A Preview of the 2017 Legislative Session

By Shay Shelnutt

On February 7th, the Alabama Legislature will convene for the 2017 regular session. Before giving you a preview of the issues that will shape the debate in Montgomery, I want to pause and recognize that Friday marked the inauguration of our nation’s forty-fifth president, Donald J. Trump. The peaceful transition of power is a remarkable thing, especially when it happens between opposing political parties. I believe President Obama’s policies greatly weakened our nation, but I am grateful that he has gracefully stepped aside to make way for the new administration.

President Trump’s administration has begun with great promise. A leader’s character is shown in the quality of the people who work with him, and the appointments of Senator Jeff Sessions to Attorney General, General James Mattis to Secretary of Defense, and Dr. Ben Carson to Secretary of Housing & Urban Development are causes for great optimism. The Department of Justice under President Obama was too often an attack dog on religious liberty, suing the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic charity, for their refusal to provide abortion-inducing drugs as part of their employees’ health insurance plan. Under the leadership of Jeff Sessions, I believe the DOJ will focus once again protecting religious liberty and upholding the Constitution as our nation’s rule of law.

Here in Alabama, I expect three main issues to dominate discussion at the Legislature this spring – the education budget, Medicaid, and prisons. Alabama is one of only a handful of states in the nation that still have split budgets; the Education Trust Fund (ETF) allocates money for everything from K-12 schools to universities, while the General Fund is the budget for all non-education state spending. Last year, we passed a $6.3 billion ETF budget that included a pay raise for educators. This year, I expect we will have enough money to put additional resources towards Alabama’s nationally recognized Pre-K program and classroom supplies.

The General Fund is the main challenge, primarily because of the exploding costs associated with Medicaid – the federally-mandated health insurance program for the poor and disabled –  and the Department of Corrections. In 2016, these two programs consumed 60% of the entire General Fund budget; for comparison, in 2004, Medicaid and Corrections accounted for 41% of the General Fund. As a small-government conservative, however, I am not content to blithely accept rising costs in either agency.

President Trump campaigned on a promise to block-grant federal Medicaid funding to the states. If his administration follows through with that promise, block grants will help solve our Medicaid challenge by allowing us to experiment, innovate, and hopefully, save money. At the state level, the Legislature passed a proposal in 2013 to establish Regional Care Organizations (RCOs) to assume responsibility for the delivery of care to Medicaid recipients. The current fee-for-service model, in which health care providers send Medicaid a bill for services rendered, hasn’t worked. The RCO model would mimic Trump’s block grant plan at the state level, by giving local health care providers responsibility for Medicaid patients in specific geographic regions around Alabama. State Medicaid officials would then block grant money to the RCOs, who would have an incentive to ensure efficient care for Medicaid patients. I am optimistic that the RCO model, which is set to begin this fall, and a transition to block grants at the federal level under the Trump administration, will help bend the cost curve of Medicaid down over the coming years.

The third issue that will dominate debate in Montgomery this spring is the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative (APTI), a proposal put forward by Governor Robert Bentley to consolidate Alabama’s antiquated prisons into four new, super-prisons. Currently, Alabama’s prisons are at 165% capacity, and the overcrowding has led to lawsuits in federal court. It is a very real possibility that a federal judge could force the state to release hundreds of inmates should the overcrowding not be addressed. In 2009, a federal court ordered California to take immediate steps to lower its prison population to 137.5% capacity, which led to the release of hundreds of inmates and the transfer of many others to local jails. The Governor’s plan has its flaws, but ultimately, I support replacing our antiquated prisons with modern facilities to achieve cost savings in the coming years.

I welcome your thoughts on the challenges and opportunities facing our state. Please contact me at 205-413-9022 or [email protected] – I look forward to hearing from you.

Shay Shelnutt represents District 17 in the Alabama Senate, which is comprised of all or parts of Blount, Jefferson, St. Clair, and Talladega counties. Follow him on Twitter for the latest legislative updates: @shelnutt417