Gov. Kay Ivey and leaders in the Alabama Legislature discussed this week the possibility of a special session before the year ends, but concerns about COVID-19 and a cramped Alabama Statehouse appear to be a major hurdle.
“Members of the House leadership held a conference call with Gov. Ivey, and the possibility of a special session was discussed, but any final decision is far from happening,” said Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia. “Safely accommodating the 105 House members at a time when COVID cases are on the upswing certainly seems to be a concern on everyone’s minds.”
Several state senators also said that while there are multiple items they’d like to address in Montgomery before the end of the year, COVID-19 may keep them home.
“I think we have to have one at some point to deal with the limited liability legislation, which had a general consensus before we adjourned due to COVID (in May), and the economic incentives which are due to be renewed,” said Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. “The question is, when can we go into that building as a large group safely?”
COVID-19 not only shortened the 2020 session, leaving undone several big-ticket legislative items, the pandemic also created new issues for lawmakers to address.
The state’s signature tax incentives for luring new businesses expire at the end of the year. And COVID-19 liability protections for businesses and other groups and clarification that federal relief funds related to COVID-19 to individuals and businesses are exempt from state income taxes have become priorities for some lawmakers since March.
“I believe the tax exemption is important for the citizens before they start filing tax returns in January,” Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said.
In the spring, Orr filed a bill offering limited civil immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits to businesses, nonprofits, churches, government entities and other groups. It died when House members wanted to focus the session on budget-related bills and local legislation.
“The liability bill became a model that a host of other states adopted and passed and is important for businesses, churches and a host of other entities, and the economic development legislation is important for the future of our economy of Alabama,” Orr said.
“Many states have had special sessions during the pandemic,” Orr continued. “Also, most Alabamians have had to show up for work during the virus. The Alabama Legislature should be no exception and should show up for work on these important issues in a special session — if one is called by Gov. Ivey.”
Besides 140 senators and representatives, there are about 200 Statehouse staff members and, in a typical session, hundreds of lobbyists, members of the media and the public in the building.
Access in the 2021 session that starts in early February is already a concern. Several lawmakers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since March, at least one becoming seriously ill. Legislative leaders have signaled that access to the building will be limited and accommodations will be made for more remote viewing of legislative action. COVID concerns kept most of the public away from the final days of the 2020 session.
Gina Maiola, an Ivey spokeswoman, said the governor’s call Monday with legislative leadership was a routine discussion.
“As far as a special session possibility, the governor is keeping all options on the table,” Maiola said. “Clearly, that conversation continues, but there has not been a decision at this time.”
Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, was on the virtual meeting Monday and later put the odds of a special this year at “quite small.”
He said the issues that need to be addressed are well known, largely agreed upon and need to get done.
“I think there remains a concern over COVID. I’m not sure how that’s going to work out,” Albritton said.
There have been more than 206,567 reported cases of COVID-19 in Alabama since March, about 20,600 of those coming in the past two weeks. More than 3,100 people have died.
There were 1,206 Alabamians hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms Tuesday, the most since late August. The percentage of positive COVID-19 tests is also increasing statewide to almost 10% at the end of October after a decrease in September.