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Opinion | Letter to the Editor on FCPA and the Ethics Commission

Secretary of State John Merrill

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In the 2015 Alabama Legislative Session, the Legislature passed legislation that required all county candidates and political action committees running for public office to file campaign finance reports with the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office. The 2015 legislation did not change the requirement for all state candidates to file with the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office. This 2015 filing process was to be accomplished through the electronic filing portal made available by the Secretary of State at fcpa.alabamavotes.gov. This legislation gave candidates until the 2018 election cycle to become familiar with the law. Beginning with the 2018 election cycle, the Secretary of State’s Office was required to issue civil penalties to candidates who did not meet the campaign finance filing requirements. Those who received a civil penalty can either pay a civil fine or appeal to the Alabama Ethics Commission. The review and appeal process was put in place to allow for expungement in specific instances in which the Commission felt the candidate had extenuating circumstances which prevented them from meeting the standard deadline applied to all candidates for public office.

All committees, regardless if it is a candidate or Political Action Committee, are required to file yearly, monthly, weekly, daily, and major contribution reports to show Alabamians the source of all contributions, expenditures, and loans. The 2015 law required the Secretary of State to issue civil fines as listed below:

  • 1st Offense 10 percent of contributions or expenditures or $300 (whichever is less)
  • 2nd Offense 15 percent of contributions or expenditures or $600 (whichever is less)
  • 3rd Offense 20 percent of contributions or expenditures or $1,200 (whichever is less)
  • 4th Offense and all proceeding penalties are the same as the third offense but this activates our requirement to report the Candidate (PCC) or Political Action Committee (PAC) to the Attorney General and the District Attorney in the judicial circuit in which they reside.

When a committee files a report late, a comprehensive review process takes place to ensure that each penalty is legitimate and that the report in question is a required report for that candidate. Step one involves one staff member of the Elections Division reviewing the late reports and preparing a file documenting the required reports and the violation number for the candidate or committee. That employee then delivers the penalty files to Clay Helms, the Assistant Elections Director and Supervisor of Voter Registration. Mr. Helms then reviews the files and corrects any errors before delivering the penalty files to John Bennett, Deputy Chief of Staff, who then reviews each penalty and checks the math on the amount of the civil fine. Once Mr. Bennett completes his review, he then delivers the penalty files to David Brewer, Chief of Staff, who then completes a final review. After Mr. Brewer’s review, he then delivers the penalty files to Brent Beal, Deputy Attorney General. Once signed, the letters are scanned and emailed to the email address on file for the PCC or PAC, and the original is mailed to the candidate via certified letter to ensure delivery. This intensive review process ensures there is a system of checks and balances to protect candidates from unwarranted claims of impropriety.

As previously noted, a campaign committee can request an appeal if the committee believes extenuating circumstances caused them to not meet the deadline for filing their report. The appeal is reviewed by the Alabama Ethics Commission at their quarterly meetings.

The Ethics Commission held its first quarterly review of the fines against committees who had requested an appeal in December, and has held subsequent reviews in April and June. During each of those meetings the five member Ethics Commission voted to overturn all of the 54 requests for appeal that were submitted to the Commission for review for a total of 113 civil penalties. The fines were overturned based on concerns from the Commission that this law was a new law which campaigns could not be held responsible for accountability at this time.

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The appeal process is in place for a candidate or committees first offense for which someone does not meet the standard as prescribed in state law. If they are a repeat offender, the law requires a monetary penalty be issued by the Secretary of State’s Office. My question to members of the Ethics Commission, members of the media, and the people of Alabama is why do we pass ethics laws and employ an ethics commission if we do not intend to enforce the rule of law?

Further, the law was not established to function as an expensive, tax-payer funded, reminder to candidates who fail to timely file, but it was created to provide transparency on campaign contributions and expenses for all Alabamians to see and serve as a deterrent to candidates who wish to deceive voters by not providing evidence regarding the source of their campaign donations or expenditures.

Simply put, the Alabama Ethics Commission, like all other state agencies should follow the law, or ask the legislature to change it!

 

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Opinion | Combatting the opioid crisis at home and across the country

Martha Roby

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There are countless important issues currently facing our state and nation. From our ongoing conversations with North Korea to the continuing need for enhanced security at the southern border, there’s no shortage of priorities that warrant discussion. Unfortunately, there is one very serious issue that continues to make headlines: the horrific opioid epidemic that is gripping our state and the entire country.

I’m sure most of us know someone whose life has been affected by opioid abuse. Whether it’s prescription pain relievers or synthetic opioids like fentanyl, the crisis has only gotten worse. 64,070 people died from overdoses in our country in 2016, and 756 of those individuals were Alabamians. Now, in 2018, the problem has not improved. Did you know that 115 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioid drugs every single day? Just this year alone, it is estimated that more than 2 million Americans will suffer from opioid addiction.

