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Governor Bentley Praises Senate For Approval of Pension Reform

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

The Alabama Senate approved pension reform measures (SB 388) that supporters say will make the state retirement system viable and save taxpayers over $5 billion over the next 30 years.

Gov. Bentley in a written statement said, “The measures approved by the Senate today protect the retirements of hard-working Alabamians while ensuring a strong retirement system for future employees.”  “These changes will only affect new hires who begin their employment next year.  The changes are fair, they uphold our commitments to current employees, and they provide a solid retirement for future employees as well.”

Sen. Arthur Orr, (R) from Decatur, said, “By enacting these common-sense reforms, we can ensure the long-term solvency of our retirement system and that taxpayer resources are spent responsibly.  This allows us to honor the commitments we made to our hard-working teachers and state employees through their participation in state retirement programs.  I especially want to thank Dr. Bronner (RSA Chief Executive Officer) for his commitment to the long-term solvency of the retirement programs and Governor Bentley for his leadership in making sure this issue is addressed in a sensible way.”  Sen. Orr sponsored the bill in the Alabama Senate.

Dr. Bronner said, “I believe the changes, as proposed, are fair and, most importantly, will result in a more secure and financially viable RSA for generations to come.”

The bill would not affect any current state employees but for new hires it would set a minimum retirement age of 62 for most state employees except for law enforcement officers….their minimum retirement age would be 56.  Under the current retirement law a teacher or other state employee can draw full pension benefits after only 25 years of service.  For example a 21 year old teacher today could retire at just age 46 and the state’s tax payers would be obligated to pay her pension benefits for decades to come.  The average life expectancy of a 46 female is over 36 years and life expectancy keeps increasing putting greater pressure on governments and other employers to raise minimum retirement ages.

The law would also calculate the pension benefit based on the average of the highest paid 5 years out of the last ten years instead of the average of the highest-paid 3 years out of the last 10 years of service currently used.  Currently, anybody may retire once vested with just 10 years of service at age 60. Pension reform would raise that to age 62.

New hires will see their contribution rates drop from 7.5% to 6.0%.  New Law enforcement, firefighters, and Department of Corrections employees will have an employee contribution rate of 7.0%.

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The bill’s supporters estimate that the state will save $5.03 Billion over the next 30 years. SB 388 will allow the state to save $162 million on average per year.

Critics of the bill say that it does not go far enough and that the state could have far greater savings with a 401K plan instead of a defined benefit plan where the state is responsible for investment losses.

The bill now goes on to the Alabama House of Representatives for further consideration.

To read Governor Bentley’s statement in its entirety:

http://www.governor.alabama.gov/news/news_detail.aspx?ID=6350

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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After long lines, in-person unemployment assistance will be appointment only

Eddie Burkhalter

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After news accounts of people driving across Alabama to camp out in a Montgomery parking lot overnight in hopes of getting help with their unemployment claims, the Alabama Department of Labor on Thursday announced new guidelines for seeing a worker in person. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting large numbers of unemployed seeking help left the state’s Department of Labor struggling to process the thousands of applications that pour in daily.

The department said in a Facebook post Thursday that instead of continuing seeing people on a first come, first serve basis, beginning Monday, July 6, people will now have to make an appointment to be seen. Only 300 appointments will be available daily. 

The department has also changed the location to receive assistance from the Dunn-Oliver Acadome on the campus of Alabama State University to the Crump Senior Community Center, located at 1751 Cong W L Dickinson Drive in Montgomery. 

To register for an appointment, visit the department’s website here. Slots for appointments will be at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Face masks are mandatory and temperatures will be taken on site, according to the department’s post.

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Economy

New unemployment claims held steady in June, state says

Micah Danney

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The number of Alabamians filing for unemployment insurance held more or less steady over the course of June, with 18,340 new claims added during the last week of the month, according to the Alabama Department of Labor.

There were 19,950 new claims in the first week of June and 18,367 in the second week, then a slight jump to 18,671 in the third week. 

The month’s total of 75,328 new claims comes after Gov. Kay Ivey relaxed some restrictions meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 and allowed more businesses to open. The numbers vary by industry and county, but generally represent some stabilization, according to department spokesperson Tara Hutchison.

“They remain significantly down from a high in excess of 100,000 in April, which is good news. I don’t know if we can really expect anything one way or another in this unprecedented situation, but the decline from early in the pandemic is of course welcome news,” Hutchison said.

About 60 percent of last week’s new claims were attributed to COVID-19. 

The state’s unemployment rate dropped from 13.8 percent in April to 9.9 percent in May. That compares to a rate of 3 percent in May 2019.

Jefferson County had the highest share of new claims last week at 2,626, followed by Mobile and Montgomery counties at 1,900 and 1,400, respectively.

The worst-hit industries that are categorized were administrative and support services, food service and bars, transportation equipment manufacturing, general merchandise stores, nursing and residential care facilities and educational services. 

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As of May, counties with the lowest unemployment rates are Clay County at 5.6 percent, Geneva County at 6.3 percent and Shelby County at 6.5 percent. 

Counties with the highest unemployment rates are Wilcox County at 19.3 percent, Lowndes County at 18.3 percent and Greene County at 16.4 percent.

Major cities with the lowest unemployment rates are Vestavia Hills at 5.2 percent, Homewood at 5.4 percent and Madison at 6.2 percent.  

Major cities with the highest unemployment rates are Prichard at 18.6 percent, Selma at 17.1 percent and Gadsden at 15.7 percent.

Wage and salary employment increased in May by 42,500, according to the department.

