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Activists seek to expand LGBTQ protections in Birmingham as other Alabama cities lag behind

Chip Brownlee

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Most Alabama cities have few, if any, protections for LGBTQ individuals. Birmingham, the only city in the state with any rigorous protections for LGBTQ people, recently scored a 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index.

But even there, LGBTQ children and teens are not protected from so-called “conversion therapy,” a debunked practice that has been refuted by all reputable psychology associations. Those that purport to practice conversion therapy claim they can change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, often through psychological or religious interventions.

It’s still legal in the state of Alabama and in Birmingham, where a group of activists is urging newly elected Mayor Randall Woodfin and the City Council to ban the practice.

The Affirming Birmingham Coalition, which includes more than 20 local faith and community leaders, wrote Woodfin on Oct. 1 asking for a meeting to discuss finding a way to end the practice in the city.

Among the signatories on the letter are more than a dozen Birmingham churches including the Highlands United Methodist Church, the Pilgrim United Church of Christ, Woodlawn United Methodist Church, Edgewood Presbyterian Church and First Presbyterian Church Birmingham.

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Jordan Kramer, a student at Auburn University, organized the coalition. When he was a teen, even though he never lived in Birmingham, he spent 14 months of his life traveling to and from the city for conversion therapy.

“My junior and senior year of high school, I would drive up or be driven up to Birmingham for conversion therapy,” Kramer said. “It had lasting effects on my life, and I’ve been grateful for all of the support I’ve received since then. That’s why I picked Birmingham.”

Kramer said he is starting in Birmingham because of his own lived experience, and because stomping out the practice in the state’s biggest city could save other children from having to endure the experience he did even if they don’t live in the city. Kramer, for example, lived in Prattville, Alabama, when he was subjected to the practice.

“It would really protect youth across the state because many do travel to Birmingham for those services,” Kramer said. “I would love to see it start in Birmingham. It would send a strong signal to LGBTQ youth here in the South that governments, and the coalition, are there in their corner.”

If it were to ban conversion therapy, Birmingham would be the first city in the Deep South stop the practice.

The Municipal Equality Index, which gave Birmingham a perfect score, is the only nationwide rating system for LGBTQ inclusion in municipal law and policy. Birmingham is the first city in the Deep South to achieve a perfect score, buoyed by its recent decision to pass an LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination housing ordinance.

And even though Birmingham scored high, other cities fell far below the national average. Tuscaloosa, which had the second highest score after the Magic City, was rated only a 30 out of 100. Huntsville and Mobile scored 19 out of 100, and Auburn came in last at four out of 100, up from zero two years ago when the city was first scored.



“Forward-looking leaders across the U.S. are stepping up, protecting their youth from so-called ‘conversion therapy,’ increasing anti-bullying protections, ensuring transgender city employees have access to inclusive health care benefits and protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in all areas of life,” HRC President Chad Griffin said.

The average score for cities in Alabama was a 27, but the median score was only 18 out of 100.

The members of the coalition say Birmingham should go further and take action against conversion therapy because studies, like one from San Francisco State University, have found that LGBTQ who are reared in unsupportive environments — like those who are forced to go to conversion therapy — are eight times more likely to attempt suicide than those who are raised in supportive environments.

The American Psychological Association, the World Health Organization, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Counseling Association and other major groups have derided the practice for its ineffectiveness and its negative side effects.

Fourteen states and 43 municipalities have passed legislation banning mental health professions from practicing conversion therapy on minors.

“Conversion therapy is a barbaric practice that tries to force people to be somebody they’re not, and we see higher levels of mental illness associated with it,” said Neil Rafferty, a former marine and candidate for Alabama House in District 54.

If elected, Rafferty, who is openly gay, would replace former State Rep. Patricia Todd, Alabama’s first openly gay state lawmaker. Todd announced earlier this year that she would not seek re-election after three terms in Montgomery.

“It’s not curative. It doesn’t do anything. It’s harmful,” Rafferty said. “It’s very simple, cut-and-dry for me. There’s not even a question.”

