Issues to Watch in the 2018 Session

By Brian Lyman- MONTGOMERY — Alabama lawmakers return to Montgomery on Tuesday to begin the 2018 legislative session. Here are seven issues to watch throughout the session.

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Prison spending

Alabama is facing a court order to improve conditions in its prisons after a federal judge last year ruled that mental health care was "horrendously inadequate." State lawmakers this session will deal with the price tag of trying to comply with the ruling against the state.

The prison system is seeking an additional $80 million over the next two years to boost staffing and pay for an expanded health care contract. The judge found a lack of staff was a significant contributor to the poor conditions.

Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said the prison system needs to add as many as 1,000 corrections officers.

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Children's Health Insurance Program

A major budgetary question mark for lawmakers — and one with ramifications for tens of thousands of Alabama children — is the Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides subsidized health insurance for children in lower-income working families.

Congress so far has only funded the program through March. House Ways and Means Chairman Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, said called it the "big unknown" for the session.

If the program is discontinued, 84,000 children in Alabama would lose health insurance. CHIP also provides 100 percent of the funding for another 77,000 Alabama children enrolled in the state's Medicaid program. The state, by law, would have to pay the normal Medicaid matching rate for the coverage. Clouse estimated that would cost the state $40 million to $45 million and cast "a shadow" over the whole general fund.

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Day care regulations

Some lawmakers are expected to make another attempt at requiring all day care centers to be regulated and end a widespread exemption for facilities that claim a religious affiliation.

Alabama is one of seven states that broadly exempt faith-based day cares from regulation, according to VOICES for Alabama's Children. The result is about that half of day care facilities are without state oversight. The Department of Human Resources says 933 out of 981 licensed day care centers claim a church exemption.

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Ethics law revisions

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall is working on a proposed revamp of state ethics laws. While the bill is still in the works, a spokesman for Marshall said, "the ethics reform bill will strengthen the existing ethics law by closing loopholes that have come to light since it was passed, as well as providing additional clarity and simplification."

Alabama Ethics Commission Director Tom Albritton said his office is seeking to give the commission more flexibility in the way fines are imposed and enforced.

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Permitless carry

Lawmakers are expected to again debate legislation to allow people to carry a handgun without getting a concealed carry permit. The bill cleared the Senate last year but stalled in the House. The bill has created tricky territory for some Republicans in the Alabama Legislature as it pits two groups they traditionally like to support: gun rights groups and law enforcement. The National Rifle Association lobbied for the bill last year, but it came under heavy opposition from law enforcement officers.

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Juvenile justice

Alabama lawmakers preapproved a package of sentencing reforms for adult offenders. This year they could turn their attention to juvenile offenders. Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said he plans to introduce a bill that would try to create alternative sentencing paths for certain juvenile offenders instead of locking them up.

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Teacher pay raise

Alabama lawmakers could debate a pay increase for teachers and other education employees.

Alabama lawmakers will also go straight from the Statehouse to the campaign trail since 2018 is an election year. The backdrop of looming elections is expected to influence what bills get introduced and what gets left on the cutting room floor.

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