A few weeks into the legislative session, here are the most important issues facing the Alabama Legislature
While only a few of these items made the formal list of platform legislation for the Alabama House and Senate majorities, here are several of the most important issues facing the state:
- State Budgets – Financial issues have plagued the State of Alabama for years, particularly since the last recession. Uncertainty over state prison issues, Medicaid expenses that invariably grow every year and heavily earmarked revenue streams make the task of enacting balanced budgets rather difficult. Gov. Robert Bentley’s net tax increase has met a cool reception in the Legislature. Many legislators remain reluctant to the idea of combining the state’s budgets to put Alabama on the same footing as the vast majority of states around the nation, but doing so while removing revenue earmarks would give the state significantly more budgetary flexibility.
- Charter Schools – Public charter schools seem likely to pass in Alabama this session. The current language has received high remarks for accountability, transparency and local control. Even opponents of the bill are highlighting some of its positive attributes. Perhaps the greatest challenge with charter schools, should they become a reality in Alabama, is avoiding the feeling that the work is done on improving public education in Alabama. School choice is important, but the students who do not use the new available education lifelines still deserve and need the attention of Alabama’s political leaders.
- State Prison Capacity – Alabama’s prisons are over capacity to the point where failure to address those issues will possibly result in federal intervention. The problem is that the state’s General Fund is facing a deficit, and most voters do not want to see their resources used to improve conditions for prisoners over other priorities. Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, has worked tirelessly to draft a bill that could possibly garner enough votes to begin to address the problem. His measure would send parole violators immediately to a local jail for several days, rather than sending them to prison for months in the future. It also creates a class D felony category that would remove some nonviolent offenses from the state’s habitual offender act. Moving legislation on prisons may not be politically easy, but failing to act is not an viable option for the state.
- State Employee Pension Reform – State employee pensions are about as fun to talk about as watching paint dry. While benefits that are earned must be protected, the state’s defined benefit plans are out of step with the retirement benefits offered to the majority of the state’s workforce. Future employees should be moved to a cash balance plan or some type of hybrid plan that takes the burden of guaranteeing retirement income off the Alabama taxpayers, who likely do not enjoy those type of plans themselves. The move could save the state significant financial resources in the future that could be redeployed to growing fiscal obligations like Medicaid.
- Innovator Liability – In 2013, the Alabama Supreme Court created a radical new tort theory called “innovator liability,” which it used to hold a brand-name pharmaceutical company responsible for injuries caused by the use of its competitor’s generic medicine. The court aligned Alabama’s tort law with lower courts in California and Vermont. The decision even raised eyebrows nationally. For instance, The Wall Street Journal criticized the decision, noting that “the court’s judgment contradicts decades of Alabama tort and product liability precedent.” Holding a company liable for products that they never produced or sold is far from the business friendly climate Alabama’s legislators have vowed to create.
The Alabama Legislature only has 30 legislative days in the regular session to take on such a wide range of issues. What priorities do you think are more important than these five? What would you like to see the legislature address?