A busy day in the Senate...I've made it home and attempted to start answering emails. SB 310 was dropped into the system today and has caused quite the stir on both sides. Please read the overview sheet here. The Bill (SB310) can be read here.
I ask that rather than sending me a "cut and paste" email with the corporate responses (asking me to vote no on SB310), please read both the overview sheet and the Bill and then send me an email with your thoughts (hope I don't regret that!) I'll state up front - we need and I support Tenure reform to some degree.
Also, from what I've read, SB 310 does not deal with the Education Budget, classroom sizes or closing corporate loop holes. For some reason I'm getting emails that imply SB 310 does. As I understand the options now, I don't support changing the divisor to increase classroom sizes. I'm working with others to determine where and how to ensure corporations doing business in Alabama are paying their fair share of taxes. I'm awaiting a response from the Commissioner of Revenue on the letter I sent her earlier this week.
I'll update the blog with more information on the day's events tomorrow. Goodnight!
I started today with four committee meetings, all before noon; Banking and Insurance at 0830, Children and Youth at 0930, General Fund at 1030, and Veteran’s Affairs at 1130. You can view the committee meetings and the bills discussed at the Alabama Legislative Information System Online (ALISON) and click on Committee Meetings (fourth item on the left menu), select “Senate” and then “Get Schedule”. The bills are linked and can be viewed by clicking on a bill and then click on “View” (top of screen, second from right).SB236 in Committee - The Chairman held a public hearing in the General Fund Committee with SB236, authorizing the Governor and State Department heads to furlough state employees during times of economic distress. We had a large turnout of state employees at the meeting. Unfortunately, time constraints allowed for the committee to hear from a limited number but the message was clear - state employees do not favor a furlough program. Another controversial bill, SB257 was not on the agenda. This bill attempts to repeal longevity pay, subsistence allowance and daily expense allowances for state employees. These bills originated in the Governor’s office and represent a piece of the puzzle to balance the state’s budget. For instance, if enacted, SB257 results in an annual savings of $32 million to the state’s general fund and, according to the Governor’s office that could keep 700 state employees working. In my view, both of these bills are at risk in their current form. My only hope is that we can find some alternative to minimize state layoffs.Reapportionment - I concluded the afternoon with a reapportionment meeting. This meeting included all members, both Senate and House. We discussed plans to move forward with town hall meetings with regard to redistricting the 7 Alabama congressional districts based on the 2010 Census. Our goal is to complete the congressional districts during this session and take up the legislative districts during the 2012 session. Closing Tax Loopholes – Governor Bentley’s office has begun to move forward with the administrative process to close the tax loopholes resulting in approximately $30 million in savings in this year. Read the press release from the Governor’s office.AT-PRO - I’ll attempt to clear up a couple of points on AT-PRO (SB303) which was introduced yesterday. First, in following what I understood to be the original intent of DROP, this bill is not intended as a supplemental retirement program. The intent is to incentivize a teacher 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. Key to the plan is a teacher has to be approved by the local board to participate in the plan and that upon completing, must retire. Additionally, as mentioned in yesterday’s blog, structuring AT-PRO so that it is revenue neutral will be key to moving forward in the legislative process. I received numerous emails referencing a revenue neutral solution during the DROP debate and look forward to seeing actual plans to help get us there. I’ve had a couple of emails asking about participation for other state employees. I may support if we can find a revenue neutral position and justify reasoning such as with the teacher example cited above. I reiterate, unless the original intent of DROP was misrepresented to me…AT-PRO should not be viewed as a supplemental retirement program.
The day starts tomorrow with a Tennessee Valley Caucus meeting at 0830. The Senate goes back into session at 1000 tomorrow morning.
I backed out of my driveway a little after 6 AM this morning and arrived in Montgomery at little after 9. My little car continues to amaze me. It will be 11 years old next month, has almost 115K miles on it and still gets almost 25 MPG…oh, and it’s paid for! This is the little car that I used as a snow plow to get to Montgomery during our snowy winter. I was a little worried as the “Check Engine Light” came on back in December. Today I noticed the light was out…self correcting? Perhaps, that or the light bulb has burned out. Here’s to hoping she holds together for many more miles, or at least until after the session.
