By Kim West
Nearly 100 people attended the Legislative Open Forum in the Sandridge Student Center at Athens State University Monday evening as four members of the local legislative delegation responded to a wide range of questions from the lively audience.
Athens State Vice President for Advancement Rick Mould moderated the cordial 85-minute question-and-answer session. Audience members were able to sign in and individually question the Republican legislators, including state senators Arthur Orr of Decatur and Bill Holtzclaw of Madison.
State representatives Dan Williams of Athens and Mac McCutcheon of Monrovia also attended. It was previously announced that Alabama House Majority Leader Mickey Hammon, R-Decatur, would participate in the forum but he did not attend.
“This is the second forum we’ve had in (three) days,” Williams said. “We had an excellent turnout Saturday morning (for the Bill of Rights rally) at the Limestone County Courthouse Square. It wasn’t a time for politicians to speak but it was a time for us to listen.
“It was focused on the 10 amendments that really guarantee us the freedom we have in this country.”
The delegation discussed gun control and the Bill of Rights and explained Gov. Robert Bentley’s decision last November to decline expanding the Medicaid program under the Affordable Health Care Act as a cost-saving measure that would prevent further budget shortfalls.
The controversial landmark legislation was spearheaded by President Barack Obama and passed by a divided Congress, which has a Republican House Majority and a Democratic-controlled Senate.
Limestone County NAACP President Wilbert Woodruff, who recently attended a Montgomery rally to protest the governor’s decision, told the delegation that accepting the federal health care funding would assist low-income families.
“The reason we were rallying was in hopes of spurring the governor to reconsider his stance on the federal health care act,” Woodruff said. “A lot of our citizens desperately need this (federal funding).”
The Alabama Legislature, whose House and Senate have a Republican majority, begins the 2013 general session in two weeks. Holtzclaw called crafting the two major state budgets — the General Fund and the Education Trust Fund — “the hot-button topic.”
Orr and McCutcheon said expanding the Medicaid program would only put the state further behind in balancing the budget.
“We had to borrow money from our Alabama Trust Fund to fund our current Medicaid system,” Orr said.
“When you look at the end numbers (for expanding Medicaid), it’s almost impossible to fathom,” McCutcheon said. “At the end of the day, who’s going to pay for it?”
Alabama Republican House members released their legislative agenda Thursday. McCutcheon said the agenda is largely based on the Commission for State Rights and Alabama Values, which was formed last year to solicit statewide feedback from constituents.
“This forum is always very beneficial to us and we take back to Montgomery your concerns and needs,” said McCutcheon, who was recently appointed as chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee. “(The Commission) was a taskforce formed by Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard last summer that traveled statewide last summer talking to citizens about their concerns.
“We put together an agenda for the upcoming session based upon the needs and concerns of the citizens of the state.”
High-priority items include a bill requiring the state to pay back $437 million borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund, or rainy day fund, through a statewide referendum approved last September and the Alabama Firearms Protection Amendment, which proposes amending the state constitution to further protect an individual’s right to keep and bear arms.
Holtzclaw, a former Marine firearms instructor, received a burst of applause when he responded to a question about impending federal gun control measures by Army veteran Eric Redd, an Athens resident who spoke at the Bill of Rights rally in downtown Athens Saturday.
He said that simply banning assault weapons and ammunition does not solve gun-violence problems and punishes citizens who follow the law.
“An assault weapon ban is going to do nothing but negatively impact our law-abiding citizens,” Holtzclaw said.
House Democrats are expected to release their legislative agenda next week. The Legislature’s general session will begin Tuesday, Feb. 5, and is scheduled to conclude May 20.