By Rep. Tracy Estes
Using last week’s column to address a few issues some in the district might consider a disappointment from the recent legislative session, I will use this space to share an overview of issues which should be viewed as stepping stones to improve the state’s future.
Possibly the most notable achievement is the fact Alabama will witness the benefits of the largest education budget in history. This will mark the third consecutive year the Legislature has approved such a record-setting budget. The money to be spent on education in our state beginning on Oct. 1 will total more than $7.6 billion, an increase of $452 million in comparison to the previous fiscal year.
One might wonder how an increase in education spending was possible in light of the coronavirus pandemic, which has hovered over our state and nation for more than a year now. Being in the midst of last year’s legislative session when this unexpected crisis struck, the Legislature budgeted conservatively for the current fiscal year not knowing how long the pandemic would last and what the financial fallout would be.
In full transparency, allow me to give credit where it is due. Our residents have managed to fuel the state’s economy through supporting Alabama businesses, which increases the amount of sales tax generated while personal income has also risen across the board, which enhances the amount of income tax produced. Income and sales taxes are the primary revenue sources for the state education budget.
But another factor playing a critical role in the state’s ability to weather the financial storm was key decisions made by the Legislature back in 2010. As the Republican Party gained control in Montgomery, conservative leadership created what is known as the Rolling Reserve Fund. This program capped annual education spending at the most recent 15-year average.
Any education revenue generated above this amount is maintained in an advancement and technology account. These funds are distributed to local school boards and higher education based on student enrollment. The following amounts are to be provided in the coming year to the school systems located in House District 17 as a result.
The Marion County School System will receive almost $1.6 million, followed by Lamar County at $1.1 million, Winston County at almost the identical amount with Haleyville City receiving more than $785,000 and the Winfield City School System provided more than $608,000.
Since Republican leadership in the Legislature was elected in 2010, public schools have not been faced with proration (mid-year budget cuts) a single time. Proration had almost become an annual issue under Democratic leadership for decades prior.
The financial boost for the state’s two-year college system was more than a 10% increase while our four-year colleges and universities will see an increase of more than 6%. The state’s career tech training program will see an increase of more than $11 million from the previous year.
Teachers in our K-12 schools and community colleges will receive a pay raise of 2 percent at a cost of more than $86 million per year with an incentive plan also approved to recruit and maintain science and math teachers. An increase in pay would be included for those who choose to participate in the plan, assuming they are willing to earn the additional education certification required. Additional subject fields are expected to be added to this program in the coming years, as the state continues to face a teacher shortage.
Unlike the majority of other states, the State of Alabama has bounced back from the pandemic at a faster pace, according to several independent economic reviews. Moody’s Analytics ranked the state as the fifth strongest coming out of the healthcare crisis. The state’s jobless rate reached almost 14% at the height of the pandemic, but has since fallen to 3.9%.
The resiliency of the state’s economy was partially attributed to conservative budgeting at the state level over the last decade. Such work has replaced the previous practice of state budgeting based on assumptions and projected revenue with budgeting based on previous yearly averages and actual hard numbers. The general fund budget will include an increase of more than $78.5 million in Fiscal 2022.
The Alabama Department of Corrections will receive an increase of $26.3 million, as the threat of federal intervention into the state prison crisis continues to hover overhead.
The Alabama Department of Mental Health will see a budgeted increase of $10 million to assist with the operation of new mental health facilities in five of the state’s largest cities. Medicaid spending declined by more than $51 million under the new budget.
In the two recent legislative sessions, I proudly partnered and sponsored legislation to expand judicial authority to deny bond to the accused when he is charged with a violent crime. Known as Aniah’s Law, the legislation was approved in the memory of Aniah Blanchard of Homewood.
While attending college in Auburn in October 2019, she was abducted and murdered. The suspect in the case had a previous history of violent offenses and was currently awaiting trial on yet another. The young woman was raised in Homewood, but her biological parents were raised in Winfield. Having the opportunity to work closely with this family throughout the process was heartbreaking yet fulfilling in knowing her death would not be in vain. The legislation will come before state voters for final approval on the November 2022 ballot.
