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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 | Thank goodness, I’m an “outside agitator”

Joey Kennedy

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I guess I’m an outside agitator.

Alabama politicians love to throw that phrase around. Seems like anytime somebody disagrees with one of Alabama’s horrible laws or policies or acts, the politicos throw out that line, or something like it.

In defending his law to prohibit removing monuments more than 40 years old, state Sen. Gerald Allen blamed “politically-correct, out-of-state pundits.” Outside agitators, in other words.

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But let’s be honest, here. The law, proudly signed by Gov. Kay Ivey and which she currently touts as often as an Alexander Shunnarah commercial on TV, is intended to protect monuments to Confederate “heroes,” but traitors to the United States actually. These are men who proudly and violently defended slavery.

During discussions a few years ago over Alabama’s terrible law aimed at expelling immigrants from the state, politicians and others, including then GOP Chairman Bill Armistead, pulled forms of the worn-out “outside agitator” phrase from their equally worn-out playbooks.

These “outside agitators” have done “terrible” deeds in Alabama: Forcing us to treat our prison population humanely; to properly investigate child abuse and neglect; to respect the separation of church and state; to acknowledge and sanction equality in the LGBTQ community; to allow women to determine what is best for their own bodies; and, of course, to stop Alabama from requiring African-American citizens to use separate bathrooms, lunch counters, hotel rooms, water fountains, and public schools.

These “outside agitators” are horrible, I tell you, just horrible.

Alabama has a mean streak.

Too often, the federal courts have to tell Alabama to do right, even though we know we should be doing right already. The federal courts will get another shot on a recently passed Ten Commandments law. Yes, those federal judges are “outside agitators,” even if the decision starts with federal judges from Alabama.

Our state has some of the best welcome centers of any state. As you enter Alabama from Mississippi or Georgia or Florida or Tennessee, there are welcome stations that give the state a great first impression. They also have monuments that declare: “We Dare Defend Our Rights.”

If only that were so. In Alabama, we dare defend our wrongs. And we do it proudly, insanely so.

No telling how much of this poor state’s tax dollars have gone to defend our wrongs. This money could have been used to improve our marginal public school systems, or our practically non-existent mental health system, or our flawed Medicaid system, or our stretched-thin state police system, or programs to help the poor and homeless.

Instead, we go to court, and we lose.

Again.

And again. And again.

And we will again.

All because of those damned “outside agitators.”

In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., addressed the accusation that even he was an “outside agitator.” King, after all, had strong roots in Alabama, yet when he came to Birmingham for the civil rights marches in the spring of 1963, he was called an “outsider.”

King writes: “I think I should give the reason for my being in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the argument of ‘outsiders coming in’ … I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. … Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.”

Yet, our own political leaders and others love to bludgeon Alabama citizens with that “outside agitator” club, like it somehow provides forgiveness for them and our state when we’re acting badly.

Ivy and Allen would proudly defend a commemorative statue to Bull Connor, if there were one.

So, yes, I’m an “outside agitator.” I’ve lived all of my adult life, except for three years, in this great state. I married an Alabama girl, and I’m still married to her. My college degrees come from an Alabama university. And my politics and advocacy are informed by watching this great state take not-so-great actions.

Like King, who was proud to be called an “extremist,” because, as he writes, Jesus Christ himself was an extremist, I’m proud to be an “outside agitator.”

Even from the inside.

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

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Opinion | Inside the Statehouse: Supreme Court races on ballot this year

Steve Flowers

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Among the plethora of races on the ballot this year are the important seats on the Alabama Supreme Court. We have an unprecedented five out of nine seats up for election.

Our Alabama Supreme Court as well as our Courts of Criminal Appeals are extremely conservative, pro-business and all Republican.

This conservatism dates back to the 1980’s and 1990’s.  During that two-decade run, the plaintiff lawyers controlled and dominated our State Supreme Court. We were known throughout the country as a Plaintiff’s paradise. It was like a fairytale jackpot justice system. It was not uncommon for ludicrous multimillion dollar verdicts to be upheld daily for all types of cases. We were called Tort Hell by “Time Magazine.”

