By Lenore Vickrey
The Alabama Legislature heads into its 2024 session this month with surpluses in state revenues, gambling legislation to be debated, and new leadership in the State Senate.
“The last session was pretty action-packed,” recalls Todd Stacy, founder and publisher of Alabama Daily News and host of Alabama Public Television’s “Capitol Journal.” “And this session promises to be interesting and busy. It’s going to be a good budget year with surpluses in both the education and general funds, (although) not quite the historic surpluses that were there last year. The last revenue estimates are $400 million extra in the General Fund and $600 million extra in the Education Trust Fund.”
And while some might think “good” budget years are easy for lawmakers, that’s not always the case. “If you’re a budget committee chairman or a leader who actually writes these things, if you have a lot of money it makes it hard, when you have to figure out what to say ‘yes’ to when all the requests come in,” says Stacy. “With the blessing of more resources comes the trouble of how to allocate it.
“Part of what I’m hearing is that yes, they have the surpluses but they really don’t want to spend them, they want to save some,” he adds, due to the uncertainty of the economy. “You’re starting to hear, ‘let’s not spend it all,’ as there is always the possibility of leaner years to come.”
Aside from spending decisions, lawmakers will almost certainly be looking at gambling bills once again. At press time, legislation was still being drafted but Stacy said 2024 bills would likely look much like those that were on the table in 2021, with a lottery, expanded and tighter regulations on casino gambling and tightened rules on sports gambling. Any lottery would then have to be approved by voters in a referendum.
Stacy reminds us that gambling legislation nearly passed in 2021 but failed at the last minute. Any such proposals would have to address such questions as the makeup and power of a gambling commission, consequences for any illegal gambling activities, and how much revenue would be produced for the state and how it would be used. “The lawmakers who’ve been drafting this plan are eager to talk to the governor,” who has shown some interest in resolving the gambling question, but was lukewarm on the last proposal, he says. “They are eager to get the governor’s support so that will be something to watch.”
This will be the first session for new Senate Majority Leader Steve Livingston, who replaced former Sen. Clay Scofield, who left the Senate to join the Business Council of Alabama. Stacy points out that Livingston is no stranger to steering a legislative body through rough waters, having recently chaired the Permanent Legislative Committee on Reapportionment tasked with redrawing the state’s congressional district lines. “He certainly learned a lot from that,” he says. “It was a formative experience for his Senate leadership.”
Livingston’s move also gives leadership opportunities to other lawmakers who are replacing him on his previous committees, such as Sen. April Weaver to the Confirmations Committee, Sen. Keith Kelley heading the Rules Committee and Sen. Sam Givhan to the Education Trust Fund Committee.
The newly redrawn Congressional District 2 race has attracted a record number of candidates, including several legislators, which makes for an interesting dynamic as the lawmakers juggle campaigning while still tending to their legislative duties. Stacy has been interviewing each candidate on “Capitol Journal.” One is Sen. Greg Albritton, chairman of the General Fund Committee. “Maybe that means you’ll see a general fund budget in the second half of the session,” Stacy says. The primary date is March 5, one month after the session begins, he notes. Runoffs are set for April 16.
The new lines have created a district very different from what was traditionally the second congressional district, he points out, “and all things being equal it should elect a Democrat.” Several factors will play into the race, including the bipartisan appeal of candidates to independent voters and the role of the presidential election. “Let’s say all the top candidates are lawmakers,” Stacy speculates. “Then there’s really something on the line.”
The 2024 session of the Alabama Legislature begins Feb. 6, with Gov. Kay Ivey delivering her State of the State Address at 6 p.m. The address will be aired live on Alabama Public Television. Each night during the session, Stacy will have a newscast at 10 p.m. on APT, with the “Week in Review” airing on Fridays at 7:30 p.m.