Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, wants to address a shortage of educators and troopers in the state, and noted needs for workforce development and rural broadband.
Reed, speaking to the Rotary Club of Jasper on Tuesday, is preparing for the start of the 2019 Regular Session on March 5. However, his address also highlighted work and success from the 2018 session.
He noted that for the current budget year, a state tax cut, "the largest and only tax cut in decades," was passed last year to go along with President Trump's federal tax cuts. That amounted to $40 million cut in a 10-year period in Alabama. He said the Education Trust Fund Budget was $6.6 billion, setting a record.
In Alabama, "the economy couldn't hardly be any better than what it is right now," he said.
Moreover, the $1 billion the state owed itself during the Great Recession has been reduced to $110 million being paid back over the next nine years. Money that had been owed to the Rainy Day Funds and the Alabama Trust Fund has been paid back, he said.
In the Fiscal 2019 budget, a total of $48 million was spent on school security "and we're going to spend more. We're going to have to," he said, noting the subject is a "stark reality" today. He also noted a 2.5 percent pay raise was obtained for educators.
"Let me tell you another issue that we have that the Legislature will deal with this year," he said. "We have a shortage of educators in the State of Alabama. That shortage is growing, to where young people are not choosing education as a career path. So we're looking at some incentive options to be able to offer ways to encourage young people to look at teaching as a profession in the State of Alabama."
Reed said in the past budget, state employees had a 3 percent pay increase for state employees, who had not had a raise in eight years.
"We're adding state troopers to Alabama's highways," he said, noting a major shortage for needs. Thirty state troopers each year have been added over the past two years, and this year he is pushing for an additional 50 troopers in the coming budget.
"Another thing that happened was a bill on broadband, allowing for rural communities to have access to the internet," he said. "If you look at communities across Alabama, the lack of internet access is a critical issue. In Winston County, which is part of my district, 70 percent of the school children leave school and do not have access to do their homework on the internet."
Some areas of Walker County have similar percentages, he said.
"The internet access in rural Alabama is just as big an economic driver as electricity in many instances," he said, comparing it to when power came to rural areas within the past century. He said more funds would have to be spent in the future, as the problem will not be dealt with overnight.
Rolling reserve efforts on the Education Budget has eliminated proration in the state for eight years, he said. He also noted that the number of state employees in the General Fund has been reduced by 5,000 since 2011.
Looking at the coming session, Reed said Pre-K programs in Alabama have performed so well that he sat in on meetings where Missouri's governor and two of that state's senators inquired how to implement the program in their state. Thus far, it has been funded at more than $100 million. To fully fund the program for voluntary 70 percent access for 4 year olds would take about $149 million.
"Candidly, my question about that is, let's not allocate money to something that sounds great until we know we have the programs that can be funded," Reed said. "It may take a few years for that Pre-K program to really get where it is supposed to go."
Reed some actions on accountability for four-year institutions are coming, though some of the major institutions may not like it. He said questions raised include how many students who start at a university actually get a diploma and what is the retention rate of the students.
"Unfortunately, we have a couple of institutions in the State of Alabama that if you look at the kids that start there and in a five-year window have a diploma, the percentage is 16 percent." He later declined to identify the institutions as he said he was told the names in confidence.
He said in the speech the University of Alabama and Auburn University are in the 60 percent range, "but you have to do a little better than that."
Reed was concerned about allowing the institutions to attract students, give them resources "and then really not serving (the students) to a place where they get completion or are able to work within the economy."
He emphasized career tech, pointing to his efforts for the Center for Technology that could lead to a partnership with Yurozu to give job training - possibly even dual enrollment - to high school students.
"The number one recruitment tool on attracting industry is a trained workforce," Reed said, noting he was involved in legislation three years ago that rebated tax funds to a recruited company if it mets first-year requirements.
"We've got all the other ducks in a row. We have got to have a well-trained workforce to meet the demands of industry is expecting in the future, and we competing against all the other Southeastern states," he said.
He noted state prisons are under two federal lawsuits and probably will be involved in a third. "We've lost the first one," and the state will lose the other two, he said. A total of $55 million was spent in the last General Fund budget to meet mental and physical needs of 21,000 inmates. He noted Donaldson is one of the youngest facilities at 35 years, with most 40 to 60 years old.
However, legislators are reluctant to see prisons merge and close in their districts, Reed said. He said 27 facilities could be shut, with the state having 10 facilities plus three "super prisons." Ivey is looking at doing to taking a gubernatorial action without requiring a bond issue from the Legislature.
"In building a building that is by a third party on state property is something that at the moment, unless we change the law, you can't necessarily do," he said. Thus the state would have to lease the property for 30 years, which leads to a number of challenges.
After the speech, Reed was asked about Medicaid. He said thanks to an improved economy, the state has seen a 20,000 reduction in the number of Alabamians receiving Medicaid benefits, mostly children. Close to 1 million of 4.8 million Alabamians are on Medicaid, with 600,000 are children.
The director of Medicaid asked for $20 million less this year than she did for last year, he said, and one-time money is not having to be used to fund the agency.
On small hospitals, he noted in the last session he helped pass a bill which has allowed UAB to already set up a Rural Hospital Resource Center to assist rural hospitals in areas like Fayette. The hospitals, at no cost to them, can access UAB for consulting services, help with recruiting, and to have graduate students work on thesis projects that involve real-life problems at rural hospitals.
Reed said he had been at a meeting Monday at the Fayette Campus of Bevill State Community College, where updates on dual enrollment was discussed. He also was updated on Career Pathways, a program he helped to fund, where 10th graders sign up and obtain multiple certificates when they graduate high school, whether electrical, automotive and such. Of the first 20 enrolled, all but one has finished a degree or is working in their certification area.
An overall financial report for Bevill State also was given, he said, showing "where they made some cuts, they've done some different things, worked with the two-year office out of Montgomery, and made some substantial moves making their fiscal situation better. They have made progress."
He said as for the college's athletic program, some teams have been more successful than others in terms of winning. One of the requirements in restarting athletics was to require 60 percent of the students getting scholarships have to be from the service area for Bevill State. While that limits recruiting for coaches, Reed said it provides educational opportunities for the student athletes so that they hopefully may stay in this area.