Montgomery is already a busy place. Starting today, it’s even more so.
Legislators have already been meeting in committees to discuss issues for prisons in hopes of avoiding a federal takeover, education and general fund budgets with a $1 billion offer from the Poarch Creek Indians and even a local bill annexing Wicker Point into the city limits of Alexander City.
Alabama State House Rep. Ed Oliver (R-81) represents Tallapoosa, Coosa and Chilton counties. Entering his second session, Oliver has already been making trips to Montgomery this year for committee meetings to attempt to work out details before legislation makes it to the floor of the House and Senate.
The Poarch Creek Indians have spent millions advertising their offer of $1 billion now and $350 million per year going forward to allow the tribe exclusive rights to gaming and to open two new casinos in the state. Oliver said he and other legislators visited with the Poarch before Christmas but no deal has been made.
“It is all up for bargaining still,” Oliver said. “It’s an offer. One thing the Poarch are offering is to allow the state to run a lottery.”
Oliver said the Poarch want the legislature to approve a bill to allow the measure to be voted on by the citizens of Alabama.
An education lottery is also being considered, according to Oliver, but details are still being discussed. Oliver said one of the things being worked out is how much of the proceeds would be put in the general fund.
The timing of the Alabama Department of Corrections announcing the closing of the majority of Holman Prison in Escambia County doesn’t surprise Oliver.
“The facility is antiquated,” Oliver said. “So are many other prisons in the state. We will address the issue.”
Oliver said one idea is finding a way to staff a state-owned prison currently vacant on U.S. Highway 80 between Selma and Demopolis and the legislaturewill discuss sentencing reforms.
“Most prisoners are going to get out someday,” Oliver said. “The challenge is getting them ready to get out, teaching skills so they can work and be productive in society.”
Another issue with prisons is what is being done about mental health for prisoners even before offenders commit a crime.
“Mental health has rolled into being a prison issue,” he said.
Oliver has co-signed a bill to give judges the ability to deny bond to violent offenders.
The will be no expansion of Medicare, but Oliver said lawmakers have not left rural healthcare out to dry.
“We are looking at ways of increasing reimbursements to help keep rural hospitals,” Oliver said. “The further you get from healthcare, the sicker your population gets.”
Oliver said figuring how to get both nonprofit and private hospitals grants is being discussed. The grants have aided in bringing a rural health clinic to Rockford, and New Site was awarded a grant to help construct a healthcare clinic. Oliver said Rockford’s is a success. New Site is going through the design and bid process and will house providers from Russell Medical.
Other healthcare options being discussed in Montgomery are telemedicine and allowing paramedics to obtain some basic vitals and information to avoid rural ambulances being called out for low level calls.
“If you have one ambulance out on a call to get a patient to an appointment takes away from the ambulance responding to a serious event,” Oliver said. “Often those calls do not get reimbursement.”
Oliver said discussions are being had to increase reimbursements for Medicaid, similar to what happened with Medicare in recent years. The measure is seperate from the Medicare Wage Index.
“Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R-25) has said stabilizing rural hospitals is a priority,” Oliver said.
Medical marijuana is on the table again for legislators after Carly’s Law was renewed last year. Carly’s Law allows for medical marijuana studies through certain programs at UAB. Oliver said he is not opposed to opening up the legistalition a little bit but finding appropriate studies to base legislation on are difficult to find.
“The problem with medical marijuana is it hard to find studies that are objective,” Oliver said. “Sen. Tim Melson (R-1) is heading the commission in Montgomery. He is a doctor. We can’t say it is a cure for opioid addiction. It does help with some pain and seizures. With tumors, it helps some and not others indicating the need for more study. It will be a fansciting bill when it hits the floor. There will be plenty of people both for and against it.”
Oliver said CBD products will be addressed as well. The legislature has some laws on the books but they need to be modified. He said there is great interest in farmers growing hemp but not for CBD products.
“There are some conflicts with the farm bill,” Oliver said. “Ag commissioner Rick Pate has done a great job working with the farmers’ association. Hemp is being looked at as a crop like timber. It can be used to help stiffen paper products.”
Another issue is how to protect employers and employees in a no-drug environment.
State revenues are at an all-time high.
“We have got more money than ever before,” Oliver said. “I foresee good times.”
In the education budget Oliver said money will be made available to help recruit and keep more math and science teachers in rural areas and help for STEM programs.
Roads will also get attention. Even though the new gas tax money hasn’t flowed into projects in Tallapoosa County yet, it’s not a bad thing. Oliver said it has allowed projects to be funded with grants from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) thus allowing gas tax monies to be spent elsewhere.
Oliver said Scenic Overlook road and Camp ASCCA roads are on his priority lists as Tallapoosa County is now a tourist economy.
“(Tallapoosa County commissioner) John McKelvey is doing all he can on Camp ASCCA road,” Oliver said. “We have to maintain roads visitors use because that is the impression they get of us. We have to acknowledge we are tourist dependent.”
Oliver said small things are being done on roads. Signs on Tallapoosa County Road 34 and Highway 50 at intersections with Highway 49 warning cross traffic does not stop has helped lower the number of accidents.
There is one local bill in Montgomery involving Tallapoosa County. It involves the island annexation of Wicker Point. Oliver doesn’t see any problem in the matter being taken up quickly.
“It is already written,” Oliver said.
Oliver said New Site and Dadeville had inquired about annexation through the legislature.
“They haven’t presented anything formally,” Oliver said. “Alexander City is the only annexation I’ve seen in my time in the legislature.”
Gov. Kay Ivey will deliver her State of the State Address at 6:30 p.m. today.