MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A legislative session that began on rapid pace five weeks ago has been slowed by hard feelings over the passage of private school tax credits.
Democratic opponents of the tax credits are slowing down action in the House and Senate while they and the bill's Republican supporters wait to see if the Alabama Supreme Court will let the governor sign the tax credits into law.
"For the foreseeable future, we will filibuster every bill and have every bill read at length," House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said Monday.
House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said Ford is upset that Republicans "took bold steps to reform and improve public education," but the Democrats' stalling tactics are nothing worrisome.
"At the end of the day, it's ok if we don't pass as many bills — Republicans are the party of smaller government," Hubbard said.
The legislative session began Feb. 5 with lawmakers quickly making sure they kept a promise to pass a bill requiring the repayment of $437 million taken from a state trust fund to shore up the state operating budgets. Lawmakers also got to work getting approval in at least one chamber for bills merging law enforcement agencies, placing tighter restrictions on abortion clinics, and providing $50 million in bonds for new equipment in high school technical programs.
Then the House and Senate passed different versions of a bill designed to give school systems more flexibility in complying with state education laws. The House and Senate sent the bill to a Republican-dominated conference committee to try to work out a compromise. Instead, the conference committee rewrote the bill Feb. 28 to triple its length and add tax credits for parents who choose to send their children to a private school rather than a public school rated as failing. The Republican majorities in the House and Senate cut off debate by Democratic opponents and approved the revised bill on party-line votes.
Democrats have responded by slowing down nearly every item of business since then. They said those tactics will resume when the Legislature returns Tuesday.
A Democratic member of the conference committee, Sen. Quinton Ross of Montgomery, said the trust that had existed between the Republican majority and Democratic minority is gone, and Democrats don't want a bill to zip through again without proper discussion.
"We have to slow it down and read bills to be certain," he said.
The Alabama Education Association is challenging the tax credit legislation in court. The state teachers' group contends the Legislature didn't follow its own operating rules and the state's open meeting law when approving the bill.
A Montgomery judge blocked the governor from signing the bill into law last week. Republican legislative leaders have appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, saying the judge's order was unprecedented interference by the courts in the legislative branch of government.
If the Alabama Supreme Court allows the governor to sign the bill, another legal challenge appears to be developing. Ross said the revised version of the bill passed out to members of the conference committee by the Republican majority on Feb. 28 is different from the one marked as officially passed by the House and Senate later that evening. He said the version he got contained this sentence: "Nothing in this act shall be construed to force any school, whether public or nonpublic, to enroll any student." The official version in legislative records does not include that.
Jerry Bassett, director of the Legislature's bill-writing service, said his office prepared a version of the bill with that language included. He said the final official version was not prepared by his office, but it doesn't have to be.
Republican legislative leaders said the version without the one sentence was always the correct version, and no switching was done. Ross said he expects to see someone file suit over that issue.