2/10/12 Group Watch: First Bills Of The 2012 Session

On Thursday, the legislature passed the first bills of the 2012 regular session. The House passed four bills of general application including a measure to change the name of the Alabama Development Office and Director of Development to the Commerce Department and Secretary of Commerce, respectively. This measure also provides for several persons to be employed outside the merit system to assist the Secretary. They also passed measures aimed at luring data processing centers to locate in the state and expanded tax incentives to the coal mining industry. The Senate passed eight bills of general application including a bill to provide income tax credits for the purchase and installation of irrigation systems, water wells and reservoirs by agricultural entities and to further clarify the statues relating to criminal background checks for the Department of Human Resources and Public Safety.


GOP Wants To Create Jobs During The Session

Republican leaders in the Alabama Legislature say their priority at the beginning of the 2012 regular session in February will be to pass bills that will encourage businesses to create jobs. Senate President Pro-Tem Del Marsh said the first bills he expects to come up for consideration in the Senate are measures that will provide incentives for businesses that create jobs and for new industries that bring jobs to the state.

Likewise, House Speaker Mike Hubbard told members of a Birmingham civic club that Republican House leaders are preparing a slate of bills that will give the state more tools to recruit industry and to help existing industry to expand. He went on to say the No. 1 priority is job creation. The state’s unemployment rate was 8.7 percent in November, which represents an improvement over previous months, but Marsh and Hubbard would like to see the rate lower.

One bill expected to be considered early in the session would provide incentives for companies that hire veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The measure is expected to provide a $2,000 tax credit to employers who hire unemployed veterans. The House is also poised to consider a bill authorizing charter schools in Alabama. Charter schools are public schools that are free from much of the bureaucracy and regulations of traditional public schools.

House Speaker Wants Changes To Retirement

Alabama House Speaker wants changes to the state’s retirement system. Speaker Mike Hubbard says that taxpayers cannot continue to support an investment strategy that cost the state $1 billion in 2011 for public employees’ retirement benefits and matching contributions.

Hubbard said lawmakers are not seeking to “raid the pension fund.” He said he and others want a new retirement plan for new public employees and those who have been in the system less than 10 years. Proposed changes could be addressed during the legislative session that starts on February 7.

Alabama Senator Again Plans Smoking Ban Bill

An Alabama Senator plans to again push comprehensive legislation in the upcoming session to allow voters to decide if they want to ban smoking in most public places in the state.

Democratic Senator Vivian Figures of Mobile say she plans to introduce a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban smoking in places of employment, public places and private clubs.

She has tried for several years to pass bills restricting smoking in public places without success. She says she is particularly concerned about the effect second-hand smoke has on children, causing respiratory infections and other health issues. Veteran observers think the measure will again have difficulty passing.


Governor Bentley Wants Unified Education, General Fund Budget

Governor Robert Bentley has said he plans to ask the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment combining the state’s two budgets and allowing some money now allocated for education to be spent on state agencies. Bentley said Alabama should have a unified budget like 47 other states, but not all of the tax revenue set aside for education must be made available for other uses.

House and Senate leaders say they agree with the governor and that more flexibility is needed in the budget process. They also agree that ample revenue for education must be maintained. The new head of the Alabama Education Association, Dr. Henry Mabry, said there is no way the governor can keep his promises to the schoolchildren if he goes ahead with his plan. According to Mabry, the governor’s plan will result in fewer teachers, large class sizes and possibly a shorter school year. The teachers’ lobby has traditionally opposed any plans to repeal laws setting aside taxes for education. Should the Legislature approve the governor’s proposed constitutional amendment, it would have to be approved by the voters in a statewide referendum.

Children’s Advocacy Group Announces Goals

An advocacy group for Alabama’s children says sustaining the state’s pre-kindergarten program and legislation banning smoking in most public places are among its priorities in the upcoming Legislative session.

VOICES for Alabama Children recently told supporters that its priorities reflect the tough economic times. In addition to sustaining the progress achieved in the pre-K program, VOICES hopes that legislators will likewise sustain the progress in educational programs such as math, science and reading. Other priorities include daycare subsidies for working mothers and children’s health insurance.

New School Chief Salary

The Alabama Board of Education voted to give the new state school superintendent a three-year contract for $198,000 per year. The board voted 6 to 1 to approve the contract for Dr. Tommy Bice.

His contract exceeds that of his predecessor by a mere $37 per year. Board members wasted little time on the salary but took time to debate whether Bice would be given a four-year contract. Dr. Bice said that he is pleased with the three-year deal and looks forward to addressing the challenges facing education in the state. Bice is regarded in state education circles as an “innovator” and “motivator.”

Inmate Labor to Replace Immigrant Workers?

Alabama agriculture officials are considering whether prisoners can fill a labor shortage that the agency blames on the new state law against illegal immigration. The Department of Agriculture and Industries is meeting with south Alabama farmers to look at whether work-release inmates could fill jobs once held by immigrants.

Growing season is coming up, and some farmers fear most of their workers are gone. The agriculture agency says the new law has caused a chronic labor shortage on Alabama farms. State prison officials say the system has about 2,000 work-release prisoners, most of whom already have jobs.

New AEA Leader: Private School Choice is Faith-Based

Published reports indicate that the new head of the teachers union sends his children to a private school in Montgomery for its religious education. Dr. Henry Mabry says that contrary to some news reports, he sees no problem with choices he made regarding the education of his children.

The Alabama Education Association bills itself as the voice of public school teachers and employees. Mabry said the decision to send his children to Holy Cross Episcopal School is a personal faith matter. He said they are able to attend chapel, which is not available in public schools.

Governor Reassures Foreign Industries

Governor Robert Bentley recently voiced concerns about the state’s tough crackdown on illegal immigration law possibly hurting the recruitment of foreign industries and is has been reaching out to foreign executives to let them know the state welcomes them.

The state’s immigration law is regarded as the toughest in the country. The federal courts have put parts of the law on hold, but other provisions are in effect. Concerns with the law surfaced when a German manager with Mercedes-Benz was arrested in Tuscaloosa for not having a driver’s license with him while driving a rental car. Within a week of this episode, a Honda employee from Japan was stopped under similar circumstances near Talladega. Both matters were resolved within hours, but state leaders want to readily assure businesses that Alabama is open for business both foreign and domestic.

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