I arrived at the State House just after 8 AM today. My first committee meeting was in Education Policy at 9 AM where we planned to debate two bills; SB28 by Sen Dunn, mandating children start school at age 6, and SB361by Sen Brewbaker, concerning School Boards. Both bills were carried over at the call of the chair due to concerns by committee members…shortest committee meeting ever! As I’ve stated before, I do not support Sen Dunn’s bill as I think this needs to remain a parent’s choice. In fact, parents already have this choice; you can enroll your child at age 6, or wait until age 7 but they must be enrolled by age 7. Simply put - no need for a bill here. I also support Sen Brewbaker’s bill as this will place a statewide qualification on school board members (min of high school diploma, imagine that...) and other minimum training requirements. This bill was developed by the Alabama Association of School Boards and I’ve cleared up any concerns from local boards this evening. I’m ready for the next meeting that these bills come up in.
My next meeting was with General Fund at 10:30 but that slipped to 12:30 allowing me a rare opportunity to attend a couple of committee meetings as a member of the public – in other words, I didn’t have bills before these committees and don’t serve on the committees but I can think of no better place for me to be during a public hearing than to listen to the public!
I attended the Health Committee meeting where SB314 by Sen Bussman, a bill to legalize the practice of Midwifery in Alabama was debated. This was a great public hearing with a large turnout of supporters. I’m a co-sponsor of this bill and have discussed a couple of concerns with the current language in the bill that I think we can get rectified. Bottom line – as this is legal in Tennessee and many other states, we need to move forward with legalizing Midwives in Alabama as babies are already being born here or, in some cases, mothers are driving to Tennessee to have their baby at the last minute causing undue stress on everyone.
My next committee meeting was the General Fund Committee where we moved a couple of bills but carried over bills allowing sales tax exemption on some medical supplies and, allowing overtime to be calculated into retirement for state employees. We carried these bills over in order to allow the Legislative Fiscal Office (LFO) to provide a more concise Fiscal Note on these bills. A Fiscal Note is required on any bill that affects one of the budgets. Amendments offered to these bills had a possible significant impact to the Fiscal Note and I supported delaying committee action until we have the most recent data from LFO.
I was then able to attend the Judiciary Committee and catch the public hearing on SB337 by Sen Beason regarding amongst other things, carrying a pistol in a vehicle without a permit and discretion of sheriffs in concealed pistol licensing. This was another meeting that I didn’t have a bill, nor do I serve on the committee but felt the public hearing and debate were important to witness. I’m glad to see this bill before committee and felt the debate was productive. The bill is due for a committee vote next week.
I finished the afternoon returning phone calls and replying to emails…I’ve got a ways to go before I’m caught up!
The Senate goes back into session at 10:00 AM tomorrow with a robust special order calendar. I have SB224 on the calendar, aka, Potter’s Bill which I blogged on last week. I’ll spend the remainder of this evening reading up on other bills before us tomorrow.
Before I close out tonight’s blog, I’d like to point readers to the following national story concerning the rising cost of gas. Our Energy Secretary’s response to Congressman Allan Nunnelee (R- MS) question in a committee hearing in Washington today - "Is the overall goal to get our price of gasoline down?" Energy Secretary Stephen Chu responded - "No, the overall goal is to decrease our dependency on oil, to build and strengthen our economy." Well, in case you were wondering – there you have it! That is why gas prices are skyrocketing.
The back story here, in 1993, upon my return from a combat tour in Mogadishu, Somalia, I was assigned to Marine Recruiting Duty in, of all places, Tupelo, Mississippi - I referred to it as “sentenced” rather than assigned but, as it turns out – Tupelo is one of the best kept secrets of the South!
Congressman Nunnelee, then State Senator Nunnelee, and his family and mine attend the same church and my wife and I taught their children in Sunday school. Allan is a great Christian man and Northern Mississippi is fortunate to have him serving as their congressman. I commend him for asking the Energy Secretary the tough question – go get’em Congressman!
With Mr. Raper and Mr. Parker at Bob Jones High School to present a resolution to Mr. Raper for his award.
