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January 22, 2014

Local legislators talk issues with constituents at Cullman town hall

CULLMAN — Local legislators met with their Cullman constituents Monday night to discuss issues ranging from medical marijuana to the Common Core in education and the Affordable Care Act.

The town hall forum began with an overview of the state’s dire financial situation: no real revenue growth expected in the general fund, ballooning Medicaid and corrections spending and growing unfunded state retirement programs. Alabama Sen. Paul Bussman, R- Cullman, called the presentation of the upcoming fiscal year ahead of legislators “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

“We have a tremendous challenge ahead,” he told the audience of roughly two dozen gathered inside First Baptist Church in Cullman. “We have to pay back $188 million over the next six years with a stagnant general fund. We’ve also got to get Medicaid and the prison budgets under control because we can’t afford to continue spending our money there at the expense of our other services.”

The state’s Medicaid and corrections spending has grown from 34 percent of the general fund in 1984 to 57 percent of it currently, Bussman said. And although $1 billion in expenses has been cut from state government, Alabama’s general fund revenues have yet to recover from the economic downturn and return to 2008 levels.

At the Republican- controlled state capitol continues to focus on streamlining government this year, Rep. Randall Shedd, R- Fairview said his goal would be to get agencies working together to be more efficient.

Moving on from finances, Bussman and state Rep. Mac Buttram, R-Cullman, Ed Henry, R- Hartselle, and Shedd fielded questions from the audience. When asked about mandatory drug testing for those receiving public benefits, Henry said legislators are working on a new version of a similar bill proposed last session that would require people with prior drug convictions to submit to drug tests to receive benefits.

Wayne Blissard of Cullman asked why the state continues to operate Alabama Beverage Control (ABC) stores when it could close them and save millions. Last session, Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, proposed a bill to eliminate the state’s 169 ABC stores and their 600 employees at a projected savings of $46 million.

“The thinking with that was the free market would take over, but the problem is the list of people who have these leases on ABC stores are a who’s who of politicians in the state,” Bussman said.

The legislators also touched on medical marijuana with discussion of a bill proposed this session, HB-104, which would allow patients with debilitating medical disorders to legally use cannabidiol (CBD) — a nonpsychoactive cannabinoid found in marijuana — if prescribed by a doctor. Henry said the bill’s sponsor Rep. Mike Ball, R- Madison, had “an uphill battle” getting it passed due to the politics surrounding legalization of any form of marijuana. Bussman said research has shown CBD has medicinal value but possible abuse of it and how to properly control its dispensation is what concerned him. Buttram said his concern was that marijuana was a gateway drug for other stronger drugs.

“What they’re doing in Colorado and Washington, we won’t be doing that in the state of Alabama,” Henry said.

The Affordable Care Act which took effect this year was another popular topic among constituents. Raymond Pierce of Cullman asked legislators if there was anything that could done to “protect citizens from the negative effects of Obamacare on citizens.”

Comparing the health care overhaul to the federal government lowering speed limit on highways and withholding funding from states that didn’t comply, Bussman said the feds were “holding all the cards” when it came to ACA.

Blissard also asked how the recently-approved Common Core curriculum was going to help Alabama’s high school graduation rate. Buttram said the goal of the Common Core is to raise education standards so that they are uniform across the state and the country. He said 34 percent of high school graduates that go on to college have to take remedial classes with no college credit to get them ready for regular college courses.

“We want our children to be prepared for college and careers,” Buttram said, “and we’re woefully failing them.”

Other topics that legislators discussed included constitutional amendments, the Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program (ATRIP), the consolidation of law enforcement agencies, a proposed “conscience bill” that would allow medical professionals to opt-out of performing abortions without facing discipline from employers and legislation to offer incentives for adoption and remove restrictions on foster parents who want to adopt.

* Tiffeny Owens can be reached by email at towens@cullmantimes.com or by phone at 256-734-2131, ext. 135.

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