State legislators discuss upcoming session

Published 6:31 pm Wednesday, January 20, 2016

State Sen. Slade Blackwell, R-Birmingham, discusses a gasoline tax increase and the lottery during the Jan. 20 Legislative Preview Luncheon at Jefferson State Community College. (Reporter Photo / Molly Davidson)

State Sen. Slade Blackwell, R-Birmingham, discusses a gasoline tax increase and the lottery during the Jan. 20 Legislative Preview Luncheon at Jefferson State Community College. (Reporter Photo / Molly Davidson)

By MOLLY DAVIDSON / Staff Writer

HOOVER—Sunday sales, prison reform and a gas tax were just a few of the topics state legislators addressed during the Jan. 20 Legislative Preview Luncheon hosted by the Greater Shelby County, South Shelby, Calera and Montevallo chambers of commerce at Jefferson State Community College.

Eleven Shelby County elected officials in the Alabama Legislature attended the luncheon to discuss what they plan to address in the upcoming legislative session beginning on Feb. 2.

The Senate will see between 1,000 and 1,500 bills “on every subject matter you can think of” during the legislative session, State Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, projected, but he said the most important issue at hand is “passing a general fund budget that we can live with.”

Alabama’s $1.7 billion general fund budget was a primary topic of discussion, with several legislators explaining plans to reduce earmarking, ensure accountability and promote responsible spending.

“We have a fundamental problem with our budget that we need to correct,” State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said, explaining 92 percent of the budget is earmarked.

Ward and State Rep. Allen Farley, R-McCalla, voiced a commitment to reviewing earmarked funds in the budget.

“One of the committees I’m on has been looking at earmarking,” Farley said. “I will not ask for an additional tax until we scrutinize earmarked money.”

Ward noted prison reform as a key way to reduce budget spending. Currently the Department of Corrections receives a budgeted nearly $400 million from the general fund, the second largest expenditure in the budget.

“We cannot afford to spend the amount of money we’re spending on corrections,” Ward said.

Although there is “still a long way to go,” Ward said he plans to ensure corrections spending is “quality spending.”

With nearly $700 million in budgeted funds, Medicaid makes up the largest budget expenditure. State Rep. April Weaver, R-Alabaster, and Rep. Jim Carns, R-Birmingham, discussed reforming and containing the cost of Medicaid.

“There are 1.1 million people on Medicaid today, and that’s something this state and other states were not prepared for,” Carns said. “It’s something that we cannot, as a legislative body, sit back and do nothing (about).”

Weaver explained Medicaid spending cannot be done away with, but addressed the benefit of regional care organizations.

“It’s shifting the risk for these patients from the state to the private sector,” Weaver said. “It’s just common sense.”

Additional revenue streams, such as Sunday sales, a gas tax and the lottery, were also a main talking point.

According to State Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana, Shelby County has struggled to recruit restaurants and hotels to the area because alcohol cannot be sold on Sundays.

“This isn’t anything but an economic issue, this isn’t a drinking issue,” Hill said. “If we don’t support (Sunday sales), we’re going to lose a lot of future business in Shelby County.”

The lottery is also a consistent constituent-requested item, State Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, said. Although it will not solve any budgeting issues, the lottery could bring additional revenue to the state, McClendon said.

“I have never purchased a lottery ticket in my life, but my constituents, they don’t want to drive to Georgia, to Tennessee, to Florida (to buy tickets),” McClendon said. “If there’s going to be $3 million going into this, I’d rather it go to Alabama.”

Although State Rep. Dickie Drake, R-Leeds, expressed reservations about bringing the lottery to Alabama, he said it is something his constituents want to see.

“I have a little heartburn with the lottery bill, but I’m not here to vote what I want,” Drake said.

State Sen. Slade Blackwell, R-Birmingham, conducted an informal survey of luncheon attendees about the lottery and a gasoline tax increase. Blackwell noted the gasoline tax has not been increased since 1991.

“All that money will go to new road construction and bridges,” Blackwell said.

According to Blackwell’s survey, 75 percent of those at the luncheon supported the lottery and 52 percent supported an additional tax on gasoline.

State. Rep. Arnold Mooney, R-Birmingham, and State Rep. Matt Fridy, R-Birmingham, encouraged constituents to hold politicians accountable and to continue reaching out and voicing opinions to elected officials.

“What’s really helpful is if you email us before the vote,” Fridy said. “Tell us what you think and why you feel that way.”