Thomas reports on 2011 Legislative session, Blount County highlights

Elwyn Thomas of Straight Mountain is a member of the Alabama House of Representatives, representing District 34, which includes roughly the southern two-thirds of Blount County. Thomas, now in his fourth term, has served in the Legislature 13 years since he was first elected in 1998. His committee assignments include the powerful House Rules Committee; the General Fund Committee, which develops budgets for all of state government other than education; vice chairman of the Board and Commissions Committee; House Energy Council; and the Alabama designee to the National Council of State Legislators. The Blount Countian spoke to him last week about highlights of the Legislative session just concluded. A summary appears below. U. S. Congressional redistricting. U.S. Congressional districts will change as a result of redistricting. Blount County, formerly falling entirely within Robert Aderholt’s Congressional District 4, now falls within Spencer Bachus’s District 4 except a northern sliver of the county reassigned to District 6.

“We tried to keep Blount County entirely within Aderholt’s district because he’s been so good to work with, and it looked like we were going to succeed right up until the final few hours of the session, when they voted to make the change,” Thomas said. Thomas said he has spoken to Bachus and hopes Bachus will open a district congressional office in Oneonta. I-422/ Covered Bridges. Though not related to the Legislative session, Thomas said he will be meeting next week with Gov. Robert Bentley and Alabama Department of Transportation director John Cooper on two matters: starting construction on I- 422 between Ala 75 and Ala 79 along Blount County’s southern boundary and expediting approval by DOT of the county’s covered bridge repair and improvement plans so contracts can be let for repair work to be started this year.

Work on the three structures has been delayed by several months on more than one occasion because of slow reponse from the DOT, whose approval of submitted plans is necessary before federal funds can be released.

Beginning work on I-422 would create a number of construction jobs and other economic opportunities for Blount Countians, Thomas said. Agriculture bills. Thomas said he and Blount County Sen. Clay Scofield jointly sponsored and saw passed a bill allowing county U-pick farmers to place advertising signs along state and county highways. The bill specifies application procedures and guidelines. Thomas said other bills favorable to agriculture:

limited the liability of landowners who lease their property for hunting and fishing.

created a license plate category for mini-trucks.

affirmed the state’s authority to regulate fertilizer.

aimed at protecting Alabama’s honeybee colonies from pests and diseases brought in from out of state. Education bills. Thomas said this session of the Legislature was very active on the education front, passing 17 bills directly related to education, some quite controversial. The impact of some of the bills will become clear only over time. Thomas addressed only the more highprofile bills:

Act 2011-003 established the Education Trust Fund Rolling Reserve Act, which provides a formula for annual appropriations based on historical state tax collections. The bill is designed to stabilize annual budgeting by removing the need for the disruptive proration sometimes experienced in the past. Thomas said he supported the bill and voted in favor of it.

Act 2011-270 established the Students First Act. The act revises job protection laws for teachers and support workers and repeals existing tenure and fair dismissal laws. It outlines procedures for transfers and reassignments, requires due process hearings before school boards for terminations and other personnel actions, and establishes an appeal process for local board decisions, among other process details. Thomas said he voted against the bill, largely he said, because it removed too much of teachers’ protections from arbitrary action by school boards.

Act 2011-535, relating to illegal immigration, requires all employees, including local school boards, to enroll in EVerify, the federal program to verify work authorization of employees.

It requires public schools to determine citizenship and immigration status of enrolling students and to report such data to the state Board of Education. The state board must then submit an annual report of the statewide data to the Legislature. Thomas said he opposed the bill because it didn’t specify what action schools should take in the event a student was found to lack documention proving his or her legal status, and because the bill contained no indication of how the Legislature would use the annual data provided by the state school board.

Act 2011-676 increases education employee retirement contributions from 5 percent to 7.25 percent on Oct. 1 2011, and to 7.5 percent on Oct. 1, 2012. Thomas said he voted against the bill.

Thomas said he voted in favor of most of the remaining bills, many of which had to do with administrative details and were not controversial. The Immigration bill. Thomas said the public outcry against the immigration bill passed by the Legislature came as no surprise to the legislators themselves and was mostly an expression of their frustration over the federal government’s failure to deal definitively with the problem.

“My rathers would have been to establish a guest-worker program for agriculture, particularly where it can be documented that certain jobs are not going to be filled except by immigrant workers,” Thomas said

“That way they would still pay taxes like regular citizens. We have a number of jobs in this country that won’t be filled without immigrants: agricultural jobs, jobs in the chicken industry – both growing and processing – and certain construction jobs as well. You can’t pick even one acre of produce with nonimmigrant labor, and that’s a fact.” The bill that passed did not contain provisions for a guest-worker program, he said.