MONTGOMERY — Bills to allow for the use of medical marijuana and the home delivery of alcohol, plus a long anticipated lawsuit liability bill, were some of the major legislation to advance Wednesday in the Legislature.
It was the first committee day of the new session and lawmakers are working fast for fear of another COVID-19 slowdown, as happened last year.
The day was not without some glitches. While the public has been encouraged to stay out of the State House and watch action online, at least three committees had technological difficulties and at least part of their meetings couldn’t be seen.
Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, acknowledged the early frustrations of those attempting to watch meetings online and said State House staff is working to resolve the problems.
"There have been some technology glitches, I understand that perfectly well because it happens to me often," Reed said. "We're doing things differently because it's the right thing to do and we're trying to do it as effectively as we can. Are there going to be bumps in the road? Of course. But our team is focused on doing it the best way we can."
House and Senate committees moved forward bills to clarify that federal COVID-19 relief money received by Alabamians and businesses aren't subject to state income taxes. Another priority bill early in the session would renew several major tax incentives offered by the state to businesses and create more. It also received committee approval.
Here are some of the other big bills that advanced Wednesday.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill from Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia, to allow and regulate the home delivery of beer, wine and spirits. The bill passed with a 10-1 vote with Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, being the only vote against.
Senate bill 126 allows for a limit of 48 12-ounce beers, six 750 milliliter bottles of wine and 1750 milliliters of spirits in a 24-hour period. The bill also requires an annual delivery licensing fee of $1,000.
Waggoner, created a task force to study the issue in 2019.
“It’s not complicated, it’s a new service that will be offered in Alabama where a retail establishment can ship to someone’s residence, beer, whisky and wine,” Waggoner told committee members. “They may not be coming to my home but they may be coming to yours.”
A bill that would give the Legislature more say in extending state emergency orders, like the ones put in place during the coronavirus pandemic, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee along party lines.
Senate Bill 97, sponsored by Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, said he wants to balance power between the executive and legislative branches.
“It gives the people back some authority to be able to question and be able to give input to the situation,” Whatley said. “It does not mean you don’t have to listen to anyone at all.”
The bill would limit state emergency orders to 14 days and requires legislative approval for extensions. All state health orders have to be approved by the governor, rather than just the state health officer, and secretary of state.
If the Legislature is not in session during the crisis, the bill says an extension can be approved by a joint proclamation by the senate president pro tem and the speaker of the house.
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, voted against the bill saying the Legislature should not be impeding the process of emergency orders that often need to be made in a quick manner.
“I think we are stepping out of bounds and we are reacting to something because we thought businesses shouldn’t have been shut down,” Singleton told committee members. “If the health officer tells us that we can control this by wearing masks and shutting down business, we as leaders should be willing to listen to that and not to fight it.”
'Dips and Dunks'
Legislation to reduce the amount of time parole violators serve in county jails and compensate selected jails more for holding state inmates passed its first committee vote.
Senate Bill 36 from Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, amends the state’s “dips and dunks” process for parole or probation violators to hopefully ease crowding and financial strains on county jails.
“This bill is a means by which we can resolve this issue between the cost and timeframe,” Albritton told committee members.
“Dips” are when recently released state inmates have a technical violation of their parole and are sent to the county jail for a two-or three-day stay. “Dunks” are when they have six or more “dips” and are transferred to state prison for a 45-day stay.
The new bill reduces the amount of “dips” to no more than six days per month, instead of the current nine days. The bill also shortens the amount of “dips” from no more than nine total days per violator instead of the current 18 days before the inmate is to be transferred back to prison or one of several jails willing to take them.
Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said he liked the bill said he would also like the bill to address the problem of inmates being transferred outside of the state when there is a lack of room in county jails.
“I would like something in (the bill) that says we will first utilize those facilities within our state before we go out to other states,” Smitherman said.
Sen. Arthur Orr's Senate Bill 30 to give businesses and other groups liability protection from civil lawsuits related to COVID-19 cleared committee, but some had concerns that enough isn’t being done to protect vulnerable workers.
Orr, R-Decatur, said the bill is about protecting businesses from frivolous lawsuits, especially given all the confusion about the coronavirus when the pandemic first hit Alabama.
“This is not a blanket immunity, it provides a safe harbor for those businesses who acted in good faith and abided by the public health guidelines and took precautions to protect their workers and customers,” Orr said.
Robyn Hyden, executive director for Alabama Arise, said during the public hearing that she is concerned the bill would end up awarding bad actors.
“The standard of clear and convincing evidence required by this bill is too high, and would prevent legitimate claims that would normally be addressed,” Hyden said.
Orr explained that the reason for elevated the standard of proof in the bill was because of all the uncertainty still surrounding the coronavirus.
“The mere unknown features of the virus, how people catch it or don’t catch it and where they caught it,” Orr said.
The bill already has 17 co-sponsors, enough to ensure passage in the chamber.
Orr said even though none or very few lawsuits have been brought forward so far concerning this issue, Alabama has a two-year statute of limitations on these negligence type issues.
“There is plenty of time for people who want to bring lawsuits to bring those lawsuits and we fully expect there will be some lawsuits,” Orr said.
A bill allowing doctors to prescribe medical cannabis for certain medical conditions also cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Bill sponsor Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said all of the amendments that were passed during the Senate debates last year were included in the current bill.
“Everything that the body voted on is in this bill,” Melson said.
Sens. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, and Orr voted against the bill.
Orr still has questions on how much the bill is taxing the product and wants to make sure it is comparable to what other states do.
“We just want to make sure that the industry is paying its fair share if we are going to allow medical marijuana in Alabama,” Orr said.
The bill creates a Medical Cannabis Commission to oversee regulations and licensing for medical marijuana cultivators, processors and dispensaries and requires a statewide seed-to-sale tracking system for all cannabis in the state.
More than a dozen qualifying medical conditions and symptoms are listed in the bill, including post-traumatic stress disorder, autism spectrum disorder, Crohn’s disease, HIV/AIDS-related nausea and cancer-related chronic pain and nausea. Patients must have the okay of approved doctors to qualify.
Orr also said he still has issues with having too many broadly defined medical conditions a part of the qualifying ailments list.