I enjoyed a busy weekend back home in District 2. Friday morning I volunteered at my daughter’s school for “duty free lunch”. It was nice visiting with teachers and other parents that were volunteering. That evening my wife and I attended the Madison Hospital Gala, honoring those who have worked to make this hospital a reality. Saturday morning I supported the Grissom High School ROTC 5K with our Corvette Club, Vets with Vettes and Corvette Owners. I participated in this run last year but decided to cheer the runners on this year as I’m fighting a bit of a chest cold and temps were in the low 30’s at the start of the race. Running 3.1 miles in those temps would have set me back three weeks…a sign of old age or I’m getting wiser; I choose the later.
Sunday after church we attended the Madison Hospital Ribbon Cutting Ceremony. Monday morning I enjoyed visiting with some of the old timers at the “liar’s tables” at the East Limestone Chevron and at Bo Jangles in Athens. I always enjoy when I get to do this and come away knowing much more about what’s going on in our communities than I ever would from any other source! As a bonus, Limestone County Commission Chair Stanley Menefee was at the Chevron and Rep (Mayor) Dan Williams, Athens City Councilmen Harold Wales and Jim Hickman were at Bo jangles. It was great seeing everyone and I thank you for sharing your thoughts and concerns.
Later on Monday I stopped by Bob Jones High School to deliver a resolution to Mr. Jeremy Raper – the 2011 Milken Award Winner. I was in Taiwan as a member of a 6 state delegation when he received this award last November but was able to sponsor a resolution on behalf of the Madison County Legislative Delegation once we went into session earlier this month. We are vey proud of Mr. Raper and it is always great to visit Bob Jones – as Mr. Parker would say “The Best dadgum High School in Alabama”.
I arrived in Montgomery just before 11 AM on Tuesday. I attended the Caucus lunch meeting where we reviewed this weeks plan and then held a couple of meetings in my office to discuss various bills I’m working on.
An issue I handled quickly upon arrival in Montgomery was this automatic annual pay increase established by the 2007 legislature. I declined the CPI increase in a letter last year and have done so in a letter again this year and will continue to do so. I wrote about the legislative pay extensively in December’s Newsletter under the heading - What does a Senator Get Paid, and even provided a scanned copy of my annual pay stub. I encourage readers to review my comments in the newsletter and I look forward to supporting the legislative pay commission bill that is coming up this year.
The Senate went into session at 2 PM. Once the Senate had convened and settled in I rose for a Point of Personal Privilege – this is a term used when we request the floor to speak to our colleagues on an issue, as opposed to debating a bill. You can read my statement here but in short, my point was to encourage the press to continue to cover the automatic, annual cost of living increase - who accepted and who declined the raise (Read the Birmingham news article here). Alabamians deserve to know who took the pay increase and who declined it. Some legislators have said they are planning to keep the increase because of the rising cost of gas. Yes, gas prices are soaring and as we drive to Montgomery weekly for session (roundtrip for me is 360 miles) it is costing us more…but what about everyone else in Alabama? How anyone can justify this annual increase is beyond me. This is just one of many reasons why we need to pass the legislative pay bill and fix this issue once and for all. Following is a great editorial by John Peck of the Huntsville Times from earlier this month on the proposed bill to address legislative pay.
We passed several bills yesterday, all non-controversial. I moved my third bill out of the Senate for this year, dealing with how a National Guard Member is taken care of should they become injured while on active duty for the state – i.e., during last year’s tornados. This bill was brought to me by the Alabama National Guard and, as the chair of the Veteran’s and Military Affairs Committee; I was honored to champion it through the legislative process.
Today is committee day, I have somewhat of a light load – only three committee meetings. Hopefully this will allow me to get caught up on some emails, phone calls.
We wrapped up a busy week with a great day on the Senate floor Thursday, moving several bills on to the House for consideration.
A couple of high points I’d like to mention from yesterday’s activities:
SB60, a bill I sponsored which passed the Senate in the second week passed the House yesterday and on the way to the Governor for signature. I sincerely appreciate Rep Treadaway’s support in moving this through the House yesterday as well as the Department of Human Resources staff for helping work this through both bodies. This bill is important as it enhances criminal history background checks of new hires in the state.
SB365 – the Alabama School Flexibility Act of 2012 was introduced. This bill allows the State Board of Education to enter into a school flexibility contract with a local school system to allow for programmatic or budgetary flexibility, or both, from state laws, including State Board of Education rules, regulations, and policies in exchange for academic and associated goals for students that focus on college and career readiness. With 17 co-sponsors it has broad support in the Senate and I will start moving this bill through committee next week. You can read SB365 here.
