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Historical artifacts leads state employees to use state office, time and equipment to fight legislation

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

In what should have been a routine change to clarify an existing statute a vicious battle has erupted where a state agency and some of its employees may have misused their office and broken standard employee protocol.

A war of words and ideologies has emerged between two groups that on the surface would seem to share the same goals.

In the upcoming legislative session, Sen. Cam Ward, (R-Alabaster), is scheduled to introduce SB 81 a bill that will amend the Alabama Underwater Cultural Resources Act, a law that among other things requires underwater explorers to get a permit from the Alabama Historical Commission before going after submerged wrecks and relics.

According to Ward and the bill’s advocates, the amendment is designed to simply clarify for law-enforcement some ambiguities within the statue.

“The problem is that the current law is confusing to local law enforcement officers who have been misled by some bureaucrats and told that divers or prospectors could not dive and find items that are not cultural resources,” said Steve Phillips. Alabama native Phillips has a long career as a professional diver, world-class collector and nationally recognized author on recovery of historical relics.

Phillips has been an open proponent of changes in the law having been the only person ever tried (but not convicted) under the act.

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Representative Dr. Jim McClendon (R-Springville) is carrying a mirroring bill the state house of representatives. McClendon, was the sponsor of HB 104, a similar bill in the last general session.

SB 81 seeks to define more clearly what is a “cultural resource” which under current law can be broadly interpreted.

The entire battle has ensued over a three-word change in defining a “cultural resource,” in the section of the bill below (the three words to be taken out are in bold and italic).

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“CULTURAL RESOURCES. All abandoned shipwrecks or remains of those ships and all underwater archaeological treasures, artifacts, treasure troves, or other cultural articles and materials, whether or not associated with any shipwreck, that are contained in or on submerged lands belonging to the State of Alabama…”

Under the existing statue, for example, if a family was fishing along the Coosa River and one of the children while attempting to land a fish in his net happened to scoop up a civil war mini-ball, that ball would belong to the state. The child could also be charged with a crime for disturbing the artifact. While this may seem absurd, the current law can be interpreted that narrowly.
Ward and McClendon, with the help and advice of Phillips and others, are seeking to clear up any misunderstanding that might arise from the language in the law as it now reads.

The real difficulty, it seems, has come from the fulminations by the conservationist community but more troubling still for lawmakers is the interjection of state employees lobbying against SB 81 on state time, using their state offices and state equipment.
The news of SB 81 caused state employee and State Archaeologist Stacye Hathorn to send out the email below on state time, using state equipment and signing with her state title.

“It’s like de-ja-vu all over again … Senator Ward is introducing another bill which would compromise the Underwater Cultural Resource Act. Please see attached.
 
“Please disperse the news and prepare for another educational effort in the legislature. The next legislative session begins in early February.
 
“Thank you for your time and support, Stacye”
 
 
Stacye Hathorn
State Archaeologist
Alabama Historical Commission
468 South Perry Street
Montgomery, AL 36130-0900

This email by Hathorn and other activities within the AHC prompted a swift response from Rep. McClendon who heads the powerful ethics committee.

“Senator Ward and others; (I hope someone will forward this to Mr. White [Executive Director] of the Historical Commission – I do not have his email.)
“It is the responsibility of the legislature to carry out the will of the citizens of Alabama, and it is the job (sole job, I might add) to execute the direction the legislature indicates. To have employees of a state agency intervening and interfering with the legislative process is a serious charge. It is obvious that in this case they are not concerned about the responsibility the legislature – the preservation they are concerned with is a job.

“If I receive any evidence that a state agency employee is using state time and state equipment to interfere with the legislative process, rest assured action will be taken. That time and equipment is provided to carry out the will of the body that created the agency.
 
“Agencies, such as the Historical Commission, were created by the legislature to carry out the responsibility and job the legislature mandates. Agency heads opinions are always welcomed, but participation of employees in the law making process, particularly to protect their own job, is a conflict and contrary to the process.
 
“In case there are any questions about the Legislature’s authority, I refer you to the budgeting process, and Sunset review. One can cut off the funding, the other can terminate the agency, and both operate at the sole discretion of the legislature.”
 
Jim McClendon, O.D.
State Representative
Alabama Legislature”

Serious questions surround these actions and it is to be seen how deep the commission and its employees are overtly and covertly involved in thwarting the people’s business. Under the new rules and added teeth now available to the state’s ethics committee it should come as no surprise that conservatives will not sit idly by and watch as employees abuse their responsibility and position.

