Montgomery Drive-In 2020: 80+ Attendees meet with State Leaders

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The 2020 Montgomery Drive-In, presented by the University of Alabama System, was held March 11-12 and included more than 80 Chamber members and business leaders. The event is one of the Chamber's most popular public policy and advocacy events.

Kicking off with a reception sponsored by Representative Bill Poole and Southland Benefit Solutions, attendees were treated to Rep. Poole's take on the current legislative session, including prison reform, mental health, and changes to the budget.

"The governor introduced a package of criminal reforms last week," Poole said. "They will be controversial, no doubt. But we've host the federal lawsuit and the clock is ticking."

Poole also said that, as a state, Alabama has fallen far behind in addressing mental health issues. "We have some of the longest waiting lists in the country, and we have closed facilities as opposed to opening them. I think you'll see some robust investment in mental health in both the general and education fund."

Poole also discussed workforce development, and says he would like elected officials and organizations to work together to formulate clear economic development strategies.

"We need our stakeholder partners to come together and work on a strategy, and pursue it every day."

Following the breakfast, the delegation met at the Alabama State House, meeting with members of West Alabama's legislative delegation on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Senator Greg Reed kicked off the discussion talking about the strength of our economy, and noted Alabama's legislation that provides incentives that attracts business and industry to the state is expiring and must be looked at during the session.

"We always look for ways to improve what we're doing, and position ourselves to put Alabama's best foot forward," he said. "Rural development is going to be important. We need four things for rural development: infrastructure, health care, incentives, and broadband internet access."

Rep. Gerald Allen, who lives in Tuscaloosa, gave the group an infrastructure update, including completion estimates for some of the projects currently underway.

"We'll have 225 million new dollars for this coming year under Rebuild Alabama," he said. "Overall what we have is a lot of working going on in Tuscaloosa."

Allen noted the Lurleen Wallace project is slated to be complete in early summer of this year, and the McFarland Blvd./I20 project, which has been plagued with issues with the arch, is set for completion in late 2020.

Rep. Kyle South touched on the prision issue, noting there is a 3,000-person waiting list for mental health facilities in the State of Alabama. South said it was important to have people in the right facilities.

"We need to get some people out of local jails at the County and municipal level, and get them where they should be," he said.

Rep. Rodney Sullivan thanked the Chamber for its efforts in workforce development, referencing assistance given to employees of the recently closed hospital in Pickens County.

He said that, with the hospital closing, he'd put some agenda items on hold to work on the issue.

"With the closing of Pickens, this means life and death with respect to emergency care," he said. "We have to restructure and rethink things. As sad as this is, I'm optimistic about what doors might open from this."

Rep. Chris England also touched on plans for mental health, noting the budget is expected to include plans for three crisis centers. England said he wanted more.

"We need a real investment," England said. "I want our state to expand Medicaid so we can invest in prevention and care."

England said with respect to crisis response, the response was often ineffective and costs too much. "Anyone in the state who is committed to an instituion is supposed to go to Tuscaloosa, but we have nowhere for people to go," he said. "Every bed in Taylor Hardin and Bryce is full and has been for years."

Speaker Mac McCutcheon told attendees they're having a good session so far, having worked with a lot of legislation dealing with local issues. With respect to education, the legislature plans to upgrade packages for educators to be more attractive when recruiting.

Rep. A.J. McCampbell welcomed Drive-In attendees to Montgomery, and said he was pleased to see how many people were invested in their government. McCampbell encouraged future involvement and welcomed input from the group.

After the session with the legislative delegation, participants attended the annual legislative reception hosted by the Business Council of Alabama. During the event, attendees were able to network with elected and appointed officials from across the state.

Day 2 of the Montgomery Drive-In kicked off with a breakfast sponsored by DT Freight, LLC, which featured Secretary Greg Canfield of the Alabama Deparment of Commerce, Secretary Fitzgerald Washington of the Alabama Department of Labor, and Executive Director Elliot Knight of the Alabama State Council on the Arts.

