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Completing a successful session

Arthur Orr | Alabama State Senator

State House pundits and Capitol observers alike are calling the recently concluded 2011 regular session of the Alabama Legislature the most successful in decades with more reform-minded measures and institutional changes implemented in one three-month period than in the last several years combined.

And, I’m happy to report that the influence of the Morgan County delegation had a great deal to do with those historical reforms as Rep. Micky Hammon led House Republicans as their Majority Leader, Rep. Terri Collins utilized her role as a member of the powerful education budget-writing committee, Ed Henry of Hartselle was tasked with forming education policy and I was awarded the chairmanship of the Senate committee charged with drafting state agency spending plans.

As the head of the panel with responsibility for authorizing more than $14 billion in funding to Alabama’s non-education state agencies and departments, my first job was to bring a semblance of sanity to a process that, for years, had relied on one-time monies and last minute federal bailouts in order to balance the General Fund budget. Much like a family gathered around the kitchen table at bill time, our committee took a hard look at money coming in and money going out and made the tough decisions that would finally force state government to live within its means.

Funding the essential functions of government, including incarcerating dangerous felons and providing basic medical care to our poorest citizens, was our top priority, but, beyond that, every agency had to make a case for each program they administered and every dime that they received.

Many of the decisions were difficult and, in some cases, painful to make, but they were all necessary to put Alabama on the road to sound financial footing. We, as an example, adjusted for the first time since 1974 the amount that active state employees must contribute to their pension plan. It was not done, as some labor union leaders and others would have you believe, as a punitive measure against public employees, but rather, as an emergency action needed to shore up retirement system finances and ensure that both current and future retirees may continue to collect the pension benefits that they earned and were promised.

The Retirement Systems of Alabama’s returns have languished around the bottom 10 percent of pension funds for the past three, five and 10 years. It is an issue we will have to soon face because of its impact on our budgets and employees.

But while drafting budgets was my top responsibility, it was not my only focus.

State Rep. Mike Ball of Madison and I were successful in passing a number of ethics and transparency measures that we sponsored over the past several years but witnessed the previous legislative leadership kill time and time again. As a result, elected officials and candidates for office will now be required by law to publicly disclose any government contracts or potential conflicts of interest they hold, and our state campaign finance system has been given an unprecedented level of fairness and public openness.

Recognizing the need for jobs and economic development, the Legislature approved a series of unique job-creating incentives, including one I sponsored that provides $1,000 tax deductions to small business owners for every currently unemployed person they hire.

Majority Leader Hammon was largely responsible for passing the nation’s toughest law designed to combat illegal immigration. With his legislation, those who break our laws by their simple presence will no longer be able to drain our tax dollars, steal our jobs or settle comfortably in Alabama.

Rep. Collins, in her rookie year as a legislator, pushed through a needed Good Samaritan law that provides civil immunity to any person who provides help, aid and emergency response assistance to another citizen during urgent situations. This bill, in my opinion, will allow us to fulfill our biblical mandate to help others during times of trouble without the fear of being sued or suffering unnecessary consequences.

And, in order save the taxpayer dollars a special session demands, constitutionally-mandated redistricting plans for State School Board and Congressional districts were drafted and approved. Morgan County, which was previously diluted among multiple Congressional districts, will now be wholly included in District 5.

Space does not allow me to detail each and every new law worthy of discussion, but, suffice it to say, the amount of reform and positive change accomplished during this one session alone was breathtaking. But please do not think for a moment that our job is finished.

Just as Rome was not built in a day, the new Republican Legislature cannot, in just one session, correct all of the entrenched policies, failed programs and shell game financing that got Alabama in its current condition, but we have made a strong start.

If this session is a bellwether, I am convinced that when this term is over, we will be in a position to leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, more prosperous state, an excellent public education and a new, higher ethical standard that is worthy of the people we serve.

And, when all is said and done, what more could we ask?

Arthur Orr of Decatur is a state senator representing Alabama’s third senate district.