Sen. Ward is also expressing his displeasure with the interference of the Historical Commission and it employees saying, “It seems to me that the Historical Commission has decided that it is the only one who should determine who can do what in Alabama waterways,” said Ward. “They are acting like it is their personal property and that they should be able to say who can touch it.”

Ward says he believes the commission had stepped way beyond the bounds of their charter into a very dangerous area of seeking absolute control even over the constitutional mandates of the legislature.

“I am sure there was never an intent to allow a government agency to have an absolute dictatorship over the historical artifacts of our state. I find it hard to believe that the people of our state would want that to be the roll of the government,” said Ward.

In fact, covert urging by the commission has led to other historical entities to spread false propaganda concerning the bill.

The Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation on its website has posted the following:

“Alabama Senate Bill 81 alters the current Alabama Underwater Cultural Resources Act by changing the definition of “cultural resources” to only items related to shipwrecks. The bill removes protection from all other sites in Alabama waters, including Native American sites, human burials, forts, historic sites, and others. If it isn’t a shipwreck, it isn’t protected under the proposed law.”

“They are saying that this is going to allow scavengers to dig up Native-American burial sites and loot shipwrecks and specifically the bill does not allow that,” said Ward. “If you read the bill you will see that some of the hysteria that they are pushing out there is absolutely not true.”

In fact, even a cursory reading of the bill reveals that such acts as described by The Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation are expressly forbidden in the plainest of language.

The mendacity has spread to the highest levels of state archeology and academia. Teresa Paglione, president of the Alabama Archaeological Society, has said, “[The changes to the law] would allow divers like Mr. Phillips to conduct little more than scavenger hunts for relics—like a game of finders-keepers, except individuals get to keep what belongs to the state of Alabama and its citizenry.” Paglione who teaches at Auburn University has set out on an email campaign to discredit and challenge Steve Phillips as well as Sen. Ward.

If SB 81 still offers the protection for cultural artifact while offering clarification for its enforcement, why so much consternation from the Historical Commission and archaeologist?

“On the merits of the bill the Historical Commission is taking a dictatorial view that they alone should determine what should be determined as historical and who should touch it and who should even look at it,” said Ward. “This is little more that a turf war.”

In an email that was acquired by APR, Teresa Paglione, president of the Alabama Archaeological Society, wrote to Sen. Ward and copied to others:

“The AHC staff has endured repeated budget cuts and been severely over-worked due to down-sizing over the last +5 years, but they are not the the lead force lobbying to fight SB 81.  Believe me, they don’t have to voice their opinion to us – we in the historic preservation community (archaeologists, historians and preservationists) and members of the general public can make up our own minds regarding the way this bill proposes to re-define ‘cultural resources’ and thus allow the looting of sites and artifacts for private ownership or profit.”

Rep. McClendon who authored the bill that passed in the house during the last session has written, “Burial grounds and shipwrecks are protected in the bill. The bill specifically allows discovery and collection of isolated finds that are unrelated to ship wrecks. Read the bill!”

He has concluded that those who are opposing SB 81 are, “Conjuring up hidden agendas without factual basis adds nothing to the legislative process.” McClendon also said, “It is not an artifact until it is dug out of the mud.”

Steve Phillips who represents the feelings of a great number of divers and amateur history buffs has a more biting assessment.

In an email in response to one circulated by Paglione, Phillips wrote:

 “Ms. Paglione. As usual, she is wrong about most things. SB-81 only takes out three words that are confusing to law enforcement officers. It does not remove any cultural resources from permitting by the state.”

Phillips goes further in the email to state that,

“Stacy Hathorn is the State Archaeologist for Alabama and she also is an assistant professor for Auburn University Archaeology Dept. She has loyalty to the cronies in archeology such as Ms. Paglione. She does not serve the public as she should.”

Phillips harsh assessment of Paglione and Hathron is met by Paglione calling Phillips little more a a grave robber, scavenger and profiteer.

Phillips is a plain-spoken man who has lived his life in the world of outdoorsmen and underwater explorers but he is also considered an authority on relics and diving with numerous books to his credit. He says that this is about academics protecting their small society without regard to what is best for the state of Alabama. Phillips said, “Alabama has 77,000 miles of waterways and over 100,000 divers. We don’t want to limit what the professional archaeologists can do if they are willing but they are not our bosses and should quit thinking that the public serves them.” He concludes by writing, “We are not special, we are just like most public-minded people who believe in INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS and access to our public lands.”

