By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
Lt. Governor Kay Ivey shared with us her thoughts on the session that started Tuesday. Ivey’s years of service and exceptional public policy knowledge gives insight into the priorities facing the legislators and the state.
APR: One of the things that I was hoping to do today is get your thoughts on how this budget, what can be done and what must be done to get our fiscal house in order?
IVEY: Alright, Bill, let me start with just laying out the facts very briefly about the challenges and fiscal realities that face our Great State.
Challenges are basically three in nature. The challenges are number one we still have a lot of Alabamians unemployed or underemployed. Yes the unemployment numbers are coming down, yes they are going in the right direction, yes things are looking better, but we still continue to have a lot of folks unemployed.
And thirdly, it’s not that there is not enough money in Washington or enough money in Montgomery. The challenge is to establish spending priorities. The resources need to be focused on essential services of the state. The top important issues.
So those are the three significant and major challenges that continue to face this state.
The fiscal realities:
The General Fund is in a critical situation. That information is very readily available, $360 million plus dollars down. Half of the General Fund’s expenditures are consumed by prisons and Medicaid–half of it. Yet, the General Fund is called on by many state agencies that it provide essential services.
Secondly, let’s look at the education fund. It is in a little better shape but nevertheless there is not enough money to satisfy the aspirations of all educational enterprises.
The reality is for the last 10 years, 2002 to 2012, if you look at the K-12 population it has remained pretty constant at 730,000 young people in K-12 over that 10-year span. At that same time, the appropriation of the Education Trust Fund to education has increased $1.5 billion (that’s with a ‘b’). So to those people who say, “Oh, yes, we need more money for education.” I have to say, “I believe we need more education results for our money.”
Secondly, the reality is that Legislature last year increased the size of the Education and the General Funds over the previous year. So, that is a fiscal reality. Again, there is still not enough money to satisfy all the aspirations of those served by the Education Trust Fund.
Again, spending priorities are a huge challenge.
Then you look at retirement, again under fiscal priorities, the budgets last year appropriated $1 billion dollars to RSA–$1 billion of taxpayer’s dollars.
That brings us to the fact that the state operates with two budgets: General Fund and ETF. We are one of three states in the nation that have two budgets. And there is some good rational for having two budgets especially when times are flush, but now is not that time. And has not been that time for some time.
So you have to ask the question: Is doing the same things with the same models and expecting different results the way to go?
Other states have found that one budget serves them better. So, it begs the question, we need to be open to new models, new paradigms that receive and distribute our resources.
Another final and fiscal reality is the amount of earmarking, predetermined dollars, that have been mandated by previous constitutional amendments, for the people over the years. Earmarking in Alabama is now at 84 cents on every dollar that taxpayers pay–84 cents of every dollar has already been predetermined about where it is going The predetermination has been based on votes of yesteryear. So if 84 percent is the way we ought to be earmarked, when you look at other states, the closest one to us is 67 percent. All other states average their earmarking between 23 and 27 percent.
So again, is the model for earmarking that we have and utilize in Alabama the preferred model? You have to just opine that if an earmark tax was passed in yesteryear for a specific purpose, is it possible that that purpose, over time, over the last 30 years been somewhat satisfied and the original amount of earmarking for that purpose maybe could be modified in this 21st Century? And maybe say instead of 10 mils going to that purpose, maybe they could get by with 2 mils? A look at that needs to occur.
So these are fiscal realities along with the challenges that the state faces that sets the environment in which conscientious House and Senate members and the leaders thereof have to focus their decisions.
For example, in the prisons we simply do not have enough money to build bricks-and-mortar new prisons so we have to find ways for reductions, otherwise, the federal court and say, “Y’all are overcrowded at over 192 percent occupancy, y’all have got to do something or we are going to do it to you.”
APR: If the Federal Government takes over our prison system I am afraid we are in deep trouble.
IVEY: Absolutely, the courts are the last resort. So one of the proposals that will be addressed in this session is proven sentence reform. So, we have got to find ways to reduce the prison population without building more bricks and mortar. [Tuesday], as you know, starting at 9:30 over at the Capital Auditorium the finance director and acting director of NFO, Norris Green, will give their budget presentations and their budget predictions and their rationals.
