Legislative delegation set to take up budget next week
by Will Heath
ST. CLAIR COUNTY — County representatives said they were eager to discuss the 2013 General Fund budget during the coming legislative session.

The Alabama House of Representatives will hear the budget this week; the $1.75 billion budget passed out of committee last week. It comes before the House for consideration Tuesday.

“We’re going to be OK,” said Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston. “It’s not good, but it’s not as bad as it has been. We’ll definitely have a balanced budget; we have to put it all together and see where it goes.

“What we’re trying to do is not cut services, but skim back certain things, and services that are just accessories. Some that we’ve really got to have, we’ve got to find whatever it takes. I think we’ve done that this time.”

The largest part of the budget — more than $600 million, according to Rep. Jim McClendon, R-Springville — is devoted to Medicaid costs. As chairman of the House Health Committee, McClendon has overseen public hearings regarding Medicaid reform. The package of bills related to reforming Medicaid will come before the House, along with the budget.

“We’ve reached an agreement with the providers on how the revision’s going to occur, so they’re going to feel most comfortable if all those bills travel together,” McClendon said Friday.

The legislation would essentially divide the state into “regions” for Medicaid, with each region presided over by a care provider. McClendon said he believes this will help stem the tide of rising costs by forcing each region to be more efficient in its operation.

“What we’re going to do is farm that risk out to regions around the state,” McClendon said. “Those regions will get a fixed amount of money to work with. Those organizations will now be at risk, instead of the taxpayer.

“Theoretically, if they manage it well, they can show a profit. But if they’re at risk, they can also show a loss.”

Rep. Mack Butler, R-Rainbow City, said he was excited to pass legislation that will allow more free exercise of religion within public schools.

“My intent with the bill, is to actually put prayer back in school,” he said. “It would not identify a religion; it would be for all religions.

“Basically, a lot of (religious) things are already legal; this bill just reinforces it.”

Rep. Dickie Drake, R-Leeds, said he has heard from many in his district regarding Common Core, a set of federal curriculum standards for high school students. He said many have contacted him from both sides of the issue.

“I’m still torn on that,” Drake said. “I’ve had some teachers tell me it’s a good thing. I don’t know which way to go on that just yet.”

Legislation that would allow Alabama to opt out of the standard remains in committee debate in the Alabama Senate. Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, said the state already sets high enough standards for itself.

“Alabama has very high standards,” Beason said. “We’ve been improving every year compared to other states. It’s my feeling we should go back to the standards we had before 2010. These standards are not better than what we were doing on our own.”

Del Marsh, president pro tem of the Senate, introduced legislation that would reform Alabama’s payday lending industry.

According to a release from his office, the bill enforces the use of a preexisting centralized database to keep track of borrowers, prohibits borrowers from taking out more than six loans per year and reduces the associated fees from $17.50 per $100 borrowed to $12.50 per $100 borrowed.

“In the past few years especially, we’ve seen numerous attempts at reforming the pay day lending industry with little or no success,” Marsh said. “While most agree that reforms are necessary, there’s never been a consensus on implementation.

“We’ve listened to all sides on this issue, and after working closely with State Banking Superintendent John Harrison, we have a fair and responsible bill that’s ultimately in the best interest of those served by this industry.”

The Legislature returns to session Tuesday.

Contact Will Heath at wheath@thestclairtimes.com.

© 2013