I’m pleased that last October, President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. This epidemic has been wreaking havoc on communities and families across our country for far too long. While the statistics are certainly shocking, this is about so much more than numbers. Hundreds of thousands of real American people with lives, careers, and families have lost the battle with opioid drug abuse. That’s why the House has made combating this crisis a top priority over the last several years.

You may remember that back in 2016, Congress passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act and the 21st Century Cures Act. Earlier this year, we provided $4 billion in government funding specifically to address the opioid crisis. Building upon this work, the House recently passed dozens of meaningful bills to further combat the opioid epidemic, and I’d like to share the four ways we are using this legislation to help fight this serious issue.

First, with the recently passed legislation, the House is focusing on treatment and recovery. Our bills improve and expand access to treatment and recovery services, provide incentives for enhanced care, and establish comprehensive opioid recovery centers. Hundreds of thousands of Americans from all walks of life are currently trapped by addiction, and it is imperative that we provide the resources to treat their addiction and help them recover.

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Second, we’re aiming for prevention. Opioids are an important part of modern day medical care for pain treatment, but they are prescribed entirely too often – and at alarming rates. Our legislation addresses these high prescribing rates while enhancing prescription drug monitoring programs. We have the technology, and it’s past time we used it to more effectively address this crisis. Our legislation also encourages non-addictive opioid alternatives, when practical, to treat pain, and improves the data that allows us to identify and help at-risk patients before the problem becomes dangerously serious.

Third, we’re making efforts to better protect communities of all sizes throughout the country by giving law enforcement the tools necessary to remove dangerous drugs. Our bills also enable us to better intercept illicit opioids at international mail facilities and improve access to federal resources for local communities.

Last but certainly not least, we’re fighting fentanyl. The legislation we passed in the House allows us to better tackle these ever-changing synthetic drugs, crack down on foreign shipments of illicit drugs, and provide grants for communities to combat fentanyl that is destroying lives as we speak.

I am proud of the efforts we’ve made in the House recently to press forward in our fight against this horrible crisis gripping our state and nation, but our work is far from complete. We owe it to the more than 40,000 Americans who die every year – and their families – to push on until strong progress is made. You can read more about our work to combat the opioid epidemic by visiting www.opioidcrisis.gop.

 

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Opinion | Fighting the opioid epidemic

Bradley Byrne

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For too long, a problem of epic proportion has been growing outside of the headlines in the United States: the opioid epidemic.  The reality is that we can no longer wait to take action.  Drug overdose is now a leading cause of death in the United States.  One hundred seventy-five Americans are dying every day from this crisis. From big cities to small towns, the opioid epidemic has hit our communities hard.

Unfortunately, Alabama has not been spared.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Alabama ranks highest in the nation as having more opioid prescriptions than people.  Alabama also ranks number one as the highest prescribing state in the nation for opioid pain reliever prescriptions. These statistics are incredibly alarming.

An opioid is a type of narcotic derived from the opium poppy, which includes drugs such as morphine, codeine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone. While these drugs are often prescribed in response to injuries and body pains, they can be prone to abuse and addiction.

The reality is many of the people who become addicted to opioids first start taking the drugs legally after receiving a prescription from a doctor.  For example, I have heard testimony from athletes who suffer a sports-related injury, undergo surgery, and then become addicted to opioids during the recovery process.  In many cases, this addiction can escalate, driving individuals to street drugs like heroin.

Almost all of us have a loved one or know somebody who has been affected by this terrible epidemic.  The personal stories are what make this nightmare a harsh reality.  Right here in Southwest Alabama, I have heard far too many stories about the dangers of prescription drug abuse.  The impacts of this crisis reach far beyond the person suffering from addiction to parents, to children, to brothers and sisters.  So many have been hurt.

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On October 26, 2017, President Trump announced that his administration would declare the opioid crisis a Nationwide Public Health Emergency.  On a strongly bipartisan basis alongside President Trump, Congress is also responding.

In March, the House voted to set aside $4 million toward combating the opioid crisis in the government funding bill for Fiscal Year 2018.  We kept up the momentum last week when the House passed over 25 targeted bills to help prevent and treat opioid addiction and abuse while also ensuring our nation’s drug laws are working to stop the flow of illegal drugs.

One such bill that passed the House is the THRIVE Act, which creates a program to provide low-income individuals recovering from opioid and other substance use disorders with a clean, safe, and structured environment following rehabilitation.

Additionally, the House passed the STOP Act, which aims to halt opioids like fentanyl from coming into America from other countries through a loophole at the Postal Service. The majority of opioids arrive to America through the mail from other nations, such as China, Mexico and Canada. So, this legislation represents an important step to help solve the problem.