Then every Wednesday afternoon, starting February 8, there will be budget hearings in the House Chamber on the General Fund. The in-depth study and recognition of aspirations plus management of aspirations with fiscal realities will be a deep challenge. And you just have to ask people if they were in the decision-making role to consider new models, new paradigms to deliver the essential services of state.
No matter how much you cut, there will never be enough money available until you establish spending priorities. And again, in these dire fiscal times there is opportunity. This is important for everybody to understand, a basic principle of public policy, when you study public policy, their basic principle is this: In any public entity, whether it is the mayor’s office of the local school board or the state of Alabama, the only times systemic change can be made is in times of dire financial stress.
So with that in mind, we have lots of opportunities now to address this situation and come up with spending priorities that will provide on an ongoing basis services, in a quality manner that the citizens of Alabama deserve to have and that the departments are mandated to deliver. But there will have to be some choices and changes made to match limited resources with the priorities to every department.
APR: Given the fact that the RSA is investments are underfunding the states pension fund is this not one of several dire situations that are facing our education fund because that is where the RSA shortfalls come out of?
IVEY: Recognize while you have to address the situation you have to find ways to protect the people, the retirees, be that state employee retiree or education retiree. If they are already in the system, you have to find a way to protect those individuals. New policies can be directed for new hires and new retires.
APR: Right, and I agree with you 100 percent.That was just an aside that came to mind. I think we have been given a mandate, the government, to have conservative policies and that sounds like what you are talking about. I think that is what the people of Alabama are looking for.
IVEY: The Constitution of Alabama mandates that the state of Alabama share operate within its budgets. It shall not live outside the money it takes in. Whatever we take in is what we have got to live with. And that is true-to-form to every family and every business. I am grateful that Alabama has that in its constitution.
APR: I am too. If you have a few more minutes, do you have any thoughts on the charter schools that the Governor and Legislature is talking about?
IVEY: Well, again, doing what you have always done, in the same manner, and expect different results…that leads to insanity. Reality is that while indeed, Alabama has some of the finest, most dedicated teachers in the country. And while Alabama is excelling in the reading initiative and the math and science initiative and the technology access initiative, those are all well and good and need to be continued. But, when it is all said and done at this stage, when industry, whether in the United States or abroad, compare Alabama’s available resources and assets with other states that they might be considering relocating in. Alabama comes up with high marks in every category except one…that is having an adequately prepared workforce and the scores (ever how they measure) of one of our students that are in the fields that are relevant to job creation and job sustainability here in the 21st Century.
So you have to come up with additional ways to close that gap and to do things differently. I would submit to you that charter schools is but one option and it is all about providing parents a choice for where their students are going in the public school system because charter schools are public institutions and they operate under the charter that is designed by local folks with local standards, local expectations so that the charter school is no longer under the burden excessive federal, state or union regulations. So it is all about choice and it is all about having the ability to have a quality school in their area. Some areas don’t need a charter school. Their public school is performing superbly. No charter school can be established without local consent. So it is all about a matter of choice.
Right now the only choice that people have is if they have enough money they send them to private school or homeschool. There ought to be a mechanism in the public school system, in my judgement. And there has got to be a way that education enterprise can meet the needs for outstanding careers with jobs here in Alabama to keep our folks at home after they have gone through two-year or four-year.
APR: Anything you would like to add as that we have not covered here?
IVEY: Another thing that our citizens face, it’s an opportunity for them as well, be informed, get all the facts and help us make effective decisions not just emotional decisions. Help us make decisions that will be based on long-term effectiveness rather than making a snap judgement based on deep emotions because these are serious times and we have fewer dollars to match aspirations. So we just plead with everybody to be informed and get the facts rather than operate off of sound bytes.
APR: That is one of the big reasons that we here at APR are so dedicated.
I would like to thank the Lt. Governor for her time and perceptive comments. We all wish her Godspeed as she undertakes this legislative session.
CDC confirmed expanded “close contact” definition to Alabama officials in August
It is unclear why the CDC waited until late October to update or clarify its public-facing guidance on its website.
New federal guidance on how a person is determined to have been in close contact with someone infected by COVID-19 won’t impact how Alabama works to mitigate the disease, said the state’s top health official. That’s because the state was already aware of the expanded definition in August before the change was made public last week.
