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Alabama Legislature Recap Week 8: Shhhh! Maybe they won’t notice

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

Here’s breaking news: The Alabama Legislature did Legislature stuff this week.

That’s right, while you were busy watching the Luv Guv love himself right out of office in the weirdest way yet, our Senators and Representatives were discussing and voting on legislation.

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Most of it was incredibly dumb, and provided clear evidence that our lawmakers mostly don’t care about the constitution, will choose money over kids and apparently don’t watch “Game of Thrones.”

Let’s recap, shall we.

Silly Sparrows

In a stunningly ignorant move – even for Alabama’s lawmakers – the Senate this week passed legislation that would allow a church, Briarwood Presbyterian Church, to form its own police force.

How such an idea wasn’t immediately laughed out of the room, I don’t know. Private police forces operating outside of the realm of public oversight and public disclosure laws – which is absolutely the way this force will operate, and was, according to numerous people close to the church, the primary reason for forming the force at all – always, always end badly.

The idea for this force came about after a series of drug-related arrests involving the upper-crust (white) students who attend Briarwood Christian private school a couple of years ago. The school and local officials tried their absolute best to cover up those arrests, but because of Open Records Act laws, even as flimsy as they are in Alabama, some details slipped out.

You can bet that won’t be the case if this legislation passes the House. Whatever happens on that campus, where rumors of drug problems and other crimes are rampant, will be swept under the rug and shielded from public scrutiny. And a few years from now, when something truly awful happens, everyone will wonder how we couldn’t see this coming.

Bad Day for Law

Wednesday in the Senate Health Committee was a particularly bad day if you care about the law and common sense and stuff.

For the better part of an hour, lawmaker after lawmaker brought forth one pandering, do-nothing bill after another – almost all of them assured to be struck down by courts because they violate long-settled constitutional protections.

There was a bill that would allow health care providers to refuse to perform certain services based on their “conscience.” Let’s be clear, if you have a conscience, you know this is a bad idea.

There was a bill that called for an amendment to the State Constitution declaring Alabama a “right to life State.” It did nothing, aside from pander to voters who somehow still fall for this ridiculous nonsense, and should result in us passing an amendment declaring the Alabama Legislature is a “time and money wasting body.”

There was a bill banning assisted suicide, which was so poorly conceived that the sponsor couldn’t explain the difference between a doctor who provides a dying patient more painkillers and a person who does the same.

And finally, there was a bill that makes it clear it’s OK for private adoption agencies to discriminate against gay couples and instead leave orphaned children parentless. The argument for this bill, lawmakers say, is that there are plenty of other agencies that don’t discriminate. So, essentially: “It’s only a little bit of discrimination – what’s the big deal.”

In the back corner of the committee room where this meeting was held, you’ll find a blood stain on the wall. It’s from me banging my head against it as grown men, including three doctors and a lawyer, passed all of these.

Kid vs. Money

That was the matchup Wednesday in an Insurance Committee meeting discussion about requiring state health insurance companies to cover autism care.

Republicans wanted no part of this. Because on one side, there was a room filled with angry parents and all of the public support you could ever hope for. On the other side was the Business Council of Alabama and a heaping pile of campaign cash.

Oh, how they tried to pull the usual tricks to shuffle this bill off the table and out of sight – to kill it without having to go on record voting against it. Suddenly, several men who have pushed some of the most ridiculous, wasteful bills in history were extremely concerned about not having an estimate from the Legislative Fiscal Office on costs. Let me be clear: Until that moment, I wasn’t sure most of those guys knew there was a Legislative Fiscal Office, much less cared what it did or what it said.

And of course, they didn’t care. They just wanted to hold the bill up and let it die in the dark.

But the room of parents, and the good lawmakers pushing their cause, won out. Because such pressure works. Remember that.

If you want to clean up Montgomery, stop wondering from afar how it can possibly happen. Because how it can happen is exactly the same way that autism bill passed out of committee – public involvement forcing accountability.

Big Finish

Since I know you’re concerned, I’ll update you on the protection of our Confederate memorials: they’re protected. A bill to guarantee that cities can’t move or alter or rename monuments, buildings and other things named for racist slaveholders or the leaders of a traitorous secession is advancing on as expected. Be proud.