McClendon has written:

“Archeologists do not have a monopoly on academic knowledge or a monopoly on academic experience. To infer that only archeologists are qualified to evaluate and restore an artifact is ludicrous, and blatantly self-serving,” adding to the point he wrote, “If these folks were truly concerned about preservation of our history, they would welcome help. How many of these folks criticizing this bill are willing to dive in zero visibility?”

This war of words appears to pit the protected turf of academics and the bureaucracy against the legislative process and the rights of Alabamians. According to the bill’s authors, an honest reading of the bill will discredit the invective of the opposition.

Ward and McClendon remain committed to see the needed amendment made to The Alabama Underwater Cultural Resources Act.

There are remaining concerns on what action might need to be taken due to the interference of state employees and the Historical Commission into the legislative process.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Elections

Coalition of attorneys general file opposition to Alabama attempt to ban curbside voting

The AGs argue that Alabama’s suggestion to the courts that curbside voting invites fraud is “unfounded.” 

Eddie Burkhalter

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A coalition of 17 state attorneys general have filed an opposition to Alabama’s attempt to get the U.S. Supreme Court to ban curbside voting. 

In a friend-of-the-court brief, led by District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine, the attorneys general argue to that curbside voting is safer for those at greatest risk from COVID-19, and that a ban on the practice would disproportionately impact the elderly, the disabled and Black Alabamians.

They also argue that Alabama’s suggestion to the courts that curbside voting invites fraud is “unfounded.” 

“The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, established by President Trump following the 2016 election, ‘uncovered no evidence to support claims of widespread voter fraud,’” the brief states, adding that there is no evidence that curbside voting in the many states that allow it invites fraud. 

“The practice is longstanding and widespread—as noted, more than half of states have historically offered curbside voting in some form,” the brief continues. 

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Oct. 13 said the state will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court a federal appeals court ruling allowing curbside voting in the Nov. 3 election. 

A panel of federal appeals court judges on Oct. 13 reversed parts of U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon’s Sept. 30 ordered ruling regarding absentee voting in the upcoming Nov. 3 elections, but the judges let the previous ruling allowing curbside voting to stand. 

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The lawsuit, filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Alabama and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, was brought on behalf of several Alabamians with underlying medical conditions. 

“Curbside voting is a longstanding, secure voting option that local jurisdictions have made available to protect the health of vulnerable voters, including elderly, disabled, and voters with underlying health issues,” Racine said in a statement. “Curbside voting minimizes the risk to persons who are particularly susceptible to COVID-19, and local jurisdictions should be able to offer this common-sense accommodation to voters. State Attorneys General will keep fighting to ensure that voters can safely make their voices heard at the ballot box this November.”

The brief filed by the coalition of state attorneys general comes as the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations across Alabama has been ticking upward.

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Racine is joined in the brief by attorneys general from California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.

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News

Alabama revenues grew despite COVID pandemic, analysis shows

Tax revenue into the state’s General Fund was 7 percent higher this year the Education Trust Fund brought in an additional $209 million in 2020 compared to 2019. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama’s strong economy going into the COVID-19 pandemic, and billions in federal aid to address the health and economic crisis, has helped the state’s two largest budget funds to grow this year, according to a study released Thursday. 

According to an analysis by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, tax revenue into the state’s General Fund was 7 percent higher this year than it was in 2019, and Alabama’s Education Trust Fund brought in an additional $209 million in 2020 compared to 2019. 

“According to Finance Department officials, Alabama ended 2020 with $330 million balance in the ETF and a $315 million balance in the General Fund,” wrote PARCA’s Tom Spencer in the report. “That was result both of revenues that exceeded the budgeted amounts and expenditures that were lower than what was appropriated.”

The growth came despite the spike in unemployment that began in March and hasn’t yet abated, and despite mandatory business closures in March and April and the restrictions still in place to protect against the spread of the coronavirus. 

The author of the report said the growth is due in part to the state’s strong economy before the pandemic hit. Unemployment was at a historic low between October and March, and prior to the pandemic, income tax receipts were up approximately 7 percent over the same period in 2019. 

Additionally, $4.1 billion in federal COVID-19 aid has been committed to individuals and municipalities in Alabama, and consumer spending shifted but didn’t stop, the author notes. 