SB143, a bill to reinstate the National Board Certified Teacher stipend, was championed by Sen Waggoner, passed the Senate Thursday. This bill makes good on a promise to teachers who decided to undertake and complete the NBCT process; an 18 month program. I’ve been told there are approx 1800 NBCT teachers in the state. I supported this bill because a promise was made to these teachers and the state should uphold its end of the bargain. The stipend is an additional $5,000 per year for a teacher that has completed the program.
Lastly, I moved my second bill out of the Senate, SB263 which will close several loopholes in the current code regarding contracts issued by state departments during emergency situations. These loopholes have been abused in the past as a way to circumvent the legislative oversight Contract Review Committee.
Texting Ban Bill – the House unanimously passed HB2, a statewide ban on texting and driving this week. The Senate has a similar version, SB144 that was debated on Thursday and met some early resistance. I helped write the ordinance for the City of Madison on texting while serving on the city council and am drafting an amendment that I will introduce next week. The amendment will include exceptions listed in Section 18-36 of the City of Madison’s Ordinance linked here.
I’ve heard from many residents on this issue – from both sides of the argument. I fully recognize texting and driving is a problem but also recognize we currently have “distracted driving” laws that already apply to someone swerving along the road while texting, eating, reading, putting on makeup…etc, the things we see every day. Of note, I’ve done some research on local ordinances. Huntsville, Athens, Madison and Decatur have all passed ordinances banning texting and driving. These cities have had the laws on the books for at least two years…guess how many tickets have been written? One.
I am most concerned in how a ban on texting is enforceable by law enforcement – in other words, how do you know when someone is texting vs. dialing a phone number? If you are pulled over for what an officer believes is texting, but the driver claims he was dialing a number, will the officer need a warrant to view the phone to verify the driver was dialing vs. texting…or will the officer take the driver’s word for it?
I don’t want to simply pass a “feel good” bill. Most people drive the speed limit because it is the law. In similar spirit – are we hoping people won’t text and drive because it is against the law?
Next week we will begin taking up several House bills – including HB159 and HB160. These bills brought together – as they say in politics – some interesting bed-fellows. I’ll share more in next week’s blog. Have a great weekend.
Semper Fi - Bill
Just for kicks - I’m doing today’s blog in reverse…
It is 7:30 PM and I’ve just returned from a nice dinner with Sydney at Sinclair’s – if you ever visit Montgomery, the Banana’s Sinclair is highly recommended for desert!
Prior to that we did a 2 mile jog around the neighborhood; I’m planning (weather permitting) to run the Grissom ROTC 5K in Huntsville on Saturday. This was a nice tune-up/maintenance jog for that.
I left the State House at 5 PM this afternoon, having spent the afternoon listening to the budget hearings and attending a couple of meetings to coordinate moving bills in the House and Senate.
At 11:30 I chaired the Veteran’s and Military Affairs Committee meeting. We had three bills on the agenda and successfully moved all three out of committee. Prior to that meeting I attended the Small Business Committee meeting where we moved three bills as well.
At 10:30 this morning I attended the Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee meeting. We had several bills on the agenda – the most controversial of which, SB142 by Sen Orr, is a constitutional amendment banning occupational taxes statewide. I oppose occupational taxes and, after the hour long public hearing and debate, did not sway from that position. Madison and Limestone Counties both have local legislation that prevents occupational taxes from being levied in these counties. Several other counties have a local ban in place as well. The bill would allow voters to decide on the November ballot if we are to ban occupational taxes statewide. This bill grandfathers any county that currently has an occupational tax in place. Most readers know that the occupational tax has been an issue in Jefferson County. A member of the Jefferson County delegation championed an amendment to exclude Jefferson County from the current bill. I voted against the exclusion but the amendment passed in a 6-4 vote with one abstention.
A quick comment on abstaining from a vote; the day may come where I may find myself in direct personal conflict of interest on a bill – although that is hard for me to imagine as I work very hard to ensure my personal life and business are “fire-walled” from anything to do with the State of Alabama – but, that is the only reason I can think of where I would ever abstain from a vote. I strongly believe the people of District 2 sent me to Montgomery to vote “yes or no” - to abstain on a vote is to vote “maybe”.
Back to the occupational tax bill – the bill advanced out of committee in an 8 – 3 final vote and will now move to the Senate floor for debate.
