MONTGOMERY — The legislative session that begins Feb. 7 will include bills that run the gamut from education to abortion and budgets, but there may be no issue more important than job creation.
Besides a “bold” education agenda unveiled on Wednesday, Gov. Robert Bentley and House and Senate leaders have declared job creation and retention legislation a priority in an attempt to help businesses in a still weak but recovering economy.
Bentley campaigned on job creation, and Republicans who took over the House and Senate in 2010 vowed to put jobs as their No. 1 issue although Republicans don’t have a patent on economic legislation. Traditionally, job creation legislation is a bipartisan issue.
A preview of an economic incentive bill that almost passed last year will occur Thursday during a meeting of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee in the State House.
The bill includes a proposed constitutional amendment by Rep. Barry Mask, R-Wetumpka, and Sen. Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City.
It would allow new and existing businesses to use qualified employee state income tax withholding to defray business expenses.
Williams said Wednesday the constitutional amendment is an important ingredient in local efforts to encourage Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. to continue investing in the tire plant that employs about 1,700.
“Certainly, this is on the Alabama Development Office’s and the governor’s top list of bills,” Williams said.
Mike McCain, executive director of the Gadsden-Etowah County Industrial Development Authority, said new or expanding industries will have to meet certain criteria and the projects will have to be approved before they can receive the tax incentive.
McCain said similar incentives exist in Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and South Carolina, states Alabama competes with for jobs.
“This proposed incentive would not give us a competitive advantage but would level the metaphorical playing field,” McCain said.
Mask said Wednesday the bill will be discussed Thursday during a meeting of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee beginning at 11:30 a.m. The bill is a constitutional amendment that voters would have to approve.
The measure would allow new or expanding industries to use up to 90 percent of employee state income tax withholding for projects.
In Goodyear’s case, it could use up to 75 percent of employee state income tax withholding to help it remain in Gadsden. Local and state officials are working with Goodyear to keep the Gadsden plant.
House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said the session will have the usual complement of bills that seem to pop up every year. But this session should focus on job creation, education and the two state budgets that he believes are inadequate to meet all education and general government needs.
He was critical of Republican initiatives in the 2010 special session and the 2011 regular session including the controversial anti-illegal immigration bill and an ethics bill that left a bad taste in the mouths of teachers.
“I figure one-third of the session will be going back and fixing the mistakes by the Republican majority, one-third on (legislative) redistricting and one-third on the budgets,” Ford said.
Rep. Blaine Galliher, R-Rainbow City, chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, said many but not all bills that are reported out of committee will make it to the floor for potential debate. He declined to speculate which bills might not be included on special calendars for consideration.
The Republican House Caucus met this week to discuss its agenda.
“Our real focus will be on jobs, and I think what the people of the state expect right now is to offer opportunities for employment so they can provide for their families,” Galliher said.
On Wednesday, Bentley, House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, announced an education agenda that includes public charter schools for underserved communities.
Legislators said the 2012 session will be crucial because of the still-fragile economy and relatively high but falling unemployment rate.
“Anything that helps creates jobs, I’m for,” Ford said.
Williams is reintroducing a bill that says a human is defined from the moment of conception and implantation in a womb. The bill almost passed last year.
“I think we’ll have a strong opportunity to pass the personhood bill this year,” Williams said.
By Dana Beyerle
Times Montgomery Bureau