The federal Paycheck Protection Program preserved payrolls, and unemployed workers received $600 per week in a supplement to unemployment insurance, which both helped prevent the state’s tax revenue from taking a bigger hit. 

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“Sales taxes dropped, then recovered and have been up and down in the months since. At the same time though, tax on internet purchases surged, offsetting the erosion in sales tax. Unlike some other states, Alabama’s sales taxes apply to groceries and medicine and thus it tends to be more stable,” Spencer wrote in the report. 

Several sectors of Alabama’s economy have done well during the pandemic, including the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control Board, which contributed an additional $17 million to the General Fund, an increase of 14 percent. 

But still other sectors suffered, including lodging tax. The tax on hotels and vacation rentals was down 15 percent for the year, and collected almost $9 million less for the General Fund.

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“For the current fiscal year, FY 2021, Finance officials are relatively confident that revenues will more than cover the budgets. Lawmaker scaled back spending plans in light of the pandemic,” Spencer wrote in the report. “As long as there aren’t additional unforeseen shocks to the economic system, the Alabama economy should generate the revenue needed to make the budgets as adopted this spring.”

If the state’s economy were to take a larger hit, Spencer noted, the state still has rainy day funds for both funds. 

RESERVE FUND BALANCES

  • ETF Budget Stabilization Fund – $373,269,077
  • ETF Rainy Day Account – $465,421,670
  • GF Budget Stabilization Fund – $27,297,483
  • GF Budget Rainy Day Account – $232,939,781

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Opinion | Electing Tuberville could cost Alabama billions

If your conscience or decency isn’t enough, vote your wallets.

Josh Moon

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Sen. Doug Jones, left, and Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville, right.

Money matters in Alabama. Oh, I know that we’re not supposed to say that out loud. That we’re supposed to promote our image of southern grace and hospitality, of churchiness and care, of rich people never getting into heaven. 

But the truth is greed is our biggest character flaw in this state. 

Every problem we have can be traced back to our unending thirst for dollars. Our ancestors didn’t keep slaves because they hated black people. They did it because they loved money and the difference in skin color gave them an excuse — a really, really stupid excuse — to mistreat other humans to take advantage of the free labor. 

Our rivers and lakes and dirt aren’t filled with poisons from factories because we’re too dumb to understand how this works. They’re that way because our politicians are paid off to turn a blind eye to the dumping of toxic waste. 

Our schools aren’t terrible because we have dumb kids or bad teachers. It’s because we’re too cheap to pay for them. 

You see what I mean? It’s our lust for the almighty dollar. Every time. 

We love money. 

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Which makes me seriously wonder why so many people in this state are going to vote for a man who will cost us all — and especially our biggest businesses — so much of it. 

Tommy Tuberville will be like a money vacuum for Alabama. Billions of dollars will vanish for this welfare state that relies so much on federal contracts, federal programs and federal dollars. 

If you doubt this, don’t simply take my word for it. Just Google up the press releases from Sen. Richard Shelby’s office from the last, say, six years — the most recent span in which Republicans have controlled the Senate. 

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Almost every single release is about Shelby securing millions or billions of dollars in federal funding for this project or that project, getting the state’s share of dollars from a variety of different programs and initiatives implemented by Congress. 

Shelby and I obviously have different political viewpoints, but it’s hard to argue that the man has been successful in securing money for Alabama. Lots and lots of money. 

Money for airports and roads. Money for defense contractors in Huntsville. Money for the port in Mobile. Money for car manufacturers. Money for farmers. 

Money. Money. Money. 

Shelby can do that because of three things: He’s on the right committees, he’s a member of the party in power and he’s liked by the right people.

Tuberville will be none of those things. 

Most pundits are predicting that Democrats will take over the Senate, tipping the balance of power and giving the party control of both houses and the White House. 

That automatically means that a first-time senator in the opposition party will have little to no say in any decisions. 

But what’s worse for Tuberville, and for Alabama, is that other Republicans don’t like him either. 

Establishment Republicans essentially openly campaigned against Tuberville in the primary, tossing tens of millions of dollars behind his opponent, Jeff Sessions. They even favored third-place finisher Bradley Byrne over Tuberville. 

It’s not hard to understand why — he’s clueless. 

