saw legislative action this week:
- Act No. 2015 – 180 allows the Collinsville Town Council in DeKalb County to authorize the sale of draft beer.
- SB340 would allow each city council in Blount County to authorize the sale of draft beer. The House passed the bill Thursday, sending it to the governor for his approval.
- HB623 authorizes the Dallas County Commission and the city governments within the county to allow the sale of draft beer for on- or off-premises consumption.
- HB625 authorizes the Fayette City Council to allow draft beer to be sold in the city.
- HB546 authorizes the Heflin City Council to allow draft beer to be sold for on- or off-premises consumption in the city.
A bill authorizing a wet/dry referendum emerged this week:
- HB647 authorizes Chilton County to hold a referendum on whether to allow alcohol sales every day of the week except Sunday. If the bill becomes law, the referendum would be on the ballot in the November 2016 General Election.
NEXT LEGISLATIVE DAY
The Alabama House will convene at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 19, for the 23rd legislative day of the Alabama Legislature’s 2015 regular session. The Alabama Senate will convene at 2 p.m.