At 9:00 this morning I pitched a bill in the Business and Labor committee, SB222. This bill is commonly known as the “Reg Flex” bill and requires state departments that are considering new regulations to conduct a small business impact study prior to implementing the policy change. This is a pro-small business bill as larger business may be able to absorb the cost/impact of a new regulation while smaller business may see a direct impact on their margins. This helps ensure the “little guy’s” voice is heard in the process.
I arrived at the State House at 7:30 this morning. I was able to catch up on several emails and started my first committee meeting 8:30 with an Education Policy meeting. We worked on two bills. One, a bill mandating the age of enrollment for children to attend school was carried over. This bill will be contentious – I supported it in 2011 as it was co-supported by the AEA (Alabama Educators Association) and AASB (Alabama Association of School Boards) – unfortunately I’ve rarely seen these two organizations on the same side of an issue and because they were both supportive, I supported it. However, I’ve now heard from numerous constituents concerning this bill and realize it is better left as a parent’s choice. Put another way, nothing prevents a parent from enrolling a child at age 6 but the mandatory age is 7. I fail to see the need to regulate beyond what is currently law.
I would like to commend the committee chair, Sen Brewbaker, for carrying this bill over at the call of the chair. This bill is widely supported by the democrat caucus and several democrat members of the committee were not present today as they were attending a funeral for a colleague’s mother. My prayers are with Sen Bedford, his family and community as they mourn the loss of his mother.
Semper Fi - Bill
I left Madison about 9 AM this morning and, after an uneventful drive to Montgomery, arrived at the State House a little after noon. This weekend I was able to attend a couple of events in the district. On Saturday night my wife and I attended the Limestone County Volunteer Firefighter’s Annual Banquet at the Beasley Center in Athens. Later that night we attended the Madison Hospital Mardi Gras…or as they billed it – Medi Gras fundraiser at the Jackson Center. We had a great time at both events and enjoyed visiting with everyone.
My first meeting of the day was with Rep Galliher. He has done significant work on a bill to tighten the rules on Sudafed but - most importantly - does not make it a prescription drug. I was working a similar bill and was referred to him by law enforcement after a meeting in Madison County. Over the course of the past two weeks, with the assistance of several parties, we’ve been able to craft a good, common sense bill. We met with a reporter from the Associated Press in advance of filing the bills. Rep Galliher sponsored HB363 in the House and I'm sponsoring SB344 in the Senate. Both bills were filed today. These are alternatives to bills already filed - SB23 and HB88 which attempt to make Sudafed and other cold medications a prescription drug. The new bills will save us all time and money but help assist law enforcement in their work to curb the manufacturing of meth. The Gadsden Times already has an article on line concerning this bill – great work!
My next meeting was a 1 PM with my colleague Sen Taylor. We are working on a bill to remove language from the Code of Alabama regarding Veteran’s benefits and war time service. I worked a similar bill last year and was successful in moving it out of the Senate and into a House Committee meeting before we ran out of days. I followed that meeting with a quick lunch at Subway. I sprang for the foot-long turkey on flatbread; now I have lunch and dinner – oh the glamorous life of a State Senator! I then had a meeting with AEA reps concerning H159 and HB160 – more on those bills later this week.
At 3:30 PM I attended a rare Tuesday committee meeting where I ushered through a bill that will make a change to a section of the ethics and campaign reform package passed last year. This change takes into consideration an instance where a candidate may live in a city that crosses two counties. Under current law a candidate must file campaign reports in both county seats – very time consuming. A provision does not exist for a candidate to file in one county, and the report to be emailed to the other county for public access. This bill corrects that. I call this bill “Potter’s Bill”…an inside joke, but a serious nod to a great friend back in District 2 who brought this to our attention!
I followed this meeting with a caucus meeting to discuss this week’s agenda. The Senate went into session at 5PM. We passed a couple of bills today. One of the most significant was SB212 by Sen Orr. This bill allows the retirement system to deny benefits of someone found guilty of committing a felony. Assuming this passes the house and is signed into law, a public employee who is found guilty of committing a felony will forfeit the taxpayer funded portion of their retirement benefits. The Senate adjourned a little after 7 PM.
Tomorrow is Wednesday and that means committee day – I’ll do the normal drill, moving from committee meeting to committee meeting. I have four committee meetings starting at 8:30 AM with a total of 10 bills, one of which I’m pitching; SB222. This bill addresses regulations on businesses and requires a regulatory flexibility analysis by state agencies of potential economic impact on rules before they are imposed.
