By Representative Danny Garrett
House District 44
MONTGOMERY — Before discussing legislative matters, let me express – on behalf of the residents of District 44 – sincere sympathy to the family and friends of Raven White, the Clay-Chalkville High School junior whose life was senselessly and tragically ended last week as the result of a crime. By all accounts, Raven was a delightful young lady and excellent student. Please remember the family, friends and the CCHS community in your thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.
The 2016 Legislative session will begin on February 2. Since the conclusion of the second special session in September 2015, several joint legislative task forces have been working to prepare for the upcoming session and the results of their work should be evident in the days ahead. These task forces have been meeting to investigate and address the areas of budget reform, pension reform, un-earmarking of tax dollars and potential privatization of the Alcohol and Beverage Control Board.
General Fund public hearings begin this week and will immediately reflect recommendations from the budget reform tax force. The $1.8 billion General Fund has limited growth revenue sources, however, 2/3 of its appropriations are currently used to provide funding for increasing Medicaid and corrections expenses. The legislature will be implementing “zero based budgeting” this session, which will provide more detail and accountability to the budgeting process. In addition, outside forensic accountants will assist legislators as we delve deeper into the details of each budget. In the past, agencies based current year budget request upon the prior years’ budget; under a zero based budgeting approach, agencies will start with a “blank sheet of paper” and will be required to justify requests on a line item basis. The legislature will continue to emphasize reducing the costs and size of state government in the upcoming session.
I am a member of the pension reform tax force, and we have met each month since September. Our committee has received information and has had numerous discussions with representatives of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, the Alabama Policy Institute, the Pew Charitable Trusts and other interested parties. Last year, Alabama taxpayers contributed $900 million to the state pension fund, which was the actuarially required annual contribution. The state pension fund is 67% funded, compared with a national average of 71%; in dollars, the state pension system is $15 billion underfunded. The accounting, investing and funding of state pension plans is a very complex undertaking. Our committee is exploring alternatives that have been implemented by other states s including cash balance plans, hybrid defined benefit and defined contribution plans and other options. The task force passed a resolution stating that it did not intend to make any recommendation that would adversely impact current plan participants and emphasizing that its purpose was to insure the long term viability and sustainability of the state pension system.
I am also a member of the Education Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for the $6.0 billion Education Trust Fund. You may recall that the Education Budget passed both the House and Senate unanimously last year. Going into 2016, the ETF is relatively healthy and should be in good position to support the long term education and workforce initiatives that are so important to our state. Alabama has had success in attracting major industry to our state (several automotive plants, manufacturing companies and other businesses); however, these businesses will not be able to expand in Alabama – and we will not be able to attract new businesses to the state – unless we create an effective local workforce. The legislature will be focused on continuing to support education and will be particularly focused on career and technical training programs that can be provided by our two-year colleges. There is an emphasis in the legislature on pre-K through 2 year college education as we move forward to improve education and economic opportunities in Alabama.
I was also selected to be a member of the House Republican Caucus Platform Committee. Our committee of seven representatives has met with the 72 members of the House Republican Caucus and have heard their individual legislative priorities and recommendations for the upcoming session. The caucus will be meeting prior to the start of the session to consider the committee’s recommendation. I am confident the legislative priorities that will be proposed by the House Republicans will be in lock-step with the views of the vast majority of Alabamians.
I will be filing a number of bills in the opening days of the upcoming session including:
- A bill that will prohibit agencies of the Executive Branch from using taxpayer money to hire lobbyists to lobby the legislature. I carried this bill in last years’ second special session and it passed the House unanimously. Although it passed the Senate committee, the session ended before the Senate could take a final vote.
- A bill that will prohibit a gambling interest from making a political contribution. I am concerned that the gambling lobby – which has unlimited out of state financial resources – not be in a position to exert undue influence over State Government.
- A bill that will restrict the interest rate that predatory lenders can charge on “payday loans”. Currently, payday lenders can charge up to 456% annual percentage rate on these loans. These “quick cash” loan stores are typically located in economically disadvantaged communities and college and university towns. Last year, the payday loan bill I carried passed out of the House Financial Services committee with 38 co-sponsors. Since last session, there has been huge momentum across the state for payday lending reform. A diverse group of Republicans and Democrats is supporting this legislation along with both conferences of the United Methodist Church, the president of the Alabama Baptist Convention, the Alabama Federation of Republican Women, the YWCA, the Episcopal diocese, the Catholic Diocese, several community foundations. In addition, community leaders including former Birmingham Southern College Presidents Dr. Neal Berte and General Charles Krulic, and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Drayton Nabors have been active in these efforts. Aside from the moral issue many of us have with usury, the payday lending model is a debt trap that adversely affects individuals and families all across our state.
- I am meeting this week with representatives from the Alabama Nursing Home Association to solicit their input for legislation that would provide enhance disclosure and transparency for nursing homes who are not meeting industry standards. In December, residents of the Golden Living Nursing Home in Trussville were given three weeks’ to find another home. It was later determined – to the surprise of most everyone — that the facility had been under various investigations and probations for a period of four years. During this time, the facility continued accepting new residents. I believe it is important to develop a better and more comprehensive disclosure program so that this situation does not happen again. Families have a right to know if there are problems with facilities that have been entrusted with their loved ones. I have also spoken with the Department of Public Health and the Governor’s Office about this matter.
- I will also be presenting several bills to provide assistance to small businesses. The backbone of our state economy is small business and we need to provide relief and support to these hard working individuals who comprise these businesses. Several such businesses are operating in our district and they make significant contributions to our community.
I have also been working with the Magnolia homeowners association regarding concerns with the landfill located near the subdivision that is in the Birmingham city limits. We are in contact with representatives from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management regarding our concerns and they have been cooperative. I have also been in contact with the Alabama Freshwater Land Trust concerning abandoned property near Cosby Lake that the city of Clay would like to access for walking trails.
Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have questions, suggestions or wish to share your concerns. It is an honor to serve as your representative.