I had several brief meetings on legislation I’m working prior to the weekly Republican Caucus meeting at noon. I attended a Government Affairs meeting at 1 PM to present SB199, a Bill that will take into account the latest Census data when classifying a city of 12,000 or more inhabitants for purposes of replacing a Mayor who cannot complete their term due to an unforeseen circumstances such as election to another office, illness, etc.
AT-PRO (Alabama Teachers Planned Retirement Option)
The Senate went into session at 2 PM at which time I introduced at AT-PRO. Just last week, the Governor signed into law the legislation to close DROP, the Deferred Retirement Option Program. As readers of this blog know, I had little compassion for those in the program who are making six figure salaries. But I have great compassion for those classroom teachers who no longer have a program such as this to participate in. In its original intent, the DROP program was a good program but the program was not sustainable in its current form (more information on DROP and why I voted to close the program is at Day 7 below).
A floor amendment was added to the DROP legislation from the House. This amendment created "Keeping Alabama's Best" Joint Interim Legislative Committee on Teacher and Public Employee Retention. I envision a potential recommendation from this committee to create an improved deferred retirement program. And so, today, I offered legislation for a new, much improved program – a program that will build upon the original intent of the DROP program. I call this program AT-PRO or Alabama Teacher Planned Retirement Option.
In its infant stages, the program 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. However, the program also begins to address the issues that caused the DROP program to meet its demise. AT-PRO requires participants to apply for 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.
My intent in offering this program via legislation today is to keep legislators focused on the commitment made in the house amendment to find ways to keep Alabama’s Best. This is a framework from which to build on. In fact, during the DROP debate, I heard of, but never saw, a proposal to make DROP revenue neutral. I encourage anyone (Republican, Democrat…Teachers or AEA members) to bring this forth to be added to the Bill.
Of note, my Democrat counterparts are already calling AT-PRO a “sham” (read the article here), which is a shame because teachers across our state deserve better. You can read the AT-PRO Bill, SB303 here.
Forever Wild – I wrote an Opinion/Editorial on the Forever Wild Program (SB140). The article was submitted to several local papers; who knows if they’ll print it but for readers of the blog – here it is.Legislative CPI Pay Increase – Of all things…the controversial legislative pay increase included an automatic raise tied to the Consumer Price Index. This year that came to almost $800 a year. I declined the increase in a letter to the Secretary of the Senate.
Busy day of Committee Meetings tomorrow - five meetings in all. I'm spending tonight reading the bills and watching 'Bama play at the NIT...Roll Tide.
This is a rare Monday blog posting as I prepare to head back to Montgomery for the week. I'll resume daily, in session posts tomorrow.
SB257 and SB236 were introduced last week; both play a role in Governor Bentley’s package to balance the 2012 budgets. Projected revenues for 2011 continue to decline, as evidenced by the Governor’s current dilemma with an anticipated 15% proration in the 2011 budgets (please remember, the 2011 budgets were passed in the 2010 legislative session – the 2012 budget will be the first passed by the current legislators and administration).
Following are my thoughts on SB257 and SB236:
As I understand these bills, they represent a piece of the puzzle in the Governor’s plan to balance the state’s budget. SB257 attempts to repeal longevity pay, subsistence allowance and daily expense allowances for state employees. If enacted, SB257 results in an annual savings of $32 million to the state’s general fund. According to the Governor’s office, that savings would help keep over 700 state employees working. SB236 authorizes the Governor the option to furlough state employees during times of economic distress in the future. I encourage readers to view SB257 and SB236 both linked in PDF format.There are two sides to the budget equation; revenue and expenditures. There are very few options left on the revenue side. At most, I’ve heard from 1 in 1,000 who desire that we raise taxes; that is not an option. As discussed below, we are working to close the corporate tax loopholes which will help the budgets some but, by law this revenue is earmarked for the Education Budget.