Also, in case you missed it, I posted a rare Monday blog update on budgets that some readers might find interesting.
Well, the legislature has been in session for two weeks now and while we’ve worked bills on a pro-jobs agenda we’ve also worked bills on cockfighting, saggy pants, and texting while driving – I guess it is easy to get distracted with the $400M budget shortfall we face but, bad news never gets better over time.
I spent some time over the weekend to focus on the budgets and in a rare Monday blog update, provide the following. We have a spending problem and an earmarking problem…and I’m sure other problems I’ve not discovered.
The Spending Problem - I sit on two committees, the Senate General Fund Committee, which allocates funding to a department, and the Contract Review Committee, which obligates, or spends, the funding allocated in the budget. Put another way, I get to see the state funding flow in and out. I say we have a spending problem because of the type of spending we continue to see. For example we recently reviewed a one year contract by the Department of Education in the amount of $214,000 to evaluate and assess principals across the state. Now, please don’t get me wrong, I agree in conducting assessments to ensure the best principals are in our schools; I just question that in the tough economic times we face – do we need to spend the money on this now?
I recognize there are times when federal funding is available based on state dollars spent, i.e., spend $200,000 state dollars on something and the federal government will match it 2:1; but that is an entirely different issue I struggle with and in my view encourages wasteful spending…we’ll save that discussion for another day. This was not the case in the contract referenced above.
The Contract Review Committee continues to encourage our state departments, boards and commissions to spend money budgeted to them wisely. We continually reiterate that what may have been an acceptable expense in past years should be delayed a year or so now. Of course compounding the problem is an antiquated mind-set that if a department does not spend what they are budgeted this year, then the budget will be reduced by that amount next year? We must work to counter this culture; perhaps reward delayed spending decisions by department heads. Of note, I’m really not picking on the Department of Education; this is simply a recent example for discussion.
Earmarking - Another significant problem we have with our budgets is earmarking – 84% of our revenue is earmarked before the legislature even touches a budget. Put another way, 84 cents of every dollar collected in taxes is told where to go before the budgets are debated. How does that compare with other states? The national average is about 30% and the next highest state is Michigan at 60%. As most readers know, Alabama has two budgets, the General Fund and the Education Trust Fund. I’ll focus on earmarking examples in the General Fund.
Below is a page from the 2013 budget introduced by Governor Bentley; note the “earmarked column”. You can click on the image to view full size. Please note, this is a random page from the budget (view the entire budget at this link) with randomly selected boards that I’ve highlighted – I’ve no intention of “targeting” any board or commission I’m simply using this as an example to make my point. Note how some earmarked amounts increase, others remain level funded and a few show a reduction? After reviewing the budget and recalling our earmarking predicament, I’ve requested additional information from the Chair of the General Fund on the what, when and how these earmarks came into being and which ones are legislative or constitutional. This will help me (and readers) understand where we may be able to undo some of the earmarking. For me, this is the answer to part of our state’s budget problems.
I arrived at the State House just before 7 AM Thursday morning. It was quite in the building and I was able to read my daily devotion before the start of a very long, somewhat hectic day…the Lord gave me strength!
I had two meetings at 8 AM, one with the Tennessee Valley Caucus, on the first floor, and one with Commerce Transportation and Utilities (CTU) on the 6th floor. I popped into the TVA meeting at 8 AM to let them know I’d be right back, and headed to the 6th floor for CTU. We had three bills on the agenda and all three were eventually passed.
I enthusiastically supported SB315 (Sen Dial) which repeals the prohibition on rebates or discounts provided by re-sellers of motor fuel. To be honest, this was not on my radar until last summer when a couple of constituents brought it to my attention and I’m glad to see that it has support. I returned to the 1st floor TVA meeting, catching the end of our discussion to establish a schedule of meetings for 2012…and to get a bite for breakfast.
I had two meetings at 9 AM; somewhat easier this time as they were on the 6th and 7th floors. The Banking and Insurance (B&I) Committee meeting had a total of 8 bills on the agenda and one of my bills was on the agenda in the Fiscal Responsibility and Accountability (FRA) Committee; SB263 which closes loopholes with respect to emergency contracts let by the state. I was third on the agenda so I was able to attend the beginning of the B&I Committee meeting on the 7th floor, depart in time to successfully move my bill in FRA on the 6th floor, and get back to the 7th floor.
