- Associated Press - Sunday, January 31, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) -

The Alabama Legislature begins the 2016 regular session on Tuesday. Here are nine issues to watch:

-BUDGET WOES: Difficulties in the state General Fund are again expected for lawmakers in the 2016 session. Available revenue is expected to fall short of what is needed to maintain services. Gov. Robert Bentley is not proposing any general fund tax increases in his proposed budget. Legislative budget chairmen likewise said they see little enthusiasm for tax increases, which will likely mean cuts for many state agencies.

-LOTTERY: Lottery legislation could get its first serious consideration in the Alabama Statehouse in 17 years. Republicans and Democrats have introduced rival proposals to establish a state lottery. There is disagreement over how lottery proceeds should be spent, and there could be push-back from lawmakers who also want casino legislation. Alabamians voted down a proposed lottery in 1999. Alabama is one of six states without a lottery.

-TEACHER RAISE: One of the few issues where state politicians find themselves in agreement. Democrats, Republicans and Gov. Robert Bentley have all said they will seek a teacher pay increase in the upcoming session. The disagreement will come over how much of a raise that the Education Trust Fund, the state budget that funds public education, can provide without hurting education programs. Suggestions for the pay increase ranged from 2 percent to 5 percent ahead of session.

-TENURE CHANGES FOR TEACHERS: The bill by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh would extend the time required to obtain tenure from three to five years. Student performance growth would also become component of performance reviews. Marsh dropped an idea for performance-based pay. However, schools could get bonuses for test score improvement. Teachers, who are new, highly rated or work in hard to fill specialties could also get recruitment bonuses for taking jobs in high-poverty or underperforming schools

-PRISON CONSTRUCTION: Gov. Robert Bentley is expected to propose a bond issue to consolidate aging Alabama prisons and replace them with new larger, regional prisons, some lawmakers said. The initiative comes as the state prison system has been in a negative spotlight for crowding and safety concerns. Sen. Cam Ward, chairman of the state’s prison reform task force, said the state is pumping millions of dollars into maintaining dilapidated facilities.

- GASOLINE TAX: The Legislature’s transportation committee has held a series of pre-session meetings about the possibility of raising the state’s gasoline tax increase to pay for road and bridge construction in the state. Advocates said the price of road construction and repairs has increased exponentially while improvements in automobile fuel efficiency have caused tax collections, which pay for the work, to stagnate. Opponents have argued that the public is not in a mood for tax increases.

-SPEAKER’S TRIAL: Republican House Speaker Mike Hubbard is scheduled to go to trial on ethics charges in March, a date that falls in the middle of the session. While it is possible, if not likely, that the trial will get delayed during appeals of pretrial rulings, Hubbard’s ability to lead became an issue in pre-session wrangling. Hubbard’s critics have threatened to make motion to remove him from the speakership, although Hubbard appears for now to easily have the votes to survive such a challenge if it comes. Hubbard said he has thought about “scenarios” if trial and session do overlap, but he declined to elaborate.

-GUNS IN CARS: People would be able to carry a loaded handgun in their vehicles without a concealed carry permit, under a bill proposed in the Alabama Senate. Republican Sen. Gerald Allen of Tuscaloosa said that people should be able to have their weapons in their cars just as they can in their homes. The Alabama Senate has approved similar legislation in past sessions but the idea had not gotten final approval. The proposal, in the past, has sparked opposition from law enforcement officials who voiced concerns about public safety.

-BAN THE BOX: The proposal by Democratic Sen. Quinton Ross would prohibit companies from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history in the first job application. Employers could still ask about a person’s past convictions, but the question would have to come later in the application process.

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