Alabama Living recently sat down with key leaders in the Alabama Legislature to talk about their perspectives and predictions about the 2013 legislative session which begins Feb. 7. House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn; Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston; House Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden; and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, were interviewed. Following is an edited summary of their remarks.
AL: What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities in next legislative session?
Speaker Hubbard: Well, anytime you’re challenging the status quo, trying to change things in state government, it’s a challenge because you have to overcome the special interest groups that like things they way they are. You have state government employees who like things the way they are because it’s what they know. But I don’t believe that’s what the people of Alabama sent us here to do. I certainly don’t believe that’s my role. We’re here to always try to make things better, to look at situations to try to improve them, to make state government more efficient. That’s what we’ll be doing during the next session. We’re always dealing with job creation.
AL: Those were some of the things that came out of your (Jobs Creation) commission last year, the things you heard, and you started this last year and you’re continuing it this year.
Hubbard: It’s amazing, if you ask people for their input, you ask them what you can do to be better, they will tell you. That’s why you have two ears and one mouth; you should be listening more, and that’s what we’ve been doing as a leadership, both in the House and in the Senate, is listening. We’re going to people, going to businesses, going to families, and asking them what can we do to make things better. And as much as we can, we’re trying to do that. Same thing with education: Talk to the education leaders, the teachers, the superintendents, talk to the school boards (and ask) …What can we do to make education better? What can we do to solve our dropout rate problems, and we’re doing those and I think next session you’re going to see an initiative to expand Pre-K. That’s something I’m excited about. I know the governor has that on his initiative. Proven, indisputable data shows that if you can get people in school earlier, then they will be better achievers. It’s a voluntary program. I’m excited that we’re going to go down that path next session.
Sen. Marsh: Our biggest challenges will continue to be the budgets. We’re going through a lot of tough economic times right now and the coming year is going to be the year of efficiency and reform. That’s going to allow us as a state to get our government in fiscal order. I look at it as a lot of opportunities. For example, you’ve got the public safety initiative, realigning all of public safety. You’ve got the IT initiative in the state, to look at IT services, and these different agencies that are basically working in their own silo and looking at how we can get those agencies to communicate with each other. Everything we do is toward getting the services to citizens in a better matter, making these services more efficient and cost-saving, without jeopardizing any services to our citizens.
As you know, the governor has been talking about a billion dollars in savings. Already the things we’ve done thus far have saved us, we believe, in the neighborhood of $600-plus million dollars. The goal with these other initiatives is to get to that billion-dollar mark sometime next year.
Rep. Ford: With the recent shootings in Connecticut, I think we need to make our schools safer. We’ve had a fiscal note come out that would provide some type of security at every school, and that is something in today’s time that is needed. That’s going to be really high on the priority list of both parties. We have a piece of legislation coming (dealing) with that. Other priorities will be:
Paying back the constitutional amendment within a 5-year period. Voters just allowing legislator to borrow to bail out Medicaid; a pay raise for educators, state employees and retirees; a lottery; ad $1 tobacco tax increase to help fund Medicaid.
AL: Which of these is most likely to pass?
All are of equal importance in different areas and with different budgets. We need an increase in revenue without raising taxes. That’s where we will look at a lottery and a tobacco tax. Those are what are called “volunteer” taxes. We need to be innovative and creative in how we come up with revenue for tax increases without raising taxes on everyone.
Figures: The biggest challenges I see coming before the legislature in 2013 are:
The biggest opportunities I see are:
AL: Do you see any policies coming up affecting energy policy?
Hubbard: We’re always very conscious of energy because it’s so important to our state in terms of business, in terms of national security, and in terms of economic development. And unfortunately we’re having to fight our federal government in some cases. We’re really the last line of defense against an over-reaching federal government in many instances. We have to deal with EPA regulations but we have a legislative committee, a joint committee that has been working since 2007, meeting regularly to make sure that we’re on the leading edge of what we need to be doing from an energy perspective. That is the key component. We’re in the economic development business, the job creation business. Making energy affordable and plentiful is very important to us.
Marsh: A lot of problems for the energy industry are at the federal level. I think the EPA has put in a lot of regulations that have been harmful to the coal industry which affects the power industry in many cases. With those things, we can only do so much. On a state level, if there is anything about these regulations we can address will continue to address that. We do all we can with ADEM to make sure regulations are reasonable for industry. Your industry obviously has to be concerned with employment and job growth. Your industry is a supplier of the commodity of energy. Obviously anything we can do to improve the job situation and economic growth will benefit your organizations across the state. I can assure you the efficiencies and reform measures will result in a leaner government, and if government is running efficiently, it’s less of a burden on taxpayers.
The other issue that is equally important to us is job growth and economic development. If we can focus in this next session on these issues, all organizations including the electric coops, will benefit from this next session.
Ford: We need to continue to help support incentives for coal companies, for alternative energy producers, and for natural gas to expand and hire new employees. We need to continue to support the Clean Coal Act and also hydraulic and nuclear power plants. Incentives are what is more important.
Figures: I would like to see Alabama establish policy for energy conservation and a formal recycling program for all of Alabama. I am currently working on legislation dealing with both of these issues. State government alone could save a lot of money with an energy conservation plan that is enforced.
AL: There has been discussion about the RSA needing another large appropriation in order to keep the state retirement to stay financially stable, with the current economic outlook and pressures on the budgets do you see problems with meeting this request?
