Senator Steve Livingston has returned from the Alabama State Senate session. As usual, the Senate has 30 legislative days inside of 105 calendar days. When the Senate met in January, they were immediately called into special session by Governor Kay Ivey to deal with American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. Livingston stated there were $1.06 billion allocated to ARPA with some of those funds used to back the unemployment compensation fund.
“We did that intentionally because businesses will be able to pay, they match that rate, so that will put the fund back at pre-pandemic rate, which is a tax benefit to the businesses,” stated Livingston.
Some funds, $772 million, were put back into Alabama for resources around water/sewer infrastructure and broadband infrastructure.
“We established ADEA, which is the Alabama Digital Expansion Authority through broadband,” he said. “We put $225 million into that program.”
Livingston also stated that in session, a bill was passed allow municipalities and counties that were also receiving ARPA funds independent of the state to be able to use their monies in conjunction. For example, the North Alabama Electric Co-op could apply for a state grant while the county or the city they’re operating in could do the match part of it, allowing the funds to stretch.
Some business tax cuts took place. The Business Privilege tax was reduced on small businesses.
A constitutional carry amendment on guns for second amendment rights was also passed.
Livingston explained how sheriff departments rely on the pistol program fees for providing equipment for their departments and deputies. Some of the funds are used for cars, some are used for equipment for deputies like protective vests they must have.
“One of the concerns,” Livingston stated, “we were trying to make sure they didn’t lose access to that money. From other states that had passed similar laws, it was about a 25% reduction in pistol permit fees. People want to be able to buy those because they want to be able to go across the state line and have an acknowledged permit fee to do that. That will still be the case now.”
According to Livingston, the sheriff departments will be compensated if they show a loss. For example, if a sheriff department lost 25%, there is a fund set up to compensate them. After filling out an application and providing proof of the previous year’s funds along with the current year’s funds to show proof of a loss, the department can be compensated to make their fund whole.
Livingston stated several items on farm packages were passed to make doing business easier for farmers to make sure they are still able to feed us.
“One of the things I was able to participate in was the Sweet Grown Bill. Currently if I’m growing tomatoes, corn and other veggies, and I want to sell it, I don’t have to pay sales tax as a farmer. This bill took it a step further. If you were growing strawberries, and you wanted to sell strawberry jam or preserves, a value-added product, it would allow you to sell without paying that sales tax. I always like to help farmers because I like to eat,” Livingston stated.
Election laws were also beefed up. In the state of Alabama a voter ID or some other government-issued ID is required to vote.
“If you have to show your ID to buy a drink or a pack of cigarettes at the convenience store, you have to show it to vote. Secretary John Merrill has been very emphatic that he’ll come out to your home and help you get a voter card if you need one. I’m also sure the good folks at the courthouse can take care of you, too.”
Another change also addresses cracking down on voting in Alabama and then driving out of state to vote again. States will be sharing data back and forth to keep track.
A military bill package was also passed, dealing with reciprocity for military families who are coming to Alabama.
“If you’re an RN from another state, your credentials will count here. Same for cosmetologists. We’re trying to make Alabama more military-friendly. We have, I think, some of the better laws in the country with that, and that will continue to happen,” he stated.
According to Livingston, the single largest education trust fund budget was passed at $8.26 billion. The bill also gave employees inside education a raise and put in more opportunities for teachers to go forward and further with step raises.
“We had a great entry level salary, but you reach five years, and you kind of hit a bump where you didn’t get anywhere. So, we’ve changed some of that. With the pandemic coming on, obviously the challenges teachers have in the classroom, we had teachers retiring in record numbers. Today they’re calling and saying they want to come back. So, I think that’s big news for us.”
Recently Northeast Alabama Community College made a big announcement of their new planned Workforce Development Center that will offer everything from welding to cybersecurity in a $25-$26 million facility.
“Representative Ledbetter and I were successful in keeping the supplemental procreation. We had $1.1 million to Northeast to help them buy state-of-the art equipment for the classrooms. I appreciate his help on that. In the same appropriation, we got $950,000 for the Career and Innovation Academy for the new Jackson County tech school. We want to be able to train students on new equipment and tools. I was very much proud of that.”
Livingston continued, “They’re not trying to train somebody for a job they don’t know is out there. They’re working with our industries. HTPG is a perfect example of that. They had so much turnover that their employees didn’t have journals for their machines. They didn’t have training facilities,” Livingston stated. “So we worked with the State and with Northeast and made sure we were able to put a training program together. We put their manuals together for them so they can train their own folks now.”
The Numerancy Act passed, putting focus on K-12 and mathematics, also setting benchmarks for reading. Along with this, the Bathroom Bill also passed, stating children K-5 will be going to their prospective gender-assigned bathrooms while in the school facility and not to the gender they identify with. In addition, an amendment was added stating Alabama students K-5 would also not be taught any transgender-education in the school system.
Livingston stated the general fund budget is sitting at $2.7 billion with the trust fund now fully repaid. Previous legislators borrowed $1.2 billion in 2009. Livingston stated the trust fund is approaching $4 billion of which legislators can use the interest off of in different ways.
“Inside of that,” Livingston stated, “We’ve increased our spending for mental health. We’ve put 30 more mental health coordinators in our school systems, so every one of our school systems in the next cycle will have a mental health coordinator. There are some 40,000 suicides annually for mental health issues, and if we can get that addressed early on in the school system, if we can identify them, maybe we can save some of those folks.”
Three more crisis care centers were also added across the state.
A reserve fund for the general fund is now fully funded.
“We owe a lot of what that is to our predecessors who came in 2010 who served in Legislature. We’ve been very fiscally conservative since Republicans took over in 2010, and we continue to do that,” he stated.
Livingston continued, “I will tell you there is some money that has not been spent. We will have some carryover next year because we don’t think we’ll be on good times all the way through. Obviously we’re seeing numbers of inflation and record prices of gasoline and other things, so we feel like the economy will dip down a little bit. There is some money in the general fund that has been set aside in addition to what we can carry over from next year. We feel like Medicaid is going to take a big hit next year. We’ll wait and see.”
Youth leadership groups came down to visit with the Legislators, including the local Chamber of Commerce group, who visited with last year’s leadership group.
“We got to spend a little bit of time in the state house with them here at the end of the session. I was glad to have the opportunity to spend time with them and offer a little insight.”
The Legislative Delegation is located at 100 East Peachtree Street in downtown Scottsboro, and their number is 256.218.3090.