Making Alabama's government more efficient -- and likely smaller -- while pushing back on mandates from the federal government are likely themes of the 2013 legislative session that starts Tuesday.
State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said the first two years of this quadrennium, 2011 and 2012, focused on economic development incentives.
"With this session, the focus is going to be more on cost savings," Orr said.
In the House, Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, has pledged nothing will pass in that chamber until a slew of proposed bills aimed at protecting Alabama from "ever-expanding and encroaching federal government" receive attention from the Republican majority.
Dozens of bills have been pre-filed and more are to come. A preview of issues likely to receive attention in the State House starting this week:
Sen. Del Marsh, president pro tem of the Senate, said this will be a "session of efficiency and streamlining" as lawmakers look to consolidate state agencies, including law enforcement, information technology and legislative services.
Marsh, R-Anniston, introduced legislation last month that would consolidate Alabama's more than 20 law enforcement and investigative agencies into seven.
Orr, chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the general fund budget, said the state could save up to $45 million by privatizing the state's retail liquor stores.
He also said he wants to pursue privatization of management duties for state-owned hotels and golf courses, such as Joe Wheeler State Park in Rogersville.
Many of those facilities use state employees.
Smaller state government should mean less strain on the general fund, legislators said. Almost $1.7 billion of tax dollars is available to non-education operations and agencies such as Medicaid, public safety and corrections.
Orr and Marsh said efforts will be made to pass the education budget, which is about $5.5 billion this year, and general fund budget earlier in the session instead of during the final days, as has been past procedure. But savings-related bills will have to pass first.
Early revenue projections for fiscal 2014 have not made lawmakers optimistic. Marsh said the general fund is in no better shape than it was a year ago. "In fact, I'd venture to say it is worse," he said.
Revenues for the state Education Trust Fund, which uses 10 tax sources that include income and sales tax to fund education, are slowly increasing; however, demands on that fund are growing. They include repaying more than $400 million during the next two years that was borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund, which captures revenues from sales of offshore drilling rights and royalties on oil and gas production. The fund was established to assist education during hard economic times.
"It is going to be a tough budget year," Orr said recently.
State Rep. Greg Burdine, D-Florence, said it's time to look at increasing revenue sources "because we've cut to the point where we can't cut anymore." He wants to close corporate tax loopholes that would make businesses pay equally when they make profits. He wants ideas on collecting tax revenue from Internet sales.
Burdine acknowledges that won't be easy given that Gov. Robert Bentley and the Legislature's leadership have made it clear they will not allow new taxes to pass.
The chance of pay increases for hundreds of state employees and thousands of school teachers and support staff in north Alabama appears to be decreasing. Bentley said last month there likely will be no money for raises.
The Alabama Education Association recently changed its push for a 10 percent raise for teachers in the next two years. Now the organization advocates the raises during a three-year period. Educators and most other state employees haven't had raises since 2008.
Shoals Democrats said they're not giving up on raises for teachers.
"We can afford it," Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, said.
Bedford and Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, said teacher pay has a direct impact on the classroom.
"I don't care what you say, you can't continue to recruit and retain quality teachers without them getting a pay raise every once in a while," Black said.
After a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school in December, some lawmakers said improving school safety is among their priorities. Some have bills written, including Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, D-Red Bay, who proposes that teachers be allowed to train as reserve sheriff's deputies. Morrow is carrying a statewide bill and a Franklin County-specific one he hopes to pass early in the session.
"This is the most important thing facing schools," Morrow said. "If kids can't feel protected and parents can't feel their kids are protected, where's the learning environment?"
Another suggestion is to put officers in every school, but that's a costly proposition, estimated at about $50 million a year.
'We Dare Defend'
State Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin, R-Indian Springs, recently said President Obama is trying to "exploit" the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in order to pass stricter gun control laws.
GOP lawmakers in the House have outlined about a dozen other bills under the heading: "We Dare Defend Our Rights" that they said will get time on the floor before all others. Among those is one to strengthen Alabamians' rights to bear arms.
Other proposals would put more regulations on abortion providers, give local schools more flexibility in setting their own rules and allow some employers to opt out of Affordable Care Act mandates that require insurance coverage for contraceptives.
Some of the proposals would put Alabama at odds with the federal administration. Democrats in the Legislature don't have the votes to stop the proposed legislation, but they're speaking out against it.
"Alabama Republicans' agenda for the 2013 legislative session is more of the same political posturing and once again filled with bills that, if made into law, will cost the state millions of more dollars to defend without a chance of winning in court," Sen. Tammy Irons, D-Florence, said in an email last week. She is a lawyer in Florence.
House Majority Leader Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, said he probably won't carry any bills this session but will work to pass "We Dare Defend Our Rights" bills. The agenda was rolled out two weeks ago, and Hammon said the response has been positive.
"The public seems proud that they have a legislature that will stand up for their rights and fight for them -- and that's what we intend to do," he said.
Trust Fund payback
Another issue that has been promised priority is outlining how the state will pay back about $437 million to the Alabama Trust Fund. In September, voters approved transfer of that money during the next three budget years to avoid threatened cuts.
The approved constitutional amendment doesn't require the money be paid back, but Republican leadership campaigned for its support by saying it would be replaced.
One pre-filed bill calls for the money to be repaid by 2026 though it doesn't say how.
Medicaid is a topic of multiple conversations.
How will the state pay for the program, which provides health care to more than 900,000 low-income and disabled Alabamians at a state cost of more than $600 million a year? That number is growing, threatening to "eat up" the general fund, Marsh said.
State health officer Dr. Don Williamson, who has overseen the Medicaid agency for about a year, said changes on the federal level, including some reimbursements, will mean $35 million in additional state expenditures in budget year 2014, which begins Oct. 1.
"The general fund doesn't have that kind of money," Williamson said. He's looking at ways to save, including increasing the pharmacy tax and cutting provider reimbursements.
"At the end of the day, what we're doing is starting with what we need and working down to what is available," he said.
Another conversation: How does the state rein in future Medicaid costs?
A report from the Bentley-appointed Medicaid Advisory Commission was sent to him last week, outlining possible significant changes to the structure of Medicaid in the state and how care is delivered to patients.
Some of the changes include moving away from a fee-for-service model of care to a managed care system and a possible cap on Medicaid spending.
Commission member and state Rep. Greg Wren, R-Montgomery, stressed last week the Legislature will want a say in the final Medicaid changes.
"We have 615 million reasons why we're going to be active," he said.
Some Democrats said there is no reason the state should not expand Medicaid to more than 300,000 new patients under the Affordable Care Act.
Bentley has said Alabama won't expand the program because it would be too costly in the long run.
But Bedford said lawmakers could push for the expansion, which would benefit many Alabamians who are employed but can't afford health insurance. He also said it would create an economic boom for the state.
"It's something we're working on," Bedford said. "Whether Republicans have the courage to step up to the plate and create 300,000 new consumers for the health-care industry, that remains to be seen."
Mary Sell can be reached at 334-294-7542 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Key dates for 2013 Legislature
The Alabama Legislature convenes Tuesday. State code requires the regular session consist of no more than 30 legislative days -- usually Tuesdays and Thursdays -- within a 105-calendar day period. This year, the session will end on or before May 20.
Gov. Robert Bentley will give his State of the State address at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. A spokeswoman for Bentley said he is waiting until that speech to outline his specific goals, but government efficiency and job creation are priorities.
Democrats, in the minority, say they will unveil their political agenda Feb. 12.
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