On the expense side, we can only cut services or benefits to state employees. Cutting services equals cutting positions - layoffs - and that impacts state employees who are laid off and the general public as we will also see the reduction in state services. Cutting benefits is what SB257 is attempting to accomplish state wide. It saves jobs - it keeps people working. From the emails I’m receiving it appears the state employees would rather not see the cuts in benefits, which is understandable. I'm concerned that even if we cut benefits this year, saving jobs, we will still need to find cuts in the 2013 budget...what then? We are as concerned about the 2013 budgets as the 2012 budgets. Certainly no easy choices for any of us.
Corporate Tax Loopholes
Governor Bentley has announced plans to begin working to close the corporate tax loopholes as a way to ensure Alabama receives its share of taxes owed by corporations operating in Alabama. You can read the press coverage here. I've submitted a letter to the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Revenue requesting her support in identifying areas of the Alabama Code that can be legislatively addressed to close these loopholes.
Interesting to note, this has become the battle cry of the Alabama Educators Association (AEA) as I’ve received numerous emails from membership on the topic. My question - as these loopholes have been around for a long, long time - why didn’t the legislative body, controlled by democrats for decades, attempt to move legislation forward on this in years past? AEA has included a brochure on their website that some might find interesting. Surely they have vast amounts of data to help the new legislature close these loopholes. I look forward to working with my friends across the aisle to tighten things up, ensuring what is owed to our state by corporations is paid.
Impact of Recession on Public and Private Sector Jobs
The State Director of Finance gave a presentation to legislators in February during initial budget hearings. The entire slide show can be viewed at the Dept of Finance Website. One of the most telling slides with respect to the recession is shown below - job losses in the private sector versus the public sector since 2008.
I called in to the Toni and Gary show at 6:30 this morning. We chatted for about 20 minutes on a range of topics including the earthquake in Limestone County yesterday to the state budgets. We got off track a little as I shared my 7.4 and 6.9 earthquake experiences in 1992 while stationed in the California High Desert area; an experience not easily forgotten. We also discussed the ongoing saga of the recent federal judge’s opinion on the dues check off bill that was passed during the special session in December.
I had a Commerce and Transportation committee meeting this morning at 8:30 (certainly a full week for committee meetings…) and meet with a few people after the meeting.
The Senate went back into session at 10:00. I had worked with Senator Ward on a bill that would exclude service members from paying state income tax on earnings while serving in a combat zone. This concept parallels what is done at the federal level and further supports the men and women of Alabama and their families as they serve our country, directly in harm’s way. Senator Ward was not available when the bill was called and I was honored to have been asked to present the bill on the floor, answer questions from the members, and see this bill through to final passage in the Senate. This was my first bill to introduce on the floor - what a great, first bill to usher through.
Several members from North Alabama were present for the Alabama Federation of Republican Women’s meeting in Montgomery today. I was able to briefly meet with a few of them and enjoyed showing them the office and having a picture taken.
I had a second bill called later in the afternoon. This was SB98, dealing with emergency contracting. The intent of this bill is to tighten the process by which emergency contracts are used in the state. The bill passed the Senate with a minor technical amendment regarding a typographical error relating to a specific section in the Alabama Code (41-6-72 vs. 41-16-72….devils always in the details!).
The Senate adjourned for the week a little before 3 PM. I'll work here for another hour or so, allowing Birmingham traffic to settle down and then head back to North Alabama for the remainder of the week.