Election reform was a critical topic in the legislative session, as penalties are now in place to punish those who vote in more than one state. Another ban was approved preventing voting machines from being installed outside polling places for fear county election officials could not guarantee election security.
Another plan was approved to prevent election law changes within six months of an election with the window for legal absentee voting to be increased by two days to allow sufficient time for mail delivery. A bill was approved to allow a one-time, post-election audit in three randomly selected counties to guarantee election security and validity.
The Republican supermajority in the House and Senate approved the “Born Alive’’ bill, requiring healthcare workers to provide reasonable medical care to any unborn child which survives an abortion attempt. Doctors violating the order could be charged with a Class A felony and receive up to 99 years in prison. No such liability would be rendered against a woman seeking an abortion.
Action was taken to prevent the state from seeking income tax revenue from residents receiving any federal stimulus monies through the CARES Act legislation. In other words, the state waived any right to tax these monies so desperately needed by families during the pandemic. Similar exemptions were approved for Alabama businesses.
The Legislature approved a plan to increase broadband installation in the state while also creating a plan to provide for easier family access to hospital and nursing home patients during times of a state or national healthcare crisis. I am honored to have been at the forefront of this effort, as I was made aware of numerous accounts where family members had been unable to visit loved ones for as long as a year during the recent crisis.
Conservative lawmakers approved a plan to prohibit the requirement of a vaccine passport to attend a public school in the state or enter a business. Efforts had been underway nationally to require a person to present such proof in such circumstances. These efforts were turned back by this legislation, meaning Alabama residents cannot be denied services due to the lack of vaccination against the coronavirus. Vaccinations required for attendance at public schools prior to the pandemic will not be impacted under the plan.
If ratified by voters, the Legislature approved an $80 million bond issue designed to make improvements at state parks. The payments would be made using monies recently freed up with the retirement of another statewide bond issue, meaning there would be no increased indebtedness to the state. However, the measure would provide much-needed physical improvements to state parks across Alabama, including internet connectivity.
I served as a co-sponsor to legislation to provide gun owners with the option to purchase a lifetime permit to carry a firearm. This will not replace existing permit options, but will be provided as an additional choice. Those choosing this route would be subjected to one background check and would maintain the right to carry unless the permit holder committed a disqualifying offense.
Originally, the plan included a registry for those who chose this option. However, the measure was later amended to include only the names of those who would be prohibited from obtaining such a permit. This change was made due to concerns expressed by Alabama residents over the privacy rights of law-abiding citizens. The permitting process will also be streamlined across all 67 counties, as opposed to each county having its own system.
Changes were made in the school construction and renovation process, as legislation was approved to remove projects with a projected cost of less than $500,000 from approval by the state department of construction management. These smaller projects will now be directed by the project architect.
This legislation was approved to lower construction costs and expedite completion time, as lawmakers shared numerous stories of necessary minimal repairs or construction project costs being driven up dramatically by the state building commission process. This will apply only to K-12 schools, community colleges and state parks.
I remain hopeful this summary of the most significant legislation provides insight into the work completed on your behalf in Montgomery from February through May 17. Remember, the Alabama State Legislature works directly for you.
It is my honor to represent Lamar, Marion and Winston counties. In all sincerity, I devote my full energy to listening to my constituents back home on issues of concern. My mission has been to be hard-working, transparent and fully accessible. I would encourage any with a need or concern to contact me by email, text or direct telephone call. Remember, this is my full-time job. Serving as your local state lawmaker is not a sideline job for me.
While I am confident there are issues upon which each constituent and I would agree, I promise my intent has been to serve each person individually and meet that person where their need is.
May God continue to bless those who call House District 17 home and the great state of Alabama.
Tracy Estes is Alabama State House District 17’s freshman state representative from Winfield.
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.