We moved a total of 6 bills out of B&I, two were carried over. Several of these bills had to do with homeowners insurance, in particular, creating a catastrophe savings account, operating similar to a health savings account. Taxpayers will be able to claim a deduction against their state income tax for deposits made into a catastrophe savings account. The intent is to cover insurance deductibles and other uninsured portions of risk of loss for residential property from a catastrophic event such as a windstorm. This is a good bill and I thank the bill sponsor, Sen Brooks for bringing it forward.
The Senate went back into session at 10 AM. We were able to move several bills through the body and I'm impressed that, for the most part, we are all playing nice with each other in the sand box. SB73, a bill I co-sponsored with Sen Ward regarding publication of legal notices passed. This bill addresses Public Notices printed in newspapers across the state and allows for these notices to be published online and – very important – pegs the rates charged to local municipalities to the lowest rate charged to businesses. This bill is a collaborative effort between me, Sen Ward and the Alabama Press Association. This has the potential to save local municipalities several thousand dollars annually.
Another bill that came up, SB8 (Sen Dial) was passed out of the Senate; a rare time when I was on the other side of vote. I opposed this bill as it removed the prohibition of small cities and police departments along interstates from enforcing speed limits in Alabama. This is a touchy subject to some; I’ll just say that I’m against speed traps.
The Senate adjourned a little after 2 PM and I wrapped up loose ends, packed up my car and headed north. The drive home was extended by about 45 minutes due to the north bound lane closure and detour for road repair at the sink-hole. Hopefully this will be fixed in a couple of weeks.
I arrived back in North Alabama about 6 PM and decided to stop in and visit with the newly formed Limestone Republican Women at their monthly meetings. It was a great finish to a busy week visiting with everyone and sharing stories of what is happening in Montgomery!
Final note – I’m tracking several bills moving through committees in the Senate…and in the House (more on those next week). I look forward to supporting SB143, a bill reinstating the $5,000 salary supplement to teachers that complete the process to become certified by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. This bill was voted out of the Finance and Taxation Education committee on Thursday. This was a commitment made by the state to teachers entering the program and the state needs to follow through with our end of the agreement on those that have completed the program.
I arrived at the State House a little after 8 AM for my first committee meeting today.
The Education Policy Committee met at 8:30 on SB191 (Sen Marsh) dealing with requiring physicals for School Bus Drivers. Personally I’m amazed this was not already a requirement.
Children and Youth Affairs was next, we worked on two bills, passing both out of committee. SB262 (Sen Irons) addressing elder abuse and SB280 (Sen Williams) addressing the state providing a foreign born birth certificate to children adopted by Alabama parents.
The General Fund Committee met at 10:30; we worked through five bills, carrying a couple over for additional work. I’m happy to see us following through on our commitment to work through and amend bills in committee rather than on the floor…it is called a committee meeting for a reason.
I chaired the Veterans and Military Affairs Committee at 11:30; we worked through four bills, passing all four out of committee. It was interesting to note that while this committee was starting we heard a large crowd outside the State House, demonstrating support for Nursing in Alabama. I made mention in my opening comments that this contrasted well with the demonstration yesterday by opponents of HB56, Alabama’s Immigration law, and that because of the brave men and women serving our nation in uniform today, groups like these are able to demonstrate peacefully…something we all need to remember.
I was able to meet with several other groups after the committee meetings. I met with a group from the Professional Fire Fighters of Alabama, a group from the State Department of Corrections, and the State Employees Association.
At 2 PM I held the first ad-hoc meeting on ATPRO (discussed in yesterday’s blog). The meeting was attended by two Senators and three Representatives – demonstrating some genuine interest in the bill. I later had a couple of members let me know that they were tied up in committee meetings but that they were interested in helping craft a workable bill. A couple of interesting ideas were discussed but some clear opposition to ATPRO was identified. We have a lot of work to do - but we are communicating.
I attended the budget hearings from 2:30 to 5:00 PM. Medicaid and Corrections briefed us. These two departments alone consume 55% of our General Fund budget. Think about that, for every $1 of revenue, fifty-five cents is spent on these two state functions. The Medicaid Director has done a great job maximizing the return on federal dollars. I am also amazed at what the Dept of Corrections does with the little funding they receive. Alabama spends over $40 a day, per prisoner - that’s housing, food, medical, and corrections staff. Some think sentencing reform is the answer; arguing we’ve made our laws so strict that we send too many “non-violent” offenders to jail. While I’ll agree we need to work this issue, prison overcrowding and our recidivism rates are very discouraging. However, I will not support measures to weaken our criminal code. Do the crime – pay the time.
