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The Return of the Gas Tax Bill

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

On Thursday, April 13, 2017, the controversial massive $2.4 billion bond issue to be paid for by three gas tax increases to total 9 cents per gallon on gasoline and diesel fuel faced an onslaught of bipartisan criticism on the floor of the Alabama House of Representatives.

House Bill 487 was sponsored by State Representative Bill Poole (R-Tuscaloosa).

Before the Budget Isolation Resolution could even be passed, House Bill 487 was carried over. Most legislators thought then that it would come back to the floor of the House for more debate, amendments, and changes.

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) ended that discussion when he told reporters: “Gas tax is dead. There will be no more gas tax this year.” McCutcheon added that he thought it was unlikely to come back in an election year.

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Over the weekend however there were reports that lobbyists working for power special interests have begun phoning legislators to try to get the votes to pass the massive tax increase on the people of Alabama.

On Monday, Senator Paul Sanford (R-Huntsville) said on social media, “Leadership in the Senate is making calls today regarding the “So-Called Dead” gas tax. Get ready for Round 2.”

On Monday, State Representative Arnold Mooney (R-Indian Springs) held a public hearing on the tax admitting to the crowd at the Indian Springs Town hall that he did not know whether it was dead or not dead.

Rep. Mooney said that under the plan the State would get half of the money and the counties would get half of the money. Municipalities would get a percentage of what the counties get based on their population. The bond issue would be paid for with a tax on gasoline and diesel fuel and a tax on alternative fuel vehicles.

Rep. Mooney said that the state Legislative Fiscal Office (LFO) calculated that the interest on the bonds would be between 4.2 percent to 5.0 percent. The $2.4 billion bond issue might not be issued at the same time. 4.25 percent is the rate the first bonds would be issued at; but that could go up to 5.0 in two years. The proposal is for 20 year bonds.

Rep. Mooney said, “We do not have a list of specific projects.”

Rep. Mooney said that we have issued bonds in our State before that ended up in arbitrage. The bonds are tax free bonds. If we issued $2.4 billion in bonds there would be a specific time for that money to be spent or they can become retroactively taxable in the prescribed period of time. That is arbitrage and Mooney expressed concerns that that could happen here.

Rep. Mooney said that some legislators have stated that any bonds should be put to the vote of the people. Mooney said that supporters of the legislation answered that the people would vote them down. Rep. Mooney said that he did not believe that if the projects were properly explained to the people.

Mooney said that the state already has $5.094 billion in outstanding debt.

Dale Elliot with the Indian Springs City Council asked, “Is that amount of money really needed in the State?”

Mooney said that he did not know but there are a number of projects are needed in my county.

Elliot said, “Our infrastructure compares poorly to Georgia and Mississippi.”

Mooney said that the money can not be diverted to things like salaries and equipment. “A number of us have some concerns about the number of ALDOT employees.”

Mooney said that presently the gas tax in Alabama is 16 cents per gallon for gas and 18 cents for diesel. There is also 18 cents federal and some counties have a gas tax.

Mooney said that in 2014 Alabama ranked #7 in the nation in full time state and local government employment. Mooney said that he was concerned about the size of the bureaucracy and that he would like to see Alabama hire people specifically for a project they were working on. When the project is completed no employees remain. Georgia does a lot of that. Mooney also thought all of the projects needed to be bidded.

Rep. Mooney also expressed concerns that the number of cars licensed in Alabama is not going up and believes that this should not be rushed and that he wanted to hear what the people have to say take our time. There are roads and bridges that need to be fixed. “This bill went thru the transportation committee.” Many of us on the general fund committee have concerns that there is not enough revenue to pay for this.

Marsha Sturdham in Valley Brook said, “We have a problem in this State with our infrastructure that makes us vulnerable to losing out on businesses that want to come here.”

Councilman Elliott said that fuel prices are low and did not object to the tax.

Mooney said, We know that there is work going on federally. We do not know what that is going to be.” Rep. Mooney said that the federal infrastructure plan might have a match it may not be the same process that it has been in the past. It could be simply block granted out. Mooney predicted that if Congress did pass President Donald J. Trump’s (R) infrastructure plan that Governor Kay Ivey (R) would call a Special Session.

Republicans in Congress who oppose adding to the debt and Democrats in Congress who refuse to work with President Trump appear to have shut down any progress on the President’s infrastructure plan, so the problem of coming up with matching dollars may not be a problem.

Mooney said, “I have talked with (Congressman) Gary Palmer and his staff and we do not know what is going to happen.”

Rep. Mooney said, “I am much more comfortable with a pay as you go approach, I am very concerned about the bond process. Bonding is already at $5.095 billion and bumping it up is a concern.” “I am not in favor of the bonds.” “$2.4 billion in bonds need to be voted on by the people.”

APR asked: We have been told that all of the road projects would have to be approved by an ATRIP II committee in Montgomery and that the counties and municipalities would have to get approval for what they do from Montgomery?

Rep. Mooney said, “I do not know that for sure. I have been told that.” I heard that conservation on the House floor. I only got through the bill on Wednesday night. I would expect that there would an oversight committee of something like that.

Mooney added that Transportation is paying for ALEA and for the Administrative office of the courts. That is $100 million that comes out of transportation. “That should not be happening.”

APR asked with new technology coming online how confident are you that we will even have internal combustion engines to buy the fuel to pay for these debts with gas tax revenues twenty years from now.

Rep. Mooney said, “We hope that we are all flying around in hovercraft, but we are not the Jetsons just yet.”

