Record Numbers Attend Chamber Tuscaloosa's Montgomery Drive-In: Members meet with legislators at Capitol

Rep. Terri Collins, David Pass Rep. Terri Collins, David Pass The Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama

More than 90 members of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama traveled to the State Capitol February 21 and 22 for the Montgomery Drive-In, an annual event which allows a unique level of access to legislators and state officials.

Day One began at the Alabama Department of Archives and History with a panel discussion on education featuring Representative Bill Poole, Chair of the House Ways and Means Education Committee; Representative Terri Collins, Chair of the House Education Policy Committee; and Department of Education Superintendent Michael Sentance.

The panel discussed ways the Department of Education and the legislature planned to work together moving forward to improve student performance, particularly in low-scoring subjects such as math and science.

The group then moved on to the Joint Briefing Room at the Alabama State House, where they were joined by Department of Mental Health Commissioner Jim Perdue and Representative Chris England, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, for a discussion on prison reform. England, when asked about proposed plans to build new prisons in the state, said he felt better solutions can be found in assisting those with mental health and substance abuse problems.

Following the discussion, the group observed the legislature in session, and then attended a reception hosted by the Business Council of Alabama, where attendees met with legislators.

Day Two of the event kicked off with a workforce development discussion with Ed Castille of the Department of Commerce and Jeff Lynn of the Alabama Community College System.

Castille spoke highly of West Alabama, and of the efforts to improve workforce development in Region 3.

“It’s a tough thing getting people ready to go into the workplace; it starts in Pre-K,” he said. “You can’t say enough good things about Region 3.”

Lynn spoke of exciting things to come for the community college system. “Workforce is the number one key issue in our state,” he said. “There is a lot of opportunity, but there is a lot of work to do. Existing companies will create about 85 percent of the jobs in the state.”

Lynn said customized training programs will be available in a few months’ time. “It’s a new day at two-year colleges across the state. We’re working on some things we’ve never done before, and every workforce issue has a solution.”

Representative Mac McCutcheon, Speaker of the House of Representatives, joined the group for a discussion on transportation, as well as Alabama Department of Transportation Director John Cooper and Billy Canary of the Business Council of Alabama.

McCutcheon specifically brought up the proposed gas tax bill, a proposal he said he’d received some criticism over. “The facts are there,” he said. “We haven’t done anything since ’92. We can’t do anything. We can’t build roads. We can’t fix our infrastructure.”

While McCutcheon acknowledged gaining support for increased taxes is difficult, he said he felt support had grown for a 6 cent gas tax because more people are now educated about the gas tax bill.

Representative Kyle South and Representative Rich Wingo and Commissioner Julie Magee from the Department of Revenue addressed the group on tax reform, and held a question and answer session.

South and Wingo, both on the Budget Task Force, spoke on needed efficiencies in how Alabama’s budget process works. South spoke to the earmarking issue, which creates difficulties during the process. “Ninety-two percent of Alabama’s budget is earmarked – that’s the highest in the country by a large margin,” he said. “It’s very frustrating.”

At the close of the event, Billy Canary presented Rep. South with the BCA Business Champion Award for his work on HB 36, the Alabama Small Business and Agribusiness Jobs Act, which passed with no opposition. HB 36 authorizes a tax credit of $1,500 per employee for a small business that hires a new, full-time resident of Alabama in a job that pays at least $40,000 a year. The bill defines a small business as having 75 or fewer employees, is qualified to do business in Alabama, and is headquartered in or has its principal place of business in the state. The bill also authorizes an additional $1,000 tax credit for hiring a recently deployed and unemployed veteran of the U.S. Armed Services.

“Small businesses are the grass roots of the commercial world and those roots support many families and commerce in small towns and large cities,” says Jim Page, President and CEO of the Chamber.

The two-day event closed with a luncheon at the Retirement Systems of Alabama Plaza Terrace, where Dr. David Bronner, CEO of RSA, spoke to the group.

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