Rowe: Legislative agenda includes better veteran pay, opioid solutions

State Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, vice chairwoman of the House Republican Caucus, said legislators may hurry to get done with the Regular Session to start campaigning, but also noted an agenda that includes incentives to encourage better pay for veterans and coming solutions for the opioid crisis. Rowe chaired this year’s Caucus Platform Committee, the panel that guides the process for setting Republican priorities for the 2018 Regular Session that started Tuesday. She noted Republican legislators turn in proposed conservative bills to the Platform Committee for screening, and are ultimately voted on by the caucus. Republican House legislators want, as described in a release, to “call for the death penalty or life in prison without parole for the murder of a parent or guardian in the presence of a child” and “dramatically increase penalties for acts of domestic violence against a parent or guardian in the presence of a child.” They also want to amend previous legislation so that veterans to be paid $14 an hour if the employing business claims a proposed tax credit for hiring veterans full-time. Rowe, who will carry the bill, noted Gov. Kay Ivey has strongly supported the idea. One proposed bill would give veterans free admission to state parks. Legislators indicated they would consider any bills to deal with the opioid crisis. Opioid proposals are expected to come this session from Ivey’s Alabama Opioid Overdose and Addiction Council. The caucus also pledged, without offering specifics, to look at rural development proposals. They propose resolutions urging respect for the U.S. Flag during the National Anthem and Pledge of Allegiance, and showing support of President Trump’s border wall proposal at the U.S.-Mexican border. Rowe also said if Congress does not pass funding for the Childrens Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in the state, legislators would work on saving the program. State officials say they will shut down the program on Feb. 1 if Congress does not renew the funding. “I don’t know how the state of Alabama could not pick that up and fund it internally” if that happened. “It is just a really significant and important program.” However, she thinks Congress will fund it. She noted efforts have been made the past few years to make budget hearings more transparent and open, and find more details about state financing. More suggestions from a budget reform committee formed last year are slowly being introduced. “I think we are beginning to see the benefit of just paying closer attention to the budgeting process overall,” she said, noting it will take a while to change a process that has been in place for years.

As for the budgets, Rowe said a push is being seen to get the budgets done early in light of the legislative primaries taking place June 5 taking place this year, although she does not see it that way. “The best possible way I can run for re-election is to work,” she said, noting she has already spent much time in Montgomery leading to the session. “That is what constituents elected me to do.”  Rowe said the best news on budgets coming into the session was that Medicaid will be under budget and will bring forward $53 million into the upcoming General Fund. She also noted a slight but noticeable decline in Medicaid enrollment, which she hoped would continue “to reasonable levels” to make funding easier. She noted Medicaid is the largest part of the General Fund. On state prisons, she understands Ivey is looking at resolving and satisfying a number of lawsuits charging the prisons are inadequate in terms of overcrowding and medical and mental health services, without having to involve the Legislature. “The Governor’s Office is looking at some of those options because it was impossible, apparently, to get it through the Legislature during the Bentley administration,” Rowe said. She anticipates the constitutional carry bill will be filed in both chambers of the Legislature, eliminating permits fees for conceal and carry pistols. While it did not come to a vote on the House committee she sits on, she expects it will this year although it is uncertain if it will come to the floor, especially as the time gets late in the session and legislators rush to pass the budgets, she said. “I have at every opportunity voted to support gun rights and the expansion of gun rights since I have been in the Legislature. I do not expect to change my position on being supportive of gun rights,” she said. The Education Trust Fund remains healthy and some earlier projections may have even been low, Rowe said. She said and other legislators would like to see a “significant” pay increase for educators and support personnel, as well as state employees. “I don’t know that there is money to do both of those things,” she said. “I feel certain there is not enough money to do both of those things at the level that I would like to see them done.”  She noted that this session will be different in that scandals that have taken place have diverted some attention from other legislative work, although she noted that legislators have remained focused and productive in spite of those scandals. “Maybe this is the first year of this quadrennium where we don’t have a sideshow going on that distracts and detracts from the path that the Legislature is on,” she said, noting something has happened each year of her term to date.