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Same issues, new year

Old problems loom over Alabama Legislature's 2018 session

Kay Ivey state of the state

Kay Ivey in February 2017 listens to the State of the State address from the governor she later succeeded in office, Robert Bentley. (Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star/file)

When Gov. Kay Ivey steps on the podium to deliver her first State of the State speech Tuesday night, everything will be different than it was last year — and everything will be the same.

Instead of a lame duck governor under siege amid affair allegations — last year’s Robert Bentley — the audience will see a woman under great pressure to define herself in the public eye. Ivey’s still in the first year of her administration, and she’s already up for re-election in November.

But most of the state’s long-term challenges — prisons, health care and road-and-bridge spending — loom over the session just as they did in earlier years.

Ivey’s agenda includes “supporting Alabama's education system from Pre-K to the work force, ensuring the needs of our state’s rural citizens are being met and providing proper care and facilities to those incarcerated,” according to a statement her spokesman, Daniel Sparkman, released Monday.

There are elections later this year, and lawmakers themselves say they’ll likely try to get in and out of the session with as little controversy as possible. The growing economy has added significantly to both of the state’s budgets (one for schools, the other for all non-school functions), making it unlikely the state will see the kind of budget crisis that marked earlier years.

Still, some conflicts may not be avoidable. Lawmakers are mulling a $30 million increase to prisons, to help alleviate conditions a federal judge last year described as “horrendously inadequate.” The court has yet to prescribe a solution to those problems, a fact that’s not lost even on lawmakers who support the increase.

“Money doesn’t fix your problems,” said Rep. Randy Wood, R-Saks. “You have to fix your problems and then go ask for funding.”

Other projects, not mandated by court rulings, may be scaled back. A legislative task force last month asked for $4 million for changes to the juvenile justice system, where the number of kids in the system hasn’t fallen despite a decrease in juvenile crime. Ivey’s expected to appear with task force members Wednesday to promote the proposal, but task force leader Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said Monday the price tag is down to $1 million.

“I think just getting a line item in the budget is a big step,” Ward said.

One thing that’s likely out of the picture is a gas tax increase to help keep up the state’s roads. House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said last week that there’s no plan to pursue a tax hike unless the Trump administration makes some headway on a federal infrastructure spending bill. Alabama officials waited in vain for one last year.

Lawmakers will also be looking closely at what Congress does with the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a federal health care program for kids, for which Congress has provided only temporary funding this year. Alabama last year socked away millions to shore up the program if it lost funding.

One semi-new item in the governor’s stated agenda is the focus on rural issues. The House GOP caucus last month also highlighted rural issues in its 2018 agenda, but provided little detail about what that meant.

“Talk about vanilla,” wrote Larry Lee, a retired state Agriculture Department employee and activist on rural issues, in an email to The Star. Lee said the state needs an office devoted full-time to rural issues. Bentley in 2011 appointed his former Democratic rival, Ron Sparks, to head a Rural Development Office, but Ivey cut the position last year in a review of Bentley’s personnel choices.

The chairman of the House’s rural caucus said he doesn’t know what’s in Ivey’s plans, though the caucus is hoping for an initiative to bring better broadband to rural communities. Rep. David Standridge, R-Hayden, said it’s a natural next step after schools across the state began providing tablet and laptop computers to all students.

“The students are going home and they don’t have access,” he said.

Hyperlocal issues often land in the lap of the Legislature, though so far few Calhoun County lawmakers have filed bills. Wood said he intends to file a resolution urging a lower speed limit on U.S. 431 in Alexandria due to the number of accidents there. The resolution wouldn’t be binding, Wood said, but would be likely to trigger a review of the speed limit by the Department of Transportation.

The Legislature convenes at noon Tuesday. Ivey will give her State of the State address at 6:30 p.m.

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