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In Case You Missed It

APR’s Top 5 Under-reported stories of 2016

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

Over the past year, APR has broken a number of prominent, statewide stories.

While many of those have been picked up by other news outlets – some of them lifted nearly verbatim from APR’s website without attribution – a few stories have gone almost unnoticed and with little follow-up from more traditional outlets.

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These stories are important and involve millions of dollars of taxpayer money, abuses of power and manipulations of the systems meant to ensure law and order and justice in the state.

Here are the top five:

 

1.Failed computer systems: From STAARS to CARES and several in between, the State of Alabama is apparently incapable of implementing a technology system that works properly.

The CARES system, meant to streamline the process for enrolling citizens in programs such as Medicaid, cost taxpayers $60 million and was originally authorized in 2014. In September, APR reported that it still wasn’t operational and wasn’t close to being operational.

A similar situation has occurred with the STAARS system. That $47 million system has never functioned properly and cost the State thousands more to correct a variety of issues.

Despite the massive amounts of money being spent to get the malfunctioning programs implemented and consistently fixed, the issues have attracted very little public and media scrutiny outside of APR.

 

2. The Supreme Court’s refusal to disclose public records: After having multiple requests to unseal the records in the case against suspended Chief Justice Roy Moore denied, APR filed a lawsuit in state court seeking to compel their production. Thus far, APR is standing by itself in that lawsuit.

On one hand, it’s easy to understand why few media outlets have joined in this fight for public records: the man at the center, and who might benefit from the fight, is Roy Moore.

However, Moore went through a state-mandated process for removal and the justices on the Supreme Court entered votes and logged records that should, under Alabama law, be public documents. To keep those votes and records a secret, the Judicial Inquiry Commission has stepped into the fray and claimed a right to conduct secret hearings.

It’s easy to dismiss this because it’s Moore on this hot seat. But next time, it might be someone we all like.

3. Phil Williams’ investigation: Despite Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard being found guilty of 12 felony charges related to using his office for personal gain, a similar investigation into Williams has gone relatively unnoticed. The basis for the investigation was Williams’ rapidly expanding law practice since his election to the Senate in 2010 – growing from zero clients to 43, many of whom reportedly had direct ties to his business in the Legislature.

APR originally reported the investigation back in January 2016, when it was being handled by ALEA. That report brought a sharp reaction from Williams, who took to social media to claim he had researched the allegations and spoken to ALEA officials and concluded that no investigation was under way. In a subsequent story, APR reported that ALEA had no contact with Williams but that the AG’s office had picked up the investigation after ALEA director Spencer Collier was fired.
4. Mary Scott Hunter/Sentance selection: This entry is less about media interest and more about public interest. Because there has been surprisingly little public outcry over one of the most blatant political scams in recent memory. That is particularly true considering the beneficiary of the scam was inserted into one of the most important and influential positions in the State – State superintendent.

It went like this: the favorite for the job, Craig Pouncey, was accused by anonymous letter of cheating on his dissertation. That anonymous letter was forwarded to the Ethics Commission by school board member Mary Scott Hunter by way of a State department of education attorney.

The Ethics Commission has a long-standing policy of not accepting anonymous complaints. But it took this one because the complaint came to them from Hunter, even if she was just forwarding an anonymous complaint. And then, to make things extra slimy, the commission, which routinely takes weeks to offer an official letter confirming a valid complaint and investigation, issued such a letter in less than 24 hours. And took the unprecedented step of issuing that letter in a manner that ensured it would be made public.

Sketchy, man. Very sketchy.
5. The Hubbard Trial details: The Hubbard trial certainly received its fair share of media scrutiny, but many important, intricate details within the case went virtually unnoticed.

From former State health director Don Williamson dramatically changing his testimony when on the stand to Montgomery radio host and attorney Baron Coleman issuing an affidavit claiming he might have been given grand jury info from the State’s lead prosecutor to Hubbard forgetting that a “close friend” wasn’t dead, there were wild, crazy stories that – due to time and space constraints – received only glancing coverage and public interest.

That trial, which resulted in Hubbard’s conviction of 12 felony charges, will be one of the biggest political events in this State for the next decade. Unfortunately, some of its biggest and most important moments went barely noticed outside of APR.

