Last day of 2005 session big one for Black Belt

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The fractured and divisive 2005 Alabama legislative session drew to its close Monday night, but not before the legislature passed several pieces of key legislation whose impact will be felt across the Black Belt.

Most of the state’s headlines were reserved for the news that the state Senate, embroiled in an appropriations dispute between delegations from Mobile and Jefferson counties, failed to approve a budget for next year’s General Fund. That failure means that legislators will have to be called back to the Capitol for a special budget-drawing session, at a cost to taxpayers of up to $430,000.

Despite the attention drawn to that issue, several other developments from the session’s final day are worth noting:

Anti-methamphetamine measure passed

Although many bills died in the end-of-session crush, the legislature did act on House Bill 152, which establishes regulations for the sale of over-the-counter cold medicines containing the chemicals ephedrine and pseudoepehdrine. Because the chemicals are a frequent ingredient in the production of methamphetamine, producers of the drug often bought the cold medicines in bulk.

But under the new regulations, adopted in a unanimous 35-0 vote of the state Senate, these medicines will be kept behind the pharmacy counter, sold only to individuals who present identification and sign for them, and sold only in small amounts.

District Attorney Greg Griggers, DA for Marengo, Sumter, and Greene counties and a member of the state’s Methamphetamine Task Force, says the new regulations will make a difference in his efforts to slow the spread of “crystal meth” into the Black Belt.

“Without this piece of legislation, Alabama was quickly becoming the go-to state for methamphetamine ingredients because access was so easy,” Griggers said Tuesday. “Speaking on behalf of the Task Force, we’re very pleased to have this pass…it’s a small step, but it’s small step we have to make on a long journey.”

Griggers admitted that it was a relief for the bill to escape the “logjam” that plagued the Senate over the past few weeks. In other states, the opposition to bills like HB 152 has come from pharmacists who are opposed to becoming more and more involved in regulation and surveillance. While Griggers says “you have to be concerned…about an imposition that will affect businessmen and women,” he says the trade-off is more than worth it, and even pharmacist Shatania Jackson of the Demopolis CVS is fully behind the new regulations.

“We think it’s a great idea,” she says, noting that the pharmacy already checks ID for certain other medications. “Anything that will help prevent drug abuse, we’re for it.”

That kind of cooperation is music to state Attorney General Troy King’s ears.

“This…will make it more difficult for criminals to get what they need to manufacture methamphetamine, and will give law enforcement important tools we need to identify and prosecute these criminals,” King said in a public statement. “The families of Alabama will be safer from the plague of methamphetamine that has been spreading across our state.”

Education budget passes over Riley’s veto

The controversial education budget approved by the legislature went into effect Monday despite the objections of Governor Riley, who vetoed the budget Monday morning only to see the veto comfortably overridden by the legislature later in the day.

Although it was a sequence of events expected by many, that local school systems no longer have to face the possibility of heading into summer without a budget was great news for educators across the state. Nowhere would the sting of proceeding without a budget have been felt as sharply as in the cash-strapped Black Belt, however.

“We’re definitely happy to see a budget passed,” Marengo County Superintendent Luke Hallmark said Tuesday. “It allows us to look at what we should have going into the next school year. We know now our teachers will have a 6 percent raise, so we can work that into the budget. We know the news SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) standards will be funded, so we can look at hiring administrative personnel. There’s an increase in textbook money, $10 per book. It’s not a lot with how expensive textbooks are, but every bit helps.”

While Hallmark says he’s pleased to have a budget in place, he does have reservations about the particular budget as passed by the legislature. Many across the state have attacked the 6 percent teacher pay raise as too expensive, saying it could lead to proration before the end of the 2006 school year.

“I see both sides,” Hallmark said. “I’m all for the raise for teachers. They deserve it. My biggest concern in this next fiscal year is if that big ‘P’ word is going to come around…that’s what concerns me. If the [tax] revenue projected for next year isn’t there, we could not afford to have to make cuts.”

Hallmark, who has previously referred to the possibility of proration as a “nightmare,” also expressed disappointment that the legislature did not address the issue of the state education Foundation’s funding system. The combination of Marengo’s lower property tax rates combined with its wider property tax base means that the county schools’ fee to receive Foundation funding–which is determined by the tax base–is much harder on county schools than on Marengo’s two city school systems.

“14.5 percent of the money we get back from the Foundation is our 10-mill [property tax] match. For Demopolis City Schools, that number’s only 5.2 percent,” he says. ‘Now that’s what I don’t think is fair.”

Two different bills, one that would have “frozen” the tax base for systems like Marengo County and another that would have mandated the Foundation’s required 10-mill tax rate be applied statewide, each failed.

“We just have to keep plugging on,” Hallmark says.

Commissions gain greater home rule

For years, one of the major complaints against the state’s constitution is that it prevents county government from acting without the consent of the state legislature. A bill passed Monday will make things a little easier on county commissions in the future, however.

The Alabama Limited Self-Governance Act, sponsored by Sen. Lowell Barron and written in part by Sen. Bobby Singleton, will allow Commission to act without legislative approval to “provide for its property and affairs and the public welfare, health, and safety of its citizens.”

Marengo County Commission Chair Freddie Armstead said Tuesday that the bill, pushed by the state’s Association of County Commissions, was a positive development for the Black Belt and all of rural Alabama.

“We’re always glad when the Association can get a bill passed,” he said. “This will give us some leeway to do a lot of things we need to do, like dealing with garbage or loud noise.”

Garbage control and noise pollution are only two of the issues the Act grants Commissions the power to deal with. The others include “weed abatement…control of animals and animal nuisances…junkyard control…public water and sewer systems…[and] public transportation.”

Previously, Commissions have had to go through the state legislature and had bills passed by the entire legislature there to deal with these issues, even if they only affected that particular county. If the Act can pass a referendum in Marengo county, that won’t be the case any longer here.

“This really benefits the county,” Armstead said.

Howard serves his first day

It might have been the last day of the session, but it felt like the beginning for the newest member of the legislature, Greensboro’s Ralph A. Howard.

Howard, who won the House District 72 special election May 3, was sworn in just before the opening of Monday’s session and received full voting privileges.

As he had promised he would in an earlier interview with the Times, Howard exercised them in the vote to override Gov. Riley’s veto of the legislature’s education budget. The override passed the House easily, 67-22.

Howard was sworn in by Speaker of the House Seth Hammett with his wife, Yolande, and their children in attendance. His presence in the House increases the Democrat’s edge over the Republicans in that body to 63 to 42.

Howard did not return a call placed to his cell phone Tuesday.