I started the day with breakfast at the Governor’s mansion with 7 of my colleagues. We enjoyed a very nice breakfast and some open conversation. Funny story – my allergies are really acting up due to all of the pollen in the air. It has affected my eyes so bad I have not been able to wear my contacts. I’m hypersensitive to light so the early morning sun was killing me as I drove to the breakfast. I literally had tears running down my face when I entered the mansion – it was readily apparent to everyone that I was not having a good morning with the pollen. Then, we sat down to breakfast at a nice long table…decorated from end to end with fresh cut flowers from the First Lady’s Gardens. I sniffled and cried all the way through breakfast but hung in there like any good Marine would. Of note, the Governor, always the doctor, recommended several over-the- counter medications as I left his home. Great guy – nice touch, sir.I squinted my way, driving back to the State House after breakfast and was able to put in some eye drops and take an antihistamine before heading to the first of my committee meetings at 8:30. In total I attended 8 committee meetings today. Highlights include the Education Committee Meeting where we voted out the bill to consider cutting 5 days from the school year for only the next two school years. This bill will be debated extensively on the Senate floor in the coming days. Next stop was the Banking and Insurance Committee, then the General Fund Committee where we worked on several bills and carried several over that need more work. The next meeting was the Military and Veterans Affairs Committee which I chair. We started the meeting with a moment of silence in reflection for the service members from Alabama and across our nation who are serving our nation; a nation that remains at war. These men and women, voluntarily serve across the globe to include three active combat areas. We need to remember them and their families in our prayers. I was fortunate that my next meeting, which started at the same time as the Military and Veterans Affairs Committee meeting, was held in an adjoining committee room, next door. This was the Small Business Committee where the Brewery Modernization Bill (Brew Pub Bill) I’m sponsoring was being introduced. I was able to wrap up my meeting and slip next door in time to present the Brew Pub Bill. The bill was passed out of committee and will now advance to the Senate floor. We held two organizational meetings for committees that I was appointed to by the Lt. Governor last month; the Reapportionment Committee and the Joint Transportation Committee. Activities in these committees will pick up in the coming weeks to include local, town hall meetings in advance of the reapportionment proposing new lines for the congressional districts. The reapportionment is driven by the 2010 Census data we recently received. I concluded the day with a 3 hour General Fund budget hearing. We listened to 16 department heads provide an overview of how the proposed budget cuts will impact their operations. Each of these departments has seen drastic budget cuts; not many good stories to share. I left that meeting having confirmed we have some difficult decisions to make in order to balance the budgets in the weeks ahead.Tomorrow morning around 6:20 I’ll be calling in to the Toni and Gary Show – WBHP, 106.5 FM and 800/1230 AM. I always enjoy talking with Toni and Gary. We go back into session at 10:00 to debate, and hopefully pass, several bills. I’ll get caught up on the mound of paperwork and reading that grows daily on my desk before heading back home tomorrow afternoon…hopefully I’ve seen the worse of the pollen and I’ll be able to make the 3 hour drive home with clear eyes!
I stayed busy during Spring Break. I attended the Tennessee Valley Republican Club’s monthly meeting on Saturday morning and later that afternoon I participated in a car show at Creekside Elementary School benefiting the East Limestone County Quarterback Club. Great show! On Monday I got caught up on emails and other legislative items. I attended the Ardmore City Council Meeting that evening where the FBI recognized several local police officers and Limestone County Deputy Sheriffs for their participation last December in apprehending a bank robber. On Tuesday I was honored to be the guest speaker at the closing ceremony of the Marine Corps Detachment on Redstone Arsenal. This detachment was my first assignment after boot camp in 1983 and it is essentially what brought me to Alabama. The closing ceremony was bittersweet, but a grand day as the Ammunition School lives on! From Thursday through Saturday I participated with my daughter and the youth group from our church on a mission trip to Birmingham for Urban Missions 2011. I reconfirmed what a blessed group this is as we worked and worshipped together with young and old alike.
This Monday I attended the ground breaking for the Shoppes of Madison, anchored by a Target store in Madison on Monday. If all goes well this store will open in approximately one year and employ over 400 people; great news! Later I attended the Athens – Limestone County Hospital community update in Athens. It was very nice seeing everyone and listening to the plans for the hospital’s remodeling and growth. On Monday evening I attended the Madison County Republican Party Executive Committee meeting on Monday evening. Congressman Mo Brooks attended and provided a brief update of their activities in Washington.
Back To Montgomery
I arrived in Montgomery for this week’s work a little after 9 am today. At 10 am I attended the Legislative Ethics Training required by the laws we passed during the special session back in December. I’m left wondering why there has never been legislative ethics training in the past!
I was able to briefly meet with members of Madison Academy as they toured the Capitol and State House this afternoon. I was able to even join them for a picture with Governor Bentley.
