By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
Alabama House Democratic Caucus leaders said Wednesday that they will be introducing a series of bills in the coming weeks to back up a broad agenda that focuses on a wide range of issues.
From education, workforce development, healthcare and prison reform, to fighting the opioid epidemic, increasing funding for mental health coverage and ending corruption, Democrats say they are focused on an ambitious but doable agenda, though they offered few specifics.
“As a state, we are facing enormous challenges.,” said House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, R-Huntsville. “How will we ensure that every student gets a first-class education from birth to college, trade school and beyond? How do we address the thousands upon thousands of children without health insurance? How do we address our closing hospitals?”
Daniels and several other members of the Democratic Caucus outlined their agenda in a press conference Tuesday.
State Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, said the state should support public schools and invest more readily in its educators. She called for increased funding and a heavier focus on early childhood education including cradle to pre-K programs, early literacy initiatives, STEM programs and exposure to foreign languages.
“It’s absolutely key that we do more at the state level to prioritize early childhood education at the state level,” said Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile. “Quality early childhood education is the key to putting Alabama children on the right rack in school, work and in life.”
The Governor called for an education budget that is $216 million larger than last year’ — a little more than 3.3 percent. On top of the $92 million proposed for educator pay raises, lawmakers are also set to consider Gov. Kay Ivey’s proposals to increase higher education funding by $50 million and appropriations for the state pre-K program by $23 million.
More needs to be done, Drummond said.
“We must reverse the chronic pattern of underinvestment in our school, students, teachers and classroom technology,” Drummond said. “If we are to compete and succeed in this global economy, our young people must have early access to opportunities and skills that ensure future achievement.”
State Rep. Laura Hall, D-Madison, said the state should ensure that teachers are placed in the appropriate classrooms based on their precise certification level and should be given salaries that allow them to afford needed supplies, teach comfortably and live as other families are able to live.
The Republican education budget this year calls for a 2.5 percent pay increase for teachers, though Democrats have pushed for larger raises.
“As one who taught for 100 years, they realize they want to have the very best learning for the children who are in their classrooms,” Hall said. “We can’t continue to allow this lack of support for our educators.”
A focus on education has been common among both parties, though they differ in specifics and support for big-money changes fluctuate during election and off-election years.
Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, said education and a more skilled workforce would move Alabama in the right direction when it comes to economic development. He called for promoting dual enrollment and workforce trade programs because there are “opportunities for those who do not want to go to four-year colleges.”
“Our economy is changing at a rapid pace and we must work to anticipate and respond to these changes by ensuring that businesses have access to a skilled workforce and human capital that they need to be successful in Alabama,” Knight said.
Knight said sizeable economic development projects like the new Toyota-Mazda plant in Huntsville bring jobs, but it doesn’t do Alabamians but the state needs to be prepared by having a trained workforce.
“Otherwise, it doesn’t do any good,” Knight said.
While the Democrats focused largely on their central issue of education, members also pushed for more affordable access to healthcare. Members didn’t offer many specifics, but said access to affordable healthcare could be improved by better funding mechanisms and results-focused health care, mental health care included.
“These struggles touch every part of our citizens in the state of Alabam from our young to our old from our mothers to returning veterans,” said Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham. “There is not a family in Alabama that has not been impacted by mental health in some form or fashion.”
Inadequate funding levels and ineffective programs have monetary and human costs, she said. Coleman said Democrats would review state appropriations for mental health care this year to determine if funding is adequate and how they can be improved.
“This is an issue that is near and dear to me,” Coleman said. “I had a family member this summer that was in crisis who almost did not get the help she needed because there was not a bed available.”
This year’s Legislative Session has gotten to a slow start and it could stay that way. Lawmakers are hoping for a quiet year heading into elections and coming off one of the most tumultuous in Alabama’s history.
After removing a governor, a House speaker and a chief justice for public corruption and ethics violations over the past two years, state Rep. Thomas Jackson said the state deserves better this year. He said Democrats will push for a more transparent and ethical state government from their position as the minority party.
Jackson called for reforms to lax campaign finance laws, weak ethics laws and the lack of public trust in state government.
“The state has endured the removal of several officials due to criminal and unconstitutional activities that would be unacceptable in any other area of employment,” Jacksons said. “We believe that our institutions suffer as a result of such rampant, corrupt decisionmaking. We must open the door to transparency. We must walk the talk.”