Legislature delays return due to virus

By ED HOWELL
Posted 4/2/20

Walker County's delegation in the Alabama House of Representatives said Tuesday the Alabama Legislature is taking steps to make it easier not to burn days, but it will not meet next until at least late April - and a special session to handle budgets is not out of the question, depending on how tenacious the coronavirus pandemic proves to be in the state.

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Legislature delays return due to virus

Posted

Walker County's delegation in the Alabama House of Representatives said Tuesday the Alabama Legislature is taking steps to make it easier not to burn days, but it will not meet next until at least late April - and a special session to handle budgets is not out of the question, depending on how tenacious the coronavirus pandemic proves to be in the state.

State Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, said she has remained in Jasper, sheltering to follow state guidelines and prevent catching the virus.

"I don't want this. I think it is a very real thing," she said. "I do not want to bring it home to my family.

She has found she can be more effective helping assist others by phone and decided not to come to Montgomery for a meeting day that was arranged.

Rowe said the Senate was meeting to essentially update its rules, much like the House did due to a 2013 snowstorm, which would allow procedure for the House speaker to note the lack of a quorum without burning a day on the calendar, extending the session to another date.

The Legislature is limited to 30 meeting days within a period of 105 days, with so many days set for committees and only 12 legislative days in the 30-day calendar. The session is set to end May 18.

Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said Tuesday the Senate had a quorum and met quickly to change the rule, adhering to a full social distancing plan. He said the Legislature would meet again on April 28, which was confirmed on the Legislature's website.

"But with this newly approved rule change, the president pro tem and the speaker of the House together can modify the meeting day for the legislative body only under a state of emergency by the governor," Reed texted that day.

State Rep. Tim Wadsworth, R-Arley, said the House passed the change later that afternoon. He said the situation was such that had the Legislature not taken action on rule changes, then the session would have automatically ended.

Wadsworth noted people were tested outside for their temperature and those with a higher temperature were not allowed in. Legislators were sent to their offices and brought into the House chamber in groups of five or eight, with tape over seats to maintain 6 feet of distance, putting legislators in different seats or standing in some areas.

The press was moved in the House to the gallery overlooking that chamber to help with social distancing, he said. The State House did not have visitors and voting was being done by voice vote to prevent touching voting machines.

"There were no pages, and no support personnel, no visitors, no lobbyists," Wadsworth said. Hallways that are normally clogged with people during a session were empty. Even the doors of the chamber were kept open so one didn't have to touch them.

"Between the Republicans and Democrats, we made sure older folks did not have to be there," as well as people with medical conditions putting them at risk, he said.

Guidelines on how the Legislature will proceed in the future are expected to be drawn up.

Rowe said if the session keeps being moved beyond the May closing date due to the virus and social distancing requirements, then the Legislature will have to meet later in a called special session to at least handle the state budgets, which have not been passed.

No major legislative agendas have been passed in the session so far, she said. She said a local bill she carried to expand the Jasper Civil Service Board from three members to five, and to be appointed by districts, did pass early and went to the governor. However, local bills from the Walker County Commission and the Walker County Probate Judge A. Lee Tucker have not passed.

Rowe and Wadsworth indicated more information might be needed to guide legislators on a new budget. Rowe noted the longer the virus shutdown goes on, "the numbers will look very different," affecting the state, county and municipal governments as a whole.

"I think there would be some wisdom in us seeing the second quarter reports on taxes collected by the state, prior to us setting our budgets," Rowe said. However, if the Legislature meets in late April or May, the legislators could only get an estimation.

Wadsworth said that "later down the road we'll have a better idea on the numbers."

Rowe said she has been second guessed in the past in an emergency situation, and noted she didn't want to second-guess state leaders in the crisis. She said leaders probably have information that the general public does not.

"I have been impressed with the state trying to get ahead of issues regarding the supply change on PPE and the hospitals in this state responding in the way they have in" potential situations, she said, adding that "everybody is doing the best they can do."

Rowe, the former police chief in Jasper, said she and Jasper Mayor David O'Mary has had conversations every two or three days about the situation in the city.

"I think most people in my district have been very cooperative and are taking it very, very seriously," she said. "I haven't talked to anyone who didn't believe this was a serious issue and that we needed to follow the recommendations of the Alabama Department of Public Health, and they are trying to do that."

Small businesses have called her, deeply concerned on their financial losses, some of which are shut down. She has been trying to guide small business owners to resources so they can apply through government for business loans and unemployment.

Rowe noted she has had conversations with Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, who has been critical of Gov. Kay Ivey and her task force overseeing the pandemic response. "I won't speculate on what I would do because that is not my job. I'm going to stay in my lane," she said. "But I do believe she has done a great deal of effort into it and she is surrounded by good people. I am duly impressed with (Dr. Scott Harris, the state health officer) and I would follow him in his advice. That would be paramount to me in my decision making. ... I think he's done an outstanding job. He just delivers bad news well. He's very logical, reasonable, and apolitical, which is rare."

Wadsworth noted that as for the budgets, legislators will need at least five or six days to get the budgets passed. "It has not even come to the House," he said, and may not have even come out of committee.

In addition to waiting altogether for a special session, the Legislature could do a "bare bones" budgets during the Regular Session and come back with supplemental appropriations in a special session, he said.

Wadsworth noted earlier in the week Ivey had a conference call with legislators to update them on the virus situation. He heard the Alabama National Guard could be called out if needed.

He noted based on his understanding from the Governor's Office, the state has already transferred $300 million from the so-called Rainy Day Fund to the Education Trust Fund to make sure is has sufficient money to go forward.

He confirmed that State Finance Director Kelly Butler told legislators that all vendors are being paid. In the first six months of the fiscal year revenue, from October to March, has been good, but Butler anticipates a decline in revenues for the last half of the year. Butler did not anticipate calling for proration due to the first six months of performance.

Wadsworth feels the state is doing "what we've got to do." He said there has to be a balance in opening and closing businesses, noting different counties have different numbers of cases, from a few to many.

He said in looking for more ICU beds in the state, Pickens County's hospital recently closed and has available space for beds, as well as "a tremendous amount of empty hotels" in the state thanks to the coronavirus.

Wadsworth, who said Ivey has done a good job, said in his opinion, he doesn't think the state has hit the "top of the curve yet" with the virus. "I think we'll have more," but he said social distancing and hand washing is important.

He said testing "may be an issue on the east side of Winston County," although Lakeland Community Hospital has opened up an outside drive-through for testing. "I don't know if we are getting enough testing. He said there is also a need of swabs in some areas of the state, as well as the test kits. He also noted the Showa Gloves plant in Fayette has sold out all of its inventory and is manufacturing. "They are selling everything they get," he said.

As for sheltering, he said he doesn't know he necessarily agreed with Marion County's quarantine order over the weekend. "To a degree you have to let people make their own decisions on what to do," he said. "However, I think social distancing is important. People are learning to work at home. Many of the things you do are done by computer."

"The grocery stores in Arley are flourishing, because we have all these people who have gone to the lake to social distance," he said. "Honestly, it is kind of like summertime.