Average weekly earnings increased to a record high in May, rising to $905.25 per week, representing an increase of $66.43 over the year.

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Health

Jones urges public to heed surging COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, on Thursday pleaded with the public to take COVID-19 seriously, especially now, as reopening of schools and Fourth of July celebrations near. Meanwhile, the state continues to see record numbers of new cases and hospitalizations. 

Alabama on Thursday saw a fourth straight day for record-high COVID-19 hospitalizations — and a record number of newly reported COVID-19 cases, when taking into account data collection problems that inflated Monday’s total.

As of Thursday afternoon, 843 people were being treated in Alabama hospitals for COVID-19, according to the state health department. That number is an increase of nearly 22 percent over this time last week, and a near 40 percent increase compared to the beginning of June.

At least “961 of our neighbors and family members have lost their lives to COVID-19, and we need to be cognizant of that as well, as those numbers continue to grow,” Jones said during a press briefing Thursday, also noting that over the last 14 days Alabama has seen 11,091 new cases of the virus, which is 28 percent of all the state’s COVID-19 cases. 

Jones said that while we’re testing more people in recent weeks, The Alabama Department of Public Health’s statistics show that a greater percentage of the tests are coming back positive.

Based on a seven-day average, roughly 14 percent of the tests conducted in the state are now coming back positive. Public health experts believe that such a high percentage of positives is a sign that there continues to be community spread of the virus, and that there still isn’t enough testing being done. 

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Jones said he’s concerned, too, about the timing of the surge in new cases, coming in the weeks after Gov. Kay Ivey lifted her more rigorous restrictions and after Memorial Day celebrations.  

“People did not seem to get the message about social distancing and wearing masks, and we are seeing these numbers increase and increase and increase,” Jones said. 

Jones noted the state’s long lines for people seeking help with their unemployment applications, some even camping out overnight to get that help, and said he’s written a letter to Senate leadership asking for federal funding to state departments of labor to better service those in need. 

The senator also discussed Oklahoma’s recent expansion of Medicaid, and said that the action made clear state leaders there understand that during the pandemic they needed to get all the help they can to their fellow citizens. 

“It is my hope that Alabama will also do likewise. We continue to see a rise in the number of people that could benefit from expanded Medicaid,” Jones said, adding that he’s still working to get another round of incentives to states to encourage expansion of Medicaid. 

Asked if there would be another round of stimulus checks sent to individuals, Jones said “maybe.” 

Jones said the next round of COVID-19 legislation is being drafted behind closed doors by Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader from Kentucky, and that it’s uncertain whether more direct payments to individuals will be included in the final bills. 

“I’ve heard mixed messages coming out of the administration and Senator McConnell’s office,” Jones said, adding that he’s for the additional payments and thinks it will be needed going forward. 

Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed, speaking during the press conference, said the Montgomery City Council could take up at the next council meeting a measure that would place guidelines on businesses within the city to be held accountable for helping enforce the city’s mask ordinance for the public. 

In the absence of a statewide mask order, local governments have been instituting their own in recent weeks. Wearing masks, staying home when at all possible and maintaining social distancing when one can’t are the best ways to reduce spread of the virus, public health experts say.

Montgomery currently has a mask order in place, which carries the possibility of a $25 fine for individuals not following the order. 

Reed said at the next meeting, council members may deliberate on a measure to require businesses help ensure the public adheres to the mask order or face possible suspension of their business license “for a couple of weeks, so that is yet to be voted on, and we will look at that.” 

Reed said that the point of the city’s mask order isn’t to fine people, however, but to encourage them to wear masks and help save lives. He noted that Montgomery’s mask order has been followed by similar orders in Mobile and Selma, as local municipalities make independent decisions to protect their fellow citizens.

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Health

Alabama’s COVID-19 surge is not slowing

Eddie Burkhalter

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The number of patients in Alabama hospitals being treated for COVID-19 surged past 800 on Thursday, marking a fourth straight day of record-high hospitalizations as concerns grow over the possibility that hospitals could become stressed due to the influx of patients.*This story was updated throughout at 4 p.m. on July 2 to reflect updated hospitalization data for Thursday.

As of Thursday afternoon, 843 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health’s data. That’s more than any point prior and an increase of more than 20 percent compared to this time last week — and an increase of 40 percent compared to the beginning of June.

The number of newly reported COVID-19 cases also reached a new high Thursday, as the state added 1,162 cases. On Monday, there were 1,718 cases, but because of delays in data collection, Monday’s numbers included figures from Saturday and Sunday.

The previous daily high was June 25, when the state saw an additional 1,129 cases.

The seven-day and 14-day rolling averages of daily cases both reached record highs this week. The seven-day average reached 981 Tuesday, a record, and remains high at 979. The 14-day average reached 843 Thursday for the first time. Rolling averages are used to smooth out daily inconsistencies and variability in case reporting.

Additionally, the number of tests that are positive remains high. Taking into account incomplete data in April that inflated the numbers then, on Thursday the seven-day average of percent positivity was at 13.64, the third highest percentage since the start of the pandemic. The 14-day average of percent positivity on Thursday of 12.16 was the highest it’s been, taking into account the inflated April numbers. 

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Public health officials and experts believe the percentage of tests that are positive should be at, or preferably below, 5 percent. Any higher, and the data suggests that the state is not performing enough tests and many cases are still being missed.

At least 81 deaths have been reported in the last seven days, bringing the state’s death toll from COVID-19 to 961. In the last two weeks, 160 people have died from COVID-19.

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