Rafferty said he was hopeful that Woodfin will agree to the meeting. And if the coalition can get the practice banned in Birmingham, Rafferty said it would be good for the state’s children if the Legislature would consider a law in Montgomery to ban the practice statewide.

“Anything that would be harming children as opposed to helping them and nurturing them and making them more productive is what we should be aiming for,” Rafferty said. “If it is a widespread practice, then I would absolutely look into that.”

 

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As lawmakers consider new gas tax, Alabama remains last in per capita state, local tax collection

Chip Brownlee

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As state lawmakers prepare to consider a gas tax increase during the next legislative session, a new report from the Public Affairs Research Council shows Alabama’s state and local governments collect less in taxes per capita than any other state in the country.

Alabama has been behind in tax collection since the early 1990s, according to the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, which has produced an analysis of Alabama’s tax revenues since 1988.

“This is not a new finding,” the PARCA report says. “This has been true since the early the 1990s. And it underlies the difficulties we face when trying to provide to our citizens the level of government services enjoyed by citizens in other states.”

Lawmakers have flirted with a gas tax increase in recent years, and proponents say it is imperative to raise revenues to invest in Alabama’s aging infrastructure.

In Alabama, the gas tax hasn’t been increased since 1992, when lawmakers added 5 cents to the gallon, and the state ranks 35th in per capita state and local collections on motor fuel.

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Several neighboring states have increased their motor fuels taxes in recent years, leading to Alabama’s rank declining relative to other Southeastern states. In 2016, only South Carolina collected less in motor fuels taxes, but South Carolina will likely surpass Alabama in the next few years because it adopted a plan recently to gradually increase its gas tax, and its rate now exceeds Alabama’s.

It isn’t just the gas tax that hasn’t really been adjusted in years.

Alabama’s low taxes — while they may be a positive for your pocketbook — are often the single largest contributor to near-perpetual budget crises in Montgomery, placing a significant barrier for lawmakers as they balance the two state budgets every year. It’s a constitutionally mandated requirement.

While budgeting over the last two years in Alabama has been a smoother process — largely because the state has had billions on hand from a settlement with BP Oil over the 2011 Deepwater Horizon oil spill —Alabama is expected to face another budget shortfall this year.

The last major budget shortfall in 2015 led to an increase of some taxes, including the cigarette tax and taxes on nursing home beds — but property and income taxes haven’t moved much in years. Alabama’s extremely low property taxes are the main reason tax collections fall below other states.

If Alabama’s per capita property tax collections matched the average of other Southeastern states, state and local governments would have an additional $2 billion — yes, billion with a “b” — to spend on services and education, and the overall tax revenue per capita would be in the middle of other Southern states.

Though Alabamians are some of the most averse to taxes, the meager tax collections result in a strained pool of money for popular public services like schools, roads, courts, health care and public safety.

While Alabama has avoided passing general tax increases, it has turned to selective sales taxes. Alabama ranks high in per capita collections on alcoholic drinks (No. 3 in the U.S.) and on public utilities (No. 5) in the U.S.

PARCA conducted the analysis of Alabama’s tax revenues by relying on the U.S. Census Bureau and its annual survey of state and local governments across the country. The Census Bureau data makes it possible to compare the finances of state and local governments across the 50 states.

This year’s data is from 2016, the latest available, and tax rates haven’t changed much at all since then.

State and local spending are considered together because states vary in how they decide to divide up the taxation and collection responsibilities for funding public services and government.

Alabama has the lowest property taxes, both state and local, in the country, ranking 50th of the states. Alabama’s property taxes fund education, state and county general funds and county road and bridge funds.

The base of wealth in Alabama is also smaller than most other states, which also contributes to lower taxes. In Alabama, taxes amount to 8.2 percent of the total personal income earned by state residents, when comparing total personal income to total state and local taxes collected. Tennessee and Florida have lower tax rates as a percentage of percental income, and Georgia and Florida have lower taxes as a percentage of GDP.

Alabama and its local governments have developed a reliance on the sales tax and already has some of the highest sales tax rates in the country, ranking 29th in the U.S. And unlike other states, our sales tax applies to groceries and medications.

