By Mary Sell
A gasoline tax increase to fund road improvements is expected to be a major topic of the 2019 Alabama legislative session.
“I’ve heard the governor say that’s her No. 1 priority,” says Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper. “That means it will be a priority for the Legislature.”
Gov. Kay Ivey hasn’t yet announced all of her legislative goals for the session that begins March 5, but prison reform and funding, General Fund demands and education initiatives are expected to have lawmakers’ attention during the 15-week session. A proposal for a statewide lottery also will return in 2019.
Proponents aren’t referring to it as a gas tax, but a road infrastructure improvement plan.
“We’ve not done anything related to infrastructure in 26 years,” Reed says about the last statewide gas tax increase. “We’ve got bridges and highways that are in disrepair across our state.”
The state’s gas tax last was raised by 5 cents in 1992, bringing it to 16 cents a gallon. That’s split between the Alabama Department of Transportation and cities and counties. Since 1992, road construction costs have increased sharply, proponents of an increase argue.
Details of the new proposal have not been released. Attempts to raise the tax have died in recent years, and lawmakers say success in 2019 will depend on compromise among cities and counties about how new revenue would be distributed.
“(How money is divided) between the state and counties and counties and municipalities, it’s just going to have to be ironed out,” says Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence. “It’s doable, but people are just going to have to have cooler heads and realize there are needs everywhere.”
Meanwhile, some education of the public is needed to let people know the significant need for road improvements, Reed says.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, says revenue to fund the state’s education budget in 2020 is expected to be “several hundred million” more than this year’s $6.6 billion. He’s chairman of the Senate’s education budget committee.
“I think a K-12 pay raise is in order,” Orr says. “That would probably include the (community college system). More money should also be available for universities and K-12 operations.
“A lot more of money year over year, it certainly adds to the capacity to meet the needs around the state,” Orr says.
Trying to improve young students’ literacy and making sure they’re reading well by the third grade also will be in legislation in 2019.
Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, is chair of the House Education Policy Committee. She said several groups and the governor’s office are working on a literacy bill.
“It’s very similar to what Mississippi did, and they’re having amazing results,” Collins says. “We want to have amazing results.”
Included in Mississippi’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act of 2013 is a requirement that most third-graders are reading on or above grade level before moving on to fourth grade.
Collins said the bill also will include a teacher-training component and accountability measures for school systems.
Collins also expects a bill to make sure all high schools have computer science classes.
Many schools currently do not, she says.
Melson, new chair of the Senate Education Committee, said there also will be school safety legislation. He plans to sponsor a bill that would allow retired law enforcement officers to be armed school resource officers without going through the training new officers receive.
Alabama is one of a few states with separate budgets and revenue streams for education and non-education agencies and departments. While there’s more growth in the education budget, the other, the General Fund, which reached $2 billion in 2018, is a constant challenge for lawmakers and the governor.
In the 2020 General Fund budget, lawmakers say, increased demands will include more money for the state’s aging and understaffed prisons and mental health care for inmates.
Last year, a federal judge declared mental health treatment in Alabama prisons to be “horrendously inadequate.” U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson cited “persistent and severe shortages of mental-health staff and correctional staff, combined with chronic and significant overcrowding.”
“I believe Gov. Ivey will be bringing a long-term proposal on the prison facilities issues, mental health being tied int that,” Orr says as a member of the General Fund committee.
Some lawmakers have said they expect Ivey to lease prison space from private companies, a move that wouldn’t require legislative approval. Proposals to borrow money to build new prisons died in previous sessions.
Another cost increase in 2020 will be health insurance for children. About 178,000 Alabama children receive health care funded through the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program. Some of those children are on Medicaid and others are enrolled in All Kids, a program for low- and middle-income families.
Congress earlier this year extended CHIP for 10 years, but states will have to start paying for a portion of the program in 2020.
State Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, earlier this year said an 11.5 percent match in 2020 will cost the state about $30 million to $35 million. In future years, the match will be more than 20 percent.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Alabamians voted not to allow a statewide lottery.
Legislation to give them a chance to vote again has died in the Statehouse in recent years. Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, plans to again sponsor legislation, but some details — including what would be allowed and how the new revenue would be spent — are still to be decided. In 2016, McClendon said his bill would bring in $427 million annually for the state. Most of the revenue from McClendon’s 2016 proposal would have gone to the state’s General Fund.
Since the November elections, 39 of the state’s 140 legislators are new.
“I’ve got to talk to these new folks about what their feelings are,” McClendon says.
Reed said the public has an interest in again voting on a lottery, but lawmakers have to find a proposal that Alabamians will support.
“I personally feel the people of Alabama would be more supportive of a lottery that went to education,” Reed says. “I think that would probably be a more popular option, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to find ways to take care of the General Fund.”
Lawmakers will be in Montgomery in early January for an organizational session prior to the regular session. After that, they can start pre-filing their bills.
Reed said proposals to reform the state ethics laws for public officials and employees are likely, as are efforts to expand the state’s pre-kindergarten program and work force development initiatives.
“We have an unemployment rate under 4 percent and companies that are struggling to find skilled trades employees,” Reed says.
Collins said she plans to again sponsor Fetal Heartbeat Act legislation. It would prohibit abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be found prior to the procedure. Opponents of previous versions of the bill have said it would end abortions after about eight weeks of pregnancy. Abortion is currently legal in Alabama until the 20th week of pregnancy.
Alabama lawmakers will decide the state’s two operating budgets for the 2020 fiscal year, which begins next Oct. 1 when the legislative session begins in March.
The Education Trust Fund supports K-12 schools and two- and four-year colleges and universities. Its major revenue streams are the individual and corporate income tax, sales tax, utility tax and use tax. In fiscal 2019, its total appropriations are $6.63 billion.
The General Fund budget supports most non-education agencies, including Medicaid and corrections — its two largest expenses. Its major revenue streams are the insurance company premium tax, use tax, cigarette tax, ad valorem tax and Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board taxes and profits. Its 2019 appropriations are $2.03 billion.