Alabama lawmakers begin session amid COVID surge, elections

An overview of the opening of the legislative session in the House chamber at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala., Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Alabama lawmakers are returning to Montgomery to begin the 2022 legislative session against a backdrop of looming elections and rising coronavirus cases. (Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama lawmakers returned to Montgomery on Tuesday to begin the 2022 legislative session against a backdrop of rising coronavirus cases and looming elections, faced with major decisions including how to use the state’s remaining pandemic relief funds.

Congress allocated $2.12 billion for Alabama through the American Rescue Plan. The state received the first half in June and has $580 million remaining after steering $80 million to hospitals and nursing homes and $400 million on a controversial prison construction plan.

A key topic for the session will be how to use those remaining pandemic dollars.

“We’re going to be looking at major priorities such as water and sewer grants for the state. Broadband will be an issue and health care,” House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said.

Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed agreed those will be funding priorities and said it is important lawmakers spend the money on projects that will have lasting affects.

“We talked about water and sewer projects. These are things that we can spend the resources on that are beneficial for the people of Alabama for many, many years in the future,” Reed said.

House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, a Democrat from Huntsville, said that in addition to needs like broadband, Democrats would like to see resources directed to health care, child care, affordable housing and pandemic recovery for businesses addressed.

“COVID-19 is not going away. In fact, the numbers are at their highest right now with this new variant,” said Daniels, who just recovered from his second bout with the coronavirus. “We just have to think through where are investments will be more well-spent and yield the returns that we need long term.”

Key lawmakers said there are discussions with Gov. Kay Ivey about holding a special session to focus on the pandemic relief funds. A spokesperson for Ivey said last week that the governor “wants this to be an early priority for the Legislature.”

Unlike previous years, state budgets are seeing significant growth because of increases in sales and income tax collections. Lawmakers are expected to approve a pay raise for teachers and state employees. Key lawmakers, including Sen. Greg Albritton, chairman of the Senate General Fund budget committee, said raises up to 4% are under discussion for both teachers and state employees.

Lawmakers are coming to the Statehouse as Alabama experiences a record jump in COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant. The Statehouse is open to the public, but some safety precautions have been put in place.

The 105-member Alabama House of Representatives is requiring masks in common areas such as hallways. Seating will be limited at Ivey’s State of the State address. Representatives can choose to vote from an overflow room if they feel unsafe in the crowded chamber. Masks were optional in the Alabama Senate, and many senators went without one. Masks were also optional at the governor’s evening address to lawmakers.

House Republicans this year are pushing what they have dubbed the “Standing Tall for Alabama” agenda which includes legislation to do away with the requirement to get a permit to carry a concealed handgun in public.

The backing increases the chances of approval for the proposal that has failed for several years in Montgomery. However, the proposal continues to face opposition from state sheriffs who say it will undermine public safety.

The House GOP agenda also includes anti-critical race theory legislation and the creation of a felony crime for assaulting a first-responder.

Daniels called the GOP agenda a “waste of time” as the state continues to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers face primaries on May 24. An election-year session traditionally brings a flurry of legislation and resolutions that lawmakers believe will appeal to their voters. However, legislators also will feel pressure to finish up the session quickly in order to hit the campaign trail.