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Budget shortfalls major concern

The Alabama Legislature returned to Montgomery Tuesday for its 2005 regular session, facing a General Fund with expected shortfalls in revenue.

Representing Butler County at the state level for District 90 is Rep. Charles Newton (D-Greenville) and Sen. Wendell Mitchell, (D-Luverne).

Both men expect it to be a full session with many different issues and needs dominating their days.

As widely reported, lawmakers expect a $350 million shortfall in the state’s General Fund budget.

This budget fund the state’s agencies and programs.

Newton said Monday that most of the discussion prior to Tuesday’s opening was more about the needs of those agencies and programs.

&uot;We analyze the needs during the preliminary session meetings,&uot; he said.

&uot;A great deal of time is not spent on discussions about new taxes or revenue.

We tend to look to see if the needs of the state are the same as last year or if we have more needs that we didn’t have in previous years.&uot;

With the expected shortfall, Newton said he has tremendous concern about the General Fund budget.

&uot;I have a tremendous concern about the General Fund and how we are going to meet the needs of the citizens and keep spending within our limits,&uot; he said.

&uot;Our challenge is to make sure that we keep the services at the same level we now enjoy.&uot;

One of the biggest expenses in the state is the Medicaid program.

Newton said to keep services at their current level; there must be an additional $126 million in funding found to operate the program.

&uot;Everything relating to health care is costing an awful lot of money and it keeps going up,&uot; he said.

One of the proposals currently going around is a 5-cents tax on soft drinks, but Newton said he has an issue with that.

&uot;One of the concerns I have about a soft drink tax is that the money raised is only earmarked for Medicaid,&uot; he said.

&uot;In Alabama we have earmarked our revenue more than any other state.

By earmarking the revenue from the soft drink tax, we limit our ability to move funds around.&uot;

He said he doesn’t support the idea of earmarking the funds, especially with how long the taxes can stay on the books.

&uot;What is going to be happen in a few years when we need money elsewhere, but we have a huge surplus in Medicaid?&uot;

he said.

&uot;We just need to careful of how we earmark these funds because it restricts flexibility.&uot;

He also said he expects teachers to get a pay raise this year, although he doesn’t expect Paul Hubbert’s Alabama Education Association of getting its way with a 7 percent raise.

&uot;The latest figures show that Alabama is one of the lowest paid states when it comes to teacher’s pay,&uot; he said.

&uot;I predict that there will be a pay raise for teachers, but not at the proposed 7 percent.&uot;

He said the economy has picked up and continues to do so.

&uot;That is good news for the Education Fund,&uot; he said.

&uot;Our General Fund has not experienced the same growth.

However, there are so many demands on the education dollar.

The challenge is balancing the needs such as the reading programs, textbooks and also funding our public college and universities.&uot;

Another hot topic expected to be a part of the session’s history is a ban on same-sex marriage.

Alabama already has a law on the books banning such marriages, but this would actually be a constitutional amendment.

&uot;From my understanding there are several different proposals floating out there,&uot; he said.

&uot;The difference I’m hearing is that this would be an amendment.

My prediction is that some type of amendment will be passed and I believe I can be supportive of one of those bills.&uot;

As for Newton’s own legislative agenda, he will introduce two bills this session. One will be House Bill 39.

If passed into law, it would set one years a minimum transferable period for home warranties.

The second one is House Bill 56 and will relate to the duties of the Alabama Law Institute.

Another issue that will be heavy on the agenda will be a revision of Alabama’s Sunshine Law.

On Thursday, Sen. Zeb Little and Sen. Mitchell will hold a press conference in the &uot;Star Wars Room&uot; of the Alabama State House to introduce and announce their joint sponsorship of Alabama’s Open Meetings Law.

Alabama’s Open Meetings Law is of interest to all Alabama citizens but particularly to the media and publicly elected officials.

The Alabama Press Association, The League of Municipalities, the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, the Alabama Association of School Boards, the Alabama Hospital Association and the Attorney General’s office have all been invited to this press conference.

When asked if would support an effort to strengthen the state’s Open Meetings Law, Newton said he supported efforts last year and would do so again this year.

&uot;Last year there were some that had some concerns about the bill and I’m hoping we can find a compromise and pass a bill that takes care of that,&uot; he said.

&uot;I know various people at differing levels of government were concerned.

I think we will have a compromise.&uot;