After a momentous freshman year in the Alabama Legislature that saw a gas tax increase, expanded broadband access and an abortion ban become law, Rep. Ed Oliver (R-Dadeville) said he relishes trying to get a lottery proposal to voters, improving prisons and better 911 service in his second year.
“I think next year will be more housecleaning,” Oliver said. “We’re fixing things that should have been done 20 years ago. If Alabama is going to move forward and be competitive with the rest of the nation, there are things we have to do. The gas tax was just the first thing.”
Oliver voted for the gas tax increase to fund infrastructure improvements and said he is proud of the law allowing electric companies to use their rights of way to install high-speed internet lines so broadband can be expanded more economically into rural areas.
“The broadband act is the single most important piece of legislation that we passed,” he said. “The cable companies aren’t going to go put in (broadband) for one house three miles down a road but wherever electricity goes, you can have broadband. People say the technology changes so fast and fiber optic is outdated but if we didn’t do this now, 30 years from now we’d still have nothing.”
Oliver continues to maintain he isn’t pro-gambling — “I have visions of someone selling their kid’s bike to go to the casino,” he said — but wants to see Alabamians vote on a lottery. Given the choice citizens would have had, Oliver said it was better to wait.
“The majority of my constituents want a lottery,” he said.
The Alabama Senate narrowly passed a bill by Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore) that would have allowed paper tickets but no other form of gambling and critics said the legislation was intended to protect electronic gaming at the Poarch Creek Indians’ casinos. A second bill written by Sen. Jim McClendon (R-Springville) would have allowed electronic games at state dog tracks and established a gaming commission. Albritton’s version died in the House and McClendon’s was never brought to a vote.
“Everything is written to benefit somebody,” Oliver said. “Follow the money. One bill got through and it was a terrible bill. The House couldn’t even get it to the floor. I’m not a big pro-gambling person but I don’t like to see our dollars scooting off into other states.”
Alabama is one of five states — Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah are the others — without a state lottery and the only Deep South state without one.
“I’m knee deep in that right now,” Oliver said. “I talked with (Victoryland Casino founder Milton McGregor’s son-in-law) Dr. (Lewis) Benefield, I’ve seen the speaker (of the house Mac McCutcheon) and I’ve talked to the Indians. Something needs to be resolved. I have a lot of empathy for the Creeks but every year that goes by there are millions of dollars our kids don’t get. The Albritton bill favored the Poarch Creek Indians. Dr. Benefield is sitting there at Victoryland empty because he can’t do the same thing the Poarch Creek Indians are doing.
“I want the Poarch Creek Indians to be successful but I want this to be fair. I think we’re closer to having a deal between these different groups than ever before.”
Oliver said the Poarch Creek Indians are looking for a compact to protect their electronic gaming operations.
“I met with representatives of the Poarch Creeks last month,” he said. “They’re looking for a compact. I hope we come up with something fair and beneficial to the state. I’ve studied South Carolina’s (lottery) and they’re the same size as us and their lottery works pretty well. It makes about $400 million a year.”
Oliver said 93% of all money coming to the legislature is earmarked and the lottery should be used to bolster the general fund, which is at $2.19 billion, instead of the Education Trust Fund, which is at $7.13 billion.
“The fight is always about who gets the money,” he said. “We need to generate money for the general fund.”
Oliver was blunt about the condition of Alabama’s beleaguered prison system — “You can’t imagine a place worse than an Alabama prison,” he said — but money alone won’t fix it even if there was enough for Gov. Kay Ivey’s $900 million proposal to have private companies build three new prisons and then lease them in an effort to meet the U.S. Department of Justice’s mandate to get overcrowding and violence under control.
“There is no money to build new prisons,” Oliver said. “The governor is trying to find something we can afford and meet the standards.”
Oliver said education and rehabilitation must be watchwords in prison reform.
“If we expand pre-kindergarten, we’ll see the return on the back end by keeping them in school longer,” he said. “We have to try and figure out how to rehab people. That’s our biggest failure so far. An inmate gets out not prepared to get a job and we’ve set that person up to fail again.”
The most prominent legislation Oliver is working on for the 2020 session is a comprehensive 911 bill to establish training standards and standardize 911 centers.
Oliver, a former air ambulance and military pilot, said he was inspired to write the bill after a 68-year-old woman was abducted and raped near Tuskegee in January. The victim was able to call a family member during the carjacking but her husband’s calls for help went unheeded, Oliver said.
“It’s one of the most pathetic pieces of government work I ever saw,” he said. “It’s the person on the phone who makes all the difference. Her husband called 911 and that call went three places and nobody ever launched. She got away on her own.
“I want to standardize the 911 centers the best we can so people can have a reasonable expectation of the services they can expect. It’s all over the board. Let’s say you wreck out here in Dadeville and somebody calls 911. Does it go to the local police or sheriff? Does it go to the local PSAP (public safety answering point)? Is one person operating it? How qualified are they? Who are they linked with? In Huntsville, they have 300 folks in their PSAP and they’ve got every expertise. A lot of smaller PSAPs, the ones that get one call every five hours, those will probably need to be consolidated.”
Oliver said the legislature considered 1,070 bills in the 2019 session, 533 passed and 367 went to Ivey.