Hubbard: We’re always going to make sure that our retirement system is fiscally sound and insolvent because we have a responsibility to the people already in the system and people who are yet to be hired to make sure that the retirement system is there. Now, during the last legislative session we made some pretty significant changes for new hires, where employees will have to pay more toward their health insurance. Now that’s not something we boast about, but it was the right thing to do because otherwise the can had been kicked down the road for years and years and we just had to make some changes. It’s going to save about $5 billion over 20-25 years. We’re working very closely with the RSA and we always have to make sure that the investment that the RSA are making is sound. I believe that they are. They’ve suffered just like everybody else with the downturn of the economy, but my hope is that when the economy does turn around, and we can kind of see it turning that way, that the requirement of the appropriations from the ETF and the General Fund will be less. That’s my hope.
Marsh: I haven’t heard exactly but somewhere around $100million is predicted to be a shortfall (in the retirement system). At same time you’ve got the head of the AEA union saying they want 10 percent increase in pay. There’s only so much money there to do something with. One of our primary responsibilities is to make sure those retirement systems are sound and the insurance is sound. That’s where I’m going first before I look at a pay raise. I hate that we’ve not been able to give raises. We’re not only state in this situation. Until my colleagues tell me they feel differently, we’re re looking at keeping those things sound before we’re looking at a pay raise at this time.
Ford: I have not seen the fiscal projections on this so I don’t know how much additional funding will be needed. I do know the Republican super majority has have already cut the educators and state employees and teacher pay by 2.5 percent. That has gone to help state retirement benefits. We have to keep in perspective that teachers and state employees are employees of the state. I own an insurance company and I own a newspaper. I have 30 employees that work for me. I have to contribute if we have a retirement plan, which we do, to their retirement. So the employees are employees of the state so the state is obligated to pay into their retirement and health benefits. As far as what’s needed, I don’t know. I have not been privy to those conversations. But I do know teacher pay is declining in Alabama and benefits are declining and that’s one of the few tools we have left to recruit the best and the brightest into our schools.
Figures: I feel that any entity or line item in the budget needing more money will definitely be a problem if the state's revenue has not increased at the same rate. It is well past the time that we realistically and fairly deal with tax reform in the state of Alabama. As this administration has sought to cut expenses and waste, we must realize that that can only go so far. As lawmakers, we have a responsibility to protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Alabama, and that takes money as well as sound policies.
What do you feel are the biggest successes achieved under your leadership?
Hubbard: Well, I’m very proud of a number of them, and it’s only been two years and we’ve accomplished a lot. I’m very proud of the ethics reform that we passed right off the bat, taking us from having some of the weakest ethics laws in the country to some of the strongest. Very proud of that. I’m proud of what we’ve done from an economic development standpoint, job creation standpoint. Again, we are very pro business and private sector oriented. The first bill that we passed, the first bill signed into law by our new governor, Gov. Bentley, was the Rolling Reserve Act. I’m very proud of that because in my opinion it’s going to do away with proration in the Education Trust Fund. I mean, in essence it’s provides some restraint and forces the legislature to have discipline and not appropriate every dime of money they think is going to be available. I’m proud that we have put that into law. We have followed it, we haven’t had a prorated budget since we took over and I don’t believe we ever will. I’m proud of that.
I’m also proud of the tenure reform. I’m proud that we finally have a tenure law that protects the best teachers and rewards the best teachers instead of protecting the worst. It’s very simple in the business world, if you do a good job then you are rewarded for that and you keep your job. If you do a bad job then you get fired.
Marsh: Ethics reform was huge, and in my opinion it has truly changed the way Montgomery works. Tenure reform is another. By and large our teachers do an excellent job. It’s a reasonable process and from all indications it’s working fine.
Tort reform….we’ve always believed the stronger your business climate can be , it benefits everybody and it benefits your professional sector. The changes in
insurance and retirement with new hires have helped us moving forward.
We’ve had many successes, especially when you look at the pressure this legislature has been under on the financial side. Just look at the rolling reserve act that put us in a position where we may never have proration again. All of these things are very positive. I’m as excited about the next session as much as I’ve been excited about anything. The reform measure will have the ability to save the state 100s of million of dollars, as we get those costs under control and make those dollars available to make sure our retirement and insurance systems are sound.
Ford: Funding the PACT program back in 2010. We generated $547 million through a piece of legislation to help fully fund it at that point in time, and that ‘s kept it afloat these additional years. Also, stopping charter schools, and
sponsoring a pay raise for educators state employees, firefighters and law enforcement.
(Editorial note: Sen. Figures is going into her first year as minority leader.)
AL: What are the best ways for constituents to contact their legislator during a session in order to be involved with the legislative process?
Hubbard: Well, there are a number of ways to reach a legislator. In the House of Representatives especially, you know we’re the closest to the populace. That’s our motto, vox populi, voice of the people. And so, you can contact by email on the legislature’s website. Many of our members, in fact most of our members, have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. But you know there’s nothing better than good old face-to-face time. If you see a legislator at the grocery store or at the coffee shop or whatever, there’s nothing better than sitting down and having a conversation. And picking up the phone, doing it the old fashioned way. If you have something that you’re interested in I can tell you from me as a legislator that nothing means more, and I mean lobbyists are great and we need lobbyists, but nothing means more when a constituent who has personal knowledge of an issue and brings that to your attention and gives you their opinion, it means a lot. And I can tell you that we listen.
Marsh: The best way to contact your legislator is through our website, http://www.legislature.state.al.us/
To contact my office, our website is http://www.alprotem.com/.
Ford: During the session, you can call the main number, (334)244-7600, to get a direct message to me, or you can call the office of the House Minority Leader, 334-353-3091. My email is email@example.com
Figures: Constituents can contact us via our Montgomery and local legislative delegation offices by telephone and making a personal visit, or write us via email or USPS.