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Putting More Into Infrastructure

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BCA Seeks ‘Fair, Equitable, Broad-Based’ Solutions

Although the state legislative session just began in February, Business Council of Alabama President and CEO William J. Canary was asked what would a successful session look like for the organization that represents 750,000-plus people.The organization wants to be “supportive and helpful in adopting an agenda that truly, truly moves Alabama to the next level in terms of its ability to compete and be competitive,” Canary said. “That would include a number of areas and one of those would be infrastructure.” The BCA hopes to see legal reform as well as the Legislature supporting a constitutional amendment for the ballot about securing Alabama as a right-to-work state.

He talked about education and funding the state’s highly successful and well respected pre-K program; supporting the Alabama Reading Initiative; and finding ways “to appropriately reward the importance of the teacher in the classroom.”

Canary said that the lawmakers need greater flexibility in the budgeting for the General Fund and Education Fund, where about 90 percent of revenue is earmarked. He said the budgets were designed in an industrial age, while we now live in a digital age. Because of earmarking, lawmakers’ “hands are tied behind their backs and yet they are asked to use those hands to create something in terms of this earmarking dilemma,” Canary said.

One message that lawmakers will hear from the BCA is improving the state’s infrastructure, which he said “is the holistic approach of how to ensure that you cannot just create a quality of life, but you can move goods and freight; that you can move people in a safe environment so that when you get on a road, that individual’s safety is the No. 1 concern,” Canary said.

The state has funded roads and bridges through gasoline and diesel taxes, but with the cost of fuel at $2 a gallon or less and vehicles getting much improved gas mileage, the revenue source produces less and has not been increased since the 1990s. BCA recommends a “multi-faceted approach” that could include public-private partnerships; dedicated paid lanes for trucks and vehicles; and an increase in gasoline/diesel taxes. Whatever is decided – and Canary said there is widespread agreement that infrastructure improvements are needed – the solution “has to be equitable and fair … and broad-based.” He said any solution has to support both urban and rural areas and the funds need to be from dedicated sources.

That insistence on fair, equitable and broad-based solutions is why the BCA opposed last year’s move by the Legislature to eliminate most of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s (ADEM) budget. The agency was forced to dramatically raise fees for businesses. Those increased fees were not broad-based, Canary said. “It was very much geared toward certain industries.” Yet for the BCA, that is not the No. 1 reason for opposing the funding reduction. The BCA advocates fully funding ADEM because “it lessens the likelihood of the EPA to further intervene or interfere into our state beyond what they are already doing, which is creating tremendous hardship,” Canary said.

The fear of a federal takeover of the state’s prison system last year was a key factor in BCA’s support of prison reform.

The BCA supports an “Alabama-driven approach” to Medicaid expansion and Canary called it “an economic development issue that would help to both create jobs and sustain existing jobs. Our health care system is just as vital as the education system,” he said.

“Often times we’re going to take a position that we believe is right, and we’re not talking about political correctness. We’re talking about what is right for Alabama and what’s right for the business community.”

Canary said it’s important for the public to know there is a plan in place. “We ask the question, what is the five-year plan for Alabama, and the answer is, I don’t know if anybody can give you a five-year plan,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone can give you a one-year plan. I don’t know if anyone can give you a six-month plan.”

He credits the Legislature with “truly trying to move this state from an industrial thinking structure to the digital age, and it’s not going to be easy.” It’s easy for a lawmaker to say no, Canary said, because it’s safe. “‘Yes’ brings all types of opportunity and challenges; a little bit of risk, but you can’t move a generation; you can’t move a community; you can’t move anything unless you’re a ‘yes’ person. ‘Yes’ people move the world. We’re a ‘yes’ organization.”

By David Zaslawsky for Montgomery Business Journal
Photography by Robert Fouts

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