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Widening gap in Alabama pension fund, Prompts Lawmaker to Call for New Strategy

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—According to a recent report by the Pew Center on States, Alabama’s state retirement fund is on a downward trend. The report gave the pension fund a “Serious Concern,” rating and the retiree healthcare fund a “Needs Improvement,” rating. These warning are not new but they bring about calls for improved performance.

“We have known there have been problems but now we are learning that it is a little bigger problem than we thought it was,” said Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster).

In an effort to reform Alabama’s pension system, the state legislature recently increased the retirement age from 62 to 65 in 2011, along with increased employee contributions. Although it paid 100 percent of Pew’s recommended contribution in 2010, Alabama remains one of 34 states that were less than 80 percent funded.

“Where this really affects us is that whenever we do not have our liabilities funded the legislature has to come up with the money to cover it,” Ward said. “Now, that worked for a number of years but with a tough budget crisis we just don’t have that kind of money anymore.”

This year around one billion dollars of state taxpayers’ money will go to shore up the troubled fund. The Retirement Systems, (RSA) has repeatedly come under fire over the last year. Meanwhile the Governor and the Legislature have been working together with RSA CEO Dr. David Bronner to fix the problems at the pension fund.

Ward says that while the fixes were necessary he believes the fundamental way the fund is working needs to be addressed.

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“I think they [RSA] needs to change their investment strategy because they are getting toward the bottom of the states in return on investment,” says Ward. “I hear what they say about, ‘We are promoting tourism,’ and that is nice, but we already have a tourism department and that’s what they do.” Ward says the job of the RSA is to “manage and adequately uphold the promises in the retirement pension plan.”

Ward continues, “I hear them talk about ‘We do economic development,’ that is nice too, but that is not their mission.”

There has been talk about the state legislature taking over the trouble plan but Ward thinks that would be a mistake.

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“There are other states that have done that and I would be highly opposed to ever doing something like that,” Ward said. “The last thing we need is the state legislature micro managing the state retirement system.”

Ward admits that what the Alabama Legislature passed in hopes of reigning in the losses in the RSA fund fell short of what other states have done, he says he feels a “philosophical changes to the investment strategy is what is most needed.”

Ward also said, “We can tinker with the program itself but if how the money is being handled on the investment side is not correct all the laws in the world are not going to change anything.”

Over the past year or so there have been calls for a leadership change at RSA but Ward says he thinks that is not necessary.

“The changes that need to be made can be made by the Broad of Directors calling for a change in investment strategy, not by Dr. Bronner asking to step down,” Ward said.

Ward believes the light that has been shed on the pension plan not only here in Alabama but across the country demands that there be a “rethinking and asking how can we do this better and reap a better return on investment.”

He further states, “There needs to be a good strong board in place but we don’t want the Legislature trying to run things. We don’t want the legislature making political appointments to the RSA board period.”

Over the last few years the money to shore up the fund has been coming out of the Education Trust Fund.

Ward agrees that most Alabamians would be shocked to know that over a billion dollars that was suppose to be going to education is and has actually been spent on funding the state worker retirement fund.

Ward says, “We can’t keep going down a road of maintaining such a high unfunded liability level.” But Ward says he wants to be cautious about any further reforms on the legislative side, “I am a firm believer in reform be slow and well thought out.”

He reintegrates that it is a new approach to investment not new laws that will bring about a positive long-term solution.

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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EDA announces federal investment award to dredge the Port of Epes Industrial Park

Brandon Moseley

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Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced that the Department’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) is awarding a $1.7 million grant to the University of West Alabama, in Livingston, Alabama, to improve barge access at the Port of Epes Industrial Park. The EDA grant will be located in a Opportunity Zone, made possible by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2018. The grant will be matched with $540,000 in local funds and is expected to create 85 jobs and generate $175 million in private investment.

“Already, the Opportunity Zones across our state are helping boost the chance for economic prosperity, and this $1.7 million investment in Livingston, Alabama certainly adds to that effort,” said Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R). “I am proud that the Trump Administration continues following through on their commitment to grow opportunities across our state and the nation. This is a welcome investment, and I am grateful to President Trump and Secretary Ross for their constant support for Alabama.”

“This $1.7 million EDA grant for the Port of Epes infrastructure project will improve barge access and increase the capacity of the industrial park,” said U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama). “The funding will help create jobs and fuel the local economy, encouraging and enabling long-term economic benefits to West Alabama. I am pleased to have worked with the Administration to support this project and look forward to its completion.”

Congresswoman Terri Sewell (D-Selma) has worked for several years with local officials and the University of West Alabama in their efforts to boost industrial transportation access to promote export development, attract additional investments, support business resilience, and strengthen the economy of the Black Belt.

