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House sends economic developer bill to governor’s desk

Chip Brownlee

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Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Molton, sponsored HB317. (Chip Brownlee/APR)

Just before ending this year’s legislative session, the Alabama House of Representatives voted to send a controversial economic development bill — one that would exempt a large group of “economic development professionals” from having to register as lobbyists — to Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk.

By a vote of 52 to 22 with a large contingency of 22 abstentions, the House concurred with changes made in the Senate Wednesday.

Final passage of the bill came after days of negotiations that attempted to win over detractors, but the debate in the House Thursday was still contentious.

HB317, sponsored by Rep. Ken Johnson in the House, has been the subject of intense scrutiny from a number of lawmakers, who say the bill would give some the ability to skirt the ethics laws. The bill had been bogged down in the Senate for the past week, but leadership in both chambers made a concerted effort to get it through.

Supporters have said the bill is needed to keep Alabama on par with other states that do not require economic developers to register as lobbyists.

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“The Ethics Commission basically would not take a position on that issue, and because they wouldn’t take a position, the uncertainty among economic developers and site selectors, they were hesitant to play out in the arena in Alabama,” said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.

Marsh carried the legislation in the Senate, using his muscle as the top lawmaker in the Legislature’s upper chamber to get the legislation through in the final weeks of the session.

“It was a very tight piece of legislation,” Marsh said. “It dealt strictly with economic developers and site selectors, and it has a one-year sunset on it. I think it’s about as tight as you can get.”



Some, including Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, who was perhaps the bill’s most outspoken opponent, said the bill was too broad and should have been narrowed to include only site selectors, a smaller group of economic developers who help companies navigate the location selection process for projects.

Opponents have said the breadth of the economic developer definition could open the door for mischief.

The 15 to 14 vote in the Senate was largely along party lines. No Democrats voted for the bill but several Republicans also voted against it including several who aren’t seeking re-election, among them Brewbaker, Sen. Trip Pittman and Sen. Paul Sanford.

Opposition in the House was also largely Democratic but included Republicans, too. Rep. Phil Williams, R-Huntsville, said he worried the bill would cut the House out of the oversight process for economic development projects.

“I believe this bill could turn the House of Representatives into a rubber stamp, to rubber stamp deals we were not a part of,” Williams said.

Some signaled the bill might become a campaign issue.

“My 2010 friends, the same horse you rode in on is going to be the same horse you ride out on,” said Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, referring to the year when Republicans took control of the Legislature and passed more stringent ethics laws.

Ivey – whose office and cabinet have been pushing for the legislation — said the bill would ensure the strength of the ethics laws while keeping “Alabama’s doors open for business.” She signaled Thursday that she would sign the legislation.

“The passage of House Bill 317 enables Alabama to remain on a level playing field with other states, as we compete for job creating capital investments,” Ivey said. “Our ability to attract highly sought after economic development projects is vital to ensure that Alabama continues to experience record-low unemployment.”

Changes made in the Senate Wednesday added a one-year expiration date to the bill. Sen. Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City, said the sunset provision would require lawmakers to come back and revisit a broader comprehensive review of the state’s ethics laws.

On the House floor, Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said there may be more nefarious intentions behind the sunset clause.

“It seems like to me that if we adopt a clause that kills a bill in a year, then we know something is wrong with it,” England said.

The bill will expire in April 2019, when lawmakers will have to decide whether to renew its provisions or include it within a wide rewrite of the ethics laws.

The bill would exempt any professional economic developer — a wide range of individuals with a broad definition — from having to register as a lobbyist, thus essentially exempting them from the statutes in the ethics laws that pertain to lobbyists.

Other provisions were added Wednesday to narrow that definition to exclude lawmakers, public officials and those who would otherwise have to register as lobbyists from being able to obtain the exemption. It also added a “revolving door” provision that prohibits lawmakers from being considered economic development professionals for two years.

“The only people who will have the opportunity for the exemption are the true economic developers that were never intended to be in the (ethics) bill to begin with,” Williams said Tuesday of the changes.

England, who said economic developers frequently engage in lobbying, said Thursday that proponents of the bill were “drawing a distinction without a difference because there’s money involved.”

“You’re describing different shades of the same color. It’s still lobbying,” England said.