It is unclear why the CDC waited until late October to update or clarify its public-facing guidance on its website when it was giving more precise definitions to at least one state health department and receiving questions from public health officials about the definition.
The delay in announcing the change is raising questions about how state health officials nationwide have been determining the public’s possible exposure to the deadly disease and if contact tracing and mitigation efforts will be made more time- and resource-intensive with the more inclusive definition in place.
The CDC on Wednesday expanded the definition of “close contact” to mean a person can be at risk of contracting COVID-19 if that person is within six feet of an infected person for a period of at least 15 minutes over a 24-hour period.
The previous definition stated a person should quarantine if they were within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes. Alternately, in other areas of the CDC’s website, the language stated “a total of 15 minutes” in the definition of close contact.
“What they changed their definition to is something they had verbally confirmed to us months ago, and we have always been using that definition,” said Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, speaking to APR on Friday.
Harris said a support team from the CDC was in Alabama in July as the Alabama Department of Public Health was preparing plans to reopen schools. Harris said the question was asked of CDC staff because his department was getting questions on the definition of close contact from school officials.
APDH staff took the definition then of “a total of 15 minutes” to mean that there could be several exposures over a period of time equaling that 15 minute threshold, so they asked CDC to clarify that assertion.
“When those folks were here we asked the CDC people directly. Can you confirm for us what that means, and they said, it adds up to a total of 15 minutes in a 24-hour period,” Harris said. “And we even got somebody to commit to that in an email somewhere.”
Melissa Morrison, CDC’s career epidemiology field officer working at the ADPH in Montgomery, in an Aug. 13 email to ADPH’s director of the office of governmental affairs, quotes a statement Morrison attributes to her CDC colleague, CDC public health advisor Kelly Bishop. Harris shared the email with APR.
“Yes, I did get a response from the contact tracing team. The 15 minutes for a close contact is cumulative, and they said ‘The time period for the cumulative exposure should start from 2 days before the cases’ illness onset (or, for asymptomatic patients, 2 days prior to positive specimen collection date) until the time the patient is isolated,” Morrison quotes Bishop in the email.
In the August email, Bishop goes on to say, as attributed by Morrison, that “as of now there is no established upper limit on the time period (i.e. 48, 72 hours etc).”
The CDC’s expanded definition was reflected in an Aug. 20 statement from the Alabama Department of Public Health.
“The 15-minute time is a cumulative period of time. For example, a close contact might be within 6 feet of a COVID-19 positive person for 5 minutes each at 8 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. This is a standard based on guidance from the CDC,” the statement reads.
In an email to APR on Friday, Harris said he’d discussed the matter with Morrison on Friday who “emphasized that the guidance this week from CDC was NOT a change but rather a clarification. They simply used the MMWR corrections story as a convenient time to make the point.”
Harris was referring to a CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report released Wednesday that detailed findings by Vermont health officials showing that a prison worker contracted COVID-19 during an eight-hour shift in which the worker had 22 close contacts with an infected inmate totaling 17 minutes.
The CDC in statements to numerous news outlets, and to APR, cite that Vermont study in connection to Wednesday’s definition change.
“That’s kind of why they said it out loud,” Harris said of the study and the Wednesday announcement. “But I have to say, when I saw that updated guidance I thought, ‘I can’t believe anybody ever thought otherwise.’”
Different pages on the CDC’s website on Saturday defined close contact as both being “a total of 15 minutes or more” and “a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period,” confusing the matter further, and numerous other state health departments had not yet updated their websites Saturday to reflect the CDC’s expanded definition.
A CDC spokesman in an email to APR on Wednesday noted the Vermont study on the prison worker and said “CDC clarified the amount of time it would take for someone to be considered a close contact exposed to a person with COVID-19.”
“The CDC website now defines a close contact as someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. Previous language defined a close contact as someone who spent at least 15 minutes within 6 feet of a confirmed case,” CDC spokesman Scott Pauley told APR by email Wednesday.
Pauley didn’t respond to APR’s question on Friday asking why the CDC waited until Wednesday to update its guidance online, given that ADPH had confirmed the definition of close contact in August. He also didn’t respond to a request to verify the statement Morrison attributed to her CDC colleague in the August email.