“I am so excited that the Port of Epes in Livingston has been granted the funding necessary to promote economic opportunity for our workers and families in the Black Belt,” said Rep. Sewell. “There is nothing more important to me than increasing opportunity in my district. That is why I have fought so hard to make Alabama’s Opportunity Zone program work for areas like the Black Belt, where communities will most benefit from investments and job development.”

“The Trump Administration is committed to helping communities in Alabama and across the nation grow through strategic investment,” said Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. “This project will fund improvements to transportation infrastructure at the Port of Epes Industrial Park to help a major wood pellet company increase their operational capacity, attract new businesses, and advance efforts to capitalize on the project’s Opportunity Zone designation.”

Dana Gartzke is Performing the Delegated Duties of the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development.

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“EDA is pleased to support local strategies to spur additional development at the Port of Epes Industrial Park,” said Gartzke. “This project will provide Sumter County with expanded industrial transportation infrastructure to support businesses and drive development. The project’s location in an Opportunity Zone will further transform the community.”

John Clyde Riggs is the Executive Director of the Alabama-Tombigbee Regional Commission.

“We at the Alabama-Tombigbee Regional Commission are excited to learn today that the Economic Development Administration has awarded $1.7 million dollars to the University of West Alabama to improve barge access to the Port of Epes in Sumter County Alabama,” said Director Riggs. “This grant which is located in an Opportunity Zone will help create 85 jobs with a $175 million dollar private investment. Thanks go out to Congresswoman Terri Sewell for her assistance in securing this much needed grant.”

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Ken Tucker is the President of the University of West Alabama (UWA).

“We are immensely appreciative of this grant award from the U.S. Department of Commerce that will allow UWA the opportunity to expand our economic and workforce development efforts for a 10-county rural area that we serve,” said President Tucker. “In 2018, UWA shifted its outreach focus to economic and workforce development, and in a very short time, this division has helped secure nearly $5 million in external funding for the Port of Epes, plus nearly $5 million for other economic and workforce development initiatives in our region.”

Dr. Tina N. Jones is the Vice President of UWA’s Division of Economic and Workforce Development.

“As a regional university whose mission includes improving the quality of life for the region, UWA has long seen education as an engine that drives economic and workforce development, and this $1.7 million will have a transformative influence on the people of west Alabama and beyond for many years to come,” said Vice President Jones. “We are eager to continue our efforts to establish the partnerships and innovative initiatives that will strengthen the impact of this generous investment for our region and rural Alabama.”

Allison T. Brantley is the director of economic development at UWA.

“It is critical that we continue to work together with organizations and agencies at every level to provide a foundation for the Black Belt by showcasing all that it has to offer to the rest of the world,” said Director Brantley. “We want to do far more than merely sustain our economy. We want to match assets, resources, and opportunities in such a way that says to industries and developers not only are we a viable option, but we are the best option.”

The University of West Alabama applied for the EDA investment grant with the Industrial Development Authority of Sumter County.

The funding announced on Tuesday goes to one of Alabama’s 158 Opportunity Zones. The Opportunity Zones were created by President Donald J. Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. The goal of the Opportunity Zones is to spur economic development in economically-distressed communities nationwide. In June 2019, EDA added Opportunity Zones as an Investment Priority, which increases the number of catalytic Opportunity Zone-related projects that EDA can fund to fuel greater public investment in these areas.

The mission of the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) is to lead the federal economic development agenda by promoting competitiveness and preparing the nation’s regions for growth and success in the worldwide economy. EDA makes investments in economically distressed communities in order to create jobs for U.S. workers, promote American innovation, and accelerate long-term sustainable economic growth.

EDA grants are awarded through a competitive process based upon the application’s merit, the applicant’s eligibility, and the availability of funds.

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Gary Palmer endorses Jerry Carl

Brandon Moseley

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Tuesday, Congressman Gary Palmer, R-Hoover, announced that he is endorsing Jerry Carl for Congress in Alabama’s First Congressional District.

“Jerry Carl is a man of integrity who will represent First District Alabamians well in Washington,” said Palmer. “Jerry is a businessman focused on strengthening Alabama’s economy.”

Palmer is the Republican Policy Committee Chairman. He serves on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, as well as the Committee on Oversight and Reform and on the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Palmer is a member of the House Freedom Caucus. Palmer ran for the U.S. House of Representatives when Congressman Spencer Bachus, R-Vestavia, decided to retire in 2014. Palmer co-founded the conservative Alabama Policy Institute with current Chief Justice Tom Parker (R). Palmer was the President of API, the premier conservative think tank in the state of Alabama, before leaving to run for Congress.

“Throughout his time in office, Congressman Palmer has been a stalwart supporter of conservative values and fiscal responsibility,” Carl said. “He has consistently fought for family values, lower taxes, and sound government. I am honored to have the support of Congressman Palmer, and I look forward to representing south Alabama in Congress and fighting for our conservative values.”

