I will resume the monthly newsletter now that the legislature is out of session. The newsletter is typically posted during the first week of the month and recaps events across Senate District 2 from the previous month. A brief email alert is sent out when the newsletter is posted; you can sign up for alerts at the home page.
As some have described - this was a rough and tumble legislative session. For a rookie legislator, it is refreshing to hear from the veterans – fellow legislators, staff members and lobbyist with decades of experience and service – who call this one of the most difficult sessions they remember. Below I touch on some of the highlights of the 2013 Session.
AAA – the Alabama Accountability Act. This was the most controversial item in the 2013 legislative session. I won’t rehash all of the details but as background, this bill started as a School Flexibility Bill and morphed into the Alabama Accountability Act. I was the Senate sponsor of the Flex Bill and had championed the bill with others for two years. Early opposition to the flex bill had nothing to do with the proposed flexibility that would be afforded to schools across the state. The real back story here was that the AEA had blocked efforts to establish charter schools in the 2012 session and they wanted another “win” for 2013. They attempted to broadly paint the flex bill as a back door to charter schools and were successful in dividing the Senate Republicans supporting the bill. Thus was born the tax credit section – championed by Pro Temp Senator Marsh to win over the holdouts, and the scholarship section – championed by Governor Bentley. In a matter of days the Flex Bill became the Alabama Accountability Act. Additional background is available at this blog post.
Days after the Accountability Act passed and the Governor signed it into law – albeit in a controversial manner – a ‘fix-it” bill was introduced. As passed, the bill had some flaws and we attempted to make it better by clearing up some language and strengthening sections of the tax credit and scholarship sections. I participated in numerous meetings as we worked to improve the law with input from various education stakeholders. Some measures, such as means testing that I supported did not have broad support in the legislature and therefore did not make it into the final version. The fix bill passed on the 29th legislative day and was sent to the Governor for signature. In a very surprise move – Governor Bentley sent the bill back with an executive amendment delaying implementation for two years.
As usual outside of Montgomery – everything is not as it appears; in reality, Governor Bentley’s Executive Amendment placed the much needed changes to the Accountability Act - requested by numerous stakeholders in the educational community – at great risk. Some of the more significant improvements included clearing up language regarding transportation, schools not being forced to accept students out of district, and ensuring special education students’ needs were met. Additionally, the definition of a failing school was clarified and the number of failing schools was reduced from 10% to 6%.
The Governor’s amendment came to the legislature on the final day of the session and, as the bill originated in the House, his amendment started in the House which non-concurred with the Governor’s proposed delay; setting the stage in the Senate.
With less than 5 hours left in the session our choices were clear to me: agree with the House and non-concur with the Governor’s proposed delay; ensuring the much needed changes take place, or disagree with the House effectively killing the bill that made the much needed changes to the Accountability Act leaving the original law in place. This was the least desirable action and as I recognized the position we were in, I supported overriding the Governor’s amendment so that much needed changes to the Accountability Act could be made.
By now I think most readers recognize that I don’t “play politics” very well – I don’t make symbolic votes. In my view a “no” vote on the Governor’s Executive Amendment was a symbolic vote as on the surface it supported the Governor’s position but in reality it placed the much needed changes to the Accountability Act in jeopardy. In the end I think Governor Bentley was ill-advised in submitting his Executive Amendment, he thinks the legislature was ill-advised – time will tell.
Omnibus Gun Bill – The omnibus gun bill was contentious to a point but after a majority of the stakeholders came to the table a pretty good bill emerged. I’ll put it this way – there were a lot of cooks in kitchen, some adding sugar and some adding salt. I would’ve preferred a saltier version but support what was accomplished. The final bill is linked here and I plan to provide an overiew in a special blog posts in the days ahead.
Responsible Budgeting – We passed both budgets earlier in the session this year and continue to push realistic, responsible budgets. Since taking office, none of our budgets have been prorated. That’s responsible budgeting!
Education Trust Fund Budget – The $5.7 billion dollar budget included a 2 percent pay raise for Alabama teachers and support personnel and protects funding for K-12 education programs – no increase in class sizes – and increases funding for the state’s Pre-K program. This conservative budget also includes a $35 million payment toward money borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund under the previous majority, along with a conditional appropriation that would send an additional $65 million toward repayment if revenues exceed expectations.
General Fund Budget – The $1.7 billion dollar budget provides level funding for most state agencies and includes the first installment toward repaying money borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund last September. Leading by example, this fiscally-responsible budget also reduces funding for the Legislature and Senate leadership office by roughly $1.7 million from last year. As promised, the Alabama Trust Fund Repayment legislation was the first bill passed and signed into law by Governor Bentley, guaranteeing automatic annual payment toward paying off money borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund through the September 18th referendum.
21st Century Workforce Act – I served as the Senate sponsor of this legislation strengthening the state’s investment in career technical education. We worked on this bill throughout the off season, making sure high school students across the state have access to updated technology and equipment. I personally found myself in the “Vo-Tech” track when in high-school where I learned some life-long mechanical and wood working skills. I followed a path into the military but so many of our children that do not opt for a four year degree program can use these skills to enter the work force. The 21st Century Workforce Act will help prepare tomorrow’s workforce with the skills needed for a successful career in whatever field they choose. This also ensures that Alabama businesses have the tools, and employees, they need to succeed in the 21st century. Lastly, a workforce trained on modern equipment is a tremendous plus in economic recruitment.
Elder Abuse Law – There is a growing trend across our country where an elderly person is taken advantage of financially. We passed an elder abuse law last year dealing with abuse in a nursing home of other facility but this bill address elder abuse from a financial perspective. Whether it is a family member or someone from the financial industry, exploitation of someone’s finances is now against the law in Alabama.
Veterans Hunting License – Most readers know of my involvement with several veterans organizations. I’m proud to have been able to sponsor this law, working with the Department of Conservation and fellow legislators. This law provides for a special, physically disabled military veteran's appreciation three-day event hunting license for groups to purchase one hunting license allowing up to 10 Wounded Warriors to hunt on that license. I’ve seen firsthand the sheer joy of a physically disabled veteran who is able to once again do something they once enjoyed before sustaining their injury in service to our nation – enjoy the great outdoors and hunt! A special thanks to everyone who is helped make this legislation possible and to the many volunteers that work to take these Wounded Warriors back into the great outdoors!
Working Across The District - Even in the days leading up to the end of the session, and since session ending, I’ve been honored to participate in numerous events across District 2. Some events of note – I attended the Veteran’s Job Fair hosted by Still Serving Vets and the Women’s Business Center for North Alabama. I spoke at Certified Commercial Investment Member’s (CCIM) Annual North Alabama Market Symposium. I spoke at the year-end Madison County Teenage Republican meeting – what a wonderful group of teenagers, grounded in solid conservative beliefs. I joined the other four State Senators representing Madison County to provide a legislative update at the Madison County Republican Men’s Club Breakfast. I attended the Monrovia Middle School graduation – we have a bright future here as well! I also attended the Limestone County Economic Development Association’s annual lunch where we heard from Carpenter Technologies plant manager about their multi-million dollar investment in Limestone County. I will continue to attend events across the district in the months ahead and look forward to meeting with you and listening to your concerns as we work together to better our communities. As always, feel free to contact me with questions or concerns at 256-651-5921 or via email.
Semper Fi - Bill