MUSCLE SHOALS -- Dealing with the problems facing the state's corrections system will be one of the main priorities once the 2017 legislative session begins in February, the new speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives said Thursday.
Mac McCutcheon, who was named speaker in August, was addressing the board of directors of the Northwest Alabama Council of Local Governments.
Winston County Commission Chairman Roger Hayes, who was sitting in for Chairman Barry Moore, said McCutcheon is the first speaker of the house to address the NACOLG board.
"We know he's going to be an asset for us as speaker of the house," Hayes said.
McCutcheon spoke for about 20 minutes on the legislative session scheduled to begin Feb. 7, and the possibility of a special session. A special session, he said, would be set at the governor's discretion.
"We've been through some difficult times in Montgomery," McCutcheon said. "We're not out of the woods yet."
In addition to dealing with the state's corrections crisis, McCutcheon said other priorities will include finding ways to eliminate waste in the general fund, and finding ways to properly maintain and increase the capacity of the state's roads and bridges.
He said the state will likely lose the federal court case that claims Alabama is not properly caring for mentally ill inmates. With that in mind, the state will have to solve the problem before the federal government steps in.
McCutcheon said the plan laid out by Jeff Dunn, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, to spend $800 million on four new prisons should solve that problem. He said Dunn has indicated the money saved by consolidating and closing existing prisons will offset the debt payments on the bond issue needed to build the new facilities.
The speaker said he's appointed a committee of seven senators and seven representative to review how much federal money flows into the state, to determine the number of earmarks and tax breaks, and to look at the finances of every state agency.
"We're going to look at where our tax dollars are going," he said. "It's going to be massive."
McCutcheon also wants to look the $4.5 billion paid out in tax credits, some of which have been around for 20 years. He wants to find out if the terms that established those tax credits are being met.
"It's just good business to find out where the money is going," he said.
A third major issues is infrastructure.
"There is no doubt in my mind that infrastructure is the key to economic development in our state," McCutcheon said.
Once projects funded by the Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program are completed, the state will have $45 million remaining in its road enhancement fund.
"That's dangerous," McCutcheon said.
He said a large portion of the money could be spent on one enhancement project.
McCutcheon proposed a gas tax last year that was never introduced. He said there are several options to raise money for infrastructure needs that would involve a gas tax increase that would be a percentage, similar to sales taxes. Revenue from that method would increase as the price of gas rises.
The other plan would involve a 2-cent gas tax increase that would create a $1 billion bond issue to "fix every bridge in the state," McCutcheon said. Another 2-cent increase would be distributed to the counties and municipalities to assist them with their issues.
He said both taxes would have sunset clauses.
"Let us not let this discussion die," he said.
McCutcheon's background is in farming and law enforcement. He retired from the Huntsville Police Department in 2013, seven years after he was first elected to the Legislature.
Not all of his discussion was doom and gloom.
He recalled shortly after becoming speaker that he reminded his wife that she was now sleeping with the speaker of the house, to which she responded, "Let me tell you, big boy. I'm the speaker in this house and don't you forget it."
"I said, 'Yes, ma'am,'" McCutcheon said.