“To us, we thought if it says a total, that means you must be adding up smaller amounts to get to 15 minutes, or you wouldn’t use the word total,” Harris said. “When they changed it this week, I don’t know the details of why that happened, but I think, obviously, everybody didn’t have the same message everywhere.”
Dr. Bertha Hidalgo, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at UAB’s Department of Epidemiology, told APR on Friday that her understanding prior to Wednesday’s expanded definition was that a contact was defined as someone who was exposed to the COVID-19 positive individual for at least 15 min or more at a time and explained that the updated guidance complicates how public health officials will engage in contact tracing.
“This means significant efforts for contact tracing moving forward, in effect needing to identify every person that person came into contact with during the possible exposure timeframe,” she said.
It was unclear Monday how the definition change impacts Alabama’s Guidesafe COVID-19 exposure notification app, which notifies a user if they come into close contact with an infected person. The app was developed by ADPH and University of Alabama at Birmingham, thanks to a partnership between Apple and Google’s combined development of the technology, and alerts users to possible exposure while keeping all users’ identities anonymous.
Sue Feldman, professor of health informatics, UAB School of Health Professions, in a message to APR on Friday said that due to the anonymity of the app, it would be difficult, but not impossible, to update the app to take into consideration the CDC’s expanded guidance.
“We are taking this into consideration for our next update,” Feldman said in the message.
Also unclear is how many other states that have similar exposure notification apps, also using Google and Apple’s technology, aren’t yet using the expanded definition of a “close contact.” Colorado is to roll out that state’s app on Sunday, and according to Colorado Public Radio News the app will notify a user that they’ve been exposed if they come “within six feet of the phone of someone who tested positive for at least ten minutes.”
New York’s exposure notification app also appears to use the old CDC guidance, and will alert users if they come “within 6 feet of your phone for longer than 10 minutes,” according to the state’s website.
The updated definition, which health departments refer to when conducting contact tracing, is likely to have a serious impact on schools, workplaces and other group settings where personal contact may stretch over longer periods of time including multiple interactions.
It greatly expands the pool of people considered at risk of transmission. “It’s easy to accumulate 15 minutes in small increments when you spend all day together — a few minutes at the water cooler, a few minutes in the elevator, and so on,” Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security epidemiologist Caitlin Rivers told The Washington Post. “I expect this will result in many more people being identified as close contacts.”
The clarification comes as cases and hospitalizations are rising both in Alabama and nationwide. Alabama’s 14-day average of cases has increased 41.2 percent over the past two weeks. The percentage of tests that are positive has increased from roughly 13 percent to more than 20 percent over the past 14 days. The U.S. average of new daily infections is now at its highest point of the pandemic, with 481,372 cases reported in a week, according to CNN and Johns Hopkins University.
Alabama women to Ivey: Support fair processes
Last week, Ivey co-authored a letter of support for Barrett and released it to media outlets.
A letter signed by a bipartisan group of about a thousand Alabama women takes issue with Gov. Kay Ivey’s recent support of Republican Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, and it encourages Ivey and other state officials to instead support fair processes.
Last week, Ivey co-authored a letter of support for Barrett and released it to media outlets. In response, the letter from Alabama women calls the process to nominate Barrett, which is occurring after more than 50 million votes have been cast and in a Senate that is predicted to change from Republican to Democratic control, unfair and “anti-democratic.”
The letter, which doesn’t criticize Ivey or request that she rescind her endorsement of Barrett, asks instead that Ivey and other state leaders honor women by implementing and following fair processes that provide women with equal opportunities.
The full letter is below:
Dear Governor Ivey,
We are a group of women. We are current and future mothers, grandmothers, caregivers, leaders and champions of all citizens of our great state. We are moderates, progressives and conservatives. When we agree with our leaders, we say so, as we have in your support for education, workforce development, and sensible mask policies.
We also speak up when we do not agree. Thus, we want to respond to your letter in support of Amy Coney Barrett because it does not represent our views.
Like you and Judge Barrett’s father, we want to tell all young girls that they can do anything their male counterparts can do and they can be anything and everything they want to be. We want it to be a truth, not just a signal “that the most qualified individual will get the job”. In addition to those things, we want them to know and believe that the process will be fair, because no matter the job, the process should be fair. And our children and young people (boys or girls) should be able to trust that democracy works and can be counted on. How can we assure them when this process has been so rushed and undemocratic?
