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Senate leader: Anniston Ward 4 meetings to come by February

Del Marsh

State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, speaks at the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center on Monday morning.

The leader of the Alabama State Senate wants to hear from residents of Anniston’s Council Ward 4 before making a decision on any bill aimed at taking the ward out of the city. 

In remarks to the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce on Monday, Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he hopes to hold two public meetings with Ward 4 residents before the legislative session begins in February.

“I promised this to the people who came to me,” Marsh said. “Just to talk about what the problem is and why does Ward 4 want to leave?”

Marsh came to a Chamber meeting Monday morning to give members an overview of the coming Legislative session. As president pro tempore of the Senate, Marsh is perhaps the most powerful figure in deciding which bills come to the Senate floor. He’s also sought out often by local people who want the Legislature to act on local issues. 

Last year, Marsh was approached by a group of Ward 4 residents called Forward4All, which proposed a bill that would take the ward — one of four council ward in the city — and some surrounding areas out of Anniston’s city limits. The proposal sparked a sharp reaction from city leaders, partly because the proposed annexation area is majority-white while the city as a whole is majority-black. 

Marsh has never said he’ll bring the Ward 4 proposal to the Legislature, but he has sent signals that he’s still considering it. In September, he sent a letter to Mayor Jack Draper seeking more information about the city’s pension plan to help him with his decision on the matter. 

Asked about the proposed Ward 4 split Monday, Marsh said he’s working to arrange two town hall meetings to discuss the matter. 

“It’s time for the public to come and have the ability to at least come and voice their concerns,” he said. 

Marsh has said for several months that he intends to host meetings on the proposal. In the mean time, two council members organized a sparsely-attended November town hall meeting in which most speakers opposed the proposal. Ward 4 Councilwoman Millie Harris attempted to schedule a meeting this week to discuss the matter, though on Monday she said the meeting was canceled due to conflicts with other city meetings.

Special session possible

Marsh said Monday that he didn’t have a proposed time set up for either meeting, but with three weeks until the session begins, the clock is ticking. And the Senate is likely to have other time-consuming issues on its plate

“I’m anticipating that when we come back in, the governor has a decision to make with regard to a special session on prisons,” Marsh said. 

Alabama has been locked in a federal court battle for years over conditions in its state prisons. Both sides in the case acknowledge those prisons are overcrowded, and a federal judge has declared mental health care in the system to be “horrendously inadequate.” Lawmakers have rejected multiple prison-building proposals in recent years, but Gov. Kay Ivey last year put out a request for bids for new prisons. Lawmakers would likely have to find money to pay for or lease those new prisons if they’re built.

Marsh said the Legislature intends to address problems with rural health care this year, though he said there was little interest in expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, despite efforts by the Senate’s Democratic minority to keep the issue on the table.

“I’ve tried to convince the other party that Medicaid expansion is not the best buzzword,” he said.

In remarks outside the meeting, Marsh said lawmakers may try to address rural health care problems by setting up “transportation centers” to make sure rural areas have access to quick transportation to hospitals. 

Audience member Tim Brunson asked about the state of mental health care.

“If you stand outside the chamber for an hour, you’re going to see at least one homeless person with mental issues,” Brunson said, referring to foot traffic near Quintard. 

Marsh said he didn’t doubt that access to mental health care was a problem, but he said he didn’t see support in the Legislature for major expenditures to fix it. 

“They’re not comfortable just throwing money into the mental health system,” he said. 

Switch from textbooks

Marsh said he and other legislative leaders are planning to visit Apple officials to discuss replacing textbooks in school classrooms with iPads or similar technology.

“I would like to see us in the next few years get completely out of textbooks and replace them with technology in the classroom,” he said. 

Many school systems now provide their students with some type of computing device for use in the classroom, though some critics have noted that computers become obsolete quickly, incurring a replacement cost. Marsh said the state should consider lease agreements that allow schools to replace computers every three years or so. 

Audience member Pam Howard asked what the state was doing to expand good broadband internet access in rural areas to help students get more out of those computers. Marsh said the state recently issued $33 million in grants for broadband projects. 

Asked about funding for Jacksonville State University, Marsh said he expects colleges to see an across-the-board rise in state funding of 4 to 5 percent. He said he’s also going to seek accountability proposals that could tie college funding to performance on measures such as graduation rate. 

“When you see me on television this year, I’m going to be talking about education,” he said. 

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.