Rep. Wood shares progress on Alabama legislature

Published 9:00 am Wednesday, June 7, 2023

State Rep. Debbie Wood was the guest speaker at Monday’s Valley Lions Club and talked about what happened in the 2023 session of the Alabama Legislature. After serving four terms as a Chambers County commissioner, Wood was elected to the Legislature in 2018 and reelected last year. She’s vice chair of the Urban and Rural Development Joint Transportation Committee and is on the House Energy Council.

Wood told club members that serving as a county commissioner helped prepare her for the state legislature. Both have lots of committee assignments. An estimated 800 bills get introduced in each legislative session. It’s the job of committees to pare that number down to what has the highest priorities to be enacted into law that year. The state will spend a record $11 billion on education this year. This includes a 2 percent pay raise for teachers. Southern Union State Community College will benefit from a $10 million aviation program designed to train airplane mechanics. Students can do this for two years at SUSCC and then transfer to a four-year school like Auburn to complete a degree in this field. There is a significant need for this, and it’s possible some training can be done at the Lanett Municipal Airport in the coming years.

The aviation department at Auburn University will use a $500,000 simulator donated by Delta Airlines. 

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“There’s lots of things going on run education right now that’s really good,” Wood said.

Bills Wood sponsored or co-sponsored in this year’s session include House Bill 521, which will require healthcare facilities to allow one caregiver, or visitor, to be with a patient during a pandemic; HB 146, which will enable schools to allow advanced enrollment for military families with their official moved to state orders; HB 322, requires individuals in public schools to use the bathroom of their birth gender and HB 391, which requires athletes participating in K-12 public school sports in Alabama to play with the team that matches the gender of their birth certificate.

Wood also sponsored legislation that would allow counties that maintain roads inside city limits to set the speed limits on those roads; to have an income tax check-0ff allowing state residents who receive refunds to direct them to mental health or state parks,

“You wouldn’t believe the calls I have gotten on (HB 521),” she said. “My mother was in the hospital during Covid, and I could not go in to visit her.”

The bill Wood is now sponsoring appoints an essential caregiver. It guarantees at least two hours of visitation daily unless the federal government declares a national emergency and shuts everything down. Wood said she was pleased for Exit 79 on I-85 to get long-needed attention this year. New lighting will extend along both lanes from the Alabama side of the Chattahoochee River to past the new welcome center. The metal and concrete light poles are up and this portion of the project could be completed this month. Some new traffic signals will be going up at the bridge over the Interstate at Exit 79. This part of the project could be finished in August.

Altogether this will be a project of more than $3 million million, the funding is entirely from the state and federal levels.

“This new lighting is a good way to dress up the entrance into Alabama from Georgia,” Wood said. “With the new welcome center that’s now open, we need better lighting so everyone can see it when they are passing at night. We haven’t had a project like this in Chambers County for some time.”

A club member asked Wood about what was happening with the planned surfacing of Highway 29 in Valley. She said it had been scheduled to be done this spring and summer, but it’s been put on hold due to what’s being planned at Johnson Curve. The project will be re-bid this fall to improve driver safety in the curve for once and for all.

“They will level it out to make it better than it has been,” she said.

At the request of Gov. Kay Ivey, the legislature has been working on having a tax refund this fall. One proposal would offer a refund of $400 per person and $800 per couple; another would allow $150 per individual and $300 per family.

The state is having a good year sales tax-wise, but there’s no guarantee it will continue. 

“The state is up some nine percent in sales tax revenue over what came in last year,” Wood said. “It probably won’t be that large next year with some of the Covid money coming off. Interest rates may be down some.”

Wood said the state was in a better position than in 2010 when a near crisis occurred in the aftermath of a national recession. A $500 million savings fund has been built up since then.

The state is looking at having a significant reduction in sales tax on groceries. 

“We are working at having no taxes on groceries,” Wood said. 

Wood said there’s a common misunderstanding on the legislature’s 30-day calendar for each annual session. A legislative day is not like a regular day on the calendar. The legislative clock only counts when a session is taking place.

A state legislator meets some wonderful people from all over the state. Wood cited the example of Dr. Harry Reeder of one of the largest churches in the state. She enjoyed hearing him speak at many of the legislature’s prayer breakfasts. Every legislator was greatly saddened when Dr. Reeder was killed in a car accident on his way home to Birmingham from the state capitol. 

“The day we last heard him speak we had no idea it would be his last talk,” Wood said.

Wood said the legislature has a vital job to do each year. 

“We can’t stop what we are doing,” she said. “If the legislature would quit what it’s doing, this state would completely fall apart.”

When a member of the club asked her what was going on with state prisons, Wood said there hadn’t been much discussion on this subject this year but that the state was proceeding with a plan to build two new prisons that would hold up to 4,000 people. She said there’s a big problem getting people to work at state prisons. The pay has been increased to more than $50,000 a year, but it’s still hard to find people who will work there.

Wood said Chambers County is fortunate to have a highway engineer like Josh Harvill. 

“He is well respected all over the state,” she said. “People in other counties call him for advice.”