From the Senate Floor - Today’s Session
DROP Bill – We spent a considerable amount of time debating this item and eventually voted 34 – 0 to non-concur with the House version sending this Bill to Conference Committee for reconciliation. I was disappointed in the Democrat leadership as they continued to debate saving the bill rather than admitting that the DROP Program had been thoroughly and complete abused from its original intent (see comments from previous blog entries below). Report – the bill reported out (in a 4 – 2 vote, along party lines) to leave the DROP program as transferred from the house. I commend the Senate Pro-Temp for allowing the press to attend the conference committee meeting, allowing for unprecedented transparency on the proceedings of a conference committee. The committee conferred with the Governor’s office as well as the Legislative Fiscal Office and the Retirement System of Alabama and found no way to further fund the program in its current state. The closing date of the bill was unchanged from the earlier version and establishes a committee to study the plan to develop a delayed retirement program that may be introduced in the future. I will support such a plan so long as participation is limited to those earning a specific amount (i.e. less than $75K a year) and that once a person has decided to exercise their right to participate in a deferred retirement program, they must retire after completing the program. Projected savings from closing the program is in excess of $45M this year alone. I concur that the program has been thoroughly and completely abused – as evidenced by the fact that none of the top 50 account holders are classroom teachers but instead are state employees already making in excess of $100,000 annually. How can anyone not see that the current program is breaking the state and our children’s future?
We continued debate on the appropriations bill that Senator Orr introduced when we were last in session. The Chess Game mentioned in the blog on Day 6 continued as meaningless posturing, grandstanding by the Democrat Senators continued well past 7 PM. I can’t wait for them to actually do something productive and actually contribute to a solution. For example, a comment made tonight – “We come down here every year and grapple with the issues of our budgets. When are we going to begin addressing some of this?” Seriously…you’ve been in charge for how many years and how many budgets and now you want to know when we are going to start fixing the problem. Pay attention – we are doing it now. We are showing the courage to make decisions that your party was unwilling to make as they controlled the legislature in years past.
Tomorrow morning I have breakfast with the Governor at the Governor’s mansion. He plans is to meet with Senate and House members in small groups throughout the session. I then have a packed committee meeting schedule with several overlapping times...how to be in more than one place at the same time? I start with a Banking and Insurance Committee meeting at 8:30, then over to the Education Committee meeting, which also starts at 8:30. At 11:30 I will chair the Military and Veterans Affairs Committee meeting but hope to finish up in time to present a bill on the Brewery Modernization Act to the Small Business Committee which also starts at…you guessed it, 11:30. Things slow down a bit in the afternoon as I have a Joint Transportation Committee meeting at 2:00 and then a General Fund Committee meeting at 2:30. That’s what you call a busy committee day.
The Senate adjourned for the day at 8:42 After a quick bite to eat for dinner I’ll spend the remainder of this evening reading up on the bills that will be presented in each of tomorrow’s committee meetings.
The Blog update for Day 6 is a little late…the Senate adjourned at 5:30 last night and, after wrapping up loose ends in the office I was able to leave Montgomery around 6:30, arriving home three hours later. I’ve spent the day getting caught up on emails and other paperwork. Also, like most of you, I’m somewhat mesmerized by the earthquake and events in Japan. The entire region remains in our prayers.Following Legislation on ALISON. I often mention bills in the blog by number, i.e. SB98. ALISON is the Alabama Legislative System Online and is a great tool for anyone to follow legislation. The system is pretty easy to navigate and I encourage readers to take the time to read bills of interest that are being debated. As time allows I'll put togther a few tips on how to navigate ALISON in a later blog post. Highlights from Day 6 include:
I attended my first committee meeting of the day where my Emergency Contracting Revision Bill (SB98) was introduced. The committee agreed to the bill and it passed favorably. Surviving a committee is the first of many hurdles for any piece of legislation.I then hurried to my next committee meeting, where I serve as a committee member. This committee discussed several bills, one dealing with coal ash that was held over for another public hearing and so we can further research the ramifications. I thought this was a great call - I don’t want to rush any legislation.The Senate went into session at 10 AM and began to debate Rep Greg Canfields “Rolling Reserve” Education Budget Reform Bill.I slipped out to cross the street and attend a ceremony at the Capitol where Governor Bentley awarded Huntsville's Baron Services with the 2011 Governor's Trade Excellence Award. I had planned to attend the lunch following the ceremony but the Democrats were in a filibuster, introducing several floor amendments to Canfields bill so I had to cut things short and return to the Senate Chambers. Congratulations to Baron Services - sorry I missed the lunch!
