State bills pass test

Published 4:45 pm Saturday, May 11, 2013

A pay increase for teachers, a compromise on gun legislation and consolidation aimed at saving taxpayers money are just a few of the items Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton, said were addressed during what he called a “very positive” legislative session.

Lawmakers still have one more day in their session scheduled next week.

“I think overall it has been a very productive session,” Baker said. “We are continuing to try and move Alabama forward despite the revenue setbacks we’re dealing with.”

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Baker said an agreement reached between the House and the Senate equaled a 2 percent pay raise for Alabama teachers, a compromise he called very important.

“I think the major goal for the Legislature is to make sure that the pay raise is affordable and is sustainable by the state,” Baker said.

Baker said a slight increase in funding for voluntary pre-kindergarten programs was also approved.

“We still have areas that we need to sure up,” he said. “There are just so many needs with limited funding.”

While the pay raise for teachers should be well received, Baker said the debate over the controversial Alabama Accountability Act has drawn considerable criticism. Baker said the bill, which changed drastically during a last minute committee meeting, has been revised after many claimed it would undermine public schools by allowing for tax credits for parents choosing to move their children from “failing” state institutions to private schools.

“The substance of the bill changed,” Baker said, referring to the meeting. “There have been some revisions made to that bill that occurred yesterday in the house and also in the senate as we worked things out. The major revision is that the private schools would not be required to accept students from failing schools. The discretion would be left up to the school where the student is trying to enroll.”

Baker said, while he supported the original bill known as the School Flexibility Act, he voted against the revised version following the committee meeting.

“We are trying to make improvements,” he said. “I think we are taking steps in the right direction since it is already law.”

Baker said steps have also been taken to come to an agreement on heated gun control debates. Baker said officials with the National Rifle Association, the Alabama Sheriff’s Association and the Business Council of Alabama have all made concessions in an effort to reach a compromise that will protect Alabamians’ safety as well as their second amendment rights.

“Through a collaborative effort they have a bill they are at least comfortable with,” Baker said. “It’s still in the conference committee, but I do expect that it will get worked out and be very beneficial to Alabamians.”

Baker also said the Legislature has taken steps during the current session to move Alabama towards a better fiscal future.

“We have worked to streamline government and consolidated so law enforcement will be under one roof,” he said. “The Alabama Bureau of Investigation and the Alabama Department of Public Safety are now under the Secretary of Law Enforcement. All law enforcement in the state are essentially under one of those two main departments. These consolidations are meant to save tax payers money.”

Baker said the Legislature is also working to pay back the $146 million that was approved to be injected into the General Fund from the “Rainy Day” account over the next three years.

“We have had a big push by citizens of Alabama, to pay back the Alabama trust fund that was used like an emergency savings account on Sept. 18,” Baker said.

“That was the very first bill passed during this session and we have pledged we will repay that money.”

While Baker categorized the current session as an overall success, he said there are still several bills that have not been looked at, including two concerning school safety he is sponsoring.

“Both school safety bills are poised and ready,” he said. “Due to a slowdown, neither has made it to the Senate floor.”

Baker said one of the proposed bills would implement emergency lockdown drills, dubbed Code Reds, in schools to prepare students in the event of a violent outburst on campus, while the second would upgrade the current charge for trespassing on a school bus from a class b felony to a class a felony, which carriers a more severe punishment.