Sales taxes are often considered regressive because they more heavily affect low-income individuals than high-income individuals. Alabama is one of three states that continue to apply sales tax fully to groceries without providing offsetting relief for low- and moderate-income families.

At the same time, Alabama’s sales tax is not as broad as other states and doesn’t apply to most services. Despite higher taxes, Alabama’s sales tax isn’t as productive as other states.

Alabama sales tax applies to almost all sales of goods, but it does not apply the tax to most kinds of business, professional, computer, personal or repair services. And in recent years, the economy has moved more toward the consumption of those services, lessening the effectiveness of Alabama’s sales tax.

In 2016, the last year the Census Bureau performed its analysis, state and local governments collected a total of $15.6 billion in taxes or $3,203 per resident. Across the U.S., the median per capita value for state and local taxes was more than $1,281 higher at $4,484.

If Alabama collected taxes at the per capita rate of the median state, local and state governments in Alabama would have an additional $6.2 billion to spend on building roads, providing public safety protection, operating courts, supporting schools and colleges and maintaining parks and libraries.

Even if national comparisons are ignored, Alabama stands out among other Southern states when it comes to revenue.

Arkansas, North Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee all collect significantly more taxes per capita.

If Alabama collected taxes at the same rate as Louisiana, for example, the state would have about $3.2 billion more in tax revenue. If it collected the same amount of revenue as Arkansas, it would have $3.7 billion more.

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The full report is available here.

 

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Opinion | Want to fight public corruption? Start with the Alabama Ethics Commission

Josh Moon

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What can I do?

That question has come to me more than a few times since I wrote Monday that the last line of defense between the public and political corruption are the people — an informed, active, engaged people.

To be fair, it’s awful easy to sit behind a keyboard and say everyone should get involved in government and be watchdogs, and it’s a whole other thing to actually go and do it.

So, I’m going to give you a suggestion here. I’m going to recommend a good starting place, a way to flex your watchdog muscles.

The Alabama Ethics Commission.

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That’s the five-member commission that is supposed to hold politicians and public servants accountable, that’s supposed to uphold the state’s ethics laws and investigate violations.

But more than a few times, the Alabama Ethics Commission has served as a safety net for crooks and given soft landings to public officeholders who should have fallen hard.

The reason the Commission is able to get away with things like not upholding campaign finance reporting fines is because you — the general public — usually isn’t paying attention. And I get why.

The meetings are boring and filled with complex and complicated arguments. And right in the middle of every meeting is a looooooong executive session, which sometimes stretches on most of the day. It’s hard to find agendas prior to meetings, and even if you do, the specifics of what’s taking place aren’t usually included.

That said, your attention to what happens at these meetings is vitally important. Remember, this is the same group that started the ax falling on Robert Bentley.

And as luck would have it, we know of something that’s supposed to be happening at a meeting in the near future, most likely at the Dec. 19 meeting.

The Commission will be asked to rule on Attorney General Steve Marshall’s accepting more than $730,000 in questionable campaign donations.

Now, I’m not telling you what to believe on this. Although, I’ll gladly tell you that I think the donations Marshall accepted clearly violate Alabama law and that the Commission should find him guilty of ethics violations and send the case to the Montgomery district attorney’s office for prosecution.

But you make up your own mind, and no matter what you end up believing, contact the Alabama Ethics Commission and let the commissioners and staff know that you’ll be paying attention.

Here are the facts of the case:

Alabama has a ban on multiple political action committees transferring funds between them and then donating that money to a candidate. The reason for this ban is simple: those transfers mask the original source of the funds, leaving it impossible for regular folks to determine who’s paying to influence their government.

As Steve Marshall argued in a brief before the U.S. Supreme Court, the ban on PAC-to-PAC transfers is the only thing standing between the citizens and a quid pro quo government.

There is no corresponding federal law, meaning federal PACs are free to participate in the transfers. The Republican Attorneys General Association PAC participates in such transfers, and it has long used those tactics to hide the source of funds going to GOP candidates.

RAGA made five donations to Marshall totaling $735,000, and it used funds that had been part of PAC-to-PAC transfers.