After a couple of hours of listening to the filibuster attempting to keep us from changing the way education budgeting is done – in other words, keeping things the way they have always been – we voted for final passage of Rep Greg Canfields “Rolling Reserve” in a 23 – 10 vote. Gov. Bentley signed the bill into law today (you can read the press coverage here). I supported this bill and don’t mind sharing that I was calling and texting area school superintendents from the senate floor seeking their thoughts and concerns. Reach back like this is priceless!The Chess Game on the Senate Floor The next bill we took up was a Budget Appropriations Bill. I mentioned this bill as it was passed out of General Fund committee yesterday. The bill is needed to move funds around within the 2010 budget (the budget passed by the previous legislative body) in order to make up for revenue shortfalls. The budgets are passed in March/April but don’t go into effect until October. Any changes made the following session must be done by legislation. This is being done in advance of anticipated proration by Governor Bentley for the 2011 General Fund. The chess game I mention above is being played out by the Democrats as they’ve introduced an amendment to the appropriations bill to increase funding to the Ethics Commission. Problem is we don’t know where we’ll be able to make further cuts in the 2010 budget to move funds around. Their goal – simply to get the Republicans on record as voting against funding for the Ethics Commission. Our only option at this point was to adjourn, carrying the amendment over until we can work through this. You likely won’t read about this in the media. Imagine how effective our state government would be if people didn’t operate on hidden agendas! DROP Program
Prior to adjourning the Senate received a message from the House that SB72 which closes the DROP program had passed with an amendment. I support this amendment as it establishes a Joint Interim Committee called “Keeping Alabama’s Best”. The intent is to study the current DROP program and look for ways to meet the original intent of the program without allowing it to be abused. An interesting article in the Huntsville Times today concerning who has participated in the DROP program and the top 50 DROP participant account holders. You’ll be surprised to see who these people are and their position in public education. In short, this is why the program has to close. It is no longer sustainable and places the burden on children in the classrooms – including mine. I’m more than frustrated at the position I’ve been placed in by past leadership who allowed the well intended DROP program to be abused to this point but I’m willing to make the tough decisions that others did not have the courage to make. Honor, Courage and Commitment - That is why I was elected.Spring Break
The Senate has adjourned until March 22nd. I will spend the first part of next week at home getting caught up and working on several legislative projects. I plan to attend the Ardmore City Council meeting on Monday evening and the deactivation ceremony for the Marine Corps Detachment at Redstone Arsenal on Tuesday. The detachment is moving to VA later this year – a downfall of the BRAC. It will be a bittersweet day as this is what brought me to Alabama in 1983 when I attended the Basic Ammunition School. I later returned as the Officer in Charge and retired from this command in 2003. Later in the week I will join my youngest daughter with several from our youth group at church on a mission trip in Birmingham. We’ve participated in this mission for several years and I look forward to a few days of scraping and painting homes in the inner city of Birmingham with future leaders in our communities.
I'll resume the blog when we return to session on March 22nd.
In Committee Meetings – I started this morning with a committee meeting for Education Policy. We reviewed several bills – the most notable, was SB51 which seeks to decrease the length of school days from 180 to 175. I supported this bill in committee for the following reasons: The extra five days were added in 2008, with no additional funding, in part due to concerns with the Federal No Child Left Behind Act and failing schools. I recognize that our children need to attend school the additional days, and that a lot of effort was put into getting the additional days into the schedule. However, I also recognize that we are in extraordinary budget times. The proposed bill cuts the days from only the next two school years – not forever – I support that. Additionally, projected cost savings are over $125M annually in the Education Trust Fund.
