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GOP gubernatorial candidates hold debate in Birmingham

From Left to Right: Scott Dawson, Tommy Battle and Sen. Bill Hightower.
Brandon Moseley

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Wednesday, Scott Dawson, Bill Hightower and Tommy Battle were on stage at the historic Lyric Theatre in Birmingham for the Republican candidates debate sponsored by AL.com’s Reckon and ABC33/40. Gov. Kay Ivey declined to participate in the media event. An empty podium with Ivey’s name was placed on stage for her anyway.

Roy Johnson served as moderate while Lauren Walsh, Cameron Smith, and John Archibald served as the journalist panel asking the questions.

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said of himself, “I am a family man and a businessman.” Battle said that he became Mayor ten years ago and education, roads and bridges, and recruiting good paying jobs were the issues, Now Huntsville is the seventh best city to live in America. I want to do the same for the state,

Birmingham-area evangelist Scott Dawson said that he grew up in Ensley, started working at 14, got a job at 16 and went into ministry.

“We love our state, but we have lost faith in our leaders in Montgomery,” Dawson said. “You can live days without food but you can’t carry on without hope and we have lost hope in our leaders.”

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State Senator Bill Hightower, R-Mobile, said that he is involved in a number of small businesses in the Mobile area.

ABC 33/40’s top political correspondent Lauren Walsh asked: Alabama passed legislation making it illegal for high school teachers to have sex with students but that law’s constitutionality is being challenged in the courts arguing that is too broad and violates teachers’ rights. Since the age of consent in Alabama is 16, teachers should have the same rights to have sex with a 16 year or older student as any other adult in the state has. If the court overturns the law, would you support legislation raising the age of consent?

Battle said that we have to look at it in context.

“There is a breakdown in morality across our country,” Dawson said. Dawson said that there were a lot of hypotheticals in the question but that he would support raising the age of consent if the court strikes the law down banning teacher-student sex.

Hightower said that he opposed any lowering of the age of consent.

“You don’t allow it in a company,” Hightower said. “I have not studied the ramifications of that. I have talked to many people across Alabama who told me that they were sexually abused by the teachers and nothing is done. They should not be allowed to come back and teach.”

“This is such a serious issue,” Dawson said.

Many of the questions asked were about former Chief Justice Roy Moore.

Hightower was asked about a bill he sponsored that would have changed the law on how judges are removed to make Alabama like the federal government and for non-judicial constitutional offices where impeachment is done by the Senate and not by the Supreme Court.

“The judicial inquiry commission is not working right,” Hightower said. “It was not a fair trial. Let’s have impeachment of the judicial offices just like all the other constitutional offices. I don’t think the process was right. I did not like how the process was handled. It was a very one-sided argument. Judge Moore is not the only person who has a problem with the JIC.”

Battle disagreed. “I don’t want the legislature making political decisions about a judicial candidate.”

Dawson said, “I think he (Judge Moore) was right. I think he was railroaded.”

The panel demanded to know who the candidates voted for in the Senate election.

Battle said, “I supported the Republican candidate.”

“I did vote for Roy Moore,” Dawson said.

“I couldn’t vote for the other candidate,” Hightower said.

They were asked if they believed the women who alleged that Moore had underage relationships with them. (Actually, only Leigh Corfman alleges that she was below the age of consent when she dated Moore, but the panel just used “underage” for all of the accusers).

Dawson said that the allegations were troubling but that he talked with Moore’s pastor for the last forty years and he lived an upstanding life.

Hightower said that he was confident that the U.S. Senate could have determined what happened had it come to them.

The candidates were asked if they had ever challenged authority in their lives.

Dawson said that in his ministry he has had to sit down with other minister and lay the facts in front of them that they have fallen.

Battle said, “We have got to have ethics. We have got to have integrity and got to have honesty.” Three times as Mayor I have sent in ethics reports on other officials and each time I called the person and told them what I was doing and why.

The candidates were asked about HB317, which exempts economic developers from the ethics law.

Hightower defended his vote in favor of the bill in the senate.

“Fake news condemned this bill,” Hightower said. “When the Secretary of Commerce comes to me and says that we will lose projects without this bill passing, what do you expect me to do?”

