The State of the State address was recently hosted at Northeast Alabama Community College (NACC). The morning began with Dr. David Campbell, NACC president, who explained that the college has been greatly affected by Speaker of the House Nathaniel Ledbetter, Senate Majority Leader Steve Livingston and Representative Mike Kirkland. Campbell credited the workforce building to a bond issue that the legislators got through with Livingston’s help. He also credited the softball fields to appropriations given to the college by Ledbetter and Livingston.
Ledbetter was introduced by Livingston and was the first of the three to speak during the State of the State address. Ledbetter thanked Livingston for his joint efforts, and he thanked the chambers for putting on the event, including Henagar Chamber of Commerce, Fort Payne Chamber of Commerce, Mountain Lakes Chamber of Commerce and Rainsville Chamber of Commerce.
Ledbetter stated that as Speaker of the House, he takes care of the entire State of Alabama. However, Ledbetter reiterated that taking care of the people at home, those who sent him there was his first priority. “This is my home; a lot of you are like family,” he said.
Ledbetter stated that over the last five years over $25 million has been secured for public school systems for projects such as the Collinsville gymnasium, the Ider gymnasium, the Science building at Sylvania and the Physical Science building at Plainview.
Ledbetter stated that over $100 million in road projects has been invested across the districts.
During the last legislative session Ledbetter said that some of the toughest issues were solved. He stated that he always prioritizes Alabama’s economy and works to pass pro business legislation that gives the economy tools to compete on a state, national and international level.
Ledbetter stated that last session the “Game Plan” was passed. This legislation included funds for economic development. Alabama has now become number two in producing automobiles and number one for producing airliners, and is in the top five for shipbuilding. Ledbetter stated that at the rate the economy is growing, new industrial property has had to be developed. Ledbetter went on to state he feels it’s important to continue growing rural Alabama. Although Alabama has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, the Alabama workforce participation rate tells another story. Ledbetter said, “Too many Alabamians are sitting on the sideline.”
Livingston began by thanking all of the utility companies in the area for keeping the power on during the recent freezing temperatures the area endured over the last few weeks.
Livingston and Kirkland then jointly went over several items from the 2023 Legislative Session.
It was announced that the final repayment of $60 million was made to the Alabama Trust Fund (ATF) from the American Rescue Plan Act. This final payment repaid all of the debt to the ATF, which originally totaled $437 million.
American Rescue Plan Act funds were also approved, by near unanimous votes in both the House and Senate to allocate $400 million for water and sewer infrastructure; $225 million for rural broadband expansion initiatives (ADECA); and $100 million in reimbursements to hospitals and nursing homes for eligible expenses related to the COVID 19 pandemic.
In addition, $40 million was earmarked for insurance plans covering public education and state employees and $23 million will be allocated to mental health providers.
General Fund and Education Trust Fund budgets were historic for the second year in a row. At $3 billion, the General Fund budget increased funding for nearly all state agencies, including Department of Corrections, Medicaid Agency, ALEA, Department of Mental Health and other essential state services. State employees also received a 2% cost of living raise under the agreed upon budget.
A supplemental General Fund budget that appropriates unanticipated revenues collected during the last fiscal year was also approved and included various construction projects, debt retirement and some local needs.
The Legislature worked to pass a record $8.8 billion Education Trust Fund Budget and a $2.8 supplemental Education Trust Fund Budget spending plan. The Education Trust Fund Budget was $537 million more than last year’s budget. It allocated $6 billion to K-12 public schools and $2.3 billion to Alabama’s higher education institutions. The budget also provided teachers with a 2% pay raise. Approximately $50 million was appropriated for math and science initiatives designed to prepare students for long 21st century jobs.
Kirkland and Livingston stated that economic indicators point toward a downturn in school funding. In preparation, $344 million of the surplus was placed into a new Education Opportunities Reserve Fund, which operates as a savings account to be used toward the Literacy Act, Numeracy Act and other programs, if revenues falter. Roughly $360 million is being directed toward K-12 construction costs, and another $180 million created a new grant program administered by the Lieutenant Governor’s office to assist with capital projects, security improvements, technology upgrades and other public school needs.
A total combined amount of close to a half billion dollars was returned to Alabamians, via tax cuts.
