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Q&A | Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Countryman addresses issues

Brandon Moseley

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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Countryman recently answered a candidate’s questionnaire sent by the Alabama Political Reporter.

APR: Alabama’s unemployment is at an all-time low, but there are still a lot of adult Alabamians who lack the skills and education to apply for most of the jobs that are coming. Do you have any ideas as to how to improve the employability of many adults in the current work force who are trapped in a cycle of minimum wage jobs?

Countryman: “First we have to take into consideration that Alabama’s current unemployment rate is slightly, if not totally, misleading. This is because the current administration is utilizing what’s known as a seasonally adjusted rate to factor the state’s unemployment, which lowers the unemployment rate below its actual rate. One of the best ways to tackle the problem of growing workforce that lacks the skills necessary to find better employment is through education. The struggle for financial security and industrial equality is nothing new, and we’ve seen this fall into the laps of each generation at some point. We can make the choice to either come up with innovative solutions to the problem, or we can attempt the same methods that we’ve been using for decades, but if it hadn’t worked yet then my money says that it probably won’t this go around either. To do the same things that we’ve done in the past, and yet expecting different results is the very definition of insanity. I propose that we start utilizing the expanding network of free education resources that are being offered by some of the nation’s top universities, and combine those resources with programs through the career centers around the state. Many of these universities offer free college educational courses in subjects ranging from computer programming to entry level skills for those entering the workforce in the clean renewable energy industry. And since many of the newer, and more competitive industries, are in the renewable energy industry we could tackle two problems at once. We can offer those who need to expand their job skills with the training and accountability system needed to get them to the point where they are able to become more financially secure, and at the same time bring a lot of new jobs into the state for the unemployed workers. Plus we can also combine my previous proposals with a basic college education or trade school training that is tuition free to those who are seeking more education to further their career opportunities. This has the potential, if implemented correctly, to drastically improve Alabama’s shortfalls in the workforce, and unemployment rates.”

APR: 267 people in Jefferson County died from drug overdoses last year and the state by some measures has the highest rate of prescriptions for opioids of any place in the world. What can be done to combat the growing opioid addiction rate in Alabama?

Countryman: “We need to start holding the pharmaceutical companies more accountable, tracking the prescriptions being dispensed by the information of the prescribing physicians and the information of the patients who are getting them filled.”

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“I wish that there was an easy answer to this,” This has been one of the questions I have been asked most often as well. I believe that we have to look at the pharmaceutical companies first. Second we have to look at the doctors that are prescribing these medicines to patients.”

APR: Should the state raise the minimum age to buy a firearm to 21?

Countryman: “Absolutely. I am not advocating for the repeal of the 2nd amendment. I believe that the 2nd amendment guarantees that citizens have a right to defend themselves with the assisted use of a firearm, within reason of course, from anyone who shows the intent and ability to inflict deadly harm towards themselves or their families. However if an individual has to be 21 to purchase a handgun then that should be true for rifles as well. Exceptions to this law should be made for those who are active law enforcement and military personnel, who should be able to purchase rifles for personal use and target practice as it relates to their occupation.”

APR: “Alabama has the 2nd lowest life expectancy in the country (behind only Mississippi). In some Black belt counties it is as low as 68 (over 8 years below the national average). Is there anything state government can do to improve the health of the people of Alabama?”

Countryman: “Yes, Medicare for all is something that the we can do. Healthcare is a human right and should be available to everyone regardless of income level. The big question that people have is how will we fund healthcare reform and expansion in our state, but I will discuss this in detail latter on in the interview.”

APR: “Some candidates are touting the lottery as a solution to state government’s fiscal woes. Are you concerned that regular lottery players tend to be the poorest and least educated citizens thus increasing the tax burden on Alabama’s poorest citizens, who already bear a disproportionate burden of the state’s finances through high sales taxes, utility bill taxes, insurance taxes, cigarette taxes, and alcohol taxes?”

Countryman: “No, I don’t think that a lottery would do that. I am in favor of a state lottery but I believe that it can’t be the only solution we bring to the table. What would happen if a future administration overturns the lottery? We need to ensure that we aren’t hanging all our hopes on one plan, and one idea. It really is poor leadership to base any solution on just one idea. That is why I am presenting a variety of solutions, so that all we have to do is to place a rounded gear inside our economic machine. It works better than just leaving the wrench in it.”

APR: “There are only 11 counties in Alabama with 100,000 or more residents and 36 counties below 40,000 residents. 25 of those have less than 25,000 residents. What would you do as governor to encourage economic development in rural Alabama?”

Countryman: “By utilizing my economic growth plan, which is built on clean energy solutions, we would be able to use the money generated from the recycling industry to bring high speed Internet to the rural areas, rebuild the roads and start looking into updating public transportation. If Alabama was to recycle all of its recyclable waste we could generate upwards to $750,000,000 in excess revenue.”

APR: The state Legislature just passed the second largest education trust fund budget in history; but revenues going into the state general fund historically are lagging; which is causing chronic funding issues with prisons, Medicaid, mental health, the courts, ALEA and other state agencies. Do you favor combining the two?

Countryman: “No, I do not because it’s easier to keep track of where the money goes, and we need to keep the allocated funds already dedicated to education there. The additional revenue needed for the general fund can be found in other areas.”