 

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In Case You Missed It

House passes General Fund Budget

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

The Alabama House of Representatives passed the state General Fund Budget on Tuesday.

The General Fund Budget for the 2019 fiscal year is Senate Bill 178. It is sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose. State Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, carried the budget on the House floor. Clouse chairs the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee.

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Clouse said, “Last year we monetized the BP settlement money and held over $97 million to this year.”

Clouse said that the state is still trying to come up with a solution to the federal lawsuit over the state prisons. The Governor’s Office has made some progress after she took over from Gov. Robert Bentley. The supplemental we just passed added $30 million to prisons.

The budget adds $50 million to the Department of Corrections.

Clouse said that the budget increased the money for prisons by $55,680,000 and includes $4.8 million to buy the privately-owned prison facility in Perry County.

Clouse said that the budget raises funding for the judicial system and raises the appropriation for the Forensic Sciences to $11.7 million.

The House passed a committee substitute so the Senate is either going to have to concur with the changes made by the House or a conference committee will have to be appointed. Clouse told reporters that he hoped that it did not have to go to conference.

Clouse said that the budget had added $860,000 to hire more Juvenile Probation Officers. After talking to officials with the court system that was cut in half in the amendment. The amendment also includes some wording the arbiters in the court lawsuit think we need.

The state General Fund Budget, SB178, passed 98-1.

Both budgets have now passed the Alabama House of Representatives.

The 2019 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, 2018.

In addition to the SGF, the House also passed a supplemental appropriation for the current 2018 budget year. SB175 is also sponsored by Pittman and was carried by Clouse on the floor of the House.

SB175 includes $30 million in additional 2018 money for the Department of Corrections. The Departmental Emergency Fund, the Examiners of Public Accounts, the Insurance Department and Forensic Sciences received additional money.

Clouse said, “We knew dealing with the federal lawsuit was going to be expensive. We are adding $80 million to the Department of Corrections.”

State Representative Johnny Mack Morrow, R-Red Bay, said that state Department of Forensics was cut from $14 million to $9 million. “Why are we adding money for DA and courts if we don’t have money for forensics to provide evidence? if there is any agency in law enforcement or the court system that should be funded it is Forensics.”

The supplemental 2018 appropriation passed 80 to 1.

The House also passed SB203. It was sponsored by Pittman and was carried in the House by State Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton. It raises securities and registration fees for agents and investment advisors. It increases the filing fees for certain management investment companies. Johnson said that those fees had not been adjusted since 2009.

The House also passed SB176, which is an annual appropriation for the Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The bill requires that the agency have an operations plan, audited financial statement, and quarterly and end of year reports. SB176 is sponsored by Pittman and was carried on the House floor by State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chatham.

The House passed Senate Bill 185 which gives state employees a cost of living increase in the 2019 budget beginning on October 1. It was sponsored by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville and was being carried on the House floor by state Rep. Dimitri Polizos, R-Montgomery.

Polizos said that this was the first raise for non-education state employees in nine years. It is a 3 percent raise.

SB185 passed 101-0.

Senate Bill 215 gives retired state employees a one time bonus check. SB215 is sponsored by Senator Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Guntersville.

Rich said that retired employees will get a bonus $1  for every month that they worked for the state. For employees who retired with 25 years of service that will be a $300 one time bonus. A 20-year retiree would get $240 and a 35-year employee would get $420.

SB215 passed the House 87-0.

The House passed Senate Bill 231, which is the appropriation bill increase amount to the Emergency Forest Fire and Insect and Disease Fund. SB231 is sponsored by Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kyle South, R-Fayette.

State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chathom, said, “Thank you for bringing this bill my district is full of trees and you never know when a forest fire will hit.

SB231 passed 87-2.

The state of Alabama is unique among the states in that most of the money is earmarked for specific purposes allowing the Legislature little year-to-year flexibility in moving funds around.

The SGF includes appropriations for the Alabama Medicaid Agency, the courts, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, the Alabama Department of Corrections, mental health, and most state agencies that are no education related. The Alabama Department of Transportation gets their funding mostly from state fuel taxes.

The Legislature also gives ALEA a portion of the gas taxes. K-12 education, the two year college system, and all the universities get their state support from the education trust fund (ETF) budget. There are also billions of dollars in revenue that are earmarked for a variety of purposes that does not show up in the SGF or ETF budgets.