Some proponents were comforted by the sunset clause, saying the Legislature could make needed fixes later if required.

“Do we sometimes have to come back and fix bills?” said Rep. Paul Beckman, R-Prattville. “Sure, because we’re part-time legislators, serve for 30 days and don’t know what the far-reaching effects of a law will be.”

Some statewide political candidates on both sides of the aisle have called on Ivey to veto the legislation. Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said the bill will weaken the ethics laws and open the door for more scandals like those that took down former House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn.

“If she does not reject this attempt to further weaken accountability, it will reinforce Alabama’s standing as one of the most corrupt states in the union,” Maddox said in a statement.

Former Deputy Attorney General Alice Martin, who’s seeking the Republican nomination for attorney general against Attorney General Steve Marshall, has also criticized the bill. Martin was heavily involved in Hubbard’s prosecution. Marshall’s office has supported the bill after initial changes were made in the House.

Ivey will have ten days to sign the legislation.

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ADOC could be held in contempt for failing to meet mental health staffing requirements

Chip Brownlee

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The Alabama Department of Corrections could be held in more legal peril for failing to meet multiple deadlines for required mental health staffing in Alabama prisons.

ADOC officials are appearing Tuesday at a contempt hearing before U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson. The hearing, which comes nearly 10 months after Thompson ordered ADOC to increase mental health staffing numbers, is the latest development in an ongoing lawsuit over health care in prisons.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which brought the lawsuit, is asking the court to rule on whether ADOC should be held in contempt for failing to fill mental health care staff positions and failing to inform the court of their inability to meet its requirements.

“Prisoners with mental illness in the ADOC continue to receive constitutionally inadequate care,” SPLC attorneys said in a notice of non-compliance when they asked for a hearing earlier this year. “Increasing the amount of mental-health staff is a necessary part of bringing an end to the constitutional violations found a year ago.”

The contempt hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. in Montgomery. An initial hearing was held in September but was delayed for mediation after ADOC requested clarification over what the order requires for staffing. The SPLC is again asking that ADOC be held in contempt.

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Federal Judge Myron Thompson said in his ruling last year that ADOC’s mental health care system was “horrendously inadequate” and ordered broad changes. The ruling said ADOC failed to provide constitutional health care.

The contempt hearing comes months after Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed a $360 million contract between the Alabama Department of Corrections and the Pittsburgh-based prison health care provider Wexford Health on March 9 of this year.

The health care provider was hired, in large part, to fulfill the state’s requirements under Thompson’s order, but since their hiring, the number of full-time mental health staff has not increased.

Before the contract was finalized, the Legislature approved a $30 million supplement to the Department of Corrections’ funding for last fiscal year — an increase legislators said at the time was needed to comply with the court decision that mandated changes to medical and mental health care in Alabam’s prisons.

ADOC received more than a 20 percent increase to its budget over the next year with the $30 million in additional emergency funding to ADOC’s budget last fiscal year combined with this year’s General Fund.

In its ruling last year, the court found that “persistent and severe shortages” of mental health care staff contributed to the prison system’s constitutional violations.

In February, the court ordered ADOC to fulfill the required level of mental health staffing, which means 263.2 full-time equivalents, or FTEs, by July 1. So far, ADOC has only reached 76 percent of the required levels, or 201 FTEs, according to court filings. Thompson cited that number, which was included in the request-for-proposals that led to ADOC contracting with Wexford Health.

The number of current full-time mental health staff working in Alabama prisons is no higher than March of this year, when ADOC reported 202.6 full-time mental health staff, and far below the 263 full-time equivalents the court ordered the state to hire.

If the court rules ADOC should be held in contempt, parties could face fines and, in some cases, jail time. The SPLC asked that a monitor be appointed to oversee how ADOC is progressing and to keep the Court and the Plaintiffs informed.

ADOC, in a motion filed last month, asked the court to clarify the order requiring that the department hire at least 263.2 full-time equivalents through alterations or amendments because it cannot comply with the order as written.

The department has also asked for a different way to count the number of staff it has.

The contract between ADOC and Wexford defines staffing requirement in terms of hours of service, not full-time positions filled, which is how the court’s order defines it.

“In short, the State cannot practically ensure staffing ‘consistent’ with the Agreement while at the same time insisting that Wexford fulfill the different terms of the Court’s Modified Staffing Remedial Order,” the state said.