Sec. Canfield spoke on growth in household income, business investment, and improvement in the poverty rate.

"The Department of Commerce works with great organizations like the Chamber to attract new business, and work with existing business to help growth," he said. "Between 2012 and 2019, we've had 40 billion in new investment and 130,000 new jobs."

Canfield said average household income had risen more than 8 percent in the last three years; currently at more than $48,000.

Secretary Fitzgerald Washington discussed the state's historically low unemployment. "We're at 2.7 percent, which is the lowest ever in the history of the state, and the fifth lowest in the country," he said. 

With such low unemployment, Washington said it had become challenging for employers to find workers. "We've launched an aggressive outreach campaign," he said. "Our goal is to taken resources to the people instead of the people having to find them."

Strategies include a series of job fairs in areas of rural Alabama with traditionally higher unemployment. Also, the Department of Labor is targeting efforts for veterans, people with disabilities, and people needing a second chance.

"The efforts are working, and you can see it in the labor force participation rate," Washington said. "We're outpacing neighboring states on bringing disconnected individuals back into the workforce."

Elliot Knight with the Alabama State Council on the Arts spoke to attendees on the organization's role in awarding grants, and noted we are doing better than some of our peers in per capita funding.

"We have strong bipartisan support in Congress for the Arts," he said. "However, corporate support and private support are necessary to make arts work in our community."

After breakfast, the group headed back to the State House for a session on the role of a lobbyist with a panel and discussion. Panelists included Ryan DeGraffenried of deGraffenried and Associates, LLC; Clay Ryan with the University of Alabama System; and Sommer Vaughn of Swatek, Vaughn, & Bryan.

The group closed out the session with a luncheon at the RSA Plaza.

The luncheon featured the Honorable Jo Bonner, who serves as Chief of Staff to Governor Kay Ivey.

Bonner, a former Republican member of the U.S. Hourse of Representatives, has previously worked for the University of Alabama and the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority. He spoke to members about the work of the Chamber, and the impressive leadership offered by the area's legislative delegation.

"The region is fortunate to have the leadership of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama," he said. "We have truly great leaders coming from West Alabama."

Bonner also talked about the governor's plans for the session, which include infrastructure, education, prisons, and mental health. He noted it would be likely to see movement on gaming, as a committee is convening to gather facts.

Bonner also talked briefly about coronavirus, noting the state has an emergency plan in place to deal with the issue.

Bonner included a special pitch for the U.S. Census, telling attendees completing the census will be one of the most important things they'll do all year.

"Funds come to us based on population," he said. "If we have census participation at the same level as we did in 2000, it will cost us two legislative seats and perhaps five billion dollars. If we lose these reps, we're losing our own money."

Bonner said he felt a number of critical issues would be addressed during the session. "It's no longer time to wait for other people to solve our problems."

