By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Wednesday, the Shelby County Legislative Delegation met with constituents and the Shelby County Chamber of Commerce in Pelham. The town hall meeting occurred just days prior to the 2014 State Legislative Session. Each legislator present was given a few minutes to introduce themselves and then the event was opened up for questions from the audience. Alabama State Senator Cam Ward (R) from Alabaster was the first to address the gathered crowd.
Senator Ward said that this is the fourth year of this legislature. Typically the fourth year produces a lot less fireworks than other years. Sen. Ward said that Alabama is one of the last states to still have two separate funds for education and the general fund. 80% of Alabama revenues go towards education and only 20% goes toward the general fund. The prison system and Alabama Medicaid account for 65% of the general fund. Everything else that the state does comes out of the remaining General Fund. Ward said that another problems it that there is not a lot of high growth money earmarked for the state’s general fund.
Sen. Ward said that the education fund budget has seen some growth. What to do with that education growth will be part of the debate during this session. Sen. Ward said that rising health care costs for education and state employees is a serious issue and a lot of debate will be about how much money that the state sends to PEEHIP for the teachers and education employees healthcare insurance costs. Ward said that their costs have risen due to the Affordable Care Act.
Sen. Ward warned that the prison overcrowding issue is one of the biggest issues facing the state. Ward said that the state is at 192% of its prison capacity making Alabama the most overcrowded prison system in America. Ward said that a federal judge ordered California to address its own overcrowded prison system. California released 35,000 prisoners and crimes, particularly auto thefts, went up substantially. Ward warned that the prison overcrowding situation will be solved either by a federal judge or by state government.
Sen. Ward warned that roads will continue to be a problem. As cars have become more fuel efficient the revenues received from gas and diesel taxes decrease meaning that the dollars for roads are going down.
Ward said that on the plus side is the economy. It is picking up and Alabama has the potential for a growing energy economy. Between new oil and gas field discovered offshore and the oil sands being discovered in West Alabama, the State is becoming a leading energy exporter. The State of Alabama is currently ranked 13th in the country in energy exported.
The 2014 Alabama Legislative Session begins on January 15th.