By Rebekah Martin
The latest Alabama legislative session ended May 19 and Sen. Tom Whatley-R recently visited with Observer staff to update our readers on what passed, what didn’t and how it will affect Lee County residents.
Whatley either proposed or co-sponsored four bills in the last session – chief among them, a bill which mandates that many insurances will soon have to provide ABA therapy to their customers who have autistic children. ABA therapy, or Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy, is used to teach social and educational skills to children with autism. According to al.com, ABA therapy is the most widely-studied and accepted treatment for the condition, which often causes children and adults to struggle with speech and social interactions. Parents without insurance coverage generally struggle to afford the therapy, often accruing medical bills upwards of $1,000 a month. Alabama was previously one of the five states nationwide that did not require insurance companies to provide the therapy.
Estimated to cost between $9-11 million, the mandate will not go in effect until December 2018, will apply to companies with more than 51 employees and will cover children up to 18 years old. Whatley said he opposed the age cap, but that it was necessary to get the bill through the senate.
According to Whatley, another benefit of the mandate will be the influx of jobs created in Alabama for those who are trained in the field.
“We do that training over in Auburn, and I’ve had calls from people in other states such as the guy up in Massachusetts who told me ‘thank you so much for training all of these people for us. Auburn trains them, and they come up here to work for me.’ We didn’t have a friendly environment for people who provide ABA therapy – they could get training here in Auburn but they really couldn’t get work here in Alabama,” Whatley said. “If we’re going to train them with your tax dollar, then shouldn’t we at least give them the opportunity to stay in Alabama and find a job?”
Fuel tax for roads
One piece of legislation that failed was the proposal to levy a temporary three cent statewide fuel tax to repair Alabama’s crumbling roads and bridges. “I’ve been a supporter of it for the past three years and it’s disappointing that it hasn’t gone through,” Whatley said. “You build roads, you create jobs. I didn’t believe that when I was first elected, but it’s absolutely true. I supported the gas tax every year it’s come about because it was tied directly to pavement, to asphalt and not to administrative costs. In west Alabama, they’re notorious for taking money, hiring three administrators and never spending a dime on asphalt.”
The bill would have meant $30 million for Lee County to maintain its roads.
Whatley also supported the cross-over voting bill that prohibits people from switching parties between a primary election and a run-off election. “When it comes to the general election, you can vote for whoever you want to,” Whatley said. “It keeps me, a Republican, from deciding to vote in the Republican primary and then saying ‘well my guy won in the primary’ … let me go over here and vote in the democratic run-off and try to select their candidate.’ It is a hard issue to try to explain to people because they’re not familiar with it.”
Prisons and a
A bill that would have overhauled Alabama’s prison system also failed in the session. The legislation would have okayed the construction of four mega prisons, three for men and one for women. The project would have cost a estimated total of $845 million.
“I voted for a bill that I felt like really addressed it (the problem) correctly,” Whatley said. “It allowed the counties that have prisons in them to form a bonding authority themselves, build the new prisons, lease them back to the state and it wouldn’t affect the state’s overall bonding authority and the counties would have been protected.”
Whatley said the overpopulation of Alabama prisons is something that has to be addressed soon and it might be something that is addressed in a potential special session.
“We’re doing more for putting violent offenders in prison, making room for them and taking the nonviolent offender and trying to get them in a treatment program and get them back in society. Right now, it’s $37,000 a year to house one of these nonviolent offenders, whereas we could put that money, if they’re out … they could be in some sort of program where we’re not paying for it and will benefit from them not being in our system. If they’re working, they’re paying taxes. Also, we’re using our prison system for a mental health system and that’s wrong. I think what will happen is if President Trump gets an infrastructure plan through congress, as planned, Governor Ivey will call a special session. I think she would include prisons, other infrastructure problems and probably incentives for the sale of a nuclear power plant as issues and I think it (the special session) would be in September.”
The senator also took pride in a bill that will allow out-of-state students to purchase hunting and fishing licenses for in-state fees. Currently they must buy out-of-state licenses which may cost ten or more times as much as in-state license fees. Whatley said, “ They (the students) are living here, they’re going to school here and paying substantially more in tuition than in-state students, and, in many cases, working here. But they’re not classified as Alabama residents because of college tuition rules. Why penalize them further?”