By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
In the final part of our interview with Governor Bentley he talks about his commitment to rebuilding Alabama’s infrastructure and his vision for the future.
APR: For the upcoming session, any thoughts on your mind about what you are hoping to see come next?
BENTLEY: We have an agenda that that we are working on that we think is very important. There are four things that we want to do. Number one is we are going to create jobs in this state and what we got passed [Thursday] is just a part of it. So, we will have to work through those things. We are going to try to get our job creation bills out first.
Then there is an education component to our agenda. We would really like to see some targeted, limited charter schools to see how they work. But that is all, we are not trying to hurt public schools and we don’t believe this will hurt public schools. I am a strong public school supporter. My children we to public schools, I went to public schools. I want them to be better, I want all schools to be better. So we are pushing that.
We have some other agendas, we want a lot of flexibility for all of our education systems. Not just charters but if people are doing well give them a little more flexibility. Let them come up with ideas. So we are for that.
We are for supporting our teachers, we really are. I want to give a tax credit to our teachers. If they spend money in their classroom, then let them get dollar for dollar back up to $300. All teachers do that so they need to get that money back.
So that was number two. Number three is the roads and bridges in the state, especially in the rural areas.
APR: There are some bad roads and bridges out there.
BENTLEY: There are. There are. We need to preserve what we have. And that is the first thing we need to concentrate on.
I met just this morning with my Department of Transportation director. We are devising the way we are going to do that with GARVEE Bonds.
I do want some input from the counties, I want them to have a little skin in the game. I don’t think you ought to just give. Some can afford a little bit more than others.
These GARVEE bonds are really just future federal dollars that part of that will be used to pay off the bonds.
APR: Explaining that to the people is very important because it is a different type of bond.
BENTLEY: It is totally different. It is not going to cost any tax dollars except we are using the taxes that we already collect–we will be using some of the gasoline tax that we are already collecting to make some of the payment on the bonds. But if we go ahead and do it now and preserve those bridges and roads, we are actually saving because the inflation rate is going to be about six percent if we delay it and we can get the bonds at four percent.
Now, we are not talking about borrowing more money than we need. What we are going to do is work with the counties and we are going to get them to give us input on what they need in their county and the projects that they already have on the books that they would like to see done in their county. So, we are going to work closely with the counties and the county commissioners. Let them present those things to us and anything that they can do.
Now, we are going to make sure its right. That is why the Department of Transportation is involved, to make sure that the projects are done right. But anything that the county can do we are going to let them do it. If they can do it we want local people to do it.
APR: Well that does fit right in with making more jobs and economic development.
APR: Because if we don’t have the infrastructure, you can not continue to build businesses without having the proper roads and bridges.
BENTLEY: We have what is called “posted bridges” in this state. In other words you can’t drive heavy equipment or trucks or school buses across them. What we are doing with those, we are going to fix those first.
Now, we need to make sure that they are done correctly. That is why they need some oversight from our Department of Transportation. But, if they can do it themselves, obviously we are going to let them do it.
The fourth thing that we are really interested in, as far as our priorities, is we want to improve the healthcare of the people of this state, without invading into anybody’s privacy.
We are the most obese state in this country, or close to it. We need to everything that we can to help improve people’s lives.
It’s like infant mortality, a lot of it comes from babies having babies and how we can change culture.
I think that we need to work a lot through our churches and try to help with unwed mothers and things like this that really causes a lot of the infant mortality rates that we have.
Trying to keep mothers from smoking. Eleven point two percent of the babies that are born in this state, their mothers smoked. The infant mortality rate on those is 13.1 per 1,000 compared to 8.1 per 1,000, if you don’t smoke. So trying to get people to quit smoking, but just trying to make Alabama healthier.
What I am going to do is create a health alliance, not make government bigger, we are not trying to make a government entity. We are trying to streamline government and bring all of these entities together like the health department, medical schools, nursing schools.
We want to use tele-medicine to put specialty clinics out in the rural areas. I have these ideas on how to do that, that I think will really help do that in rural areas of the state–using nurse-practitioners.
Those are the four things that we are going to do.
Now, we have a problem right now with our budgets and we are working on that. I did present budget to the legislature. What was funny, I said, “I made the Republican Chairman mad, I mad the Democrats mad and I made AEA mad, so I must have done something right.”
We actually presented a good budget and we did it without hurting the classroom. We took a small amount of money from higher ed, but not very much, 4 percent, then 2 percent from the two-year colleges. But the foundation program, which is K–12, was not changed at all.
So it was a good budget but it also allowed us to put some money over into the General Fund. It keeps us from letting prisoners out. If we cut it as much as they say we are going to cut, without using both budgets, without trying to combine them a little bit, we would let out 12,000 prisoners.