The Legislature gave final approval on a historic tax cut that slashed the state sales tax on groceries from 4% to 2%. Effective September 1, 2023 the grocery tax was reduced to 3%, and will be further reduced to 2% when the Education Trust Fund revenues grow by 3.5%. The tax cut amounts to $300 million of the roughly $600 million that the state sales tax on groceries brings annually, but expected growth in the Education Trust Fund will cover any loss.
Other cuts included a one-time tax rebate of $150 per filer and the elimination of overtime payroll taxes.
The legislature renewed a package of economic development incentives designed to keep Alabama competitive and at the forefront of industrial recruitment and expansion. This package is also referred to as the “Game Plan.”
The Jobs Act/Growing Alabama renewal increases the incentives cap by $25 million annually for five years.
The SEEDS Act allows the state Industrial Development Authority to facilitate the development for ready made industry sites.
Innovation/ Small Business aims to accelerate growth in Alabama’s innovation economy in rural and underrepresented areas.
Education Improvements included the addition of the Financial Literacy Graduation Requirement. This will require students to pass a course focused solely upon financial literacy and money management, including how to balance a check book.
During the 2023 Legislative Session, Alabama adoption codes were reformed for the first time in over 30 years. Other notable legislation included that which prohibited land purchases from hostile countries and their entities: Russia, China, North Korea and Iran; and legislation that prohibited transgender athletes from participating in athletic activities, except in the sex they were born; legislation that lowered the minimum to borrow from the infrastructure bank from $5 million to $1 million; and raised the population level to qualify as a rural area to 60,000.
In 2023 DeKalb County had a total investment of $26,121,211 in new and expanding industry; Jackson County had a total investment of $36,258,300 in new and expanding industry.
Livingston and Kirkland stated, “Jackson and DeKalb Counties are very fortunate to have so many advocates of workforce development. Jackson County celebrated the completion and grand opening of the Kevin Dukes Career and Innovation Academy in October. This is a state-of-the-art facility which will train our future workforce for years to come. The DeKalb County Technology Center continues to excel in work force training with our own Jonathan Phillips named as CTE Director of the year. The Fort Payne BEAT Center will be another wonderful addition to Career Tech Education in North Alabama featuring programs in Drone Aviation, Electric Vehicle Technology and Building and Construction.” They went on to state, “Northeast Alabama Community College continues to be a leader among community colleges in Alabama and beyond; we are blessed with strong and innovative leadership in Dr. Campbell. We have been proud to support a number of scholarship opportunities and are excited for the new softball team and workforce center. NACC workforce development programs are scheduled to begin classes in its new Workforce Center in Fall 2024. The new building will house programs in Machine Tool Technology, Advanced Design and Manufacturing, Industrial Systems Technology, Mechatronics, Building and Construction Technology.”
ALDOT assisted with several local projects for FY 2023. In Jackson County ALDOT assisted in the resurfacing of north and south bound lanes on Highway 72; Hwy 71 from 35 to 40; and the completion of five lanes through Section.
In Dekalb County ALDOT assisted in continued work on Interstate 59 and sidewalk improvements in Mentone, Rainsville and Fort Payne. Additionally, improvements to the runways at both Scottsboro Municipal Airport and Isbell Field were made.
Jackson County was able to pave approximately 7.67 miles of roadway utilizing approximately $1.2 million in Rebuild Alabama Funds. DeKalb County was able to resurface approximately 41 miles of roadway utilizing approximately $1.1 million in Rebuild Alabama Funds.
RC&D Council continues to remain active and supportive in DeKalb County funding a number of different projects. RC&D projects funded in FY 2023 and projects announced to be funded in FY 2024 total $302,000 in DeKalb and Jackson County combined. A few notable projects include Ider police equipment, Sylvania VFD rescue equipment, Fyffe Special Service Center nutrition program, Collinsville / Cricket Theater lighting, DeKalb County EMA equipment, Cornerstone Christian Academy storm shelter assistance, North Sand Mountain Ag Department raised beds garden project, Rosalie rescue equipment, the Pisgah FFA bike program, Paint Rock VFD rescue equipment, and Macedonia VFD brush truck.
Kirkland and Livingston are each looking forward to the 2024 Legislative Session. Some hot button issues in the upcoming session are likely to include School Choice legislation; additional economic development expansion; election integrity and security; lottery and gaming; ethics reform and labor force participation.