By Phillip Rawls
The Associated Press
MONTGOMERY — Legislators returned to Montgomery today to face issues ranging from the sale of guns and liquor to consolidating state police agencies and toughening regulations on abortion clinics.
The Legislature started its 2013 session at noon, and Gov. Robert Bentley will outline his initiatives in a televised address to lawmakers at 6:30 p.m.
Legislators will have until May 20 to address hundreds of bills, enact state education and General Fund budgets and try to make a good impression on voters before they stand for re-election next year.
Here’s a look at some of the top issues facing the Legislature:
The House Republican Caucus is pushing a proposed constitutional amendment on gun rights as part of its agenda called “We Dare Defend Our Rights.” It would make it harder to enact gun control laws by requiring courts to use strict judicial scrutiny when ruling on laws that restrict the right to keep and bear arms. Two top Democrats, Sen. Roger Bedford of Russellville and Rep. Craig Ford of Gadsden, are pushing a bill that would allow Alabamians to keep a gun locked in their vehicles while at work. It is opposed by some business leaders and by some Republicans, who say it infringes on the property rights of businesses.
Republican Sen. Arthur Orr of Decatur is working on legislation to close the state’s retail liquor stores and turn all retail sales over to private business. He said it would save the state money and reduce the number of state employees, but it is already drawing opposition from landlords who rent store space to the state.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, has developed legislation that he says will save the state money by combining the state’s more than 20 law enforcement programs into one agency and eliminating the state Department of Homeland Security. The bill puts Marsh at odds with the Republican governor, who wants to coordinate the agencies’ administrative functions without going through massive consolidation.
Legislators are also working on bills to consolidate the state’s various information technology programs and merge the Legislature’s support services, including the staffs that write bills and handle fiscal issues to try to save money.
Many Republicans are backing a bill by Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin of Indian Springs that would add restrictions to abortion clinics, including mandating that a doctor with admitting privileges at a local hospital be present when an abortion is performed. Critics said many clinics use traveling doctors, and the bill is designed to close Alabama’s five clinics by creating regulations they can’t meet.
The financial forecast for Alabama’s education budget is improving so much that legislators are talking about expanding the state’s pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds, and the Alabama Education Association is pushing legislators to give teachers their first cost-of-living raise since fall 2007. Revenue for the state General Fund budget looks flat, and lawmakers are wrestling with how to maintain Medicaid services, as well as state employees’ benefits. The governor said raises for teachers and state employees appear unlikely.
Alabama voters approved a constitutional amendment in September that allowed state officials to take $437 million out of a state trust fund to shore up the General Fund for three years. House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said legislative leaders promised voters the money would be repaid, and his first priority is passing legislation to set up a timetable to repay the money in installments by 2026.