Education, general fund, medical marijuana and gambling.
These were some of the major topics discussed by a panel of local state legislators during a political forum hosted by the Greater Limestone County Chamber of Commerce Tuesday at the Athens-Limestone County Public Library.
Sens. Tom Butler, R-Madison, Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and Tim Melson, R-Florence, were on hand for the forum. Joining them were Reps. Danny Crawford, R-Athens, Parker Moore, R-Decatur, Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, Andy Whitt, R-Huntsville, and Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Capshaw.
The question that garnered the most response was about the comprehensive gambling bill that passed in the state Senate before being shelved in the House after time in the latest legislative session ran out.
McCutcheon said the gambling issue is something the legislature has dealt with numerous times.
“When you start talking about a lottery, all of these interest groups come to Montgomery, and they are trying to promote their interest,” he said. “It makes it difficult for us.”
He said the House of Representatives only had six legislative days remaining in the session by the time they received the bill.
“We knew we had members who would not vote for it, and we knew there was a filibuster ahead of us,” McCutcheon said. “We had to make a conscious decision to move on to other things. We couldn't come up with a plan that all of the 'yes' votes could agree on. We needed votes from the minority side, and at the last minute they said we would get no votes from them, so we made the decision to put it on the shelf and continue to work on it.”
One of the biggest issues with the bill is the two different areas of gambling it includes. While a number of legislators showed support for beginning a lottery in Alabama, the inclusion of provisions concerning gaming and casinos led to many not supporting the bill.
This includes Butler, who told The News Courier earlier this year he would support a lottery but not casinos.
“I don't know a single person in my district who wants a casino in their neighborhood,” he said.
Greer said he supported the lottery but did not understand parts of the gaming side of the bill, while Whitt said he has received numerous calls from constituents asking for a lottery in the state.
Melson polled the audience present at the forum and asked whether or not they supported a lottery, would support the gaming side of the bill, or if nothing else would welcome both sides of the bill coming to a vote by the people.
By show of hands the lottery proposal was much more popular than the gaming, but most in attendance would welcome a statewide vote.
When asked about getting a bill legalizing medical marijuana passed in the state, the legislators immediately passed the microphone to Melson, who carried the bill that was eventually signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey.
Melson said the bill was not simple and took three years to “get it done.” He said it died in the House last year due to COVID-19, but he gave kudos to McCutcheon for honoring his word to bring it back to the floor this session.
“This bill was surprisingly more accepted (by legislators) than people realize,” Melson said. “So many states had already done it, and it's one of the tightest, if not the tightest, (medical marijuana) bills in the country.”
Melson said a fine line exists between getting medical cannabis to people who truly need it and keeping it out of the hands of those who don't. That's one reason why the bill does not allow for smoking or eating marijuana. He said another is the negative side effects of smoking for a person's health, with Melson further stating that vaping medical marijuana was also not allowed because the practice has harmful effects that are being discovered since the practice gained popularity.
“One of the ways to go about this was to make it nonsmoking,” he said. “It is generally taken in a gelatin capsule using a topical cream or nebulizers can be used. We didn't want vapes because they are associated with health issues like destruction of lung tissue.”
Alabama has two major funds, General and Education. Greer said it's “unbelievable” that the state has survived some years in the past due to issues with the General Fund. However, thanks to things like passing the gas tax the state now has “ a little money going forward.”
“No one in the state is going to be happy about the gas tax,” he said. “We did the research and knew we had to pass it. I still get calls now from people opposed to it.”
As far as the state budget goes, McCutcheon said Alabama is “really in a very good position” compared to some other states.
“There are some states across this country that had to borrow money just to see their budgets met so their agencies could survive,” he said. “We started making some changes in our budget way back to put us on a good path forward. This is what we are elected to do, to manage your tax dollars in order to keep this state functional. This should be a headline in the news, finishing the pandemic in the black.”