Ward shares thoughts on upcoming legislative session

Ethics reform, the state budget and gambling likely will highlight this year’s session of the Alabama Legislature, said an Alabaster state representative.

Rep. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said he expects the three issues to dominate discussions during the session, which begins Jan. 12.

Budget and gambling discussions will probably be tied together, as some legislators will suggest legalized gambling as a way to make up for the state’s budget shortfalls, Ward said.

Alabama officials are predicting the state’s education budget will be about $500 million less this year compared to 2007, and some believe taxes generated from legalized gambling will help fill the funding deficit.

“If gambling were the cure for that, why do Mississippi and Nevada have bigger budget shortfalls than we do?” Ward said. “There is a myth that if gambling is legalized, it will solve all our problems.”

Ward said state revenue officials have predicted legalizing gambling would add $75 million to the Alabama education budget. However, he said the extra money would add about 1 percent to the $6 billion education budget.

“The gambling interests will really come after it this year,” Ward said. “But they don’t have the votes to pass pro- or anti-gambling legislature this year.”

Because of the expected education budget shortfall, legislators may have to make some “hard decisions” by cutting some school programs, said Ward.

Ward also said education department employees may have to “pay a little more” for their heath insurance this year in order to keep the same benefits they have now.

“To sustain good educational services, we may have to suspend some popular programs,” he said. “I am all for the reading and math initiative, but if we have to sustain that by laying off our education employees, I am not for that.”

The Alabaster state representatives said one of his main issues for the upcoming legislative session would relate to the state’s ethics laws.

In Nov. 2009, Ward filed an ethics-strengthening bill, which, if passed, would grant the Alabama Ethics Commission the ability to subpoena documents and order people to appear in court.

“Alabama is the only state ethics commission without the subpoena power,” Ward said. “We have to rely on federal prosecutors to do that for us, and that erodes peoples’ trust in public prosecutors.

“That will be one of my biggest issues,” Ward added. “I would be very leery of a politician opposed to ethics reform that’s long overdue.”

Ward also said he planned to sponsor a bill to cut down the requirements for those looking to get on state election ballots.

“Alabama is the third-strictest state as far as ballot acts. We are hands-down the toughest in the southeast,” Ward said. “I want to cut the requirements for third parties and independents in half.

“As far as I see, there’s no good argument against making it easier for people to get on the ballot,” Ward added.