Legislative session to tackle key issues

Published 8:33 pm Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Alabama State Legislature will convene for the first session of the new year Tuesday, Feb. 5 and Alabama Sen. Marc Keahey said the focus will likely be on the state’s General Fund once again.

“With the situation with our General Fund we could spend every second from now until the end of session working on the general fund budget and let that be the sole issue, but the first day of the session there will be hundreds of bills that will be filed,” Keahey said.

Keahey said he hopes the legislature will also address preventative measures that could be taken in Alabama schools to avoid a situation like the shooting in Newtown, Conn.

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“One issue I hope is talked about a lot now is what, if anything, we should do as a state as a response to the shootings in Connecticut,” he said. “It’s made me think more about funding for the Department of Mental Health. In Alabama we’ve cut funding 36 percent since 2009. There’s only one other state that has decreased their budget for mental health more than us. South Carolina has had a 39 percent cut.”

With all of the speculation over the mental status of the Newtown shooter, Keahey said the Department of Mental Health is all the more important and is suffering in Alabama –  suffering that in 2012 included the closing of Searcy Mental Hospital due to funding constraints in the General Fund.

“This year in Escambia County, a sheriff was shot by a patient that had been released,” Keahey said. “A deputy in Baldwin County was shot. Searcy closed. There’s patients getting committed in probate courts all across south Alabama on a daily basis and we don’t have anywhere to commit them to. The patients need and deserve 24-hour care and in a lot of cases the people that live in the communities around them need it. That’s something that I really hope that we’ll work on is the different departments and agencies under the General Fund.”

Keahey also pointed to a ramped up law enforcement presence in schools as a possible added layer of protection for students, but that too he said has pending legislation that could threaten a plan of that nature.

“There’s some legislation that’s been filed regarding putting some type of law enforcement at each school,” Keahey said. “I think that’s a step in the right direction, but it would cost $122 million. They’re also talking about consolidation of all of the law enforcement agencies in Alabama into one big department. Grover Smith is the president of the Sheriff’s Association. I have a concern about legislation being passed without enough communication and involvement with people such as Grover.”

The pending legislation, Keahey said, is an effort to save money by combining the agencies under the singular umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security, but could also result in dangerous cuts.

“Nobody knows right now because there is not any communication about it, but the talk is that they will all be put under the director of homeland security. It would all flow down from him. It’s to save money. That needs to be done everywhere, but law enforcement is pretty important and however its done we’ve got to be careful not to end up having such a reduction or a cut in the money that we experience too great a deficit in services.”

As for new legislation involving added protection for schools, state Rep. Alan Baker said he would need to see what is proposed. He said the issue of school security will be addressed in the next session, with meetings with the state board of education planned.

“I think that’s something we would like to have input on before we make a knee jerk reaction,” Baker said.