We are women who oppose Judge Barrett’s confirmation, because confirming her at this time, when 50 million Americans have already cast their votes, is anti-democratic. Regardless of what ways she does or does not think or talk like us, what matters is that a confirmation should not take place after the election is underway.
We do not expect you to rescind your support of Judge Barrett. However, we urge you and the other women leaders who have advanced to top positions in our government to stand with us in asking for a fair process that takes place after the election. A process that helps us to believe that our voices and our votes matter because the American people should have the right to choose who nominates the next Supreme Court Justice.
|Emily Hess Levine|
|Ronne M. Hess|
|Cindi Cassis Branham|
|Anna Brantley Fry|
|Joellyn M. Beckham|
|Alexandra Ruthann Bullock McElroy|
The letter is signed by more than 800 women. The full list of signatures was sent to APR with the letter. We have chosen to list only the first 10 for the sake of brevity.
Study: COVID-19 infection rates more than double without lockdowns
Infection and fatality rates would have been higher without stay-at-home orders, a new UAB study found.
New research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham says that if there had been no stay-at-home orders issued in the U.S. in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the country would have experienced a 220 percent higher rate of infection and a 22 percent higher fatality rate than if such orders were implemented nationwide.
Seven states never imposed stay-at-home orders, or SAHOs. The study analyzed daily positive case rates by state against the presence or absence of statewide SAHOs between March 1 and May 4, the period when such orders began to be implemented. Twelve states lifted their SAHOs before May 4.
The researchers defined SAHOs as being in effect when a state’s governor issued an order for residents of the entire state to leave home only for essential activities and when schools and nonessential businesses were closed.
“During March and April, most states in the United States imposed shutdowns and enacted SAHOs in an effort to control the disease,” said Bisakha Sen, the study’s senior author. “However, mixed messages from political authorities on the usefulness of SAHOs, popular pressure and concerns about the economic fallout led some states to lift the restrictions before public health experts considered it advisable.”
The research also sought to determine if the proportion of a state’s Black residents was associated with its number of positive cases. It found that there was.
“This finding adds to evidence from existing studies using county-level data on racial disparities in COVID-19 infection rates and underlines the urgency of better understanding and addressing these disparities,” said study co-author Vidya Sagar Hanumanthu.
The research can help advance a greater understanding of racial disparities in the health care system as a whole, and help leaders make future decisions about shutdowns as the virus continues to spread, Sen said.
“While the high economic cost makes SAHOs unsustainable as a long-term policy, our findings could help inform federal, state and local policymakers in weighing the costs and benefits of different short-term options to combat the pandemic,” she said.
The study was published Friday in JAMA Network Open.
Jones to attend Auburn student forum, Tuberville hasn’t yet responded to invitation
Jones has agreed to attend the forum, but it was unclear whether Tuberville planned to attend.
The College Democrats at Auburn University and the College Republicans at Auburn University have asked U.S. Senator Doug Jones, D-Alabama, and his Republican opponent, Tommy Tuberville, to attend a student forum on Wednesday.
“We are excited to invite the candidates running for our U.S. Senate seat and provide this opportunity for any Auburn student to hear directly from them, and we hope it will inform our student bodies’ decisions with the November 3rd election only days away,” said Carsten Grove, president of the College Democrats at Auburn University, in a statement.
Jones has agreed to attend the forum, Auburn University College Democrats confirmed for APR on Sunday, but it was unclear whether Tuberville planned to attend. The student organization was still awaiting a response from Tuberville’s campaign.
Jones has for months requested Tuberville join him in a debate, but Tuberville has declined.
“AUCR takes great pleasure in coming together with AUCD to co-host the Alabama Senate candidates in this forum. We are looking forward to a very informative and constructive event,” said Lydia Maxwell, president of the College Republicans at Auburn University.
Dr. Ryan Williamson, assistant professor of political science, is to emcee the forum, which will be open to all Auburn University students in the Mell Classroom Building at 6 p.m., according to a press release from the College Democrats at Auburn University.
Students will be permitted 30 seconds to ask a question of either candidate, and each candidate will have two minutes to answer, according to the release.
Capacity at the forum will be limited and precautions taken due to COVID-19. Any student with an Auburn ID is welcome and attendance will be first come, first served.