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SUNDAY, AUGUST 26, 2007
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CAPITOL LETTER
Schools, Medicaid to stay hot topics in Legislature

By M.J. Ellington
mjellington@decaturdaily.com · (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — Few people in Montgomery expect they’ve heard the last about double-dipping policies adopted by the state Board of Education on Thursday.

Another not-over-yet subject involves funding for the state’s overcrowded prisons and a Medicaid budget expected to need another $199 million for next year. Either situation could land the state back under federal court oversight.

There is talk of bond issues to pay for new prison construction. But area lawmakers say that on these issues, as with other General Fund agencies, revenue shortages are something they know they’ll face when they are in session again.

Graduation rates

Education Superintendent Joe Morton had computer technicians run one slide in a presentation at a Board of Education work session twice just to emphasize a figure that surprised him.

Alabama’s high school graduation rate is somewhere between 59 and 70 percent, depending on which study results you look at. Morton said the figure should be much higher.

But as the slide pointed out, only slightly more than half of four-year college students nationally earn a degree within six years.

Deputy Superintendent for Instruction Ruth Ash said the figure puzzles the experts.

Education board member Randy McKinney, R-Gulf Shores, had an answer. “I think it has more to do with football,” McKinney said.

2-year college revamping

Two-year college Chancellor Bradley Byrne said Thursday’s favorable Board of Education vote to curtail service in the Legislature for the system’s employees is step one on his to-do list.

There are others.

Also on Byrne’s list are a top-to-bottom review of all system policies; a review of foundations connected with the system’s colleges, technical schools and related programs; and criminal background checks similar to the checks that the K-12 system already has in place for people coming to work for the system.

When asked if there are people with criminal records working with the system now, Byrne said he really does not know. “We don’t check,” he said.

Rural broadband

A House committee is working this summer on plans to bring broadband Internet access to rural areas in the state, Rep. Craig Ford, the committee chairman said.

Ford, a Gadsden Democrat, said the committee is interested in a plan similar to the one Kentucky used to help connect remote, rural communities to the information age.

Ford said Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks cited the number of high-tech tractors on Alabama farms that help farmers keep up with crop data and related needs. No matter how fancy the tractor, it’s hard for farmers to use all the equipment if they cannot access the Internet.

Speaking of hard access

Reporters who cover the Statehouse depend increasingly on wireless Internet connections on their computers to stay in touch with their offices and transmit news stories. The “dead” zones in the aging building sometimes have reporters balancing equipment on porch railings or driving away from the building to get a signal.

“It’s embarrassing, especially the image it gives when people come from other states,” one high-level Statehouse employee said. “The building is so old that it is practically impossible to modernize it,” he said.

House and Senate members now have wireless Internet access and often haul their laptop computers into the House and Senate chambers when they are in session.

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