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Sit down with the Speaker: Port incentives, improving education and more top Ledbetter’s priorities

With his first session wielding the gavel approaching, Alabama House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter outlined a number of his legislative priorities in a recent interview with Alabama Daily News.

One item that may not receive as much attention is a proposal to incentivize automakers to ship Alabama-built vehicles out of the state’s port.

“We’re second in building the most automobiles in the United States, and we ship none of them out of Alabama,” Ledbetter said. “So I think we will see an incentive for our manufacturing companies that build cars in Alabama to ship out of our Alabama ports.”

The Alabama Legislature convenes on March 7. Other priorities named by the speaker include increasing funding for public education, distributing funds from the budget surpluses, as well as addressing mental health and opioid abuse issues.

‘What we’re doing with the ports could be a big boost to our economy’

Alabama’s only deep-water port, the Port of Mobile is among the largest ports by tonnage shipped in the United States, having handled 563,191 twenty-foot equivalent container units and 312 vessels in 2022. Improvements to the port, including an ongoing $365 million project that will deepen and widen the channel, are set to increase its capabilities to handle up to one million TEUs a year. 

Making better, more strategic use of Alabama’s ample waterways is a new focus of the House. Late last year, Ledbetter announced the creation of the Ports, Waterways, and Intermodal Transit Committee. Rep. Chip Brown, R-Hollingers Island, is the committee chair and is working on the incentive legislation.

“One of the main goals will be to capture the business of Alabama automakers,” Brown said.

The state currently offers an income tax credit for businesses that utilize Alabama’s port facilities, often referred to as a Port Credit. According to the Alabama Department of Revenue, less than 10 companies used the credit in 2021 to claim a total of $573,121 against their income tax liability.

Only one new company applied for the credit in 2021.

“So, to me that says it’s not working,” Brown told Alabama Daily News.

Brown has said he wants to see the Port of Mobile grow and surpass others in the South.

“We need to become more competitive, but we also need to become the dominant economic force in the region,” he said. “We have a port that is experiencing record growth, and a lot of that is based on efficiency.” 

With Alabama automakers producing around one million cars and light-trucks per year, ranking third nationally in export dollars for vehicles, Ledbetter said taking full advantage of the state’s ports and waterways could be an economic game-changer.

“The intercoastal waterways and what we’re doing with the ports could be a big boost to our economy,” Ledbetter said. 

“Alabama holds over 10% of freshwater in the United States, and if you tie that in with the Port of Mobile, the Port of Birmingham and what will soon be the ports of Montgomery and Huntsville, as well as the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, I think we are set up for success when it comes to our waterways in our state.”

Brown said the details of the legislation are still being worked out, but he plans to pre-file it before the March 7 start of the session.

Surplus and schools

Another top priority of his, Ledbetter said, was to allocate the state’s about $2.7 billion in surplus education funds. While talks were still ongoing among his House colleagues and Gov. Kay Ivey, Ledbetter said that tax rebates for Alabamians were one likely choice for allocating surplus funds.

“I do think that the taxpayers will be able to get some of their money back just because of the surplus in the budget,” he said. “Me personally, I certainly want to see some of it go back, I think that’s the right thing to do.”

The idea of giving Alabamians tax rebates has been echoed by State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, who in January advocated for issuing tax rebates totaling $500 million, amounting to roughly $200-$250 for individual state income tax filers.

Additional funding for public schools was noted by Ledbetter as another potential option for spending surplus funds.

“I think we’ve got to be looking at some of the more rural schools that may be in poverty areas that need the money to upgrade their schools,” he said. 

“We did the bond issue for a billion dollars, but when you talk about the number of facilities that we have in the state, it doesn’t go very far. In my district, I don’t think we’re in poverty, but there are school buildings that have got mold in the walls… I think if it’s in my district, it’s across the state like that for the most part.”

According to 2022 data from the U.S. Dept. of Education, Alabama ranks 42nd in terms of school funding, spending an average of $10,108 per student in K-12 schools. New York spends the most at $24,881 per student, with the U.S. average at $13,185.

Beyond additional funding, Ledbetter said that being more proactive in school administrative staffing could also help improve the state’s school system.

“My goal is to fix the problem of our school system, to give them the tools that they need to fix them,” he said. 

“We’ve got good teachers, we’ve got good administrators, but my thing in administration is if you’re failing and continue to fail, we need to get somebody in there that picks it up. They say a high-tide lifts all ships, so I think if they can’t get it above failing, we need somebody else to look at it from an administrative part.”

Among the 30 new House members this session are supporters of expanding school choice, including one proposal to allow funds earmarked for public education to follow students to private schools, public charter schools and home schools.

Ledbetter said that while expanding school choice can work in some cases, he was hesitant on diverting significant funding away from the public school system, and that state funding needs to require measuring results, wherever the students are.

“There’s got to be some accountability; I’ve heard some people say that we just need to let the money fall to the kid and not have any testing or accountability,” he said.

“We’ve got good charter schools just like we’ve got good public schools, but we’ve got failing charter schools just like we’ve got failing public schools. I think we’ve got to make sure what we do fixes the problem and doesn’t make it worse.”

Ledbetter pointed to how in some cases, such as with 4th grade scores in mathematics, Alabama has actually improved over the years, and cited such improvements as a reason for his hesitancy in diverting significant money from the public school system.

Additional priorities

Beyond instituting automaker economic incentives and allocating the budget surplus, Ledbetter said he would like to see legislation addressing the opioid epidemic, saying that “fentanyl is killing our kids across the state from one end to the other.”

In 2020, there were more than 1,000 drug overdose deaths, approximately 75% of which were opioid-related, per the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ledbetter also said he wanted to introduce a new bill making it easier for parents to adopt children.

“We’ve got almost 5,000 children today that don’t have moms and dads,” he said. “I think to make that process more fluid and streamlined is important for our state, so we’ll see that come out.”

Alabama Daily News reporter Mary Sell contributed to this report.


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