Our roads and bridges, which are crumbling, won’t be improving any time soon. A gas tax increase that would have paid for such improvements failed in the House on Thursday. I know we all hate taxes, and I especially hate to see one that impacts the poor as much as the wealthy, but we have to do something soon. Because at the current rate, maintenance on cars from traveling these terrible roads will more than make up for the savings from not passing that tax.

And finally, one of the dumbest arguments ever popped up in a House committee meeting, where opponents of a bill that would allow for municipal broadband services argued against public intrusion into private business. Yes, because we all absolutely hate our city water, garbage and sewage services. And in towns, such as Chattanooga and Opelika, where broadband service has been provided as a municipal service, residents love it. Mostly because the coverage is fantastic. But then, is great public service really more important than lots of campaign donations from large telecom companies? Obviously not.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Opinion | We could do worse than John Merrill

Josh Moon

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I’m going to do something that my progressive friends will mostly not like.

I’m going to say nice things about Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill.

I know. I know.

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But hear me out.

Because part of the reason that I’m doing this is I believe politics at every level has devolved into such a scorched-earth, I-hate-everyone-on-the-other-side sort of spectacle that we’re no longer willing to say any person from the other team is doing anything good. Even when they are.

And Merrill is.

Yes, I know he’s blocked several dozen people on Twitter, and I find that silly and pointless and illegal.

And yes, I know he has been snarky and sarcastic to some of you. And to me.

But even so, we’re lucky we have Merrill.

Because it could be so much worse.

If you doubt this, I would like to point you to news stories from other states with Republican-dominated legislatures. Like Ohio, where they’re booting active voters off rolls for missing a single election. Or North Carolina, which implemented the most unreasonable voter ID law in the nation to prevent minorities from going to the polls.

Alabama has one of those voter ID laws, too. And it has the right now to kick voters off the rolls for missing an election.

But what you don’t have in Alabama is anywhere near the level of disenfranchisement of voters. Even a federal judge agreed, when upholding Alabama’s ID law.

That’s mostly due to Merrill’s work.

When Alabama’s legislature passed its voter ID law a few years ago, it placed very few requirements on Merrill’s office for how to go about making those IDs available. It was a stupid, pointless law that in no way deterred voter fraud, but it was a law that Merrill’s office had to deal with.

Instead of taking the usual Alabama path and doing the absolute bare minimum required in the job, Merrill went the other way. In the years since that law was passed, his office has put a mobile ID unit on the street, they’ve coordinated with various groups to set up registration drives in underserved areas, they’ve actually visited the homes of people to issue voter IDs and they’ve implemented electronic registration.

That last one has been the biggie, with more than 60 percent of voters registered during Merrill’s tenure coming since the electronic registration went live a little more than a year ago. That electronic rollout also included an app — an app built by the staff of the Secretary of State’s office.

They’ve tried to work with the county Boards of Registrars to get registration info into the communities and schools. They’ve pushed registration through an ad campaign. And they’ve been willing to travel to pretty much any festival, ball game, bake sale or other community function to set up a registration drive.  

And let me repeat: None of this was required of the Secretary of State’s office.

At the same time, Merrill took a different approach from Ohio to cleaning up the voting rolls (removing deceased voters, people who moved, etc.). Instead of labeling voters who fail to return a verification card as “inactive,” the SoS office implemented a two-step process that began when only if the Post Office returned a notice for a voter.

And even if the two notices were somehow missed, if a voter shows up to the polls and finds themselves on the inactive list, the fix is simply updating the SoS address card at the polling place and then voting a regular ballot (not a provisional one).  

Again, this wasn’t required. And a much more mean-spirited, onerous process is now perfectly legal, according to our Supreme Court.

The decision to make Alabama’s process reasonable and fair was Merrill’s.

And look, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that Merrill and his staff shouldn’t get huge praise for doing the job they should be doing. After all, voter registration is the top priority in that gig, and there’s not a close second. So maybe we shouldn’t be handing out cookies for stuff the Secretary of State is supposed to do.

But that line of thinking ignores the reality of Alabama politics and the reality of the politically polarized country in which we live.

