Byrne: Gambling taking eye off the ball

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 11, 2010

An Alabama Republican candidate for governor who was campaigning in Andalusia this week said the hoopla surrounding Gov. Bob Riley’s illegal gambling task force is diverting attention from the state’s most important issues.

Bradley Byrne, the former state board of education member, former state senator, and former chancellor of the two-year college system, said for him, the gambling question is simple.

“Go comply with the law,” he said.

“In the last few weeks, gambling has taken people’s eye off the ball,” he said.

For him, “the ball” being ignored is the possibility of massive budget deficits.

When Riley presented his budget to the legislature last month, he dismissed concerns about funding and instead “balanced” his budget with federal stimulus dollars he expects Congress to approve.

Even if that comes to fruition, Byrne said, “The federal money won’t be out there next year. People need to be prepared for it.”

If he is elected, “there will be very important issues facing Gov. Byrne,” he said, including ethics reform, education reform, economic development and budget deficits.

If elected, he said, he plans to call a special session on ethics immediately after being sworn in. In that session, he said, he will call for an end to “double-dipping” throughout state government, which would prohibit anyone on the state payroll from serving in the legislature. He would also ask the legislature to give subpoena power to the state Ethics Commission; end pass-through pork, ban PAC–to-PAC transfers; and require full disclosure from lobbyists.

He said he would call the legislature into session the day after his inauguration.

“We’d basically say, ‘Bring your toothpaste,’ ” he said. “We’d hold their feet to the fire and get these issues addressed in five legislative days.”

As governor, he said, he’d address the state’s high drop-out rate by extending the Alabama Reading Initiative through 8th grade, call for tenure reform, and put more focus on technical programs for high school students.

“I love teachers,” he said. “But this tenure law protects bad teachers.”

He cited a case in Washington County in which a teacher who was behind bars for having sex with students continued to be paid and draw benefits.

“Most teachers are competent, good people,” he said. “It is unfair to the good teachers to keep the bad ones.”

Turning to budget deficits Alabama faces, he said the problems with both the education and general fund budgets are tied to health care.

“The Education Trust Fund will repair itself over time, but not very fast,” Byrne said. “There are a number of issues in that budget. The No. 1 cost to the overall system is health care.”

He said the system pays the lion’s share of medical insurance for non-Medicare eligible employees, including retirees.

“Our active education employees are going to have to pay more for health insurance,” he said.

He said the state needs to give local education systems more budgeting flexibility rather than dictating where money should be spent.

“And we’ve got to completely rethink the foundation program,” he said, referring to the formula used by the state to allocate education funding.

Similarly, Medicaid is causing the biggest problem with the state’s general fund budget, he said.

“The federal government has moved in to help states in the past two years,” he said. “They are either going to have to take it over or give states flexibility to run it the way they see fit.”

He said the state needs tort reform within Medicaid, programmatic requirements, and innovative ways to provide care to Medicaid patients outside of the emergency room setting.

Byrne spoke to the Kiwanis Club and visited a number of places in the community during three days of campaigning in the Wiregrass.

An independent statewide poll of Republican voters conducted by Pubic Strategy Associates of Austin, Texas, showed Byrne with a slight lead. If held this week, 20 percent of those polled would vote for Byrne in the Republican primary, while 17 percent favor Roy Moore; 8 percent liked Tim James; and 46 percent are undecided. It is the first publicly-released poll that has put him ahead of Moore.