Tomorrow will be a very busy morning. I have the Tennessee Valley Authority Caucus meeting at 8:00 AM. I serve as the Vice-Chair for this committee and we plan to review our 2012 agenda. I also have a Commerce, Transportation and Utilities Committee meeting at 8:00 (note to self, figure out how to be in two places at once!) We have three bills on that agenda. I then have the Banking and Insurance Committee meeting at 9:00, we have eight bills on that agenda. I’m also pitching a bill on the agenda for the Fiscal Responsibility and Accountability Committee at 9:00 (see note above on being in two places at once…). This bill addresses some concerns with emergency contracting, closing loopholes that have been abused in the past by utilizing an “emergency contracting” provision.
The Senate goes back into session at 10:00 AM. Assuming we adjourn before 2 PM, and I’m able to tie up any loose ends in Montgomery, I plan to stop by the Limestone Republican Women meeting in Athens on my way home.
In closing out this week’s blog I’d like to share a short video made this afternoon by a firm working with the Republican Caucus in the Senate. Obviously I didn't use a teleprompter...being my own worst critic…boy, I look and sound tired in this video – and I need to sit up straight!
You can read more about what the AL GOP Senate is doing and watch other videos at AlSenateGOP.org
I dropped my daughter off at school this morning a little after 7 AM and headed to Montgomery; like most families, we get “quality family time” when and where we can. We celebrated Valentine’s Day at home Monday night, Pam served up homemade chili and cornbread; I gave the girls flowers and fixed a leaking toilet…the secrets to 26 years of marriage…Hallmark and chocolates were not involved!
I arrived in Montgomery a little after 10 AM. It occurred to me on the drive down that today is not only Valentine’s Day; it is also the 30 year anniversary of when I started my journey to earn the title – U.S. Marine. I like to put it this way; while my parents laid a great foundation raising me, I lived in Arkansas for 18 years, and grew up in Marine Corps Boot Camp!
Upon arrival in Montgomery I immediately began meeting with a host of people concerning bills I’m working. While these bills are still in the works, I’ll briefly address a couple.
Sudafed Bill – This bill addresses the purchase of Pseudoephedrine (commonly called Sudafed) due to Alabama’s growing Meth problem. This common cold medication is a key ingredient in Meth. I do not support SB23, a bill already introduced by Sen Bedford which makes Sudafed, and similar over the counter drugs a prescription drug. I’m working a bill, along with others, that will require more control of Sudafed but not make it a prescription drug. I do not support making this a prescription drug as it will require citizens to go to their doctor, pay a co-pay, get a prescription and then go to the pharmacy, pay another co-pay in order to get a drug that is currently available over the counter. I’m confident we can fix the problem and will work towards a solution with minimal impact to law abiding citizens.
School Flexibility – This bill allows individual school systems to apply to the State Board of Education for a degree of flexibility for local school system control of budgets, personnel assignments, etc, in return for meeting increased school performance requirements. This idea was brought to me by local superintendants in the form of (and I’m paraphrasing) “Give me the degree of flexibility some want to give Charter Schools and I’ll produce the same results in the schools we have today”. Makes sense to me! I’ve always said we need to push decision making down to the lowest level possible – the local school boards. This is where the local voice has the greatest impact. If Bill Holtzclaw (the parent, not the Senator) wants to influence the local school board, I should attend the school board meeting and make my voice heard. However, if the school board’s hands are tied in Montgomery, my voice is lost. Hopefully we will be successful in finalizing this important legislation later this week.
Holder of Public Accounts - I filed SB299 today, a bill allowing credit unions to maintain public accounts. Currently, only banks can hold public accounts. Public accounts are those of municipalities and counties. My goal is to simply increase competition and credit unions are currently excluded.
Budgets - I also met with several departments concerning budgets. I continue to review the proposed budgets and have concerns in several areas. I will expand on those concerns in later blog entries. As promised last week, following is a link to the proposed budgets for readers to review.
