RED BAY | From abortion to education and the lottery to the parole board, Jamie Kiel’s first legislative session was a jam-packed learning experience – and he expects he and his fellow lawmakers to revisit some of these same issues as early as next year.
That was the gist of a legislative update Kiel recently gave members of the Red Bay Civitan Club. During the noon meeting, Kiel touched on several topics that had received significant attention in the media, and shared details likely not known by many outside Montgomery.
Kiel, of Russellville, succeeded Johnny Mack Morrow as representative of House District 18 this year. And though freshman lawmakers don’t have much say in what committees they serve upon, Kiel said he did request two important ones – Education and Ways and Means. What he found when he started looking into the education budget was at least one glaring hole where he said Franklin County’s name should have been.
“I got to looking at the education budget. It’s a big budget; seven billion dollars,” Kiel said. “That’s a lot of money for somebody like me, from Franklin County, to wrap his head around. When I started breaking that down and getting a detail of where all that money was going, I saw this line that said, out of our school money – and the education budget goes to a lot of things you might not think about education-related. Some of it is mental health, some of it is healthcare. There are a lot of different areas. But one of them said ‘Alabama Council on the Arts, $8.4 million.’ I wondered where $8 million of school money is going.”
What he found was several counties were on the 2018 list receiving funding from the Council, but Franklin County was not among them.
“We have an unbelievable arts scene with what you’ve got here (Bay Tree Council for the Performing Arts), in Russellville with the Roxy,” Kiel said. “I thought, ‘I don’t know what’s going on here, but some of this money needs to be coming to Franklin County.’ I was astonished that not only was no money coming here, but the reason was we hadn’t applied for anything or asked for anything. So that’s why I started calling people like Scotty (Kennedy) and about 20 other people to find out from them how we can bring our tax dollars back here. If we’re going to pay it in, we need to get it back. Hopefully that is going to pay off with some money from the Arts Council.”
He said that early experience had helped him key in on money that was leaving Franklin County in tax dollars but not coming back.
He said there were several big items the legislature tackled this session, with one big one being the state’s abortion law. It was the piece of legislation to get the most media attention this year, by far.
“You probably saw where that law is made to directly confront Roe vs. Wade,” Kiel said. “Roe vs. Wade said a child inside a mom is not a person. What our law says is it is a person. So we’re going to see who wins that conflict. The Supreme Court will hopefully decide which way that is and hopefully decide in our favor.”
Though not as hot an item to the national or even state media, Kiel said the Legislature’s focus on the shortcomings of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles would hopefully lead to correcting what had been a problem for too long.
“The state parole board is dysfunctional. I don’t know if you’ve had any dealings with the parole board. I’ve had more in the last six months than I’ve had in my whole life,” Kiel said. “Part of what we found out is they don’t answer to anybody. You and I know if you don’t answer to someone, not a lot gets done. We passed a bill that makes the head of pardon and parole accountable to the governor. That’s the way we’re holding them accountable now. They still work independently, but at least we have influence on who the head of the department is. That is a good thing.”
Kiel specifically cited the case of Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, formerly of Franklin County, who was incarcerated multiple times on theft and escape charges, only to be released numerous times by the parole board. Following his latest release, Spencer was charged with capital murder in the slaying of three people, including a child, in the Guntersville area. In May, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall announced the State of Alabama will pay the families of the murder victims the maximum amount of damages allowable under the law – $1 million total – and this before any lawsuits have been filed. It essentially equates to an admission that authorities know Spencer, who has not yet been convicted but was known to be a violent offender, should not have been out of jail. The families have alleged that the parole board erred in releasing Spencer and then failed to follow up on his whereabouts and actions, leading to the deaths.
“He shouldn’t have been out,” Kiel said. “Now, in that same law, it says if you commit a Class A felony, you’ve either got to serve 85 percent of your term or 15 years. Before they were getting out at times they shouldn’t have been getting out.”
Education a chief focus
With Kiel’s wife, Melissa, being a teacher, he entered the legislature with a keen focus on education. As such he was pleased with the results of the session.
“We passed the largest education budget in the history of Alabama,” Kiel said. “The education budget had slumped. When the economy goes down the education budget goes down. We’re back to 2008 levels finally, in funding, because our sales tax base is up, our income taxes are up, our unemployment is at an all-time low. We’re able to spend more money on education than we’ve ever spent before, $7.1 billion dollars. That’s about $500 million more than last year. That money’s going to a lot of different places. One place it’s going is Pre-K. $26 million toward Pre-K education. We have the very best Pre-K program in the country, so we want to keep that funded.
