GOP Leaders Put Education, Roads at Top of To-Do List
By Mike Cason, originally appeared on al.com
The Republican leaders of the Alabama Legislature say the state is better off after eight years of GOP control of the State House, with expanding industries, low unemployment and more stable budgets.
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said improving education and funding a plan to upgrade highways and other infrastructure are key tasks for the next four years. McCutcheon said tax and budget reforms will be on the table.
Rep. Anthony Daniels of Huntsville, leader of the Democratic minority in the House of Representatives, said Republicans have a poor track record of leadership on those key tasks and others.
In 2010, voters gave Republicans majorities in the Legislature for the first time in more than a century. Republicans hold about 70 percent of the seats. A new four-year term starts after the November elections.
Marsh, who has been the Senate’s leader for eight years, said the state’s economy has moved in the right direction. The unemployment rate is low, 4.1 percent in July, and more people are working in the state than ever before, according to the state Department of Labor.
“I would say, for one thing, the quality of life based on opportunity for citizens is better than it’s ever been, (low) unemployment, diverse industries, aerospace, health care, automotive,” Marsh said. “If you look at the opportunity our citizens have today vs. what they had 10 years ago, it’s much greater.”
An improved education system, from top to bottom, is the foundation needed to build on that success, Marsh said. The senator said low education levels are an underlying cause for persistent problems such as overcrowded prisons and health issues such as high rates of obesity and diabetes.
Marsh has been meeting for months with representatives of teachers, superintendents, school board members and higher education. He said the goal of the gatherings is to share information and encourage collaboration in pursuit of a comprehensive approach to improving learning.
Marsh is optimistic that the meetings will lead to proposed legislation and policy changes. That could include higher pay for teachers coupled with a commitment from colleges to better prepare teachers for the classroom.
“I’d like to be able to make the claim that in terms of the southeast, we are the highest paying state in the southeast on what we pay our teachers, how we value education,” Marsh said.
“That’s a goal. And at the same time, I want to know that the teachers that are in those classrooms are the best that they can be. I want to make sure the higher education community is setting the bar high for those who graduate in education. That should be a high bar. If they’re going to be teaching our children, they should be the best of the best.”
McCutcheon has been one of the strongest proponents of more funding to upgrade and maintain Alabama’s highways, bridges and other infrastructure.
Before becoming speaker in 2016, McCutcheon sponsored a bill to increase the gasoline tax, which has not been raised since a 5-cents per gallon increase in 1992. McCutcheon’s bill and others that followed failed. Advocates for an increase say the cost of building and maintaining an adequate road system has far outpaced the flow of dollars from the state gas tax, 18 cents per gallon, over the last 26 years.
“We’ve got people that are sitting in traffic lines to and from work in the mornings and in the afternoons,” McCutcheon said. “These people’s quality of life can be changed because of the fact that they’re sitting in traffic and they can’t get to work or they can’t get home. All of these are things we’re talking about right now. We’ve been talking about them for three years.”
McCutcheon said he hopes a broad-based and long-range plan can overcome resistance to asking drivers to pay more state tax on a gallon of gasoline.
“Is a tax at the pump going to be necessary? I think at the end of the day, sure, it’s going to be,” McCutcheon said. “How much? I don’t know.