Legislators discuss recent bills including education, sports, medical marijuana
The Alabama legislature is rushing to deliberate on a full load of important bills as its current session draws near to its end.
The Reporter caught up with Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield (R-Red Hill) and Rep. Kerry Rich (R-Albertville) to get their thoughts of recently passed legislation and current bills awaiting approval.
Schools across Alabama stand to get a significant boost in their annual budget to the tune of $7.7 billion, the largest amount ever designated toward public education.
The new increase would go into effect starting at the end of the current fiscal year on Oct. 1 once signed by the governor.
“It’ll be the biggest education budget the state’s ever had,” said Rich (R-Albertville).
Rich told The Reporter about some key highlights in the budget which include an across the board 2% cost of living wage for teachers and an extra monetary incentive of $12,000 to $15,000 for certified math and science teachers.
“Which should be a real incentive,” Rich said. “I hope it will be… The people in the department of education believe it will be something that where instead of Alabama teachers leaving and going to Georgia or what have you, this will draw teachers from Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and east Florida to Alabama to teach math and science.”
Rich said the increased budget will hopefully help fill the roughly 7,000 math and science teaching positions for grades sixth through 12th, of which only about 4,000 are currently staffed with certified teachers.
When it comes to teachers in other subjects and areas, Rich said he hopes the State can up their pay as well beyond the cost of living increase.
“I wish [the raise] could have been more, and it could have been, to be frank about it,” he said. “Some of us pushed for a bigger raise, but it’s not going to go.”
As with math and science teachers, Rich said the state is in danger of a general teacher shortage if salaries are competitive with other states.
“One thing we’re going to have is we’re going to have to provide some additional funding increases for teachers, period, across the board because if we don’t we’re going to have a real shortage of teachers down the road.”
Scofield started off by mentioning two bills he thinks Gov. Ivey might not like, namely because they related to limiting the power of the governor during a public health crisis.
“It’s about shoring up the balance of power, especially related to health-related emergencies and things like that, that she can’t just keep extending these health orders without advice and consent of the legislature,” Scofield said.
Scofield said during the lockdown he received many complaints from his constituents regarding the health order restrictions, which he and the legislature were powerless to address.
“There wasn’t anything we could do about it. We couldn’t call ourselves back into the special session; nothing,” he said.
If passed, the bill would prevent the governor from extending a health order beyond 60 days without approval and consent of the legislature.
Another bill deals with approving large contracts, such as with the recent prison project. If passed, the governor would have to get approval from the legislature before signing any large contracts over a certain amount.
While many see it as protecting gender equality in sports, some say a school athletics bill recently signed by Ivey discriminates unfairly against transgender children.
The bill states no public school can allow a biological male to participate in female sports unless the event specifically includes both genders. It cites as its reasoning the physical differences between the two sexes that give males in general a significant physical advantage over females, even if efforts are made to suppress testosterone levels.
“Because of the physical differences between biological males and biological females, having separate athletic teams based on the athletes’ biological sex reduces the chance of injury to biological female athletes and promotes sex equality,” the bill reads. “It provides opportunities for biological female athletes to compete against their peers rather than against biological male athletes and allows biological female athletes to compete on a fair playing field for scholarships and other athletic accomplishments.”
The bill also bars females from competing in male athletics if there is a female team in that given specific sport.
The bill passed through the State House and Senate on mostly partisan grounds with a vote of 74-19 and 25-5, respectively.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey joined the more than 30 other governors to sign such a bill, which has drawn a lot heat from activists and organizations who claim it is discriminatory toward transgender athletes.
“I’m glad she signed it,” Scofield told The Reporter.
Before the bill was passed, Scofield said he heard a few objections and threats of boycotts by organizations such as the World Games, which is scheduled for July 2022 in Birmingham, and the NCAA, which has pulled some of its tournaments out of states in similar cases.
“OK, where are you going to go? You’re mad at Georgia, so you’re not going to go to Georgia,” he said. “You’re mad at Florida and Tennessee for their riot bills, you’re not going there. Mississippi passed another one; you’re not going to go there. South Carolina is about to. Where you going to go? We can’t keep letting corporate America dictate policy.”
Scofield said in Alabama, the issue polled “through the rough” among those in favor, including both Republicans and Democrats.
The fate of a bill that would legalize and regulate medical marijuana in Alabama in the hands of the House, which is expected to vote soon on the issue.
Scofield was one of the 10 Republicans who voted against the bill in March when it passed onto the House with a 20-10 margin.
“I think it’s a toss-up down there [in the House] what they do with marijuana,” Scofield said. “The problem is it’s still a schedule-one drug to the federal government. You’re dealing with all kinds of law enforcement issues.”
He said he wouldn’t want people who need marijuana to relieve chronic pain to be vulnerable to federal consequences.
“People that are suffering are going to find a way to relieve that suffering,” he told The Reporter. “What we can’t have is them getting in trouble for it and that’s what I’m worried will happen.”
Rich said he intends to vote in favor of the House’s medical marijuana bill.
“I think it’s pretty well controlled,” he said. “It’s no more, to me, than a prescription for antibiotics. It’s a different medicine of course, but it’s that same kind of deal and it’s limited as to who can get it and who can grow it.”
Both Rich and Scofield said Sen. Tim Melson (R-Florence), who is a doctor, worked hard in getting the medical marijuana issue in front of the legislature. Of the last three years in which Melson has sponsored some type of medical marijuana, this is the closest any has gotten to passing.
“I expect it to pass in the House,” Rich said. “I plan to vote for it.”
Part of the reason Scofield opposes medical marijuana might be because he, like many other opponents, view it as a gateway to other drugs and issues in the future.
“But mark my words,” Scofield said. “Next year or the year after, there will be legislation to make it recreation. Mark my words.”
Scofield said he would not be surprised if in 10 years there is a campaign to legalize other harder drugs.
Rich agreed that a push for recreational marijuana would most likely follow if medical is approved, but he said he would not vote in favor of that should the case arise.
“I wouldn’t vote for recreational marijuana at any time — period,” Rich said. “Medical marijuana to be used on a limited basis … I think it will help some people that need some help.”
Rich said he hopes medical marijuana can help stem the use of opioids, which have led to addiction and deaths across the nation.