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Lawmakers: 3 big issues for upcoming session

Friday, January 27, 2017

By Russ Corey Staff Writer, Times Daily

State senators and representatives say prisons, medicaid and a 3-cent gasoline tax will be the hot topics of the upcoming legislative session.

Several legislators attended Thursday’s meeting of the Northwest Alabama Council of Local Governments Board of Directors, which includes mayors, county commissioners and representatives from NACOLG’s five-county service area.

Gas Tax

A 3-cent gas tax being supported by the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, as well as county engineers, would provide funds for cities and counties.

The Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program provided money for road and bridge project, but had many restrictions.

“I’m for it,” state Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, said.

Stutts said he opposed earlier gas tax packages, and would not support a measure that does not allow the revenue to go “100 percent to local governments.”

Gas taxes have not been increased since 1992, Stutts said.

Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, suggested local governments should approve resolutions if they support the measure.

Melson said he preferred to see potholes in roads in his district repaired rather than building another bypass around Birmingham.

“We can’t let our roads deteriorate,” Sen. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, said.

Greer said he had supported previous gas tax packages.

Rep. Marcel Black D-Muscle Shoals, said he hasn’t made a decision on the gas tax.

“You have to look at how that money’s going to be spent, how it’s going to be divvied up,” Black said.

Prisons

Black said he opposed Gov. Robert Bentley’s prison proposal, which involved closing old prisons and building new ones.

“We got a lot of problems with prisons, not only with overcrowding,” Black said.

While they’re not always popular, one solution would be to look at programs that would keep people convicted of certain crimes out of prison, he said.

He said prisons are normally built in rural areas and can be an area’s major employer.

Rep. Phillip Pettus, R-Greenhill, said he recently toured the Julia Tutwiler women’s prison and another institution and was appalled by the conditions.

“It was probably one of the nastiest places I’ve been in,” Pettus said of Tutwiler.

Bentley announced in 2016 the prison would be closed.

The governor’s proposal to borrow $800 million to building three new men’s and one women’s prison died at the end of the 2016 legislative session.

Pettus, who also supports the gas tax, said there are representatives who ran on no new taxes pledges that would not support the measure.

Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton, who represents portions of Franklin, Lawrence, Winston and Morgan counties, said the state only has about 100 applications from people interested in becoming corrections officers. He said there are too few officers watching too many inmates.

“We have to look out for their safety,” Johnson said.

He said corrections officers only earn about $28,000 annually.

Medicaid

On the Medicaid issue, Stutts said he would prefer block grants awarded to the states, as President Trump has proposed.

Green said the block grant method is a more modern way to handle Medicaid.

Stutts said the Legislature will be grappling with the general fund budget crisis that rears its head each year.

“We need some meaningful budget reform,” he said, adding that 92 percent of the state’s funds are earmarked.

Melson said in some cases, the problem is the management of the money in a particular department.

The legislative session begins Feb. 7.