On the Senate Floor - We passed several bills on the Senate floor today. Senator Orr’s bill - SB137, regarding liability automobile insurance – This bill requires the establishment of a searchable database to ensure Alabama Drivers maintain liability automobile insurance. In short, this bill addresses the practice of those who obtain liability insurance only to cancel it upon renewing their tag. Currently, I can obtain liability insurance from a local agent, show the required insurance verification card to the clerk, obtain my tag, and promptly go out and cancel my insurance. I even have the card to show law enforcement – should I get pulled over – that I have current liability insurance and the police officer has no way to verify other than looking at the expiration date on my card. This bill will require the state to create a database where law enforcement can access the data during routine stops and actually verify the insurance is current. Fines for not having insurance presently exist. This should motivate those who are manipulating the system, and causing thousands of Alabama drivers to carry “uninsured motorist” riders on their policies. Of note, it is estimated that anywhere from 25% to 40% of drivers in Alabama do not maintain liability insurance. I supported this bill as I think everyone should play by the same rules.
I attended lunch with the Joint, House and Senate Republican Caucus and Governor Bentley and several members of his staff. Governor Bentley shared his thoughts on the legislative work to date and thanked us for supporting his budget through the hard decisions we have made in recent days. Rep Greg Canfield received a well deserved round of applause as the bill he has sponsored - the budget rolling reserve - cleared the House and made it out of the Senate Committee. The Senate will debate the bill in the coming days; I support and expect quick passage. This was part of the Republican Handshake with Alabama and continues our work in fixing our broken budget process.
Back to Committee Meetings – After lunch I attended a General Fund Committee meeting where we discussed several bills. We passed SB162 out of committee, a supplemental appropriations bill that essentially moves funds from various agencies to support other state agencies considered critical services (Medicaid, Corrections, DHR, Mental Health, Senior Services) during the 2011 budget. This is in advance of the Governor’s anticipated proration of the 2011 General Fund due to revenue projections not meeting expectations of the budget passed during the 2010 legislative cycle. Of note, this round of proration is why we will remain diligent as we work on the budgets for 2012.
I’ll spend the evening wrapping up emails and preparing for a committee meeting tomorrow where I will present a bill that I am sponsoring concerning emergency contracts for the state. This bill will fix some of the problems associated with what is an emergency (certainly not for the convenience of the state as currently written) and require that emergency contracts are for no longer than 60 days. Any subsequent contract will be required to pass through the Legislative Contract Review Committee.
In other news – we received some detailed census data today, at the legislative district level. We knew Senate District #2 had grown but everyone was surprised by how much. Our estimate was that District 2 included approximately 150K people. The goal, based on state population in 2000, was 125K. To our surprise, Senate District 2 grew to an astonishing 179K people. The new target population, taking into account the new state population, is 136K. The max population allowed with the 5% deviation allowed by DOJ is 143K people.
Our Nation Remains at War – In a stark reminder of the hardships our service members face along with their families. Today I received notice that earlier this week, a friend serving in combat operations in Afghanistan lost his infant son during birth. His wife is doing well here in Alabama but words escape me attempting to describe the situation for both of them. The Alabama State Senate paused during today’s session to honor the loss. All 35 members of the Senate, the Lieutenant Governor, legislative staff, and visitors in the Senate gallery stood for a moment of silence, and to remind ourselves of the continued sacrifices made by our service members and families. Please continue to keep them all in your prayers.
The Senate reconvened today at 2 PM to take up bills that were passed out of committee last week.
I arrived in Montgomery a little after 9:30 this morning. I was able to call into the Dale Jackson show on the way down to discuss a flurry of phone calls I received yesterday concerning the Forever Wild Program. Of note – I safely pulled over at the top of an exit ramp for this phone call…I didn’t want to be one of those distracted drivers I often complain about.