ATPRO - I’ve scheduled an ad-hoc meeting tomorrow for ATPRO, filed as SB51 this year. I’ll attempt to clear up a couple of points on this bill. First, this bill is not intended as a supplemental retirement program. The intent is to incentivize a teacher with certain skill sets, who is nearing retirement, to remain teaching in the classroom so that the school system can hire/transfer and train a replacement. This keeps a strong Math, Science, English, etc program in place in a school system - the original intent of the DROP program. ATPRO incorporates several good elements of the original DROP plan: 25 years employment and 55 years of age to participate, limited to a maximum of 3 – 5 years of participation thereafter. ATPRO also begins to address the issues that caused the DROP program to meet its demise. ATPRO requires participants to apply to participate in the program at the local system level, participants must retire after completing the program, preventing employees from returning to state employment after retirement, sets interest rates to market conditions and, sets a salary cap for participants of no more than $75K. Structuring ATPRO so that it is revenue neutral will prove key to moving it forward in the legislative process.
I’ve had a couple of emails asking about participation for other state employees in ATPRO, or a similar plan. I will support if we can identify a approval process such as with the teacher example cited above.
Of note, I held two ad-hoc meetings on ATPRO last year…no one attended. Hopefully we’ll see more support this year.
From the Senate Floor - The Senate went into session at 2 PM and adjourned just before 6 PM. The spirit of cooperation continued today and we were able to pass a total of 10 bills. One bill I’ll highlight is SB30, a bill I co-sponsored with Senator Orr (R) Decatur. SB30 helps ensure Alabama companies are readily aware of and increases competition for state contracts by requiring the State Purchasing Division to maintain a statewide database of bid requests or proposals for a public contract with the state. The database will be public record and accessible on open.alabama.gov. This bill helps protect and promote Alabama jobs, ensuring homegrown Alabama companies are competing for state contracts.
Committee Meetings - Tomorrow is Wednesday and that means committee meetings are on the calendar. I have a total of 5 committee meetings with 15 bills to review…things are ramping up quickly and I’ve got some reading to do tonight.
In the words of my good friend Danny, “We won this week”. Alabama won. Not the “Roll Tide” Alabama – all people of Alabama.
We won by working together in the legislature and successfully moving good legislation. I hope we continue to win in the days ahead.
Thursday closed out the opening week of the 2012 legislative session in Montgomery. Early in the week we confirmed the rumors; our budgets are in terrible shape, worse since the depression. I’m still digesting the information that was presented and know we have a lot of work to do.
I started the morning chairing the Legislative Contract Review Committee. The work of this committee and our continued push to ensure Alabama companies are being considered for contracts awarded by the state is paying off. In the first 6 months of 2011 $45M was awarded to out of state companies. This was reduced to $32M in the second 6 months. Important to note that $25M of the $45M was federal dollars - making Alabama a "pass through entity". This was reduced to $14M in the second 6 months, a postive trend. We will continue to encourage department heads, boards, and commissions with contract award authorty to ensure everything is being done to enable Alabama businesses to be considered for contract award.
We started moving some legislation in the Senate. Several bills were moved in and out of committees earlier in the week and on Thursday nine bills were voted out of the Senate and moved to the House. The House moved several bills as well; we’ll take those up in the Senate next week.
I successfully moved SB60 out of the Senate yesterday. SB60 supports the Department of Public Safety and Department of Human Resources in updating the processes by which criminal background checks and finger printing is done. In short, have you ever wondered, after reading about an investigation where someone harms a child or steals money as a state employee, and then we discover they have a criminal history – how did the state miss that in the background check when hiring them? This bill helps prevent that by enhancing the process of background checks, utilizing FBI databases for fingerprints, and imposes greater penalties for omitting or lying on background check forms. A person will also receive, via certified mail, detailed information on why they were denied employment based on the background check. This helps someone identify and correct erroneous information. This is a good bill and I look forward to it passing in the House and becoming law.
I was able to complete some work on legislative redistricting Thursday morning. Regular readers of the blog know that according to the 2010 Census, SD2 grew to be the largest Senate District in the state with just under 180,000 people. The target size is 136,000 people. Similar growth was experienced in most House and Senate districts across North Alabama. We have a lot of work ahead of us on this as well.
The Senate adjourned a little after 2:00 and I headed home after tying up some loose ends, arriving back in Madison at 7:00. Unfortunately I was unable to meet one-on-one with Dr. Mabry as planned due to scheduling conflicts. I look forward to rescheduling and meeting with him.
I’ll return to Montgomery next Tuesday and pray the newfound spirit of cooperation will continue…forever the optimist!