Many voices heard at county meetings

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Almost twenty years ago, I made a commitment to the people of Alabama to visit every county in the state each year to listen and learn about the issues most important to the citizens. Since that time, I have held 1340 county meetings. These meetings have been essential to learn the thoughts and concerns of Alabamians across the state. On Monday, Feb. 13, I wrapped up this year&8217;s county visits, holding my 67th meeting since Jan. 9 in Lawrence County.

Over the years, these meetings have provided Alabamians an open forum to voice their concerns, frustrations, successes, suggestions and opinions on the activities of our government. This year was no different, providing all in attendance an opportunity to discuss the important issues facing our state and our nation.

This year, as in years past, a few issues dominated the discussions during these visits. In particular, Alabamians seemed to be most interested in the economy, immigration, transportation spending, the new Medicare Part D plan, and the ongoing War on Terror. While some of these issues are of national significance and others are specific to Alabama, hearing about them and learning the different views of citizens from across the state helps me better represent all Alabamians.

Like many Alabamians, I am watching the economy closely, and I believe that the economy is hot. Businesses are doing well, consumer spending remains strong and new jobs are being created throughout the country and more importantly, in Alabama. Today Alabama&8217;s unemployment rate is 3.5 percent, lower than the national average of 4.7 percent.

During my visits around the state, I was encouraged by news of counties&8217; successes in recruiting new businesses and bringing new jobs to the counties and surrounding areas. While there are still those counties that struggle with high unemployment levels, I believe that job creation in these areas is possible and it is a goal that we should all work together to achieve.

I believe that the tax cuts, passed in 2001 and 2003, are an essential component of the economic growth we are currently experiencing. This tax relief allows all Americans to keep more of their hard-earned money, while encouraging investment and allowing businesses to expand. I agree with the President that we must make these tax cuts permanent. If we do not, every American would face a tax increase and we would run the risk of derailing our economic prosperity.

The exploding problem of immigration is an issue that troubled many Alabamians, and I share their concerns. I have long believed that our nation must have strong controls on the influx of illegal immigrants. I believe that the President&8217;s immigration proposal is headed in the wrong direction by, in essence, granting amnesty to illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States. Ours is a nation of laws, and the President&8217;s proposal sends the wrong message to legal immigrants and those who are waiting patiently, following the law to come to the United States. The number of illegal immigrants crossing our borders unchecked each year is proof that our current system is broken and must be fixed. That is why I plan to vote for the strongest, most meaningful immigration reform that comes before the Senate.

During my travels, people were quick to bring to my attention the issues they were encountering with the Medicare Part D program. Many of you have expressed frustration with the complexity of the program and difficulties in obtaining your benefits. In particular, pharmacists have been overwhelmed by the problems that seniors have encountered and have taken on the role of mediators to ensure that seniors get the drugs they need.

I extend my thoughts and prayers to those still serving in Iraq, their families here at home, and especially those who have lost loved ones defending our freedom in the War on Terrorism. Like all Americans, I eagerly await the day when our armed forces can return home from operations supporting the War on Terror.

During my travels across the state, we discussed many other issues, and I will keep the priorities of each county in mind. I look forward to starting off each year traveling the state and hearing from the people. I am honored to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate, and I will continue to work in the best interests of our state and our nation.

EDITOR&8217;S NOTE: This column by Sen. Richard Shelby was edited for space