Hightowers said that if site selectors had to register like lobbyists, “Toyota wouldn’t have come. Mercedes wouldn’t have come. I did not like the bill as it came to the Senate; but in ten months we will write a more robust ethics bill.”

Battle said, “I did not need HB317 to lure 24,000 jobs,” to Huntsville.

Battle said that he supports protecting site selectors, but he was opposed to the section in HB317 allowing economic developers to work for contingency fees

“Ethics bills are not written to protect lobbyists but to protect the people of Alabama,” Dawson said. “Why not wait and get it right, especially in the wake of yet another indictment.”

“I was disappointed that we adjourned without addressing ethics reform,” Hightower said.

The candidates were asked about school security.

Battle said that in Huntsville, “We hardened the site,” where there is only one place to come in or out have to be buzzed in and buzzed out and put a police officer in every school.

“You have to protect the kids,” Dawson said. “I am not opposed to arming our teacher, but I don’t want it to be the wild wild west.” “We need to pay a stipend to those teachers who are protecting our students on the front lines.”

Hightower said, “We know who the problem kids are. In Mobile 1,700 families generate about 78 percent of the crime.”

Walsh asked the candidates about entering into an agreement with the Poarch Creek Indians to allow casino style gambling at their facilities in exchange for taxes on the revenues.

Battle said, “That is not a financial tool I would jump into quickly.”

Dawson said if you legislate stuff just to raise money all you will do is keep legalizing more stuff to raise more money. “It is not a good economic decision for Alabama.”

The candidates were asked if they support raising the gas taxes to fund more infrastructure.

Battle said that we need to have more revenue to make infrastructure improvements and could be in favor of that but said that was just one option.

“Roads and bridges have to be addressed,” Hightower said. “We also have to address waterways and broad band. The bridge in Mobile is going to be a toll road. We already have money.”

Hightower said that we need to remove earmarks and re-prioritize money and should consider privatizing the Alabama Department of Transportation.

“Right now we are transferring $65 million out of ALDOT,” Hightower said.

Dawson said that there is a rumor that Kay Ivey would call a special session after the Republican primary to raise fuel taxes for infrastructure.

Hightower said, “I have heard that. It is no rumor that if certain people are elected they will raise taxes.”

Dawson said that Kay Ivey said that she would end task forces but has since created a school safety task force and is about to form an opioid task force. “You have to wonder if we have a flip flop governor.”

Battle said, “There is probably a consortium running the government. She is on jets going here and there passing out more checks than the publishers clearing house folks. When do you have time to govern?”

Dawson said, “She is coach because we fired our previous head coach and we have an interim coach while we look for a head coach that can win a national championship.”

Hightower said, “She is no Nick Saban,”

The candidates were asked about protecting Confederate monuments.

Dawson said, “I am going to protect the monuments.”

Hightower said that nobody is talking about taking down Auschwitz..

Battle said that when he was in Maine he saw memorials to Civil War veterans like we have, except they were to Union veterans.

The candidates were asked about legalizing marijuana.

Hightower said that we are already fighting opioids.

Dawson said, “I don’t care if it did bring money into this state, I am not going to support it.”

The Republican primary is on June 5.

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Ivey appoints Kelly Butler acting director of finance

Brandon Moseley

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Tuesday, Governor Kay Ivey (R) announced that she has named Kelly Butler as Acting Director of the Alabama Department of Finance.

“Kelly Butler has more than two decades of experience working with the state’s budgets and more than three decades experience as a fiscal analyst,” Gov. Ivey said. “I know he will do an excellent job leading the Alabama Department of Finance during this interim period. I appreciate him stepping up as acting director and his commitment to my administration.”

Butler went to work with the Alabama Department of Revenue more than thirty years ago. He later worked for the Legislative Fiscal Office before joining the Alabama Department of Finance as Assistant State Budget Officer in 2012. Since that time, Butler most recently as Assistant Finance Director for Fiscal Operations.

As Assistant Finance Director, Butler oversees the State Comptroller’s Office, the State Purchasing Division, the State Debt Management Division, and the State Business Systems Division.

“I am honored that Governor Ivey has asked me to lead the Department of Finance,” Butler said. “The department has many talented employees who work hard to provide excellent services to other state agencies and to the people of Alabama. I look forward to working with them to continue those excellent services.”