While Alabama law does not trump federal law, there are specific guidelines within the Alabama ban on PAC-to-PAC transfers that make it clear that the responsibility of following the law is the candidate’s. For example, the law says it applies to both state and federal PACs and it provides a remedy for the candidate if he or she accepts PAC-to-PAC money.

That remedy gives the candidate 10 days to return the funds. If he or she doesn’t, each instance is a crime and accepting multiple donations in violation of the law rises to a felony.

Those are the facts.

It’s unclear what the Ethics Commission plans to do about all of this, but given the fact that it let this matter — which was filed back in the summer — go unaddressed until after the election gives me a good idea.

But what should be made clear to the commissioners — chairman Jerry Fielding, Charles Price, Butch Ellis, John Plunk and Beverlye Brady — is that you’re watching them. You’re paying attention to what they do and that you expect the right thing to be done.  

Call 334-242-2997 and ask to speak with Fielding. He’s the chairman. Or you can email the Commission at [email protected].

That number is the main line for the Commission and the email is the general office email. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that there are no individual phone numbers or email contacts for them. Corruption grows best in a dark, quiet hole.

They’re counting on you not paying attention.

 

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Shelby, Jones vote for passage of the Farm Bill

Brandon Moseley

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The U.S. Senate voted in favor of passage of the conference committee version of H.R. 2, the 2018 Farm Bill. Both Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) and Doug Jones (D-Alabama) voted in favor of passage of the bipartisan legislation.

“This bipartisan legislation provides much-needed predictability that will significantly benefit our state’s farmers and the entire agriculture industry,” said Senator Shelby. “I look forward to the lasting positive impact this bill with have on rural areas throughout Alabama and the nation.”

“This is a Farm Bill for rural Alabama and rural America,” said Senator Jones. “I’m proud that the final legislation ensures that our farmers have the support and resources they need to continue to do their important work. It also addresses several urgent issues for our state, particularly the need for expanded rural health care and broadband access. Since I arrived in the Senate in January, I’ve worked closely with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, as well as farmers from across Alabama, to advocate for a strong Farm Bill for all of our rural communities. This bill reflects the priorities we share for a brighter and more secure future for Alabama.”

Shelby’s office said that the 2018 Farm Bill improves the crop insurance program, helps expand rural broadband initiatives, and includes many of the cotton industry’s priorities such as the continuation of the Seed Cotton program.

U.S. Senator Doug Jones today supported passage of a final Farm Bill that includes several key priorities for Alabama that he championed. The bill is the result of months of bipartisan negotiations in the Senate and House.

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The Congress passes a Farm Bill and is only once every five years.

Jones’ office says that it strengthens important commodity safety net programs and other protections for farmers who take on this risky and costly venture. It also provides increased funding for communities across the country and addresses issues from rural development to conservation to food assistance and more.

The Farm Bill includes several specific provisions that were championed by Senator Jones for Alabama’s rural communities.

These include: The Rural Health Liaison Act (S. 2894) which establishes a rural health liaison at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to better coordinate federal resources and expand health care access to Americans who have for too long struggled to receive quality, affordable care in their own communities.

The Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act (S.2772) expands the USDA’s Household Water Well System Grant Program to provide grants of up to $15,000 to low- and moderate-income households in rural areas for installing or maintaining individually-owned decentralized wastewater systems.

The Broadband Connections for Rural Opportunities Program Act (S. 1676) which increases the authorization from $25 million to $350 million annually for the USDA to provide loans and loan guarantees for broadband services in rural communities.

The Community Connect Grant Program Act (S. 2654) which authorizes $50 million annually for the USDA Community Connect Program, which provides broadband grants targeted to the most rural, unserved, and high-poverty communities in the country. The program expands high-speed internet by providing new grants that will connect unserved households and businesses with modern internet access and streamlines broadband application process.

The Fair Access for Farmers and Ranchers Act (S. 3117) requires the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) to provide farm numbers to farmers with certain documentation, including in concert with Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Laws in some states. The bill also authorizes FSA to make loans to qualified intermediaries to re-lend to families seeking to resolve heirs’ property issues.