As mentioned, the flurry of calls I received were in opposition to the Forever Wild Program…I think. You see, the calls were all listed from a “Private Number” (note – I make it a practice that any call originating from an unlisted or private number automatically gets sent to voice mail for screening). I seldom receive calls from a private number so I was very surprised when I started receiving them back-to-back…I knew something was up. Sure enough, I was getting random messages from random people asking me to “not vote for buying that property…we need the money in the classroom”. As it turns out this was a lobbying effort by an organization I’ve yet to identify who, after convincing people to participate, automatically connected them to my cell phone allowing them to leave me a brief message. Trouble was most of the callers were not really sure what they were for or against. Later in the day I actually answered a couple of the calls rather than rolling them to voice mail – much to the caller’s surprise. I was able to confirm what was going on and even asked two of the callers to pull up the number that had called them. That number was also blocked, reinforcing my point. In short, this effort completely backfired on whatever organization was behind it.
My hope is that anyone that feels strongly enough about an issue, and wants to contact me on it, will do so through the phone number and/or email listed on the Contact Bill page of this website. You certainly don’t need a lobbying/special interest group to initiate the contact for you.
I had several meetings after arriving in Montgomery. One of which was concerning a Brewery Modernization Act. This bill will allow for economic growth through small businesses in the Brew Pub arena. I’ll post a link to this bill once it has been entered into the system.
Our legislative calendar listed several bills for debate today. Unfortunately we were only able to focus on one bill, Senate Bill 72, relating to the Deferred Retirement Option Plan, or DROP Program. Since last week I’ve communicated via email and phone calls with several people concerning the program. While I’ve personalized each response, the basis of my position follows:
I simply cannot support continuing the DROP program in its current state. I will however support moving the closing date to Oct of this year (coinciding with the FY Calendar) rather than an arbitrary date.
From what I'm told and have researched, the DROP program was created approximately 10 years ago and designed as an incentive for a teacher with a unique skill set, nearing retirement to stay on 3 to 5 years longer so that the school system could hire, train or groom a replacement. The teacher would then retire when the new teacher was in place. Additionally the DROP program targeted teachers that were paid in the $50K - $75K range.
The DROP program was well intended and designed to keep good teachers in Alabama. But the program has been severely abused; following are the problems with DROP today. The people allowed to participate were expanded to include other state employees; participants include those that make $200 - 300K or more. Those allowed to participate did not retire after completing the 3 to 5 years, rather stayed in the system. And lastly, the program guarantees a minimum of 3% up to 4% rate of return. In short, a program of this type is unheard of in the private sector, has been abused, and will become insolvent in 12 – 15 years leaving the tax payers with an unfunded pension liability. It is my duty to prevent that. Concerns and disappointment with the program closing should be directed at the leadership who allowed a well intended program to be abused to the degree that the current legislators only option, unfortunately, is to close it so as to prevent unfunded pension liabilities from being placed on our children.
A floor amendment was offered during debate to move the closing date to Oct of this year - in line with the annual budgets. This amendment put everyone in a tight spot as estimates showed it will cost an additional $10M this year alone to allow the program to remain open; hard to find $10M in this year’s lean budgets. I supported the amendment, along with a handful of others Senators, as I saw this as the fairest way to establish a closing date. The amendment was defeated in a 19 – 16 vote. The bill was then passed in a 23 – 12 vote. The bill working its way through the House has a different closing date than the Senate version. My prediction is that this will end up in a conference committee hearing to reconcile the two bills (closing dates). In the end, the DROP program will be closed, it is just a matter of what date it will become effective.
We adjourned a little after 5 PM from the Senate Chamber and after dinner with several of my colleagues, I spent the remainder of the evening reading over five bills that will come before the Education Committee Meeting I will be attending in the morning. One bill, SB51 moves to temporarily reduce the number of school days for the next two school years as a cost savings measure for the state.
We will go back into session at 10:00 in the morning for a rare Wednesday Senate session. Wednesday’s are normally reserved for committee meetings only. We will take up several bills that were passed from the House today, most notably HB 57, the long awaited rolling budget reserve act that will begin to refine the way our state’s budgets are developed.
On other news, on Monday I was appointed as one of seven Senators to the Legislative Joint Transportation Committee by Lt Gov Ivey. Each of the state's seven congressional districts is represented on the committee. I’m honored to accept this additional appointment and realize the importance of our mission. The committee reviews all legislation regarding the Department of Transportation and issues affecting highways in Alabama. Additionally, the committee reviews state Transportation Department budgets for highway construction, maintenance and operation.