The state requested in their motion that the definition of compliance be changed to FTEs hours of service provided instead of defining it in terms of FTE positions filled.

“This revision would permit Wexford to cover the hours of ‘unfilled positions’ with locums, PRN, or overtime work and still be in compliance with the Agreement and the Court’s order,” the state wrote.

In their filing, ADOC said it isn’t clear whether the order would permit the state and Wexford to receive credit for individuals working overtime, individuals working on a temporary or as-needed basis or FTEs taking paid or unpaid leave, which could lead to discrepancies between “FTEs filled” and “FTEs provided.”

“These fundamental inconsistencies between the Court’s Modified Staffing Remedial Order and the Agreement render the State and Wexford unable to comply with the Modified Staffing Remedial Order,” the state said in their motion.

“The State and Wexford, however, remain committed to complying with this Court’s orders and fulfilling their constitutional obligations to provide adequate mental-health services to inmates in ADOC’s custody,” the motion reads.

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Jones introduces bipartisan legislation forbidding mailed unsolicited “live” loan checks

Brandon Moseley

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Monday U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-Alabama) joined Senators Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) in introduced legislation that would end the practice of mailing high-interest loans to consumers in the form of “live” checks.

When consumers receive these loan checks, many unknowingly believe they have received money from their bank or financial institution, not realizing that the check is often a high-interest loan.

The Unsolicited Loan Act of 2018 would prohibit this practice and ensure that consumers access loans only when they proactively apply for them. This legislation mirrors the decades-old prohibition on the mailing of live credit cards.

“As working Americans look to make ends meet, lenders will often target cash-strapped families with these mailings,” Senator Jones said. “It is unconscionable that someone would take advantage of another person’s dire financial situation to make a quick buck for themselves. We need to end this predatory lending tactic and pass this legislation to protect consumers and their pocketbooks.”

“People should understand clearly when they are taking on debt,” Senator Cotton said. “But because ‘live’ checks mailed directly to consumers don’t require an application or any previous relationship with the consumer, many individuals don’t realize that these checks are actually high-interest loans until it’s too late. Just like Congress ended the practice of mailing ‘live’ credit cards nearly 50 years ago, Congress should pass our bill now to stop this underhanded practice.”

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“When you receive a check in the mail, it’s natural to assume that depositing it will help—not hurt—your bottom line,” Sen. Merkley said. “But these checks don’t pad consumers’ pocketbooks; instead, they send them into a vortex of debt. The practice of mailing high-interest loans disguised as checks is unconscionable and clearly predatory. Today, we’re sending a bipartisan message that this unacceptable practice must end.”

The sponsors said that it has been long recognized by Congress that consumer loans should require an application by a customer. In fact, Congress banned the mailing of unsolicited live credit cards nearly 50 years ago. In modern lending, a formal loan application can often take just minutes. The bill does not prohibit the direct marketing or mailing of a loan application. The sponsors say that this legislation would provide common-sense consumer protections without limiting access to credit for consumers who willingly apply and seek lending products.

The bill would also ensure that companies cannot shift from the mailing of live checks to other forms of transfer, such as a gift card or an “e-check.” In addition, it would ensure that customers are not liable for debt incurred from an illegal, unsolicited live check loan. The National Consumer Law Center has endorsed this legislation on behalf of its low-income clients.

According to usdebtclock.org the average American is carrying $58,849 in debt. American families owe over $19,371,000,000. Almost $15,374,000,000 of this is mortgage debt; but Americans also carry nearly $1,580,000,000 in student loan debt and almost $1,050,000,000 in credit card debt. According to the American Bankruptcy Institute, through November 703,130 Americans have already filed for bankruptcy in 2018, including 24,676 in Alabama.

Senator Jones was elected a year ago in a special election for the seat vacated by Senator Jeff Sessions (R) when he accepted President Donald J. Trump’s (R) nomination to be U.S. Attorney General. Jones is the only Democratic candidate to win a statewide election in Alabama since 2008.

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Byrne applauds NOAA’s increased Red Snapper catch limit under new rule

Brandon Moseley

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Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose, applauded a new NOAA Fisheries rule to increase the annual catch limits and annual catch targets for the Red Snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.