APR: Do you support Governor Ivey’s plan to sign a long-term lease with a private company that will build four new mega prisons and the state will then lease these new facilities from that corporation for ~$50 million a year going forward?

Countryman: “No. I think it’s a monumental waste of tax dollars. We have better options than that, and we just need to start thinking smart. There are cost effective ways to rehabilitate non-violent offenders that doesn’t involve having them locked up.”

APR: State Rep. Will Ainsworth introduced legislation which would allow teachers, who have taking firearms training, to carry guns in the classroom as a defense against school shooters. Do you support arming Alabama’s teachers?

Countryman: “No I do not, our teachers have enough responsibilities. There are much better and more creative and innovative ways to implement better security in our schools and as a matter of fact the solution is already there, Cellphones. Almost every student has a cellphone and right now they are thought of in a class room as an annoyance, we instead have them utilize their phones to study and do their class work on, in turn we turned a problem into a solution, the schools can also utilize the use of cell phones, Donated phones can be set up as I.P. cameras for security as well.”

APR: Certain facilities in Dothan, Shorter, Birmingham, Greene County, and Lowndes Countyoperated what they called electronic bingo; but the Alabama courts ultimately ruled that most of those games were actually a new form of gambling machine; which is banned by the constitution of Alabama. The Poarch band of Creek Indians (under the federal Indian gaming law) operate facilities that have machines similar to the ones that were ordered closed at the other establishments. Do you favor a constitutional amendment allowing existing dog tracks and bingo halls to operate “electronic bingo”; a broader constitutional amendment allowing gaming in any county where the commission supported it; or are you content with the status quo?

Countryman: “I lived in Houston County when a similar facility, as the ones you mentioned, called Country Crossing was in operation. I saw how the facility contributed to the local and regional economy firsthand. It was estimated that once every phase was completed that Country Crossing would have employed over 1500 people, created over 200 spinoff jobs and increased the tax revenue substantially. The first revenue check that Country Crossing paid out to Houston County on the revenue that their machines generated was 1.6 million dollars, and Houston County ended up with a surplus of 1.8 million dollars. It was established that Country Crossing would attract 2.5 million visitors each year. We also have some states which are similar to Alabama in demographics, where lottery is legal, showing statistics that less than 10 percent of those who purchase lottery tickets earn less than $24,000 a year, and with the greater majority of those who purchase lottery tickets were the middle and upper class. So given these findings I can certainly see the benefits that electronic bingo, dog tracks and lottery can have for the state and citizens when implemented correctly. I would be in favor of implementing an endorsement code on the back of an individual’s photo ID that indicates if a person is receiving EBT benefits. That way it will be more difficult for the individual to use EBT benefits to purchase lottery tickets or other gaming options. We could use this method at least until we are able to get the EBT system programed not to allow EBT to be used as a payment method for lotteries and such, similar to how we help prevent the purchase of alcoholic beverages using EBT.”

APR: The legislature is considering legislation that would allow state elected officials to ask the Alabama Ethics Commissioner for pre-clearance opinions to allow elected officials to take jobs and contracts that might otherwise be construed as violations of Alabama’s 2010 ethics law. State prosecutors have argued that the Ethics Commissioner does not have the authority to issue these “get out of jail free” opinions and that a letter from the Ethics Commissioner does not have legal standing. Is the Alabama Ethics Law too strict or does it need to be loosened?

Countryman: “The ethics laws in Alabama need to be rewritten from the ground up. There are one to many contradictory laws that make it confusing for the layman, and even equally confusing for some seasoned elected officials. This unfairly puts many elected officials at risk as their fate lays in the hands of other leaders and their interpretation of the ethics laws. One can simply look to Governor Sigelemans case for proof of that. Secondly the ethics laws need to be stricter and less vague. Currently there are way too many loopholes and poorly written laws that makes it all too easy for an elected official to get away with the unspeakable. We need to restore the citizen’s faith in government and at the same time have an ethics law that holds our elected officials accountable.”

APR: Alabama’s infrastructure is funded through fuel taxes; however as vehicles have gotten more fuel efficient that has resulted in some issues coming up with enough money to maintain roads and bridges across the state. Do you favor raising the fuel taxes?

Countryman: “No, because at this time it isn’t needed. Part of my economic growth plan is to bring more industry into the state that is in the clean renewable energy industry, and in the recycling industry. At present Alabama only recycles 10% of its consumer waste with 90% of its recyclable waste ending up in landfills. Currently Europe is using plastic waste as an alternative additive in asphalt road construction with great success. This method is up to 80% more affordable than traditional asphalt roads, lasts 300% longer and the introduction of plastic processing facilities in the state would generate up to 10,000 new jobs. These jobs would include those in the processing facilities, distribution centers, infrastructure jobs and other related positions that are a result of this industry. Plus in a 2015 study by the EPA we find that the recycling industry, and its related spinoff jobs, will generate over $500,000,000 annually in additional revenue for Alabama. So my plan has the capability to generate funds for infrastructure redevelopment, it creates jobs, it reduces the amount of waste in landfills, cleans our environment, provides clean energy solutions and it leaves enough of a surplus in the budget to help fund healthcare and our education system needs.”

The major party primaries are on June 5, 2018.

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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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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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Q&A | Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Countryman addresses issues

by Brandon Moseley Read Time: 11 min
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