2020 Montgomery Drive-In Participants

Dr. David Albright, The University of Alabama; Jessica Alexander, Tuscaloosa Housing Authority; Jason Bailey, Jason Bailey, LLC at Browne House Law Group; Mary Kathryn Baker, WVUA 23; Ben Baxter, HarbisonWalker International; Dan Blakely, The University of Alabama; Bobby Bragg, JamsionMoneyFarmer PC; Tim Caldwell, BFGoodrich Tire Manufacturing; Ralph Clayton, The University of Alabama; Rick Clementz, Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc.; Tommy Cobb, Alabama Credit Union; Libby Cochrane, Cadence Bank, N.A.; Michele Coley, Allstate Coley Agency; Jaime Conger, The Junior League of Tuscaloosa, Inc.; Amy Crosby, The University of Alabama; Norman Crow, DT Freight, LLC; Bill Cummins, The University of Alabama; Kenneth DeWitt, DeWitt, LLC; Heather Dill, Embassy Suites Downtown Tuscaloosa; Toby Dykes, University of Alabama System; Barrett Elder, Tuscaloosa Tourism & Sports; Matt Feller, BFGoodrich Tire Manufacturing; Carrie Fitts, Carrie Fitts Real Estate, LLC; Jake French, Harry's Bar; Barkley Garrett, Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama; Lee Garrison, The Frazer Lanier Company, Inc.; Sheriah Gibson, Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center; Romel Gibson, Habitat for Humanity of Tuscaloosa; Bernd Greimel, SMP Automotive Alabama; Chris Gunter, Buffalo Rock Company/Pepsi-Cola; Paul Hahn, Industrial Warehouse Service, Inc.; Melissa Hall, Alabama Credit Union; Joe Hardy, Alabama Credit Union; Ashley Hester, Tuscaloosa's One Place, Inc.; Joe Hocutt, Southland Benefit Solutions, LLC; Jason Houston, Warrior Met Coal, Inc.; Carl Jamison, JamisonMoneyFarmer PC; Donny Jones, Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama; Dr. Jonathan Koh, Shelton State Community College; Drew Kyle, Kyle Office Solutions; James Leitner, Simplified Medical Management, LLC; Nick Lolley, Tuscaloosa County EMA; Chase Lucas, TTL, Inc.; Blake Madison, Rsoen Harwood, P.A.; Amy Materson, Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama; Dean McClure, TTL, Inc.; Jill McDonald, Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama; Jordan Morris, Ward Scott Architecture; Dr. Sherlene Newman, The University of Alabama; Liza Nicholson, Younger Women's Task Force of Tuscaloosa; Whitney Oswalt, Alabama ONE; Judge William Oswalt; Jim Page, Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama; Paige Parish, The University of Alabama; Beeson Partlow, Pritchett-Moore, Inc.; Jeremy Pike, Eagles Wings, Inc.; Jerry Pike, Eagles Wings, Inc.; Jordan Plaster, Plaster, Scarvey and Shumaker of Ameriprise Financial; Nicole Prewitt, The University of Alabama; Jasmine Rainey, Tuscaloosa Tourism & Sports; Julie Ramm, City of Northport; Nikki Ray, EatMyBeats, Inc.; Matt Ray, EatMyBeats, Inc.; Kristin Reed, University General Dentistry; Monique Scott, United Way of West Alabama; Jill Slaton, Bryant Bank; Justice Smyth, The University of Alabama; Don Staley, Tuscaloosa Toursim & Sports; Ryan Stallings, Alabama ONE; Kris Sullivan, Buffalo Rock Company/Pepsi-Cola; Brent Sute, Synovus; Leah Taylor, Taylor's Victory Garden Center; Jenise Terry, Keller Williams Realty Tuscalooa; Sherri Warner, Kentuck Art Center; Freddie Washington, Community Service Programs of West Alabama, Inc.; Lance Wilson, Cadence Bank, N.A.; Tanya Winstead, Alabama ONE; Elizabeth Winter, Regions Bank; JaQuan Winters, Kristen Amerson Youth Foundation, Inc.; Sandra Wolfe, The Arts & Humanities Council of Tuscaloosa, Inc.; RaSheda Workman, Stillman College; Ross Wylie, SSAB Wear Solutions, LLC.

Presenting Sponsor

University of Alabama System

Gold Sponsors

Alabama Credit Union
The Frazer Lanier Company, Inc.
The Unviersity of Alabama
WhiteSky Communications

Silver Sponsors

Shelton State Community College
TTL, Inc.
Warrior Met Coal

Welcome Luncheon Sponsors

Representative Bill Poole
Southland Benefit Solutions

Breakfast Sponsor

DT Freight, LLC

Montgomery Drive-In Luncheon Sponsors

Alabama ONE
Plaster, Scarvey & Shumaker of Ameriprise Financial

Tuscaloosa Tourism & Sports

Bus Sponsors

Harry's Bar
Sam's Club
Tuscaloosa Charter Service
Tuscaloosa Tourism & Sports