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Butler’s appointment will be effective today, August 15, 2018. Former Director of Finance Clinton Carter has left to accept a position with the University of North Carolina system.

In addition to his new duties, Butler will continue his work on building the governor’s budget proposals leading up to the 2019 Legislative Session. Butler will serve in this position until a thorough search for a permanent Finance Director can be conducted.

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Elections

Ivey visits Mobile for opening of newest Walmart distribution center

Brandon Moseley

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Monday, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) was in Mobile County for the opening of a new Wal-Mart Distribution Center.

“Excited to be in Mobile Co. for the grand opening of @Walmart’s newest distribution center,” Ivey said on Twitter. “Walmart invested $135 million to build this facility, creating 750 jobs! I know that these folks will play a major role in fulfilling Mr. Sam Walton’s vision to serve the customer.”

Economic Developer Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter, “Distribution centers, one of the State of Alabama’s foundational business targets, provide products and services that support a myriad of industries within our state. The Walmart Distribution Center in Irvington, one of six distribution centers in the United States, will be a significant addition to the estimated $22.4 billion economic impact generated last year by the Alabama State Port Authority.”

Nicole Jones explained to APR, “At last week’s economic development conference hosted by the EDAA, Port Authority CEO Jimmy Lyons shared with us that empty shipping containers are a much-needed commodity in Alabama. When fully operational, Walmart will carry in approximately 50,000 containers per year, which will thus create a surplus of empty cargo containers that exporters can use (and therefore reduce their costs). As a result, Alabama’s port will retain business that would otherwise divert to alternate ports due to a lack of containers. Keeping more business at home – this great news for Mobile County, The Port, and our entire state.”

The new Distribution Center will be 60 acres under one roof.

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“Mobile’s Walmart Distribution Center is officially open for business!” Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said on Facebook. “They have already hired 575 people with plans to be at 750 once fully operational. Fun fact: this 2.6 million square ft facility can fit 30 USS Alabama ships.”

“Walmart proves to be a great corporate partner to the state of Alabama, year after year, by investing in its stores, its employees and the surrounding community,” Gov. Ivey said. “Their commitment cannot be better proven than by the opening of this new Distribution Center, which, when fully operational, will provide approximately 750 quality jobs in the Mobile area. We are grateful to Walmart for supporting the economic health of the Port City, and for the large role they play in propelling our great state forward.”

The new distribution center will supply 700 Wal-Mart stores.

“We are excited about how this facility will help us better serve our customers across the South and beyond, while creating a positive economic impact locally through job creation and future development,” said Jeff Breazeale, Walmart Vice President, Direct Import Logistics. “We are grateful to the State of Alabama, Mobile County, the City of Mobile, the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce and the Alabama State Port Authority for the warm welcome we have received here, and we look forward to a strong partnership with the community for years to come.”

Mobile is Alabama’s port city. It is also the oldest City in Alabama, having been founded as a French colony in 1702, 31 years before the English founded the Georgia colony.

Since rising to the office of Governor, Kay Ivey has presided over an unprecedented period of job market improvement. June unemployment was 3.9 percent and the state has seen its total workforce rise to pre-Great Recession levels.

Ivey is running for her own term as Governor in the general election on November 6. Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter “Walt” Maddox is her Democratic opponent.

(Original reporting by Berkshire Hathaway’s Business Wire contributed to this report.)

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Sewell, Gowdy, others introduce bill to strengthen election infrastructure against cyberattacks

Brandon Moseley

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Friday, four members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) introduced the Secure Elections Act, which would provide local communities and state governments with the resources needed to strengthen election systems against cyberattacks.

The bill was introduced by Reps. Tom Rooney (R-Florida), Terri Sewell (D-Selma), Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina), and Jim Himes (D-Connecticut). All four of them have played a role in the HPSCI investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

“Our democracy is our nation’s greatest asset and it is our job to protect its integrity,” said Rep. Sewell. “We know from our Intelligence Community that Russian entities launched cyberattacks against our election infrastructure in 2016, exploiting at least 21 state election systems. As the 2018 elections approach, action is urgently needed to protect our democracy against another attack. Today’s bipartisan bill takes a huge step forward by providing election officials with the resources and information they need to keep our democracy safe.”

