Rich, Scofield say budget top priority for 2022 legislative session, By DANIEL TAYLOR The Reporter

Following a special called session, the 2022 legislative session is now underway in Alabama, and Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville) and Rep. Kerry Rich (R-Albertville) said keeping the state’s budget in check will be a top priority.

“Our budgets are extremely important, and the reason why I think that they’re even more important this year is because there’s been such an infusion of federal money into the state of Alabama,” Scofield told The Reporter.

According to Alabama House Resolution 5, the State’s General Fund balance grew by 11.44% in 2021 compared to 4.71% between 2011-2019. Though having too little money creates its own problems, Scofield said suddenly having a lot of money can be just as challenging to deal with.

“Our revenues are very high right now…,” he said. “We really need to focus those excess funds, which are not always going to be there. We need to focus on not just blowing through that money, spending that money, which could cause recurring costs in the future. We are looking at decreasing our obligations…using that money to decrease our debt so that if the economy in the future does take a dip then we will be in a much better place to weather that storm.”

One area Rich said he would like to spend that money on is increasing teachers’ pay.

“The governor has proposed 4% raises for teachers and state employees… but I’d like to see us do a little bit more for teachers with the environment we have with inflation and all that,” Rich said.

When it comes to other issues, Rich said he expects less to actually make it to the voting floor in the regular session.

“The budgets are going to be the main things,” he said. “There’s a lot of issues that people are going to introduce, but I don’t think a lot of them will come to the floor this session.

With 2022 being an election year, Rich said the legislature will most likely try to end this session early, sometime before the April 20 deadline.

“A lot of people — and it’s always this way, it’s nothing new — people don’t want to take on controversial issues during an election year,” he said.

He mentioned the lottery and gambling bills that came up during the last session as examples of issues that may be too hot for any candidate running for reelection to commit to.

Scofield said he expects a statewide lottery and casino bill to be discussed again but doesn’t hold out much hope of it passing as long as the two issues remain intertwined.

“I do think as long as the casino portion is attached to the lottery portion, I think it’s going to keep failing. I think if the casino portion could separate that from the lottery, the lottery would pass. As long as they keep keeping them together, I think it’s going to keep failing.”

When asked about any legislation to formalize the state board of education’s ban of “critical race theory” or other racist ideology, Scofield said he and others are “taking a long hard look.”

“We’re making sure we get the definitions right,” he said. “That’s what matters, really.”

Other legislative issues of note include bills related to:

Constitution carry, or permitless carry, for personal firearms, prohibitions on state enforcement of certain federal firearm laws and establishing the Second Amendment Preservation Act that rejects any federal gun law that restricts the right to bear arms. The Alabama Sheriff’s Association, the Association of County Commissions of Alabama and the Alabama Association of School Resource Officers have voiced opposition to these measures which would allow law-abiding citizens to carry and/or conceal a gun without a permit saying it could pose “a grave threat to the safety of both law enforcement officers and Alabama’s citizens and will only serve to worsen the rash of violent crime.” Others, like Marshall County’s own sheriff, Phil Sims, support the bills’ intent. Sims said he hopes some issues are made clearer before the final vote. Read his full response on A7. Rich said his concerns with the bills had to do with maintaining reciprocity for other states and covering any administrative costs for the sheriff’s departments who lose out on permit revenue.

“Prohibiting a physician from performing an abortion if a fetal heartbeat has been detected or if no test for a fetal heartbeat has been performed, except in circumstances where a medical emergency exists.” House Bill 23 would provide a private cause of action for enforcement of this act by anyone “who performs or induces an abortion or who knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion, including paying for or reimbursing costs of an abortion.”

Freedom of speech regarding limiting an internet provider’s ability to censor or discontinue service to anyone based on their opinions or beliefs.

Preventing local law enforcement agencies from “establishing traffic ticket quotas or providing incentives for issuance of traffic tickets.”

“Establishing paper ballots as an integral part of the state’s electronic vote counting system.”

“Providing a private right of action against an employer for any adverse reaction, injury, temporary or permanent disability, or death of an employee arising from an employer mandate that the employee receive a COVID-19 vaccine. This bill would also prohibit the State from recognizing certain federal vaccine mandates.”

As Rich said, any number of these bills and issues introduced may or may not make it to a vote on the legislative floor. However, he said he expects a bill he introduced that deals with insurance life and annuity policies to pass without any trouble. When asked how it feels to be retiring after more than two decades of serving in government, he said, “It feels good. Frankly, and I’m just being totally honest, I don’t have the enthusiasm for it that I once had, and I want to do some other things… When you get to the point where you don’t have the enthusiasm you need for this job, it’s time to move on and let somebody else to it… I’m proud of a number of things that I’ve been able to accomplish during my service, and I’m grateful to the people for allowing me to serve.”

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