District 79 Rep. Joe Lovvorn and District 47 Sen. Tom Whatley spoke to members of the business community at the Auburn Chamber of Commerce this week. The state leaders gave highlights from the previous legislative session, but also provided insight into impending issues — like health care and infrastructure — which they hope to address soon.
This year's legislative session marked the first for Lovvorn, who was elected to fill former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard's seat after Hubbard was convicted of 12 felony ethics charges in June 2016. As Lovvorn put it, the session began "under the loom of the impeachment of our governor," but once former Gov. Robert Bentley resigned, Lovvorn said the transfer of power was a testament to Alabama government.
"One thing I was honored to be a part of was to be there to see the transition of our governor — where on one side of the Capitol, we have a governor resigning, and across the hallway, the new governor coming in," Lovvorn said. "We proved that day that our system, which is often flawed, does have continuation of government. That's something we can be proud of."
Lovvorn went on to speak about the General Fund budget's passing, the Education Trust Fund budget, which was unanimously passed, and how he spent his first session working to establish relationships.
"As a new legislator, I've focused on building bridges in Montgomery," he said. "We've still got a lot of political healing that needs to happen ... One thing we all have to remember is we're all in this together. The problems didn't arise overnight and won't be solved overnight."
A couple of those problems that may call for more creative solutions are issues of funding, specifically finding money to fund the ever-growing Medicaid budget and infrastructure needs throughout the state.
As part of the General Fund budget, $93 million was set aside for shortfalls that are sure to occur next year. Lovvorn said it was a tough decision, setting aside so much money when state agencies could have used it well, but Whatley added that the reserve will likely be used to help fund Medicaid.
In 2016, the Medicaid budget was $705 million. This year, it amounted to $796 million, according to Whatley, who said that amount will only increase.
"Next year, Medicaid budget is an estimated $865 million, so we had to put that ($93 million) back in order to not have a real crisis in this next budgeting year," Whatley said. "In Fiscal Year 2019, it's estimated at $895 million. That's almost $900 million in a $2.1 billion General Fund budget, so you're looking at Medicaid continually growing up to that 50 percent mark of your General Fund budget ... We may have to get creative on the way we fund some things."
Another "creative" idea of Whatley's is to forgo trying to pass a gas tax to fund infrastructure projects — a tax that has failed to pass the past three years — and instead, restructure the way Alabama Department of Transportation monies are allocated.
"Our infrastructure across the state is in dire need of repairs," he said. "It's getting to the situation where you're not going to be able to repair it, you'll need to replace it, roads and bridges."
Whatley said he would propose the Alabama Legislature taking over the budgeting process for ALDOT and creating a longterm plan for improvements and funding.
"The business community would come to us as leaders and say, 'This is what we want to see,' and then we can dictate the money out from the Legislature and direct that on the DOT to meet the needs," he said.
He added that not improving infrastructure hurts the state on an economic development level when trying to recruit industry and business.
Other issues that Lovvorn and Whatley are working to address are bringing high-speed Internet to all areas of their districts and continuing work with a committee that will study the impact that self-driving vehicles will have on the state.