- Associated Press - Sunday, March 1, 2015

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The Alabama Legislature begins the 2015 regular session on Tuesday. Here are five issues to watch.

- TAXES/BUDGET: A shortfall in the state General Fund of several hundred million dollars is expected to be the toughest problem for lawmakers in the 2015 session. Gov. Robert Bentley has proposed $541 million in tax increases. His ideas include raising cigarette taxes by 82 cents per pack and raising the sales taxes on automobile purchases from 2 percent to 4 percent. Bentley would also seek to end some corporate tax loopholes and tax credits for insurance companies. However, his ideas face an uncertain future with lawmakers.

- CHARTER SCHOOLS: Republicans will push charter school legislation that could see dozens of such schools established over the five years. Charter schools are public schools that have freedom from some of the curriculum and regulations placed on other public schools. The bill proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh would authorize 10 new “startup” schools in the state each year and allow local school systems to convert an unlimited number of schools to charter status each year. Republicans pushed charter school bill in ‘12 but the effort flopped under internal disagreements and opposition from the teachers’ lobby and others.

- TENURE: Marsh, who has led many of the GOP education bills, is also expected to propose legislation that would give teachers higher pay if they give up the job protections of tenure. Marsh said the proposal would offer a choice to educators. “You allow teachers to choose a tenure path and a non-tenure path. If they choose the non-tenure path, you are not locked into the salary matrix. It’s a different salary matrix for them,” Marsh said.

- PRISONS: Alabama prisons house nearly twice the number of inmates they were originally designed to hold, a level lawmakers say is both dangerous and could put the state on the losing end of a federal lawsuit. Proposals before a reform task force include creating a new Class D felony for low-level drug and property crimes, adding additional parole and probation officers, increasing funding for treatment programs, increasing use of diversion programs for nonviolent offenders and money for additional prison beds.

- INDUSTRIAL RECRUITMENT: Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard said lawmakers will deal with a series of bill changing the way the state pays for economic incentive packages. “Rather than writing a check up front and giving them money and hoping that it is worked out. It’s based on actual jobs that are created so it is done after the fact,” Hubbard said.

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