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Tort reform became the dominant issue in the Halls of the Legislature.

When you have unbridled monetary verdicts coming out of Alabama that gives a plaintiff millions of dollars for having a wreck in a General Motors vehicle, it affects the entire country. General Motors does business in all 50 states.

Well the business community throughout the country and in Alabama decided enough was enough. They decided to close down tort hell. They put their money where their mouth was and replaced an all Democratic plaintiff trial lawyer Supreme Court with an all Republican pro-business court. The pendulum has swung completely from left to right. If yesterday’s court was extremely liberal, today’s Alabama Supreme Court is extremely conservative.

These five open seats will be held by conservative Republicans when the dust settles at the end of the year and they begin their six-year terms. It is just a matter of which Republican presides and decides the major cases that affect Alabamians.

Will Sellers, a very well respected Montgomery attorney, was appointed by Governor Kay Ivey last year to Place 3 on the high court. Justice Sellers is running without opposition and will have a full six-year term.

Popular Justice, Tommy Bryan, also has no opposition and will return for another six-years on the high tribunal.

Justice Jim Main who has had a distinguished career as a private lawyer, finance director and Supreme Court Justice, cannot run for reelection due to an antiquated law that disallows judges to run for reelection after they turn 70.

Main’s Place 2 is being sought by Jefferson County’s John Bahakel and Jay Mitchell, also of Birmingham.

Circuit Judge, Debra Jones of Calhoun County has been a judge for a decade and has run a get acquainted race for the court. She will be formidable.

This place was held by Justice Glen Murdock who is originally from the Wiregrass. Murdock retired a few months ago and Governor Kay Ivey did a good day’s work when she appointed another Wiregrass native, Brad Mendheim to replace him. Mendheim has served a decade as a Circuit Judge in Dothan. He is very well respected in his hometown. He is seeking a full term. Sarah Stewart of Mobile is also in the race and should benefit from being from the vote rich Mobile-Baldwin area.

The battle royale will be for the Chief Justice post. The Chief Justice not only presides over the nine member Supreme Court but also oversees the entire Court System.

Justice Lyn Stuart currently presides as Chief Justice. She is running for a full 6-year reign.

When the business community orchestrated the takeover of the Court, they brought in the vaunted Karl Rove to mastermind the plan. When he departed, victoriously, he left with this admonition, “The best candidate that you can put forward is a female Republican who has some experience as a Circuit Judge.”

Alabamians prefer females on the Bench. If you have a race for Judge in Alabama and you have two names on the ballot, one Sue Smith and one Sam Smith and neither spends any money on campaigns and neither is known, Sue Smith will win.

Lyn Stuart epitomizes this scenario perfectly. She became a respected Circuit Judge in Baldwin County at a very young age. She was elected to the Supreme Court over a decade ago and is the longest serving member of the Court.

She will be pitted against another sitting member of the Court, Justice Tom Parker. He has excellent polling numbers. He was Roy Moore’s closest ally on the Court.  Stuart is the sweetheart of the Business Council.  Parker is the darling of the social conservatives.

The race for Chief Justice will be one of the premier contests this year.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. She may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

 

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Opinion | The Pulitzer Prize: The Good Journalism Seal of Approval

Joey Kennedy

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Alabama Media Group columnist John Archibald’s life has changed forever.

I know, because I’ve been there. Still am.

Archibald won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary this week, a much-deserved honor and one that underscores the journalism talent that existed at The Birmingham News for decades. Still exists on a few islands.

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It says much about those who run the media company now that they have destroyed the best of journalism in Alabama over the past six years. It also says much about Archibald, who hung in there and did his thing – write superb columns – under no telling how much pressure.