Because you just know that nine out of 10 Republican politicians wouldn’t have done half the things Merrill has. They would’ve offered a Jeff Sessions, little-kid-burning-ants, evil grin and hid behind the law and the lack of funds and the indifference.

That’s the norm.

So, yeah, Merrill loves the spotlight and camera lights. He has weird, right-wing beliefs that I wholly disagree with. And he has not always done enough to protect voter rights.

But man, things could be so much worse without him.

 

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Opinion | State schools chief backtracks, Montgomery schools mess grows

Josh Moon

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Never mind.

That’s essentially what state schools superintendent Eric Mackey told parents, business leaders, school system employees and everyone else on Tuesday, telling the Montgomery Advertiser that he — the top executive in all of Alabama public education — might have been mistaken when he talked about the effects of Montgomery’s public schools potentially losing accreditation.

Oops.

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A little more than a week ago, a few days before school board elections in the county, Mackey stood before the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce and Montgomery County Commission and told a dire tale of hardship that was certain to set upon the poor children of Montgomery if board changes were not made.

No out-of-state colleges.

No private colleges.

No federal aid.

The effects would be devastating, driving people from the capital city at a pace faster than they’re currently leaving.

Small problem: None of that was true.

I called Mackey on it. I asked his office to provide evidence that it was true, because the Federal Student Aid office told me it wasn’t and two college presidents said it wasn’t.

But that was prior to the elections still, so the best I could get from Mackey was a garbled statement explaining that a loss of accreditation was very bad, which, of course, no one was arguing. But it’s one thing to say it’s bad and quite another to have the state schools superintendent stand before you and say your kids won’t be able to attend college unless you make changes to the school board.

That last part is what Mackey did. He was flat wrong.

And now he’s saying so. But he’s blaming it on an unnamed source. Because apparently Alabama’s superintendent of schools needs to be told by someone else what accreditation loss means.

Mackey wouldn’t tell the Advertiser who the source was, but he insisted that the source was “reputable.”

You’ll have to decide whether, at this point, Mackey is reputable enough to be believed.

Because that’s not all Mackey was apparently wrong about. During that speech to the County Commission, Mackey was discussing an accreditation report on MPS from the district’s accreditation agency, AdvancED. The report was, to put it lightly, not good.

But to hear Mackey and Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange talk, unless those board changes were made — changes that were being pushed by a political action committee tied to the mayor and his consultants — well there was just no way to avoid a loss of accreditation.

Fast forward to the same Advertiser interview: Mackey now says not to sweat that loss of accreditation, because MPS was forced into selling off Georgia Washington Middle School and because it’s operating a summer reading program that was already scheduled when the accreditation review took place.

Read that again. Let it sink in.

MPS losing accreditation, according to Mackey and other city leaders, rested on the sale of a middle school building and a summer reading program. Oh, and don’t let me forget those terrible board arguments — the ones that never rose to the level of formal complaints, rules violations or violations of state open meetings laws.

If all of that is true, AdvancED accreditation is worthless.

But slightly less worthless than the opinion of anyone from the state department of education on the operation of a local school district. Because if the state’s operation of Montgomery’s school district is any indication, they have no idea what they’re doing.

MPS was better run by MPS.

In the year and a half or so that ALSDE has been in charge of MPS, they have overspent on administrators, overspent on an odd cleaning contract instead of allowing already-employed custodians to do it, gave out raises to failing school principals, then had to give out raises to all principals, forgot to get their expensive administrators certified (some still aren’t), hired a guy who was barred from all of New York City’s schools and had to quietly run off most of the administrative hires it made.

But here are the two kickers: 1. After all of the money that has been spent, there hasn’t been a single additional teacher, aide, coach or book purchased to help improve the learning environment of a child in MPS, and 2. After all the complaints of mismanagement, not a single principal was removed.

Now, look here, MPS has serious, serious problems, and there isn’t a soul alive who would deny that. But what’s taking place in Montgomery right now isn’t an effort to better anything for those poor kids. It’s an effort to protect the pocketbooks of a few wealthy businessmen.

