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A strange feeling in the the Alabama House: uncertainty


A strange feeling in the the Alabama House: uncertainty

Mar 13, 2023 | 9:00 am ET
By Brian Lyman
A strange feeling in the the Alabama House: uncertainty
Alabama House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, and House Speaker Pro Tempore Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, prior to the delivery of the State of the State address by Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday, March 7, 2023 in Montgomery, Ala. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

There’s a strange feeling in the Alabama House of Representatives, something you don’t often sense at the start of a session. 

The first-week rituals went off as usual. Legislators filed bills and resolutions. Members of the House and Senate brought family members on the floor. Gov. Kay Ivey delivered the State of the State address. 

But this year, there’s a feeling of tentativeness. 

The GOP still controls the chamber. But there are new leaders, new faces, and lots of unknowns. 

House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, who took the job a few months ago, wants to give committees more power to work out legislation. And unlike previous years, the GOP caucus doesn’t have a list of priority bills to pass in the first weeks of the session. 

It’s a more relaxed approach, and Republican representatives I spoke with last week generally seemed to like it. One told me that he thought it would get the Legislature back to traditional lawmaking, “without someone having their thumb on your forehead.” 

It’s different. And the effect on legislation this year will be worth watching.

Take charter schools. Ivey spent a good bit of her speech on Tuesday calling for the use of public money to help open charter schools and unspecified changes to the state board overseeing them. Lawmakers expect some legislation on that front. 

Yet no one can say what a charter school bill will look like. Two education committee chairs told me on Tuesday that the legislation was still being drafted. 

It’s unusual to start a session talking about a major piece of legislation without having some kind of bill to guide the discussion. It’s particularly unusual with charter schools, where Republicans have a broad spectrum of opinions.

You see, many GOP members, especially those from rural districts, aren’t charter school enthusiasts. For many, the public school is often the only choice in town. Private schools could be nonexistent or miles away. And the idea that money will walk out of their local public schools to one that might not be in their community — well, that’s hard to explain to constituents. 

That means a charter school bill will need a driving force from the top to resolve all those concerns. Maybe Ivey can be that force; maybe the education committee chairs will serve that role. Without a core effort to rally around, you’ll get 77 different opinions on what it should look like.

Still, leadership support does not guarantee a bill’s passage. Senate leaders got behind a 2021 bill to bring a lottery and casino-style gambling to the state. It failed. But support from the top usually builds a little legislative momentum. 

Last year, House Republicans came out of the gate calling for permitless gun carry laws, teacher pay raises and the elimination of what they inaccurately call critical race theory. The pay raises were an easy sell. Permitless carry had to overcome opposition from the state’s sheriffs. But both passed. 

The anti-critical race theory bill, on the other hand, made it out of the House but failed to pass the Senate.

To be sure, past priority agendas featured some easy lifts. (Free state park admission for active military and veterans? Why, sure!) Often they involved tax code changes that Republicans loved and Democrats could shrug at. 

Nor did the priorities make up all the important legislation in a session. House Republicans didn’t have a ban on medical treatments for transgender youth on their agenda last year, but it passed anyway

But the agendas did give a sense that the caucus was, for better or worse, moving in a single direction. This year, legislators are trying to feel each other out. 

The GOP caucus includes 25 first-time representatives. Newcomers represent almost one-third of the 77-member House GOP caucus and almost one-quarter of the 105-member House. No one seems to know what they want or what they’ll stand for. 

That didn’t used to matter. The large freshman class that came into the Alabama State House after the 2010 landslide got marching orders from then-House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn. Any objections they might have had became irrelevant. 

But for now, that won’t be the case. Leadership will give the new representatives more freedom than legislators had in the past. It shouldn’t make it hard to find agreement on things Republicans around the country agree on. But it may make hard policy lifts — like charter schools — more challenging.

The special session on ARPA funds, which started on Wednesday, could give legislators a chance to feel each other out. If so, leaders may return to the regular session on March 21 with more confidence in what they can and can’t get done — and maybe, a list of priorities.  

For now, though, we have a strange situation: a GOP caucus that doesn’t seem certain about what to do with its power. 

Love it or hate it, it’s different.