Alan Baker, who is the voice of District 66 in the Alabama Legislature, said last week that he feels confident that several of his colleagues are ready to put a drab and mostly non-productive 2017 session behind them and move forward in trying to craft legislation directed at the state’s most pressing problem areas.
Baker, who was elected in 2006 and is beginning the final year of his third term in the House, said the feeling that pervaded within the legislature this year, with the resignation under fire of Gov. Robert Bentley and the installation of new Gov. Kay Ivey, did not make for effective legislation.
“In regards to this past session I would say, as I often get asked … The best way to describe it is that it was a yucky session, a strange and very yucky session,” he told a crowd of about 15 during the August 17 edition of the Atmore Chamber of Commerce’s Breakfast With an Elected Official series. “The controversy with the governor was a constant cloud that was hovering over us the whole time, although during the early part of the session it was more of a distraction, not really interfering with the process.
“But as we got deeper into that session, say a little over halfway through, it became more than a distraction; it became an interference,” he said. “The Ethics Commission, the House Judiciary Committee and the Attorney General were conducting their own investigations, and it began to interfere with the legislative process.”
He shook his head slowly as he noted that “thankfully, we did get the budgets produced. That’s our mandated task each year, to get those budgets crafted.”
The state legislator expressed hope that the body’s 2018 session (set to begin at noon on Tuesday, January 9) will be a less hectic and much more effective one, a session during which he and his colleagues will make some headway in tackling the three biggest drains on the General Fund budget – Medicaid, Infrastructure and Prisons.
“Going forward for this upcoming session, we’ve got what are called ‘The Big 3’; They are ever-present and we need to deal with all three of them constantly,” Baker said. “If we can try and find some solutions and not just temporary fixes year-by-year, we’re going to be a lot better off.”
He cited the continuously upward-spiraling cost of the Medicaid program as the biggest drain on public coffers and revealed that an effort from the recent past to help bring the program’s finances under control failed miserably.
“Medicaid continues to grow, I mean exponentially,” he said. “We keep looking for answers, trying to peel back the layers and see what’s driving these costs up, but we haven’t been able to find any real answers yet. We thought we had found a possible solution with what was called regional care organizations, instead of the fee-based system. We thought it might produce some savings in time … but last year it fell apart, just unraveled.”
The state rep pointed out that badly needed repairs on the state’s roads and bridges system could be a detriment to bringing new business or industry to the state.
“Our roads and bridges are in dire need of not just maintenance, but we need to do things to improve congestion and clog on our interstates,” he said. “That seriously hampers our push to try and pull in more economic development to our state if we don’t stay on track with that. It has been difficult trying to find new revenues to sustain our bridges and our roads.”
The other component of the “three-headed monster” is the state prison system, Baker said.
“With our prisons being overcrowded, we have a need for constructing new prisons throughout the state,” he asserted. “Some think we might be able to refurbish and renovate the old prisons, and maybe some could be, to some extent. Once you get to where the cost (of repair or renovation) is more than 50 percent to get it up to speed, though, they tell you it’s probably better to try and build something new. That’s where we are.”
He said he couldn’t understand the refusal of some lawmakers to move in a direction that will prevent more federal intervention in the state’s correctional network and could put many criminals back on the street before their sentences are served.
“There is some reluctance by many of my colleagues who want to try and have a perfect (prisons) bill,” said Baker. “But I don’t think there ever will be a perfect bill for prisons when you look at all the things that have to be considered. Like with mental health. I’m ready to take some steps forward before the federal government comes in and we’re at their mercy in making decisions.
“If they mandate a percentage, we have got to determine which prisoners to turn out. We’re really at (the federal government’s) mercy at that point. Then we’ll have to build new prisons anyway, sooner or later, one way or the other. It’s a matter of whether the federal government pushes that on us, or we begin to try and do it ourselves.”
He again stressed his hope that more legislators would recognize the urgency in solving the state’s three biggest headaches.
“I hope that a lot of my colleagues on both sides, the House and the Senate, will sort of dig deep and be courageous for some of the votes they need to take going forward,” he said. “I hope that more of them will begin to be more courageous in making some tough votes to try and improve our state in these areas.”