The Chair of the Alabama Legislative Watchdogs Ann Eubank said that she was concerned with how adding all of this debt affects our children.

The President of the Republican Women of Shelby County Dawn Ray said that she would prefer paying as you go rather than doing a bond issue. Ray said that Governor Scott Walker (R-Wisconsin) turned a deficit he inherited into a surplus. We should bring in Scot Walker to learn what he did.

Rep. Mooney said that there is a joint committee that is looking at what Scott walker did and looking at what Gov. Brownback did in Kansas that did not work. “What is the difference?” Walker did many things with an industrialized economy that many did not think could be done.

One audience members said that Alabama State government is a poster child for incompetence. “All three heads of the three branches of state government have been removed from office or thrown in jail in the last nine months.’ I don’t think it is too much to ask to see some specifics

Mooney said that he was 1 out of 23 that signed to begin the process to remove this governor from office because he believed that the Governor needed to be investigated and that he understands those concerns.

Mooney said, “I was shocked when the Speaker said that the bill was dead.” Mooney expressed optimism that the bill could be redone to address infrastructure needs and that the bill could be amended.

 

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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.

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.

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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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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.

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.

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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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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.

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.

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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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House OKs bill to clarify consulting contracts by state legislators

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Tuesday, the Alabama House of Representatives passed a bill to try to clarify how legislators accept consulting contracts under Alabama’s 2010 ethics law. Some pundits have suggested that House Bill 387 is actually designed to weaken the existing ethics law.

Sponsor state Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, argues that the legislation is merely a clarification and is intended to prevent legislators from inadvertently crossing the line into illegality.

Wingo said that his bill would require legislators to notify the Alabama Ethics Commission that they have entered into a consulting agreement in an area outside of their normal scope of work.

State Rep. Paul Beckman, R-Prattville, said, “I have never understood why members of this body were allowed to take contracts as consultants or counselors.”

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Wingo said, “Never do I use the word counselor in my bill; it is consulting.”

Beckman asked, “Are we going to be getting into an area where  every time we turn around we create a bureaucratic nightmare where we have to go get an opinion. These opinions whether it is orally or written don’t hold up in a court of law.” Beckman said, “We are serving the people here but we get this admonition that we can still be a consultant if we get an opinion.”

Wingo said, “This does not apply to professions where a member is currently licensed.”

Beckman said, “I would like to see more opinions coming out of the Ethics Commission. Right now we have the Ethics Commission competing with the Attorney General’s office over who has more authority.”

State Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, said,”This happened to a friend of mine. He just got out of prison. He was a state senator and had a written letter from the Ethics Commission which his lawyer read at trial and the jury convicted him anyway.”

Rogers never named his friend, but reporters think he was talking about former state Sen. Edward Browning ‘E. B.’ McClain who spent over 22 years in the legislature until he was convicted on 47 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, bribery, and money laundry in 2009.

A federal jury found that McClain and the Rev. Samuel Pettagrue were guilty in a scheme where McClain would secure public funds for Pettagrue’s community programs and then receive a kickback once the funds were in hand. McClain was sentenced to five years and ten months in prison. McClain was not prosecuted under the Alabama ethics law as the state has a much weaker ethics statute then. The current ethics law was passed in 2010.

Rogers said, “If they offer me a consulting contract for a field like aerospace engineering that I know nothing about they are trying to pay me off. If you can already be a consultant for something you know about why would you seek a consulting contract for something you don’t know about.

Rogers this is how they can pay you off for your vote.”

State Rep. Artis “A.J.” McCampbell said, “I don’t like making changes to things like this because we get into things called unintended consequences.”

McCampbell was reading from the bill and Wingo said, “You are reading from the original version it has completely changed.” “We worked tirelessly on this bill with the Ethics Commission this is not a fly by night bill.”

“If a member of the legislature enters into a contract to do a consulting contract outside of their normal field of work this bill requires that they consult with the Ethics Commission first,” Wingo said. “It is up to the member to notify the Ethics Commission not to the company or person offering them the money.”

State Representative Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said, “Everybody but legislators are allowed to do contract work up to $30,000.”

Rep. Wingo said, “This is not intended to be a roadblock.”

State Representative Arnold Mooney, R-Indian Springs, said, “The whole purpose of this is not to prevent members from doing work in your field.” “What you are doing is offering to protect me.”

State Representative John Knight, D-Montgomery, asked Wingo what the Alabama Attorney General said about this legislation.

Wingo replied, “I have not contacted the Attorney General.”

Knight responded, “Something from the Ethics Commission does not carry a lot of protection from the Attorney General. We have seen that in the past. I think the Attorney General and the Ethics Commission should be in agreement in the working on this.”

Wingo answered, “Maybe this is a first step.”

Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, asked, “Do we have anybody doing work outside of their regular scope of work?”

Wingo answered, “Yes I think so.”

Wingo said, “If we had had this bill four or five years ago maybe we could have been spared the embarrassment that this body experienced with the former Speaker.”

Wingo was referring to former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard who was convicted of 12 counts of felony ethics violations in June 2016. Ironically, Hubbard is largely responsible for creating the ethics law that he was found guilty of violating 11 times in his relentless pursuit of outside contracts and personal wealth.

Unlike McClain, however, Hubbard has not yet served any of this sentence.

House Bill 387 passed 67-0 with 26 legislators abstaining.

The bill now moves to the Senate for its consideration.

(Original reporting by the Alabama Media Group’s Lisa Osborn in 2009 was consulted in this report.)

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The Return of the Gas Tax Bill

by Brandon Moseley Read Time: 7 min
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