“Although the Russian government didn’t change the outcome of the 2016 election, they certainly interfered with the intention of sowing discord and undermining Americans’ faith in our democratic process,” Rep. Rooney said. “There’s no doubt in my mind they will continue to meddle in our elections this year and in the future.”

The sponsors say that the Secure Elections Act would allow states and local jurisdictions to voluntarily apply for grants to replace outdated voting machines and modernize their elections systems. The bill also streamlines the process the federal government uses to share relevant cybersecurity threat information with state and local governments.

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The Senate version of the Secure Elections Act was introduced in March by Sens. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota).

Sen. Lankford addressed the U.S. Senate on the Secure Elections Act.

“We have to be able to have better communication between the federal government and states, a better cybersecurity system, and the ability to be able to audit that,” Lankford said. “That is why Senator Klobuchar and I have worked for months on a piece of legislation called the Secure Elections Act. That piece of legislation has worked its way through every state looking at it and their election authorities. We’ve worked it through multiple committee hearings. In fact, recently just in the last month, two different hearings with the Rules Committee. It is now ready to be marked up and finalized to try to bring to this body.”

“I have zero doubt the Russians tried to destabilize our nation in 2016 by attacking the core of our democracy,” Lankford said. “Anyone who believes they will not do it again has missed the basic information that is how day, after day, after day, in our intelligence briefings. The Russians have done it the first time. They showed the rest of the world the lesson in what could be done. It could be the North Koreans next time. It could be the Iranians next time. It could be a domestic activist group next time. We should learn that lesson, close that vulnerability, and make sure that we protect our systems in the days ahead.”

Rep. Sewell is also the lead sponsor of the SHIELD Act and the E-Fellows Security Act, two bills which would strengthen cybersecurity on federal, state, and local campaigns.

Rep. Terri A. Sewell is serving her fourth term representing Alabama’s 7th Congressional district. She sits on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and was recently appointed to the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Sewell is a Chief Deputy Whip and serves on the prestigious Steering and Policy Committee of the Democratic Caucus. She is also a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and serves as Vice Chair of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus, and Vice Chair of Outreach for the New Democrat Coalition.

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Secretary of State’s letter addressed out-of-state PACs meddling in Alabama elections

Bill Britt

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During the runoff in the recent Republican Attorney General’s race, the question of whether an out-of-state Political Action Committee can donate to a candidate without complying with Alabama’s Fair Campaign Practice Act was raised but never fully answered. The Ethics Commission Executive Director seemed to say it was unlawful while the Secretary of State’s Office appeared to say it was okay.

A 2015 letter from the Secretary of State’s Office may shed some heretofore unseen light on the matter.

At issue was whether or not the Washington-based Republican Attorneys General Association, a federally registered 527 PAC, could legally give money to candidate Steve Marshall.

The group eventually contributed over $700,000 to Marshall who won the Republican nomination and will face Democrat Attorney General candidate Joseph Siegelman in the fall general election.

A 527-organization or 527 PAC is a tax-exempt organization organized under Section 527 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code (26 U.S.C. § 527). A 527 is created primarily to influence the selection, nomination, election, appointment or defeat of candidates to federal, state or local public office.

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During the public debate over RAGA’s financial role in Marshall’s campaign, Alabama Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton said that he had advised other campaigns that they could not receive such contributions as Marshall was receiving from RAGA. He also told al.com’s Kyle Whitmire, “if an out-of-state PAC gives to an Alabama candidate, it is obligated to register and file reports just like Alabama PACs.”

RAGA is not registered with the state and doesn’t file reports in accordance with state law like other PACs who contributed to campaigns during this election cycle.

However, Secretary of State John Merrill’s offices was quoted as saying, “the [Ethics] [C]ommission has the final authority to ‘issue guidance’ on the matter and should do so.”

However, Merrill’s office was not so deferential in 2015, when Secretary Merrill wrote a letter to the Mississippi Secretary of State.

In a letter to the Mississippi Secretary of State on September 21, 2015, Alabama Secretary of State Merrill outlines how it is illegal for any out-of-state political action committee to give money to an Alabama candidate without following the strict letter of the law as described in the state’s Fair Campaign Practice Act.

