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Campaign Finance, Election Reform Bill Filed in Senate

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By Armon Drysdale

MONTGOMERY – When Reform Alabama laid out its legislative agenda in January, the organization listed election law reform as a top priority for 2012. After several months of research and collaboration, the group’s first such bill was filed Tuesday in the Alabama Senate.

Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, is sponsoring SB551, which Reform Alabama wrote in consultation with the offices of the secretary of state and the attorney general, as well as the Alabama Ethics Commission. The bill addresses two omitted issues regarding campaign finance laws, one of which has only recently come to light in the wake of a December court ruling regarding PAC-to-PAC transfers. SB551 would require all PACs receiving funds from other PACs for the purposes of get-out-the-vote operations to establish accounts separate from those used to fund candidates.

The second part of the legislation addresses the monitoring and enforcement of violations of the Fair Campaign Practices Act, specifically:

•The act would require all PACs and candidates to file an annual registration fee to the secretary of state’s office, which will set the fee amount in consultation with the Alabama Ethics Commission. The secretary of state’s office would transfer all funds collected from those fees to the ethics commission, which would then use the money to completely fund a monitoring division. This division would monitor each registered candidate and PAC for compliance with FCPA laws.

•Any PAC or candidate which fails to file finance reports in a timely or compliant manner would then face a civil penalty ($500). A second offense would result in a higher penalty ($1,000), while a third and presumably intentional offense would be referred to the attorney general’s office for criminal action. The law provides for criminal action on first and second offenses if they are deemed intentional.

•The law would require every candidate and campaign committee to designate an individual or registered agent; all legal responsibility and liability would fall on that individual or agent.

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Reform Alabama began researching enforcement mechanisms shortly after the end of the 2011 legislative session that enacted several crucial campaign finance and election reform laws. The group began dialogue in November with all three government offices involved and recently reached an agreement for the Alabama Ethics Commission to accommodate a monitoring division. The law would also resolve several concerns in a finding handed down by a Montgomery grand jury this month.

SB551 on Thursday received a favorable report from the Senate Constitution, Campaign Finance, Ethics and Elections committee; a Senate vote could come as early as next week.

The Alabama Political Reporter is a daily political news site devoted to Alabama politics. We provide accurate, reliable coverage of policy, elections and government.

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Health

Decatur joins growing list of Alabama cities, counties requiring masks

In a 3-1 vote, the ordinance passed, but it wasn’t clear Wednesday when the order will go into effect.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Decatur is joining a growing list of Alabama cities and counties requiring masks in public. (STOCK PHOTO)

Decatur City Council members on Wednesday approved a face mask order that will require the wearing of masks in public and while on public transportation, joining a growing list of local municipalities and counties taking up such measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

In a 3-1 vote, the ordinance passed, but it wasn’t clear Wednesday when the order will go into effect.

The ordinance will require Decatur residents to wear masks while outside, in restaurants or businesses and on public transportation. Failure to do so could result in a fine of up to $500. 

Council members Paige Bibbee, Billy Jackson and Charles Kirby voted to approve the ordinance, and  Council member Kristi Hill voted against the measure, according to a video of the meeting

Decatur Police Chief Nate Allen told Council members before the vote that the area’s hospital intensive care beds are “approaching capacity” and elective surgeries have been cancelled to save room for COVID-19 patients. 

The city of Decatur is in Morgan and Limestone counties. In Morgan County, 30 percent of the county’s total COVID-19 cases have come in the last two weeks, while Limestone County added 44 percent of the county’s cases within the last two weeks.

Decatur Council members’ decision Wednesday came on a day when Alabama saw yet another record high number of COVID-19 patients being cared for in hospitals.

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On Wednesday, the state added 1,161 new COVID-19 cases and 25 deaths from the virus. It’s killed 1,032 people in Alabama, the UAB physician said. At least 1,110 people were being treated in hospitals in the state Wednesday, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health, the most since the pandemic began.

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Elections

State awards CARES Act funds to counties for safe elections

The Secretary of State’s office has made available online its records of how it allocated $2.2 million in federal emergency aid money to counties to prepare for the upcoming elections.

Micah Danney

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Alabama officials are preparing for the July 14 primary runoff and the general election on Nov. 3 amid a pandemic. (STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Secretary of State’s office has made available online its records of how it allocated $2.2 million in federal emergency aid money to its counties to prepare for the upcoming elections amid the pandemic.

The funding is part of $6.5 million Alabama received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that Congress passed in March, which contained $400 million dedicated to helping states hold safe elections.

Alabama officials are preparing for the July 14 primary runoff and the general election on Nov. 3.

