Despite the country being in dire financial straits, Alabama goes into its next regular legislative session with General and Education Trust Funds in relatively good shape, according to House Majority Leader Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, and Dist. 8 State Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro.
In a conference call last week, Livingston said Alabama ended the fiscal year in September with “significant growth in the General Fund and things look very positive for this year. We put money back in both budgets because no one knew where we were going to be.”
‘We’ve been blessed,” Ledbetter agreed. “Alabama is one of only five states that the budgets are in a positive posture, so we’ve been very fortunate to have money in the last two years to put back. Because of the internet sale tax bill that Steve passed, we’ve had additional growth in the General Fund for the first time ever. That budget is much more solid than it has been. It’s because of conservative budgeting that we are in good shape. We put $250 million back that we didn’t spend for a rainy day fund, so we look forward to starting back.”
The two lawmakers plan to participate in a shortened legislative session starting Feb. 2 and focusing on three key issues: formally enacting economic development incentives that Gov. Kay Ivey issued at executive orders, passing legislation to protect companies from COVID-related lawsuits and preventing emergency stimulus money from counting against Alabama citizens while filing their taxes.
Livingston said lawmakers do not intend to penalize education administrators based on attendance. “The rolling reserve that passed a few years ago has allowed them to budget forward and know what they are dealing with,” he said.
Ledbetter said he’s proud they were able to fund $31 million in mental health programs for the state. This was partially achieved by redirecting money that would normally go toward rural water development. It funded the hiring of a full-time mental health professional for DeKalb County, Michelle Jones, who’ll help citizens struggling with issues relating to the pandemic and economic stresses. Statewide, 103 mental health professionals have been hired.
“I’m very proud of where we’ve come in a very short time in addressing mental health issues, which contribute to prison overcrowding, also a major issue in the upcoming session,” Ledbetter said.
Livingston said investing taxpayer dollars fixing correctional facilities is a harder sell politically than paving roads or funding education. Yet the issue must be dealt with because the U.S. Department of Justice said overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons has led to conditions so violent that they violate the U.S. Constitution.
County Administrator Matt Sharp told the legislators that DeKalb County is looking at replacing domes at the jail that were added 20 years ago but were never meant to be more than a temporary solution to local overcrowding. The county anticipates adding 80 permanent beds inside the jail and will likely take on federal inmates to get additional funding at the national level. The cost of the jail addition will be about $3.5 million. The total bond issue is expected to be $5.5 million, with the remaining $2 million to be used on roads, Sharp said.
While that takes shape, Ledbetter said he and Livingston are preparing to make announcements for Northeast Alabama Community College and Fort Payne High School that will “be a game-changer. We are very excited about that.”
They said they have put more computers in the hands of DeKalb and Jackson students using bond issue monies with $14 million going to DeKalb County and Fort Payne schools receiving $4 million for new construction based on student population.
The Alabama Legislature is also poised to look at a proposed state lottery, medical marijuana and supporting the U.S. Space Command, which is expected to bring at least 1,600 new jobs to Huntsville. They have put $25 million toward facilitating quicker expansion of broadband internet access for companies like Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative and plan to look at expanded right-of-way access for the utility providers.
During the conference call, Sharp and DeKalb County Engineer Ben Luther talked about the impacts of the Rebuild Alabama Act on paving DeKalb County roads.
The Rebuild Alabama Act raised the state gas tax and the funds available for projects at the state and local levels. Cities and counties receive a portion of the taxes. The Legislature approved the act that increased fuel taxes by 6 cents per gallon in 2019, 2 cents in 2020 and 2 cents in 2021. After 2023, increases will be determined every other year based on how much the cost of construction changes.
DeKalb received more money than it expected last year when paired with federal exchange funds, paving 57 miles of roads at a total cost of $1.4 million, Luther said. New gas tax money generated $705,000, while $415,000 came from existing gas tax funds and $355,000 originated from what he called “federal aid to state funds,” collectively totaling $1.4 million.
Legislators are also expected to address redistricting (based on the 2020 Census) during the 2021 legislative session before it adjourns on May 20, 2021. Federal law stipulates that districts must have nearly equal populations and must not discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity.
Both Ledbetter and Livingston are serving terms expiring in November 2022. Both men assumed office in 2014.