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Ethics reform bill to sit on hold until next session as lawmakers begin discussions

Chip Brownlee

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By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter

A wide-ranging rewrite of Alabama’s ethics law proposed last week is expected to remain on hold this session as lawmakers and a new commission made up of legislators and state officials review the potential changes.

The long-awaited rewrite — encased in a 119-page bill proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston — contains dozens of changes that would update disputed definitions and close several loopholes within the state’s ethics laws, Marsh said.

The proposal has long been in the works and dates back several years to the days when Luther Strange still occupied the Attorney General’s Office. With only a few weeks left in a shorter legislative session, it was unlikely the legislation would make it out this session. Marsh said Tuesday that he proposed the bill this session to establish a working baseline ahead of next year’s legislative session when he expects the legislation to move.

“We’ve had some problems, and we’re trying to get those straightened out,” Marsh said. “We also realize this ethics law not only affects more than 140 legislators but over 50,000 people in this state in this state that also deal with the ethics laws.”

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A resolution sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr in the Senate will set up an Ethics Reform and Clarification Commission responsible for reviewing the proposal. The commission will be made up of six House and Senate members, a representative from the governor’s office, the attorney general or deputy attorney general and more than a dozen other law enforcement and state officials.


Attorney General Steve Marshall speaks on a proposed rewrite of the state ethics laws. (Chip Brownlee/APR)


The commission, which Albritton will chair, will be directed to gather recommendations to be submitted before the next legislative session.

“Because of the size of the document and the point we are in the session, we’re going to read this very carefully and thoroughly over the next several months and deal with it in 2019,” Marsh said. “When we finish studying, we’re going to be able to take that document and it be a strong piece of ethics reform.”

Attorney General Steve Marshall, Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton, Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, Sen. Arthur Orr and Rep. Mike Jones — all Republicans — joined Marsh at a press conference to announce the plans Thursday.

APR covered some of the proposed changes last week.

The proposed ethics law addresses many questions that arose during the prosecution of for former House Speaker Mike Hubbard, who in 2016 was convicted on 12 felony ethics charges. Hubbard himself had pushed a wide-ranging ethics reform package in 2010 during his first special session with the speaker’s gavel in hand.

Many of the changes are definitional. The dense law provides a more specific definition of a principal that includes any person or business that directs the activities of lobbyists, clarifying that not all members of a board or business that employs lobbyists are considered a principal. The definitions of “thing of value” and “conflict of interest” would also be updated.

The ethics laws prohibit a lobbyist or principal from giving a thing of value to a lawmaker and blocks lawmakers from accepting or soliciting a thing of value.

Teachers, coaches, police officers, firefighters and other first responders are explicitly exempted from that portion of the ethics law in this proposal and from the requirement to file a statement of economic interest.

Other changes include a bumping up the limit on the cost of meals, food and beverages that principals or lobbyists can provide a public official or lawmaker covered under the ethics law. That limit would be increased from $25 per occasion to $50 per occasion, which was the standard before the ethics reforms in 2010.

Marshall said Thursday that the changes are intended to clarify, tighten and strengthen the ethics laws.


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“For two years, we’ve been working on what I think is a very complicated issue,” Marshall said. “If you’re going to be subject to the laws, you need to understand what specifically the requirements of the law are and the applications of the law to that particular conduct.”

The attorney general also pointed to areas of the proposal that would eliminate loopholes identified by the Ethics Commission and his office. The proposal would also make clear that the Public Service Commission and the Ethics Commission, along with other regulatory bodies, are covered by the Ethics Commission.

The bill makes clear that campaign contributions cannot be converted to personal use and requires more detailed disclosures by lawmakers on their annual statements of economic interest. The proposed changes in this arena come as dozens of lawmakers face subpoenas for suspect campaign finance practices — most of which involve lawmakers failing to itemize costs charged to credit cards.

“There’s a broad spectrum of changes, all of which we think will bring greater transparency to the system,” Marshall said.

The resolution establishing the commission passed the Senate Thursday and is awaiting action in the House. Once established, Albritton will co-chair the commission with Marshall or the chief deputy attorney general.

“It deserves all the questions to be asked to make sure we are covering everything,” Marsh said.

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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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Ethics reform bill to sit on hold until next session as lawmakers begin discussions

by Chip Brownlee Read Time: 4 min
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