Secretary of State John Merrill has encouraged officials to purchase masks, gloves, disinfectant spray, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes and professional cleaning services to keep polling places safe and sanitary.

Almost all the 67 counties received exactly what they asked for, save for three: Mobile, Sumter and Tuscaloosa. 

Tuscaloosa was awarded $42,766.46 but was denied $178.74 that was requested for bottled water.

“Which should tell you that we read these and went over them with a fine-toothed comb,” Merrill said.

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Mobile received the highest amount at nearly half a million dollars. It was denied about $3,000 for video projector equipment that Merrill said could be used for other things and therefore can be applied for through other programs. 

Nor did the county get almost $80,000 for mailers to notify voters whose smaller polling locations have been moved to larger spaces per federal social distancing guidelines. Merrill said that mailers have already been sent to every voter, rendering that cost unnecessary. His office also denied more than $15,000 for tents that would have sheltered voters waiting on lines because, he said, seniors can go to the front of any lines and others can wait in their cars if the weather compels them to.

Sumter County was denied $4,430.38 that it wanted to pay for people to take temperatures at polling sites. Merrill said that student volunteers can do that at no cost per state law.

Dallas County was the only county to request funds to supply every poll worker, election official, law enforcement officer and voter with personal protection equipment like masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, face shields and wipes. Officials asked for and received $22,950 for PPE.

“I thought that that was a great use of their resources because they probably would not have been able to purchase something like that,” Merrill said.

Counties will be eligible for another round of funding for the November elections.

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Health

Madison County seeing surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations, ambulance calls

Eddie Burkhalter

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Dr. Pam Hudson, the CEO of Crestwood Hospital, speaks at a city briefing Wednesday. (CITY OF HUNTSVILLE)

A surge of COVID-19 cases in Madison County troubles the CEO of Crestwood Hospital, who said the public needs to take the virus seriously and do what’s needed to slow the spread by wearing masks and practicing social distancing. 

Madison County added 66 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, when the county’s total case count hit 1,620. Though Madison County had largely been spared through the early months of the pandemic, with very low case counts and deaths, over the last week, the county has reported 563 new cases — a 53 percent increase.

“Our county cases continue to climb,” said Crestwood Hospital CEO Dr. Pam Hudson, speaking at a briefing Wednesday.

“We have to flatten the curve again,” Hudson said.

Hudson said the percentage of tests that are positive in the county used to be much lower, but are now in line with the state’s current percent positivity rate of 9.92 percent. The percent positivity was 13.52 percent on Wednesday, based on fourteen-day averages of case and test increases. She said the county’s hospitals are very busy. 

“We were already busy before we had this uptick,” Hudson said. 

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There were 1,110 COVID-19 patients being cared for statewide Wednesday, the highest number since the start of the pandemic. 

Paul Finley, the mayor of the city of Madison, said there were 163 COVID-19 patients Wednesday in the Crestwood and Huntsville Hospital systems, which is a 31 percent increase from last week.

“There’s no question that these numbers continue to rise,” Finley said.

Hudson said, on average, the hospital is running at between 80 and 90 percent capacity.

“Our ambulances yesterday had their greatest number of runs since this started,” Hudson said, adding that in about 20 percent of calls staff is having to wear full personal protective equipment. “That indicates that they are working with patients who have symptoms that could be compatible with COVID.” 

A face mask order for the public went into effect Tuesday in Madison County. Similar orders are in effect in Jefferson County, Montgomery, Mobile, Selma and Tuscaloosa.

Last week Madison County had 500 people who tested positive for COVID-19 and were under active quarantine and being tracked by the Alabama Department of Public Health, Hudson said. On Wednesday that number was 847.

“So things are not all well in our county,” Hudson said. “COVID-19 has gained, and is continuing to gain footholds in our community.” 

Hudson said she believes the spike in cases and hospitalizations in the county comes down to people not wearing masks in public, not practicing social distancing and bars and restaurants, which are hotspots for the virus’s transmission. 

Hudson reiterated a statement made by Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, that up to 40 percent of coronavirus cases are caused by someone who is infected and has no symptoms, and one in 10 COVID-19 patients need hospitalization, Hudson said. 

“So this is not a nothing disease. Thirty percent of those patients who are hospitalized will end up in an ICU,” Hudson said. “And of those, 30 to 40 percent will die.” 

Local hospitals are “bumping up into some challenges” with the availability of ICU beds, Hudson said, and the medical staff is under strain and the threat of becoming infected themselves every day.

