By Minnie Lamberth
When the Alabama Legislature begins its regular session on Jan. 11, the budgets that fund education and state government should be in good shape.
“Both education and general fund will probably be the strongest budgets we’ve seen,” says Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, who serves as House Majority Leader. “Because of the amount of federal money that’s been put into our state — I think some $46 billion over the past couple of years — the numbers that we see in our budgets are going to be larger than they normally would, so we’ve got to bear that in mind. But we’ll have two good budgets this year, and we certainly look forward to working with those and trying to figure out what needs to happen with them.”
In addition to funding education and public services for the next fiscal year, legislators will consider bills addressing a variety of other topics of interest, including second-amendment protections, anti-rioting measures, mental health initiatives, and personal property taxes.
“The personal property tax issue has been looming for a long time, and I think that’s a tax that’s unfair to businesses,” Ledbetter says. Legislation that he believes has a good chance of passing “is going to allow small businesses and family farms to be exempt from the first $40,000 in personal property tax.”
In addition, the education system will get attention in legislation introduced by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, intended to improve test scores in math.
Ultimately, Ledbetter says, “I think this will be a very, very productive session for the people of our state.”
Federal funding from the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act, the legislation signed into law by President Biden on Nov. 15, will also be a key concern as legislators consider opportunities for Alabama. Ledbetter says that they’ll be looking especially at the electric vehicle (EV) component. “The automotive sector in our state has over 40,000 jobs. We’re one of the top automotive manufacturing states in the country, so the investment in EV research is going to be big in our state.” Funding to build a network of EV charging stations in the state is also included in the new law.
High interest in broadband expansion
The expansion of high-speed internet access is another area of high interest. “It looks like we’ll get somewhere around $100 million for broadband,” Ledbetter says.
In previous years, when allocating state funding to expand broadband, Ledbetter says, “We’ve been very successful in partnering with companies around the state.” By using a grant structure, companies have been able to apply for those funds and then use them for broadband expansion. Though nothing is concrete, Ledbetter adds, “I would expect this could be something similar.”
The need is vast, depending on location — whether in unserved rural areas or underserved metropolitan areas. In the latter cases, Ledbetter says the bandwidth isn’t as great as it should be, especially now that people use high-speed internet to stream entertainment, to work from home, and to participate in virtual school when necessary.
Altogether, he says there are 350,000 people in the state who aren’t being served by broadband, and the numbers in underserved areas are even higher than that. “The $100 million is certainly going to be a boost, but it’s still a long way from where it needs to be.”
The state will also see $400 million a year over a five-year period for roads and bridges, while additional resources will be dedicated to clean drinking water, protecting from cyber attack and a number of other areas. “It’s a broad range of lots of things, and as time goes, we’ll see how it all plays out,” Ledbetter says.
The resiliency of the state’s electrical grid is another issue to keep in sight. “I think in Alabama we’re blessed. We’ve got companies that look out for our ability to deliver over the grid. Some states not as much.”
However, he adds, “The federal government has mandated that there be so much renewable (energy) down the road that we’re not making electricity with natural resources such as coal and gas like we were. I think that creates a problem with our grid when we don’t have the stability of those products that we once had.”
Some states have a heavy reliance on wind turbines and sun, though Alabama is not in that position. “I think we’ve probably tried too quickly across the country to go to renewables,” he says.
“We’ve been able to keep Alabama stronger, but the more regulations the federal government puts on, the harder it’s going to be,” Ledbetter says. “As far as the Legislature, we’ve got to help our companies make sure that they are able to keep a strong, reliable grid, with legislation that is proactive for them.”ν