It is clear that our work to end the opioid epidemic is far from over.  However, I was pleased to see such strong bipartisan support for many opioid bills this week as we work to make a real difference on behalf of the American people.  You can learn more about the legislation we are working on at www.opioidcrisis.gop.

We cannot and will not sit back and allow the opioid crisis to take the lives of the people we love. We must fight back and ensure Americans get the help they need. I look forward to continuing the work with President Trump to end this epidemic once and for all.

 

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Opinion | Electric vehicles make sense for Alabama drivers

Mark Bentley

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As many as 50 million Americans are about to flip the switch over to electric automobiles with their next purchase, according to the American Automobile Association. A recent survey conducted by the AAA found that popularity of electric cars is trending upwards. With infrastructure and availability all here, Alabama can lead the charge toward electric vehicles.

In its survey, AAA asked Americans if they were considering electric vehicles for their next car purchase. The survey found that 20 percent of Americans say their next vehicle will be an electric car – up 5 percent from 2017.

The Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition encourages Alabamians to make the move to an alternative fuel vehicle, such as an electric car. Electric vehicles offer nothing but benefits, from being more cost-efficient due to cheaper fuel to less expensive maintenance to being environmentally friendly.

Alabama’s relationship with Mercedes-Benz could be a factor in the state’s future with electric vehicles, too. The automaker announced in January it would be rolling out an electric version of each of its vehicles by 2022. With Mercedes – and most other automakers – launching more electric options, there have never been more alternative fuel vehicle options than we have today.

The Tuscaloosa County facility is the only Mercedes plant in the United States, and it will play a central role in the production of these electric vehicles. As these electric vehicles begin to be produced by the people of Alabama, the next logical step is for them to begin driving them as well.

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There has never been a better time to switch over to electric. It is a common misconception that it is a hassle to charge your electric car, whether that be at home or on the road. Charging at home can be done through a 120-amp power supply, which is the same three-prong outlet that powers your television.

The Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition is determined to make driving an electric vehicle in Alabama comfortable by assisting in getting proper infrastructure in place. Alabama currently has 84 electric charging stations, and a total of 198 charging outlets scattered across the state in almost all major cities.

More and more charging stations will continue to pop up across the state as more electric vehicles hit the streets. Current electric charging stations can be found at convenient locations in public, and some residential areas. The new Tesla charging stations in downtown Birmingham are just one prominent example. Several online sites, such as plugshare.com, provide charger locations.

The Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition serves as the principal coordinating point for clean, alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicle activities in Alabama. The ACFC is part of the national network of nearly 100 Clean Cities coalitions that bring together stakeholders in the public and private sectors to deploy alternative and renewable fuels, idle-reduction measures, fuel economy improvements and emerging technologies.

According to Alabama AAA PR and Marketing Director Clay Ingram, our state is warming up to electric vehicles as the technology and infrastructure begins to develop at a rapid pace.

“We have come a long way in accepting this, in a short number of years,” Ingram said. “We love our vehicles in Alabama, and I think there is a lot of room for (electric vehicles) as the technology continues to develop.”

With an average gas price of $2.91 – its highest cost since 2014. Gas prices are expected to increase over time without any anticipation of dropping. The average American spends $1,400 on gasoline a year, while average electric vehicle charging costs are $540 annually. Unlike gasoline cars, electric vehicles don’t typically require oil changes, fuel filters, spark plug replacements or emission checks. In electric vehicles, even brake pad replacements are rare due to the fact regenerative braking returns energy to the battery.

With all the aforementioned factors in mind, it is no surprise that the AAA estimated a below-average cost of ownership with electric vehicles. Electric cars also are the least expensive when it comes to yearly maintenance.

Since the 1970s, lawmakers in the United States have been putting effort into facilitating the research and growth of electric cars. The urge to reduce carbon emissions has given electric car production a lift. Electric vehicles emit an average of 4,500 pounds of CO2, with gasoline cars emitting more than double that.

This current shift to electric will not only have an environmental impact, but also an economic one. According the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the United States has made progress in importing less oil, but still imports nearly 20 percent of what is consumed. The increasing use of electricity as an alternative fuel will further push the United States toward economic independence from foreign countries.

The benefits to driving an electric car are endless! To learn more about the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition and advice on purchasing an alternative fuel vehicle, please visit www.alabamacleanfuels.org.

Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition, a nonprofit membership-based organization, is the state’s principal coordinating point for alternative fuels and a member of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities program. The promotion of clean, renewable, domestic energy sources helps reduce our dependence on foreign oil, improves local air quality and increases economic development opportunities in our local communities. For more information, please visit www.AlabamaCleanFuels.org or call 205-402-2755.

 

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Opinion | Letter to the Editor on FCPA and the Ethics Commission

by Secretary of State John Merrill Read Time: 4 min
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