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Health

UAB expert: We can’t wait until it’s too late to act on surging cases

“We still are at a time point when we have an ability to intervene, and do something to reduce that case count, to reduce the eventual mortality,” UAB specialist Dr. Jodie Dionne-Odom said.

Eddie Burkhalter

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UAB's Dr. Jodie Dionne-Odom, an infectious disease specialist, spoke to reporters Wednesday about surging cases and hospitalizations in Alabama. (UAB HOSPITAL)

Alabama continues to see record numbers of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and the best way to turn the trend around is to wear face masks and practice social distancing, a UAB doctor says. 

Dr. Jodie Dionne-Odom, an infectious disease specialist at UAB, told reporters in a press conference Wednesday that the seven-day average of new daily coronavirus cases in Alabama has increased fourfold over the past several weeks. 

“We still are at a time point when we have an ability to intervene, and do something to reduce that case count, to reduce the eventual mortality,” she said. “You don’t want to wait until things are so bad that it’s difficult for us to reverse the trend at all.”

Dionne-Odom said she’s concerned that the window of time to turn the trend of increasing cases, hospitalizations and the impending deaths that will surely come is limited. Wearing masks in public and practicing social distancing are some of the best tools we have to do so, she said.

On Wednesday, the state added 1,161 new COVID-19 cases and 25 deaths from the virus. It’s killed 1,032 people in Alabama, the UAB physician said. At least 1,110 people were being treated in hospitals in the state Wednesday, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health, the most since the pandemic began.

The 14-day average of new daily cases was 1,057 — the highest it’s been since the start of the pandemic. 

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“The fact that we’re seeing these sharp increases and hospitalization in cases over the past week or two is really concerning,” Dionne-Odom said. “And we expect, given the lag that we know there is between cases and hospitalization — about a two-week lag, and a three-week lag between cases and deaths — that we’re on a part of the curve that we just don’t want to be on in our state.”

UAB Hospital’s COVID-19 intensive care and acute care units were approaching their existing capacity Tuesday, when the hospital was caring for 92 coronavirus patients. The hospital had 91 inpatients who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 on Wednesday.

Of those being treated in UAB’s COVID-19 ICU unit Tuesday, less than half were on ventilators, a UAB spokesperson, Bob Shepard, said in a message to APR on Tuesday. Ventilator usage is actually dropping, he said, a positive sign. The hospital has both a COVID ICU and a COVID acute care unit designated to keep patients separated from those who don’t have the virus, but it has more space in other non-COVID units.

“If we reach a point where we have more patients needing space in either unit, we will create more space in other areas of the hospital and designate additional beds for COVID patients,” Shepard said.

“The issue is that designating more beds for COVID care reduces the number of beds we have for patients with non-COVID illnesses, which can have a profound effect on the overall health of our community,” he said.

That flexibility was echoed by Dionne-Odom, who said that it is the type of system where they can create capacity as it’s needed. 

“And we have units that we can open and close and take care of patients with COVID and staff who are familiar with the procedures of wearing PPE and gowning and keeping healthcare workers safe,” Dionne-Odom said. “So we’ve used everything that we’ve learned since March, working really hard to be able to take care of more patients. That said, you have to remember that every bed that we’re using today for someone with COVID can potentially be a bed that someone else would need, who’s having a stroke or having a heart attack.” 

“These problems are continuing to happen, and they need ICU-level care too,” she continued. “So we don’t want to continue to see an increase in the COVID cases because that has the indirect effect of affecting how we care for all the other patients with serious diseases.” 

Dionne-Odom said that they know from experience that some of those being hospitalized for the virus will die in the coming weeks, “so we’re all watching the next several weeks very cautiously.” 

Testing across the state has increased in recent weeks, but so has the percentage of tests that are positive, a sign that not enough testing is being done, and cases are going undetected. 

Dionne-Odom said many cities across the southeast have high testing positivity rates of between five percent and 15 percent, and in some cases as high as 20 percent.

“And what that number means is when you’re getting one of five tests back positive, is that there’s a lot of spreading infection in the community that you are not detecting,” Dionne-Odom said. 

Alabama’s seven-day percent positivity rate was 14.69 on Wednesday. Public health experts say it should be at or below five percent or cases are going undetected. 

In Jefferson County, as of Wednesday, the percentage was roughly 14 percent.

While the majority of hospitalized patients are older, UAB does have COVID-19 patients in their 30s who are very ill and in ICU units, Dionne-Odom said.

“So the message is still true that this disease tends to impact older adults more than younger adults, but if you’re 20, 30, 40, especially if you have an underlying condition, but even if you don’t, you’re not immune from this disease. You’re still at risk of having severe outcomes,” Dionne-Odom said.

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