“This increase from NOAA shows exactly what those of us on the Gulf Coast have known for years: the health of the Red Snapper fishery is incredibly strong,” Representative Byrne said. “These latest numbers will further drive us to continue fighting for greater state control over the Red Snapper fishery and a full and adequate Red Snapper fishing season.”

The commercial annual catch limit would increase from 7.007 million pounds to 7.701 million pounds. The annual recreational charter boat catch limit would increase from 2.848 million pounds to 3.13 million pounds. The annual recreational private boat limit would increase from 3.885 million pounds to 4.269 million pounds.

The catch limits for Red Snapper are being increased because assessment of Gulf red snapper was completed in 2018 and indicated that red snapper was not overfished or experiencing overfishing, but the stock is still in a rebuilding plan. Based on the assessment, catch limits can be increased. The commercial, recreational, and component ACLs could also be increased.

The proposed rule would also decrease the annual catch limit of West Florida Hogfish from 219,000 pounds to just 129,500 pounds in 2019. It would increase to 141,300 pounds in 2020, and 150,400 pounds in 2021 and beyond.

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The current Red Snapper total ACL is 13.74 million pounds whole weight. Of that, 51 percent is allocated to the commercial sector and 49 percent to the recreational sector. The recreational sector’s annual catch limit is further divided into the private angling component (57.7 percent) and federal for-hire component (42.3 percent). These components were implemented in 2015 and are currently set to expire in 2022.

This is just a proposed rule. NOAA is seeking public comments. The comment period is open now through January 3, 2019. You may submit comments by electronic submission or by postal mail. Comments sent by any other method (such as e-mail), to any other address or individual, or received after the end of the comment period, may not be considered by NOAA Fisheries.

Submit all electronic public comments via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal.

Step 1) Go to:
www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=NOAA-NMFS-2018-0130

Step 2) Click the “Comment Now!” icon, complete the required fields.

Step 3) Enter or attach your comments.

Submit written comments to Peter Hood, Southeast Regional Office, NMFS, 263 13th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.

Alabama federal and state officials have been troubled by federal red snapper rules for years. Last year, Congressman Byrne worked with Senator Richard Shelby and other Gulf Coast congressmen to secure a full Red Snapper season for Alabama’s recreational fishermen.

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Shelby announces $14.2 million highway infrastructure grant for Decatur

Brandon Moseley

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Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, announced that the U.S. Department of Transportation will award the city of Decatur a highway infrastructure improvement grant totaling $14,222,671 in federal funding.

The grant is made available as part of the DOT Better Utilizing Investment to Leverage Development (BUILD) Grant program, which focuses on economic development and infrastructure improvements.

“This $14 million BUILD grant is great news for the city of Decatur and the surrounding region. The funding will allow for much-needed improvements and enhancements to the current infrastructure in Decatur,” said Senator Shelby. “As Alabama’s transportation needs evolve, it is important that we find ways to support rapid growth, especially in rural areas. I am looking forward to working with my colleagues and the DOT as we continue to prioritize the infrastructure needs of the state and the nation.”

The grant will aid in the construction of an overpass bridge at the intersection of State Route 20 and Bibb Garrett Road. The project also includes ramps, a new access road, improved highway lighting, and accommodations for safe pedestrian access.

According to the city, there has been a significant lack of resources to develop and maintain major rural highway infrastructure. This funding will help bridge the gap between Decatur and other main employment areas in the state, providing necessary funding for these much-needed transportation resources.

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“The creation of a Highway 20 overpass and exchange is the catalyst of growth and change our city has been striving to achieve,” said Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling. “Through the keen oversight of Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, the generosity of Sen. Richard Shelby’s office, and the ever-diligent work of the City of Decatur’s grant team and Director of Development Wally Terry, our collaborative efforts have culminated in a regional development that will benefit North Alabamians for generations to come.”

President Donald J. Trump (R) has urged the Congress to pass a $trillion infrastructure bill to allow for more modernization and repairs to America’s infrastructure system.

Senator Richard Shelby has been elected to six terms to the U.S. Senate and is the Chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Prior to his Senate service he was elected to four terms in the United States House of Representatives and two terms in the Alabama state Senate representing Tuscaloosa.

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House sends economic developer bill to governor’s desk

by Chip Brownlee Read Time: 5 min
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