Carl is currently head of the Mobile County Commission.

Carl was a small businessman who said that he was inspired to run for the Mobile County Commission when he became frustrated with the local government. Jerry started his first company when he was twenty-five and has started over ten different companies ranging from real estate to healthcare and timber, to even the manufacturing of church furniture.

He and his wife, Tina, have been married for 39 years. They have three children and two grandchildren. Carl is a Mobile native. He graduated from Sylacauga High School in 1977, and then attended Lake City Community College, in Lake City, Florida for a year. Carl started Stat Medical which he expanded into seven different locations, before selling out to Rotech Medical. He then continued in his role as a businessman and manager, overseeing more than thirty locations as a regional manager for Rotech Medical. Jerry then formed Westside Development, a business establishment located in West Mobile, in 1997. In 1998, Jerry established Advance, LLC, which builds and leases commercial properties, as well as River Oaks Landing, LLC, which later became home to the River Oaks Landing Bed and Breakfast. In 2002, Jerry began Carl and Associates, a management group and in 2003, Jerry opened ECM Home Health Services, a pharmacy specializing in the care of patients with bleeding disorders. In 2009, he established Cricket and Butterfly, LLC, a company dedicated to buying and selling timber and timberland.

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Carl defeated former State Senator Bill Hightower in the Republican primary runoff back in July for the open seat in the House of Representatives.

Carl faces Democratic nominee James Averhart in the November 3 general election. Incumbent U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose, who currently represents the First Congressional District, did not run for another term and has also endorsed Carl.

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Retired U.S. Marines general endorses Doug Jones

Krulak, a Republican, served as the 31st commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps and as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Retired United States Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak has endorsed Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama.

Retired United States Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak has endorsed Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, the incumbent senator’s campaign announced Tuesday. 

Krulak, a Republican, served as the 31st commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps and as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s also the former president of Birmingham-Southern College. 

“Although I am a life-long Republican, I’m urging you to vote for Doug Jones. His work on the Armed Services Committee supports our veterans and military families, and ensures that we have the best equipped military in the world,” Krulak said in a new ad from Jones’s campaign. “Senator Doug Jones’ strong record of getting things done for Alabama and our military has earned our vote.” 

Jones in 2018 filed an amendment to make U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports on VA-run nursing homes public, and in 2019, introduced legislation that eliminated the Military Widow’s Tax, which impacted an estimated 2,000 surviving military spouses in Alabama alone.

In September, Jones introduced a bipartisan bill to address veteran suicide.

Krulak commanded a platoon and two rifle companies during his two tours of duty in Vietnam, according to his U.S. Marine Corps University biography. He was assigned duty as the deputy director of the White House Military Office in September 1987.

Krulak was promoted to General on June 29, 1995, and became the 31st commandant of the Marine Corps on July 1, 1995. He retired from the Marine Corps in June 1999.

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Crime

Alabama inmate dies after inmate-on-inmate assault

Edwin Wells, 29, died on Oct. 10 from injuries during an apparent inmate-on-inmate assault at the Easterling Correctional Facility, the Alabama Department of Corrections confirmed on Tuesday. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A Prattville man became at least the 19th Alabama inmate to have died this year in a state prison of circumstances that were avoidable. 

Edwin Wells, 29, died on Oct. 10 from injuries during an apparent inmate-on-inmate assault at the Easterling Correctional Facility, the Alabama Department of Corrections confirmed on Tuesday. 

Wells death makes at least the 19th inmate to have died from either suicide, drug overdoses or homicide, according to records kept by the ACLU of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice. His death is at least the seventh suspected homicide in state prisons this year. 

ADOC doesn’t typically publish information on an inmate death unless a reporter discovers the death through other means and requests the information, with the expectation of deaths of inmates who tested positive for COVID-19, which the department does regularly release. 

“The ADOC condemns all violence in its facilities, and the fatal actions taken against Wells by another inmate are being thoroughly investigated,” said ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose in a message to APR. “Wells’s exact cause of death is pending a full autopsy, and more information will be available upon the conclusion of the investigation into his death.”

A U.S. Department of Justice report in April 2019 found that Alabama’s overcrowded, understaffed prisons for men were likely in violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment and its prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, and that ADOC regularly failed to protect inmates from sexual and physical violence perpetrated by other inmates.

An expected followup report by the Department of Justice in July detailed why the federal government believes systemic use of excessive force within Alabama’s prisons for men violates the Eighth Amendment. 

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As of Tuesday, at least 29 state inmates and two prison workers have died after testing positive for COVID-19. There have been 453 confirmed coronavirus cases among inmates and 429 among prison staff as of Oct. 14, according to ADOC.

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