When digital became the primary means for consumers to get their news, Advance Digital focused on trying to make profits instead of keeping the best journalists in the state. To do that, the company cut their most valuable resource.

My wife, Veronica, was among the 60 or so journalists laid off during the first wave of decimation back in 2012. From there, year after year, some of the state’s best journalists were cut loose or fled before that happened.

Profit over journalism.

Newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post have continued doing the best journalism in America, despite cutbacks. But they had better plans for digital. They didn’t give away their product, which is NEWS, by the way, not newspapers.

Instead, Alabama Media Group cut a great newspaper to three days a week, turning its back on its most loyal subscribers.

That Archibald won the Pulitzer for Commentary – one of the most prestigious of the prizes – says everything about him and not the company.

Archibald is an outstanding writer, a veteran of more than 30 years at the newspaper. He’s a good person, sharp, and works tirelessly. He has compassion and cares. Archibald has built a huge audience. It’s not unusual to see him on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, and he has weekly segments on WBHM, Birmingham’s National Public Radio affiliate.

Now, his life has changed.

Archibald will forever be known as a Pulitzer Prize winner. That’s journalism’s top honor. That’ll likely be in the lead of his obituary.

Mine, too. I was one of three editorial writers who won the first Pulitzer Prize at The News and, indeed, at any newspaper owned by the Newhouse company at the time. The late Ron Casey, Harold Jackson, and I won in 1991 for a series on tax reform in Alabama.

This week, as Alabama Media Group showered Archibald with praise, and deservedly so, it recapped the other two Pulitzer Prizes won by the “company.” In 2007, Brett Blackledge won for investigative journalism, and, of course, we won in 1991 for editorial writing.

You’ll see Blackledge’s award acknowledged, but the media group’s story just mentioned that The News also won for editorial writing in 1991. That’s misleading. Pulitzer Prizes are awarded to individuals, unless there is a team of four or more writers, and then it’s a staff award.

The late Ron Casey, Harold Jackson (now Philadelphia Enquirer Editorial Page Editor), and I were awarded Pulitzer Prizes, individually. Nowhere on our Pulitzer Prize awards is The Birmingham News mentioned. The News editorial board had a good team, too. We were cited as top-three finalists for Pulitzer Prizes in 1994 and 2006.

But, you see, I wasn’t “eased” out the door at Alabama Media Group, like so many were. I was fired outright, for “threatening” sources and for “being too personally involved with my stories.”

Any good journalist has threatened sources. Not with violence or something that stupid. But we “threaten” all the time if a source isn’t going to respond, or is going to respond with a known lie.

“If you don’t give your side of the story, I’m still writing that story.”

Or,

“If you are going to just tell that lie, I’m going to report the truth.”

“Threats.” Journalism, as Archibald and any good journalist will tell you, is a confrontational business.

And, yes, since I became an advocacy journalist in 1989, I’ve become personally involved in my topics. I write about subjects that I’m passionate about. Hard not to become personally involved when one actually cares, whether it be about undocumented immigrants, or abused children, or how badly this state treats its poor residents, or race, or equality, or education, or, yes, animals.

That’s the very characteristic that helps make us good advocacy journalists and keeps us human: We care, even if our bosses don’t.

Thank goodness I was fortunate enough to win a Pulitzer Prize. It did change my life, and it’ll change Archibald’s.

I found myself in an elite community. I began to really study writing. I wanted to deserve to be in the company of Ernest Hemingway, and Russell Baker, and Cynthia Tucker, and William Safire, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

So many great writers.

I returned to university for a master’s degree in English, with an emphasis in creative nonfiction. I have a rewarding second career, now in my 18th year, teaching English at UAB, my alma mater.

Archibald, too, will see new opportunities ahead of him. He has always been a star, for at least three decades, but now he’s got the official sanction of our profession, the ultimate seal of approval in journalism.

What opportunities will open before him: Who can say? But they’ll be there.

John Archibald knows a good column when he sees one. He’ll know the good opportunities, as well.

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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