Examples of that include the Public Service Commission, which collects utility taxes from the industries that it regulates. The PSC is supported entirely by its own revenue streams and contributes $13 million to the SGF. The Secretary of State’s Office is entirely funded by its corporate filing and other fees and gets no SGF appropriation.

Clouse warned reporters that part of the reason this budget had so much money was due to the BP oil spill settlement that provided money for the 2018 budget and $97 million for the 2019 budget. Clouse said they elected to make a $13 million repayment to the Alabama Trust fund that was not due until 2020 but that is all that was held over for 2020.

Clouse predicted that the Legislature will have to make some hard decisions about revenue in next year’s session.

 

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In Case You Missed It

Day Care bill delayed for second time on Senate floor, may be back Thursday

Sam Mattison

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By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter

The day care bill, which would license certain day care centers in Alabama, was once again delayed on the state Senate floor after one lawmaker requested more information.

Its brief appearance Tuesday ended with state Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, saying a compromise had not yet been worked out with the bill’s detractors.

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Alabama’s Senate has been hesitant to act on the legislation because of complaints of state Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville, who has been an opponent of the bill since its introduction last year. The bill’s delay on Tuesday marks the second time its been taken off the Senate’s agenda.

The bill has had a rocky time in this year’s session, but the bill’s sponsor state Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said she is still confident about its passage out of the Legislature.

Warren, D-Tuskegee, filed the bill this session with the support of influential lawmakers including Gov. Kay Ivey, who told reporters last year that she though all day cares should be licensed.

Mainly sparked by the death of 5-year-old boy in the care of a unlicensed day care worker, the bill had great momentum coming into this year’ session.

Despite the growing support from lawmakers, Religious groups had concerns that the bill would increase state-sponsored reach into religious day cares in churches and non-profit groups.

Spearheading the dissenters was Alabama Citizens Action Program, a conservative religious-based PAC.

Warren, proponents, and ALCAP announced a compromise to the bill while it was still in the Alabama House.

Announced by ALCAP originally, the new bill was a weaker version in that it did not require that all day cares in the state be regulated. Instead, religious-based day cares would only need to be registered if they received federal funds. At a Senate committee meeting in February, Warren said a similar requirement was about to come from federal law in Congress.

The bill moved through the House in a overwhelming vote in favor of the proposal and passed unanimously out of a Senate committee a few weeks ago.

Warren, speaking to reporters after its passage from the House, said she was unsure if the bill would encounter resistance in the upper chamber.

It was the Senate that killed the daycare bill last year amid a cramped last day where senators took the bill off the floor. The bill may face similar complications this year, as lawmakers seem to be preparing to adjourn within a few weeks.

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In Case You Missed It

Fantasy sports bill fails on Senate floor

Sam Mattison

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By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter

Would-be Fantasy Sports players in Alabama will have to wait to legally play in the state following a Senate vote on Tuesday.

The Alabama Senate decisively killed a bill to exempt fantasy sports from the state’s prohibition on gambling.

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Not even entertaining a debate on the Senate floor, the proposal was killed during a vote for the Budget Isolation Resolution, which is usually a formality vote preluding a debate.

Fantasy sports are contests where participants select players from real teams to compete on fantasy teams using the real-world players’ stats.

Since 2016, the practice has been illegal in Alabama following a legal decision by the Attorney General’s Office that categorized it as gambling.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, predicted the bill’s failure during a committee meeting two weeks ago, where the bill passed unanimously.

Sen. Paul Sanford speaks to reporters after a Senate Committee meeting on Feb. 28, 2018. (Samuel Mattison/APR)

Speaking to reporter’s after the committee meeting, Sanford said the decision to file the bill was mainly a philosophical belief that the practice shouldn’t be illegal.

Sanford, a fantasy sports player before its ban, said that fantasy sports are a way to bring people closer together and not a means to win money. The Huntsville senator is not seeking re-election.

The bill’s failure in the Senate follows its trajectory last year too. A similar version of the bill, also sponsored by Sanford, failed in the Senate during the final days of the 2017 Legislative Session.

Since Sanford is retiring, it is unclear if the bill will even come back next session, or if it will even have a Senate sponsor.

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APR’s Top 5 Under-reported stories of 2016

by Josh Moon Read Time: 4 min
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