It’s an effort to simply change the image of MPS, instead of its culture and basic operation. It’s yet another attempt to educate the advantaged at the expense of the disadvantaged.

It’s wrong. As wrong as the state superintendent.

 

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Opinion | We’re perfecting the “art” of being mean

Joey Kennedy

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My mother, Patricia Ann Harper Kennedy, has been dead more than 21 years now. She died young, in 1997. She had cancer. She did not have health insurance.

Mom couldn’t get health insurance because she had a “pre-existing,” non-malignant tumor a decade before her fatal cancer. She wanted insurance. She could have paid for insurance. But she couldn’t get it. The insurance industry wouldn’t let her have it.

Despite the promises of the Affordable Care Act, we’re moving right back to that horror again today.

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Under the ACA, or Obamacare, as Obama-haters like to call it, people couldn’t be denied insurance because of pre-existing conditions. Nor was there a limit on how much an insurance company was obligated to pay for a health issue. Our kids can remain on our own insurance until they’re 26.

We’re the only First-World nation in the world that doesn’t view health care as a right. We don’t mind if sick people shoot up schools, clubs, churches, or concerts with their Second Amendment rights, but we won’t promote the general welfare by making sure sick people can see a doctor in a timely manner.

The Donald Trump administration’s Justice Department, under the leadership now of our former and long-terrible U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, is doing all it can to destroy the ACA. And, like so many progressive, successful, and humane programs started during Barack Obama’s eight years in office, Trump and Sessions are doing a great job tearing those programs down.

America – and Alabama, too – are becoming more mean every day. Sessions is mean, and that is reflected in his Justice Department’s policies.

So the Justice Department will no longer defend certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The decisions Sessions and his mean colleagues are making will lead to even higher health insurance premiums. Even more mommas dying without insurance.

But the meanness isn’t simply reflected in damage to the ACA.

Sessions no longer will allow citizens of countries that basically condone gender abuse to get asylum in the United States. Go ahead and beat those women to death; that’s not our problem.

Home of the brave.

Compassion? Trump and Sessions likely can’t even spell the word, much less define it. It is not “covfefe.”

A “true” state’s righter, Sessions demands that the federal government enforce laws against recreational marijuana use in the states that have already approved it. Hypocrisy is a Republican value.

Temporary refugees from so-called (by this administration) “sh—hole” countries are finding they’re losing their protection. Go home. Leave us alone. Be murdered.

A woman’s right to manage her own body is under unprecedented assault. By men.

The LGBTQ community, which only recently won the right of marriage, finds itself the target of “legal” discrimination under this administration. Our transgender and gay members of the military are now at risk.

Children and parents trying to get asylum in the “land of the free” are being brutally separated. Many hundreds of those children are now, literally, “lost.”

We’re friends with North Korea’s brutal dictator, but are confrontational with the leaders of our strongest allies, including Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, France, and Germany.

We’ve got a mean streak that was suppressed by better angels in previous administrations, but has now been unleashed by Trump and his hate-filled minions, including Sessions.

Sadly, in our state, many politicians (all Republicans) tout this hateful Trumpism as a reason to vote for them in their TV commercials. Too many hateful voters feel enabled by that. So we get people like child molester Roy Moore running for the U.S. Senate, and supported by Alabama’s first woman governor since Lurleen Wallace.

We let our worse demons loose to kill our better angels.

We’re killing angels.

We want to make Medicaid practically impossible for our poorest to get. And we’re a very poor state. We want to deny food aid to children. We want to privatize public education and prisons, so private corporations can make more money.

We celebrate being mean. We monetize being mean.

Angels are dying.

My mother was too young two decades ago when she died of cancer. She was helped along to her early death by the highly profitable health insurance industry. The one we are bringing back.

Today, I don’t have health insurance. I cannot afford it. I haven’t been to a doctor in 18 months. My hope depends on living until I’m 65 and can get Medicare, which I’ve paid into my entire professional career. That is, If Medicare as we know it still exists in 2021. These Trump Republicans want to get rid of that, too.

I am 62 years old. Next year, I’ll be my mother’s age when she died. So little has changed.

Well, except we’re even more mean.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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Alabama Legislature Recap Week 8: Shhhh! Maybe they won’t notice

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