In Merrill’s correspondence with Mississippi Secretary of State C. Delbert Hosemann Jr., he is unambiguous about what is an “illegal contribution of expenditure,” according to Alabama law.

“Dear Secretary Hosemann:

It has been brought to the attention of my office that a Political Action Committee (PAC) may be attempting to exploit Mississippi’s campaign finance laws to hide contributions or contributors in influencing Alabama elections.”

Here, Secretary Merrill not only raised the issue of illegal out-of-state contributions, he was pre-emptive in deterring out-of-state groups meddling unlawfully in Alabama’s elections.

He further writes Hosemann, “A contribution given in Mississippi with the intent of influencing Alabama elections would require disclosure under Alabama’s Fair Campaign Practice Act. Pursuant to Alabama Code section 17-5-2,” Merrill wrote to Hosemann, in 2015. He then quotes the code section adding emphasis to the, “whether in-state or out-of-state” section.

Merrill further states, “[A]n Alabama Political Action Committee is defined as, ‘Any committee, club, association, political party, or other group of one or more persons, whether in-state or out-of-state, (His emphasis) which receives or anticipates receiving contributions and makes or anticipates making expenditures to or on behalf of any Alabama state or local elected official, proposition, candidate, principal campaign committee or other political action committee. For the purposes of this chapter, a person who makes a political contribution shall not be considered a political action committee by virtue of making such contribution.'”

Secretary Merrill concludes his letter to the Mississippi Secretary of State by writing, “At this time, we do not have any further information regarding the specifics of any illegal contribution of expenditure.”

Here Merrill agains asserts out-of-state PAC contributions made to an Alabama candidate are illegal if the PAC is not fully compliant with Alabama laws which requires registration and full disclosure of its donors.

RAGA is not registered in Alabama and its individual donors are not immediately disclosed in accordance with Alabama law and not at all if the funds are received from another PAC in what is known as a PAC-toPAC transfer.

Much has been made about how RAGA accepts donations from other PACs and then passes that money on in PAC-toPAC transfers through its 527. These transfers are part of why 527s are often referred to as “dark money” because they hide the original sources of its contributions.

Not disclosing donors and PAC-to-PAC transfers are both illegal under Alabama law but also it is illegal for a PAC to make donations if it is not registered and reports according to all state laws.

As Secretary Merrill noted in his letter to the Mississippi Secretary of State, Alabama law hinges on the words, “any…whether in-state or out-of-state.”

Marshall’s campaign argues that because RAGA is a federal PAC, and state law doesn’t apply.

In September 2016, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama in favor of the State in the case of The Alabama Democratic Conference v. Strange, finding that Alabama’s ban on PAC-to-PAC transfers was constitutional.

By upholding the decision of the lower court, the Court of Appeals agrees that Alabama’s ban of PAC-to-PAC transfers is necessary to prevent corruption, or the appearance of corruption, while not violating the First Amendment.

The court also agreed that the 2010 Fair Campaign Practices Act (FCPA) made it “unlawful for any political action committee… to make a contribution, expenditure, or any other transfer of funds to any other political action committee.” The only exception to the rule is that a PAC can donate to a PAC set up by a candidate but full disclosure is required by both parties.

Again, Merrill’s reliance on the words “any” and “whether in-state or out-of-state” in his letter to Mississippi complies with the 11th Circuits findings making Marshall’s so-called loophole  even more suspicious.

During the July runoff, Marshall’s opponent, Troy King, filed a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order to keep Marshall from spending RAGA money. Montgomery Circuit Judge James Anderson dismissed the case without weighing in on the merits, questioning his jurisdiction and King’s standing in the filing.

Republicans across the state are concerned that if outside groups like RAGA can contribute unlimited amounts of money without disclosing its donors or following state law, that Democrats might use Marshall’s loophole to target candidates like Justice Tom Parker or Gov. Kay Ivey.

Ethics Director Albritton says that the commission has yet to thoroughly weighed in on whether RAGA and Marshall violated state law.

The Ethics Commission doesn’t hold its next regularly scheduled meeting until October, just days before the general elections.

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GOP gubernatorial candidates hold debate in Birmingham

by Brandon Moseley Read Time: 8 min
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