Senator visits Pike County

Published 11:00 pm Thursday, July 12, 2012

For sate Sen. Bryan Taylor, the focus of state government should be three-fold.

“Number one is building the public trust, because if the people don’t trust their officials … then government gets paralyzed.”

Second is setting the economic conditions under which “a free enterprise system can flourish and create jobs for the future,” with an emphasis on the government’s role being creating conditions, not jobs.

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And, third is “living within our means while fulfilling the essential obligations of government,” he said. “Now, as a state, we’ve got to do a better job of defining our mission.”

Taylor, R-Prattville, spoke to a crowd of civic and business leaders Monday morning at the Pike County Chamber of Commerce Legislative Breakfast. The first-term senator shared his candid evaluations on how effectively state lawmakers have achieved this three-fold focus since he took office in 2010.

“I’m pleased that we were able to pass the ethics reform legislation in a special session my first year,” he said. “That brought about a sea change in the way things are being done in Montgomery and, while we’re still working out the kinks, it’s an improvement.”

Now, he said, lawmakers have taken a step towards addressing a key issue of his campaign: the repeal of the 2007 pay raise for lawmakers. “One piece of legislation this year that I’m particularly proud of is the legislative pay cut bill,” Taylor said.

Admitting that reaching a compromise has been difficult, Taylor said the final result – which goes before voters this year – permanently removes the ability to set pay rates from the Legislature. If approved, legislators’ annual earnings will be tied to the median household income for the state.

“That means the pay goes up or down with the incomes of the people we serve,” Taylor said.

As for the second purpose – creating conditions to allow free enterprise systems to grow – Taylor cited the recent recruitment of Airbus to Mobile and the aerospace corridor the facility is likely to create in the state. To encourage economic development, the Legislature continues to have healthy debate about the amounts of incentives available to industries, he said.

That debate ties, in part, to Taylor’s third focus for government: allocating limited financial resources to fund the essential mission of the government.

“The times are very lean,” he said. “Because of our responsible budgeting last year … it looks like we’ll be able to avoid proration in the Education Trust Fund budget.

“But the General Fund is already in 10 percent proration. That’s because we don’t have any growth taxes or growth revenue in the General Fund, but our expenses continue to rise.”

Those expenses – such as provided Medicaid services to those who qualify, mental health services, or funding the corrections system – all require more financial resources than are available.

“And let’s talk about Medicaid, because that’s the elephant in the room,” he said, admitting that he spent more than six months trying to untangle the intricacies of the Medicaid funding system while an aide to former Gov. Bob Riley. “We have built an elaborate monster at the federal level,” he said.

Clarifying that Medicaid only provides health care coverage to pregnant women, children, the elderly and the disabled, Taylor said “that anyone who falls below is the federal poverty level is not automatically eligible for Medicaid.”

But the system is “almost a reverse incentive, because a poor single woman in Alabama is not eligible for Medicaid unless she gets pregnant,” he said.

The problem, Taylor said, is that the General Fund budget doesn’t have enough money to fund what Medicaid needs to fund “it’s bare-bones budget.”

“And, at the same time, the General Fund doesn’t have enough money to fund a bare-bones correctional system budget,” he said. “That means we’re having to make some difficult decisions.”

Taylor said he expects lawmakers will spend approximately three years untangling and resolving the Medicaid funding issues. In the meantime, they’ve asked voters to approve a stopgap measure that would allow the government to tap into the state savings account to cover the Medicaid shortfall for the next three years. The measure will be on a special ballot in September. While Taylor said he hopes voters will approve the measure, “everyone admits it’s not a solution but a Band-aid.”

And, “if the people of Alabama decide in September that’s not the way they want to do it, then we’re going to have to go back and make some really hard decisions: not just where we’re going to trim fat, but where we’re going to cut essential services.”

Also attending the breakfast was state Sen. Jimmy Holley, R-Coffee County, who will likely become Pike County’s senator in when redistricting takes effect in two years. “When that happens, you will have two senators from Pike County,” Taylor said. “Because I will continue to support you.”