I know that’s a Doug Jones talking point, but this one happens to be true. Let me give you an example: On Thursday, Tuberville tweeted out what was meant to be a shot at Jones, claiming that Alabama’s current senator wouldn’t meet with Trump’s Supreme Court nominee because Jones knows “he won’t have much time in the Senate to work with her.”

If you’re unaware, the Senate doesn’t “work with” the Supreme Court. They’re separate entities. 

Combine that with his other nonsensical answers on COVID relief, school reopenings, the Voting Rights Act, senate committee assignments, education, foreign affairs — really, the list is almost endless — and it shows how little work he’s put in over the last two years to understand this job he’s applying for. 

Now, that might be just fine with Alabama voters who care more about the party affiliation and owning the libs, but it’s not OK with grownups who take the job of running the country seriously. 

And those people — both Rs and Ds — don’t like Tuberville or his here-for-an-easy-check-like-always approach to one of the most serious jobs in the world. 

He will be frozen out of the most sought after committee assignments. His voice will carry zero weight. His presence will be all but forgotten. 

And in the process, so will Alabama. Especially in two years, when Shelby retires and his senior status is lost. 

In the meantime, Jones is highly respected by senators on both sides of the aisle. He already has a presence on top committees, and is so well liked within the Democratic Party that he’s on the short list to be Joe Biden’s AG, should he not be re-elected. 

The choice seems pretty simple. On the one hand is a competent, prepared and serious statesman who knows how to maneuver his colleagues to get the most for the state. On the other hand is an unprepared, uncaring, lazy carpetbagger who doesn’t understand any process. 

If your conscience or decency isn’t enough, vote your wallets.

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Health

At least 248 COVID deaths reported in Alabama in October

The cumulative death toll in Alabama has risen by 248 to 2,788 in October and by 124 in the last week alone.

Brandon Moseley

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We’re a little more than halfway through the month of October and the Alabama Department of Public Health has already reported at least 248 deaths from COVID-19.

The cumulative death toll in Alabama has risen by 248 to 2,788 in October and by 124 in the last week alone.

At least 378 deaths were reported in the month of September, a rate of 12.6 deaths per day over the month. In the first 17 days of October, the rate has been 14.6 deaths per day, a 15.9 percent increase from September.

Deaths were higher in July and August. The cumulative death toll increased by 582 in August and 630 in July, the worst month of the pandemic for the state.

On Saturday, ADPH reported that 1,288 more people in the state were confirmed positive with the coronavirus, and on Sunday the count increased by 964. The number of confirmed cases in Alabama has risen to 172,626.

There have been 17,925 new cases Alabama in October alone. The state is averaging almost 996 cases per day in October, which is up from September.

The state had 28,643 new coronavirus cases in September, 38,335 cases new cases in August, and 49,678 cases in July. Public health officials credit Alabama Governor Kay Ivey’s statewide mask order on July 15 with slowing the spread of the virus in the state, but the virus has not gone away.

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ADPH reported 823 hospitalizations for COVID-19 on October 17, the most recent day for which we have data. While hospitalizations for COVID-19 are down from the peaks in early August in Alabama have risen from Oct. 1 when 748 Alabamians were hospitalized, a 10 percent increase from the first of the month.

The state of Alabama is continuing to struggle to protect its most vulnerable citizens. At least 6,497 residents of long term care facilities in Alabama have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, 247 of them in October.

There have also been 3,362 cases among long term care workers in Alabama, including 197 in the month of October. Some 9,819 Alabama health care workers have also contracted the coronavirus.

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Most people who test positive for the novel strain of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, are asymptomatic or have only minor symptoms, but in about one out of five cases it can become much more severe.

For older people or people with underlying medical conditions like obesity, heart disease, asthma, cancer, diabetes or HIV, COVID-19 can turn deadly. COVID-19 is the abbreviated name for the medical condition caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Some 1,115,600 people worldwide have died from COVID-19 worldwide, including 224,284 Americans. There are 8,972,704 known active cases in the world today.

Public health officials warn citizens that coronavirus remains a present danger in our community. Social distancing is the best way to avoid spreading the virus. Avoid venues with large groups. Don’t shake hands or hug persons not living in your household.

Avoid leaving your home as much as possible and wear a mask or cloth face covering when you do go out. Avoid touching your face and wash your hands with soap frequently. Hand sanitizer is recommended.

A coronavirus vaccine may be available in the coming months, but we don’t yet know when or how effective it will be.

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