As the Alabama Legislative session, which began Jan. 9, continues, lawmakers are working to hone budgets and push bills that benefit their communities and the state.
District 79 Rep. Joe Lovvorn and District 27 Sen. Tom Whatley, who both represent Auburn residents at the Capitol, recently sat down with The Villager to talk about education, infrastructure and bills they are sponsoring.
Lovvorn said his priority is education and that being appointed to the Education Ways and Means Committee has allowed him to be closely involved in the budgeting process, which began in the House this year.
A draft of the education budget is expected to be completed next week and then go up for a vote in the House before heading to the Senate, Lovvorn said. As of now, the draft is “very rough,” he added, but he has been able to fight for line items he feels are important to Auburn.
One such item is the renewal of $5 million in state funding to go to Auburn University’s Aviation Program, which is currently expanding with a new $8.7 million facility that will house classrooms and a flight simulator lab, among other things.
Lovvorn said the program has also received substantial contributions from Delta Airlines, and he feels it is important the state also shows support.
"I think in education, on the higher education level, private and public partnerships are going to be very important going into the future," he said. "(Delta) knows pilots can be trained here, logistics personnel can be trained here, and I think it's going to be a huge job creator for our community, for our university and for our state because being so close to Atlanta, there are so many pilots that live in Alabama and contribute right back into the community."
Whatley said he hopes to also see more money allocated to Auburn University for Poultry Science Technology so the department could move into a facility of its own and out of Auburn Research Park. He also said the budget could contain K-12 teacher raises and a one-time bonus for retired state education employees.
The education budget would also increase funding to the state's pre-K program, which won't be considered fully funded for several more years, as well as to K-12 education.
"My priorities are to maximize the funding we have for our pre-K through 12 and to maximize the funding for Auburn University," Lovvorn said. "It's very important for our district, and I feel we're going to be happy with that funding process at this point."
Lovvorn is also sponsoring HB261, a bill that would offer incentives to math and science teachers. Trends show a decline in teachers in those subjects, and this bill would work to reverse that.
"It's helping fill that void in math and science teachers," he said. "The way the incentive would work is it pays you back on your federal loans if you go to a school in Alabama, receive a teaching certificate in math or science, then return to a public school in Alabama and be a resident in Alabama. We will pay you up to $7,500 per year toward your student loans."
Lovvorn said the bill has passed through the education committee and will move onto the House floor.
In the Senate, Whatley is sponsoring a number of bills.
He hopes to get a hearing this week on SB168, a bill that would offer incentives to beginning farmers.
"You've got a lot of guys that are in the production agriculture business, whether beef, swine, poultry or crops, that are getting into the retirement age," he said. "This bill allows older generational farmers to rent or sell their land for agriculture production purposes to a younger farmer who will keep that land in agriculture production for a period of time. This allows for a tax credit for that farmer doing it for the first time, and hopefully it will allow for easier access into production agriculture for guys and girls just starting out."
He said the bill would curtail any financial disadvantage young farmers may face when trying to start out on their own as well as prevent family farms from becoming corporate farms — something he fears could be inevitable.
"Going into production agriculture is rather expensive because you have to have land, equipment, seed, cattle, livestock," he said. "With less and less people going into production agriculture, what I believe you're going to see is more and more corporate farms and the family farm disappear from America."
Whatley also aims to introduce a bill that would put Alabama construction companies in a position where they could construct the border wall and ship it to Texas, should the federal government move forward with plans to build said wall. The bill would provide incentives to companies that have the means to take on such a large project.
"It would give our company in Alabama the ability to compete a little bit better for that wall business and just more jobs for the state," he said. "If it's going to be built, let's get our folks in a position to have the best opportunity to get to build."
He is also is working on a bill that would, for a period of time, waive state fees and registration costs for veterans starting their own businesses.
"It's just something to help that veteran ease into his or her business," he said. "It would not waive taxes, but state fees."
Both Lovvorn and Whatley discussed the importance of doing something about infrastructure. One problem is finding a funding solution.
For the past few years, a gas tax to fund infrastructure improvements has been proposed but has never passed. Since revenue bills must originate in the House, Whatley said he and other senators are waiting for a proposal so they have something to work with.
"I signed a bill with Sen. (Gerald) Dial (R-Chambers). It's not a bill that increases the gas tax, but it's a bill that pledges us to do that if the House did," he said. "I personally think, looking down the road, we are in a position where if we don't do something about our bridges and our roads, we can really put ourselves in an economic disadvantage in job creation and job retention, looking decades down the road."
Lovvorn said infrastructure is a priority for the Republican caucus, but he has not seen anything of substance originate in the House yet regarding infrastructure. He said he would support legislation for a revenue source, whether that be a gas tax or something else.
"The federal government has made it clear they're going to make infrastructure a priority," he said. "With that, they're going to ask for states to offer match funds. Right now, we do not have a model to provide adequate matching funding for what may come down from a federal level. I feel it is important for us to address that or we're going to miss the boat on the federal dollars for it if we don't have something in place."
To check the status of House or Senate bills or to read them in their entirety, visit www.legislature.state.al.us.