FAIRHOPE — To prepare the residents of Baldwin County for what is to come during the upcoming legislative session, state Rep. Jennifer Fidler, R-Silverhill, hosted town hall meetings to inform …
FAIRHOPE — To prepare the residents of Baldwin County for what is to come during the upcoming legislative session, state Rep. Jennifer Fidler, R-Silverhill, hosted town hall meetings to inform individuals of her expectations.
A topic that will be discussed during the session in Montgomery is school choice.
Fidler, who is one of 105 House members, held a town hall meeting at the Fairhope Satellite Courthouse on Jan. 31. She said focusing on community service grants, education, adding a fifth commissioner to Baldwin County, gambling and more are things that will be discussed in the legislative session.
“The school choice issue is asking ‘should some of the money follow students?’” Fidler said. “We (the state) spend about $7,200 per student on educating each child. The first days of school, we found out how many are at school, and that is how the money is allocated.”
School choice allows parents to decide where their child will attend and if they will attend a public or private school, despite the location, financial situation or if the child has a disability.
“There are standards that are set by the state, and if we are going to have tax paying money for the child and those standards have to be met, and we have to think what is best for the child,” Fidler said.
Fidler said she thinks this topic will result in a lot of discussion during the session.
“There are a couple of different things because if we don’t have those standards set and they (the students) are not meeting those standards and then come back to the public school system because they gave up,” Fidler said, “then they are at a spot where they may be lower in their education than what they are learning in schools, and the school teachers are having to bring them up, and it affects their report cards.”
Fidler said lower economic areas may have 30% of students who are non-English speaking, so adding resources for students who have English as their second language or disabled children would need to be added the budget.
Another topic for discussion is gambling, with Gov. Kay Ivey forming a study group to assess its pros and cons.
An 878-page document, which can be found in the Fairhope Public Library, discusses the benefits of gambling as well as the downsides.
According to the 2023 report on gambling by Alabama Policy Institute, “Gambling proponents contend that people only play their disposable 'entertainment' funds on gambling. Thus, lotteries and their ilk appear as a 'voluntary tax' that funds state initiatives. In reality, those hardest hit by lottery play are those who can least afford it.”
The report also stated that Alabama could see an estimated $200-$300 million in revenue from a lottery, $300-$400 million from casinos and approximately $10 million from sports gambling.
“There’s going to be a lot of debate on it back and forth,” Fidler said. “With Alabama being a conservative place, some people think we are looking at figures that would get a group put together, and even a lottery is something that the state of Alabama wants. We will have to vote on it.”
Fidler added that if the state does allow gambling, the state of Alabama will make an agreement with the tribes that currently run casinos in the state and will also increase the mental health resources due to the possibility of gambling addiction.
“There are a lot of different ideas and thoughts,” she said. “When we open up that compact — a compact is an agreement — and when we open that up, there will be some negotiations about bringing other casinos in. If we allow a lottery, if we aye yes to that, the only way we do it is opening up a compact to allow some sort of casinos and gambling in the state, and that is where you will see a lot of debate.”
Currently, Baldwin County has four elected commissioners, James Ball (District 1), Vice-Chairman Matthew McKenzie (District 2), Chairman Billie Jo Underwood (District 3) and Charles Gruber. The option to add a fifth commissioner is under consideration.
According to Fidler, before discussing whether a fifth commissioner would be added, she and her colleagues have been studying what the district organization would look like with this additional commissioner.
“Sen. Chris Elliot was a former county commissioner. He has a lot of ideas on how it should be formulated,” Fidler said. “His idea would be to have the commissioner that would run at large. The other four commissioners would run by district, but that commissioner running at large would be a chairman and would be elected by the people.”
Fidler said she has received input from current commissioners, and they have stated that a fifth commissioner is not needed and would be more government. Additionally, the commissioners say working with four people instead of five is easier but want to leave it up to the residents to decide.
“The budget isolation resolution (BIR) is something that the state legislature has to pass for each bill,” she said. “Every time we go to vote, before we vote, we have to vote on the BRI basically stating that if this bill is passed, it will be something that we will pay for the budget. We feel like we don’t have to have that anymore.”
Bills and resolutions to be discussed
Fidler added that this is important because if a piece of local legislation is on the board of equalization and it is in the process of getting passed, other house members do not know the situation in other areas besides the area they are in.
This proposed bill suggests that if a victim of human trafficking is a minor, the person convicted of human trafficking would face a minimum sentence of life imprisonment. Currently, sentences for this felony are punishable by 10 to 99 years.
State Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Josephine, has put forward five Senate bills for the upcoming session. These bills cover areas such as state affairs, education, counties and municipalities, retirement and changing the Alabama Constitution of 2022 for Baldwin County to clearly outline the Bon Secour Landmark District in the county.
Fidler announced during her town hall that she is presenting a shoreline bill that will encourage and incentivize people to not have bulkheads and to use natural shorelines instead.
The legislative session started Feb. 6 in Montgomery.