The Assist Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Act (S.2839) and the Next Generation in Agriculture Act (S. 2762). These two bills were combined to create permanent, mandatory baseline funding to educate the next generation of farmers and reach more minority farmers.

Agriculture is Alabama’s top revenue-producing industry, generating an annual impact of over $70 billion. With over nine million acres of farmland and more than 48,500 farms, the state is a national leader in food production and a global competitor in the poultry, catfish, timber, cotton, and livestock industries.

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Shaw Industries expands Andalusia plant

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey was in Andalusia at the Shaw Industries carpet plant. The Shaw Industries Group, Inc. announced that is investing $250 million in its Andalusia manufacturing facility, which creates fiber used to manufacture residential carpet.

“Visiting Covington Co. this morning to celebrate @Shaw_Inc’s $250 million investment in their Andalusia Fiber Manufacturing Plant,” Gov. Ivey said on Twitter. “Glad to see this company is growing and succeeding by improving efficiency & production, as well as safety at Plant 65.”

Ivey was joined by Andalusia Mayor Earl Johnson, Covington County Commission Chairman Greg White, and Shaw associates in a celebration of recent achievements at Andalusia’s Plant 65.

The project includes construction of new and expanded building assets and installation of substantial amounts of new manufacturing equipment.

“At Shaw, our vision is to create a better future for our associates, our customers, our company, and our communities,” said Shaw Industries Executive Vice President David Morgan. “We can only achieve that vision through continued investment in our people, our products, our facilities, and our operations. We continually bring customers the forward-thinking products and services they expect from Shaw.”

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The changes will create even better efficiency, production, ergonomics, and safety for the more than 1,200 associates who work at the plant. Construction began a little over a year ago and modernization efforts will continue through 2020. The facility remains operational throughout the transition.

“Shaw’s operations are more complex than ever,” said the plant manager for Plant 65 Ron Fantroy. “As a result, almost every job at Shaw — from designers and data scientists to machinists and managers — requires a higher skill level than in the past. Shaw benefits from a talented, well-trained associate base in Covington County, where it is the county’s largest employer.”

Andalusia is in Alabama’s Second Congressional District, AL-02, and is represented by Congresswoman Martha Roby (R-Montgomery).

“Great economic news in AL-02: Last week, Shaw Industries, which employs more than 1,000 Alabamians, formally announced plans to invest $250 million into its Andalusia carpet manufacturing facility,” Congresswoman Roby said. “This investment includes technology upgrades with an anticipated completion date of 2020. I am thrilled to celebrate this significant contribution to our economy, and I am proud of Shaw’s growth and success in the State of Alabama.”

“Headquartered in Dalton, Georgia, Shaw Industries, Inc. is a global flooring provider with a presence throughout North America, South America, Europe, and Asia,” economic developer Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter.

“The company employs approximately 22,000 associates worldwide, including 1,000 Alabamians, and is Covington County’s largest employer. The newest investment of over $250 million will include a building expansion of Plant 65 in Andalusia as well as a substantial addition of new manufacturing equipment.”

“These investments will ensure the long-term viability of this critical operation within Shaw’s portfolio of manufacturing facilities,” Shaw Chairman and CEO Vance Bell said. “They are designed to improve the plant’s ability to compete successfully in the marketplace for the short and long term. This facility upgrade will utilize state-of-the-art technology and innovative processes that will be industry-leading in cost and quality.”

Shaw Industries Group is a subsidiary of legendary investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Shaw is the world’s largest carpet manufacturer with more than $4 billion in annual sales and approximately 22,300 employees worldwide.

“Shaw’s significant new investment in its Andalusia manufacturing facility is a welcome development that positions the plant for the future and demonstrates the company’s confidence in its large Alabama workforce,” Governor Kay Ivey said. “We look forward to working with Shaw to help its Covington County operation not only succeed but also thrive.”

“Shaw Industries, Inc. attributes its success to remaining focused on the core values recognized at its inception in 1967 – quality, service, and performance – values many Alabamians hold dear and live up to every day,” Nicole Jones added.

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Activists seek to expand LGBTQ protections in Birmingham as other Alabama cities lag behind

by Chip Brownlee Read Time: 4 min
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