APR: When I was on the show with Dana, he brought up the fact that they had made disparaging comments about your budget, and that is wasn’t going anywhere, and I said, “Don’t dare count the governor out yet.” I think you will get 90 percent of what you want.
BENTLEY: They are starting to soften a little bit. The legislators have not even looked at it. It is just the budget chairman. The education guys, they don’t want anything done with education money. The General Fund people, they would all be happy with my budget. One of them said some disparaging things also, but he ought to have been one that was happy about it.
APR: Well, Texas combined their budgets some years ago and it worked.
BENTLEY: There are 47 states that have one budget. I know that it probably won’t happen this year.
Without raising taxes, which I have vowed that we are not going to do, we are going to live within the money that the people send to Montgomery. I can tell you that people everyday out there in Alabama, they have to live within their means, and we are going to do the same thing in state government.
I am going to go this afternoon to meet with the editorial board at the ‘Press-Register,’ and I know one of the questions that they are going to ask me, “Well, Governor, why don’t you raise the cigarette tax or why don’t you raise the tax?” Well, I am not doing that. First of all, I promised the people that I wasn’t going to do that and I am going to live up to my promise.
APR: Most conservative don’t realize that is still raising taxes, do they?
BENTLEY: That’s right. That’s right. The other thing is, if you prop up that General Fund, you will never get anything done.
We wish the Governor every success and pray Godspeed, in all his efforts.
COVID-19 hospitalizations, new cases continue to rise
The number of rising hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Alabama is a concerning sign of a possible coming surge of the disease, state health experts said Friday. Alabama hospitals were caring for 888 coronavirus patients Friday, the highest number since Sept 9.
UAB Hospital was caring for around 80 COVID-19 inpatients Friday afternoon, said Dr. Rachael Lee, an infectious disease specialist at UAB, speaking to reporters Friday. UAB Hospital hasn’t had that many coronavirus inpatients since Aug. 18, when the disease was surging statewide.
“We have been dealing with this since March, and I think it’s easy for us to drop our guard,” Lee said.
Alabama added 3,852 new coronavirus cases on Friday, but 1,287 of them were older positive antigen tests, conducted in June through October and submitted to ADPH by a facility in Mobile, according to the department. Still, Alabama’s daily case count has been increasing, concerning health officials already worried that as the weather turns colder and the flu season ramps up, Alabama could see a surge like the state had in July.
Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily cases was 1,247 on Friday, the highest it’s been since Sept 4. Over the last 14 days, Alabama has added 17,451 new COVID-19 cases.
Friday’s inclusion of those older positive test results throws off the day’s percent positivity, by Thursday the state’s percent of tests that were positive was nearly 16 percent. Public health officials say it should be at or below five percent or cases are going undetected.
The state added 16 COVID-19 deaths on Friday, bringing to total confirmed deaths statewide to 2,859. Over the last two weeks, 206 deaths were reported in the state. Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily deaths on Friday was 15.
Alabama state health officer Dr. Scott Harris told APR by phone Friday called the rising new cases and hospitalizations “worrisome.”
Harris noted the data dump of older confirmed cases in Friday’s data, but said “but nevertheless, I think it’s clear our numbers are going up.”
Harris said it’s not yet clear what’s causing the continued spread, but said it may be due at least in part to larger private gatherings. ADPH staff has mentioned a few outbreaks association with such gatherings, but Harris said it’s hard to know for certain if that’s the major driver in the state’s rising numbers.
“It’s football season and the holidays are coming up and school is back in session,” Harris said. “I think people are just not being as safe as they were.”
Harris noted that on ADPH’s color-coded, risk indicator dashboard, red counties, which denotes counties with rising cases and percent positivity, the 17 red counties on Friday were distributed across the state.
“So there’s not one event, or even a handful of events. It seems like there’s just a lot of things happening in a lot of places,” Harris said.
Alabama’s rising numbers are mirrored in many states. The U.S. reported more than 71,600 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, nearing the country’s record highs, set in July.
Birmingham approves $1.3 million contract for real-time crime center technology
Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.
The Birmingham City Council approved a five-year, $1.3 million contract with Motorola this week to provide new technology for the police department’s real-time crime center amid unease and public concern over the potential use of facial recognition software within the new systems.
Mayor Randall Woodfin insisted in his remarks made before the council that the new technology is meant to integrate existing hardware and technology inside the real-time crime center. “You’re not buying any additional new equipment,” he said, “You’re buying something to integrate all those systems.”
The software suite includes Motorola Solutions’s CommandCentral Aware, a system that aggregates video, image and other data information into one interface, and BriefCam, a “video synopsis” system that will further integrate and analyze information from Birmingham’s ShotSpotter systems, public cameras and police body cameras.