He was also pleased to see teachers get a pay raise.
“If you’re starting as a teacher in Alabama now, the starting salary is a little over $40,000,” he said. “That’s the first time in history we’ve been able to say that. If you’re a 15-year teacher with a master’s degree, you’re making about $55,000 to $56,000 per year. That is a more competitive wage with our neighbors, Georgia and Tennessee.”
Another education budget item that caught Kiel’s attention was money set aside to help pay for more teaching units to handle the state’s influx of non-English-speaking students. With 52 percent of the students in the Russellville City Schools being Hispanic, Kiel said though he initially had concerns about diverting funds in this manner, he came to see the wisdom in it.
“In Franklin County we have a large Hispanic population and there’s a lot of money going toward helping with the Hispanic population,” he said. “My first thought when I saw that was, ‘we’re paying more money to educate the Hispanics? What about the other kids?’ But here’s what’s actually happening in the classroom. In Russellville, for instance, when half the children are Hispanic and half are Caucasian or black, guess who has to take the most attention from an elementary teacher? The Hispanic children. They don’t speak good English, they’re behind, so it takes more effort from the teacher to go to them and bring them up. So if we can put more money into English language learners education, it frees up the classroom teacher to help those kids that are not English language learners. It’s a very real need. There is a 40 percent Caucasian population in Russellville City Schools and eight percent black. My children go to Tharptown, but if I were sending them to Russellville City Schools and the teacher was having to spend all their time working with the Hispanics and not being able to teach my kids, I’d have a real issue with that. This allows funding to go into those schools overly populated with Hispanics to help them as much as possible.”
One item Kiel says he’s certain lawmakers will revive soon is a state lottery. With the way the lottery bill had been drafted this time, Kiel was glad to see it killed for this year.
“No matter what you think about the lottery, whether you like it or not, the lottery that failed this time was not a good lottery,” he said. “When I think about the lottery in other states, like Georgia and Tennessee, I think about two things: riding by nice schools the lottery has paid for, and I also think about scholarships. In other states the lottery provides scholarships to people so they can go to school for free. This lottery would not have done either one of those things. This lottery was a paper-only lottery, didn’t include scratch-offs or anything like that, Powerball or anything. It would have provided about $165 million, and the Senate said all that would go to the General Fund, to Medicaid and prisons, but not to education.
“The House decided that at least 25 percent of it should go to education,” he said. “That’s about $40 million. That’s a lot of money. But when you think about $7 billion, $40 million of new money is about a two percent increase. If I tell you, the average person in Alabama, with the average income of $50,000, that I’m going to give you a two percent pay increase next year, that’s pretty good; that’s about a $1,000. But if I tell you that with that $1,000 you have to buy a new car and you have to put a new swimming pool behind your house, does that make sense? That’s exactly what $40 million out of $7 billion would have said to our education system. We want you to provide scholarships to our kids, build new buildings – they spent $28 million at Hackleburg High School, on one school – $40 million statewide isn’t going to do anything to our buildings, our scholarships. So, no matter what you think about the lottery or the expansion of government and spending around the lottery, this lottery was not a good lottery. They’ll come back and I’m sure there’ll be another lottery option, but I hope it goes to schools instead of the General Fund if a lottery is ever passed in Alabama. I think that’s what the average person wants, is for our schools to benefit if there’s a lottery.”
One question Kiel received from the crowd was the status of the state’s efforts to legalize the use of medical marijuana. Kiel said the measure was discussed, but ultimately the state needs more time to get a better understanding of how to handle such a matter, and who would qualify to receive the drug. He believes this will come back up in the next session.
“It started out it was going to be a full medical marijuana bill,” he said. “There were about 10 different reasons given in the bill for having medical marijuana, anything from cancer and chemotherapy to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), autism, chronic pain, opioid abuse – all these reasons to get marijuana. I think a lot of legislators were uncomfortable with all of those reasons. It’s easy to see if someone is throwing up from chemotherapy or cancer and they can take an oil that helps with that, it’s easy to see it’s something we should probably do. But the other things, like PTSD – how do you gauge that? Autism – to what area of the spectrum should that apply? There is a lot of gray area there. So, what they wound up doing is stripping out all of that and creating a commission to study that for a year and extending the study that UAB has on CBD oil, not the kind you buy at the store, but the stronger variety.”