By Denise DuBois
Alabama State Representatives Chris Blackshear and Jeremy Gray held a Town Hall meeting at the East Alabama Board of Realtors office to discuss the recently ended legislative session and answer any questions the public may have about bills that were passed. Audience questions ranged from the gas tax to the lottery, the repeal of Common Core to the expansion of Medicaid.
East Alabama Chamber of Commerce President Dennis Beson, and host of the meeting, asked the two to explain the gas tax and how it can be a positive thing for the future.
“We needed new infrastructure,” Gray, the freshman legislator said. “We looked at the state, and we need to be ahead of the curve. I don’t want to pay more for my gas, but in the 20-to 30-year plan, we needed it. It was a hard decision being the first week, but hopefully it brings development and businesses in Alabama.”
Blackshear, who is in his third year at the statehouse, said he’s also not a fan of raising taxes. “But if we have to, it needs to be fair and equitable. This is fair,” he said, since the tax affects those who purchase gas in the state. “A ‘yes’ vote guaranteed repairs in our district.”
The two then explained that when it comes time to ask for money for road and bridge repair in East Alabama, the legislators who voted ‘yes’ for the gas tax will be able to get money more easily than those who voted ‘no’ for the tax.
The money generated from the gas tax can only be used for concrete and asphalt for roads and bridges.
Gail Head asked if the legislators expected a special session to pass a lottery in the state.
Gray and Blackshear both agreed that they do not expect that at all. Blackshear said they may meet to discuss Alabama prisons because they are trying to prevent the federal government coming to the state to take over prisons. Gray explained that if the lottery went to the General Fund Budget, it could be a discussion during a special session because the General Fund provides for Medicaid and prisons.
Mesha Patrick, Phenix City Board of Education President, asked if the legislators thought there would be a complete repeal of the College and Career Ready Standards, also known as Common Core.
Gray said, to the best of his understanding, the bill that would have repealed it was a political move by a legislator.
“I don’t foresee it coming up,” he said. “If we repeal it, what do we replace it with? No one has come to us saying they want it repealed. Once it passed the Senate, it just died.”
Blackshear asked, “Are parents against it because they can’t help their kids with homework because it’s so advanced?” Then he digressed into the state school board and whether or not it should be elected or appointed – a question that will appear as an amendment to Alabama citizens in the next election.
“I think with appointed, you can do better than elected because it takes the politics out of that seat,” Blackshear said. “We have to find a way for teachers to use their God-given talent to teach. They’re not robots. Let them teach.”
Peggy Blackshear asked about Medicaid for All and how that concept could bring millions to the state’s coffers.
Gray explained that the numbers she was referring to showed that the state lost $300 million in what would have been matching federal funds because the state didn’t participate in the expansion of Medicaid in the first years of the Affordable Care Act.
“It’s all the things Medicaid brings in is estimated at $300 million,” he said.
Blackshear shared statistics of those using Medicaid in Alabama. Of the 4.8 million residents, 21 percent are eligible for Medicaid. Nine percent are in the 65 years and older category. Fifty-two percent are in the zero to 18 years category.
“We have people who need healthcare and we have people who are abusing it. What do we do about fraudulent activity in Medicaid?” he asked.
Beson asked Gray what his biggest challenge has been in his first year at the statehouse. Gray said he thought he could be out in the community like before but things in the statehouse aren’t black and white. “You can’t just vote yes or no in everything. There’s strategy and what’s best for your district and what’s best for you three to four years down the road. Some things are about compromise. Sometimes you want to be Superman and do everything, but sometimes you just have to sit back.”
Locally and What was Right
Blackshear recapped the local bills that passed the legislature and what he feels they got right.
“One thing we got right is pre-k,” he said. “We’re building the right foundation.”
There was a $15,000 grant given for the Albert Patterson statue and bench that is being erected as part of the Alabama Bicentennial, Blackshear said. He also mentioned the Pledge of Allegiance being said in all classrooms. Adding the option for a Bible elective class in grades six through 12 was passed. They also passed a law allowing fantasy sports, which Blackshear said will generate $3 million in new money in the first year.
“I was happy to cosponsor that bill,” he added.
A committee was formed to decide on medical marijuana. Comments will be brought to the floor during the 2020 legislative session. An increased Education Budget was also mentioned.