Briefcam offers facial recognition capabilities, which was the main concern of community members speaking before the council, and the risk that use of the technology could disproportionately affect Black people. Facial recognition technology has a record of racial bias and misidentifies Black people at rates five to 10 times higher than white people.
“Despite assurances that there will not be facial recognition implemented at this phase that does not prevent it from being implemented in the future,” said Joseph Baker, Founder of I Believe in Birmingham and one of the Birmingham residents voicing concern on the proposal. “I believe that this software, if fully implemented, can easily lead to violations of unreasonable searches.”
Another resident who spoke against the resolution was Byron Lagrone, director of engineering at medical software solutions company Abel Healthcare Enterprises. Lagrone pointed to IBM and Amazon as examples of companies that have halted or abandoned facial recognition and object tracking software altogether over racial bias concerns.
“The prevailing attitude, among technical people is this technology is not effective, and it causes high amounts of harm for next to no gain,” Lagrone said.
Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.
“It’s explicit in this contract that facial recognition will not be used,” Woodfin said, “[If] facial recognition wants to be used in the future of this city. It would have to be approved by this body. … The mayor’s office or the police department doesn’t have unilateral power to use facial recognition. That is not part of what our contractual relationship is with Motorola.”
Woodfin also clarified that the total $1.3 million price of the contract will not be paid as a lump sum but spread out over the five-year commitment.
The city council voted 8 to 1 to approve the contract, with District 8 Councilman Steven Hoyt speaking in favor of the use of facial recognition capabilities.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to build a house but I’m not going to use the restroom,’” Hoyt said. “If it’s in the house, you’re going to use the restroom. … If it has the capability of facial recognition, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to use it. I’m going to vote for it because I know we’ve got to have every tool we can garner to fight crime, because it’s out of hand.”
Hoyt also suggested a review of the information collected by the new system apparatus.
“I do think, for the public’s sake, we need to have some way we review that and see how it’s being used,” Hoyt said. “We need that to go along with this.”
District 3 Councilwoman Valerie A. Abbott — who said she was the victim of a burglary the day before the vote — echoed the mayor’s insistence that the facial recognition capabilities would not be deployed unless authorized by the city council, reading a letter from Motorola stating “in order to enable facial recognition, Motorola will require an addendum or change order to the contract,” which would have to come before a public meeting of the city council.
“I too would not want facial recognition,” Abbot said, “I’m voting in favor of this because the majority of my constituents are telling me they want more and better policing, capture of criminals, prevention of crime.”
District 5 Councilman Darrell O’Quinn was the lone no vote among the near-unanimous city council, stating that he had “some reservations about how we’re doing this and will vote my conscience.” Later, O’Quinn was quoted in BirminghamWatch, saying his vote reflected his concerns about “taking on a new debt obligation in the midst of a projected $63 million shortfall in revenue.”
Opinion | Doug Jones’s pathway to victory: Substance over lies
Jones said his work in the Senate should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity.
Alabama Sen. Doug Jones believes voters will ultimately see through Tommy Tuberville’s lazy campaign and lies, and that enough of them will be moved by his work over the last two years to send him back to D.C.
Jones’ comments came during a lengthy interview on the Alabama Politics This Week podcast. He also discussed his plans to address some of Alabama’s most pressing issues and also praised Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican.
But it was Jones’ comments about Alabama voters — and whether too many of them are incapable of moving away from the Republican Party — that were most interesting. Jones still believes there are open-minded voters in the state, and that there isn’t enough attention being paid to polls showing a growing dissatisfaction in Alabama with President Donald Trump.
“There are a number of things that Donald Trump has done that people (in Alabama) don’t agree with,” Jones said. “There are a number of things that he’s done that’s hurt Alabama and that they’re not OK with. That’s where I come in.”
Jones said his work in the Senate, where he’s sponsored the most bipartisan legislation over the last two years, should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity.
“I tell everyone, you owe it to yourself to look at every candidate and every issue,” Jones said. “I do that. I’ve been a Democrat all my life but I don’t think that I have ever pulled a straight lever. Because I look at every issue. I will tell you that there have been times that I didn’t vote for people who are Democrats for whatever reason — I just couldn’t do it. I think we owe it to ourselves to do that.”
Jones had the perfect example to drive the point home.
“Y’all all know our state auditor, Jim Zeigler? Jim wasn’t always a Republican. Jim’s first runs for office were as a Democrat.
“I rest my case.”
You can listen to the full interview at the Alabama Politics This Week website, or you can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
New unemployment claims decreased last week
Fewer people joined the unemployment rolls last week compared to the week before.
There were 7,964 new unemployment claims filed in Alabama last week, down from 8,581 filed the previous week, according to the Alabama Department of Labor.
Of the claims filed between Oct. 11 and Oct. 17, there were 4,032 related to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s 51 percent, compared to 36 percent the previous week.