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Voices on the September 18 Vote

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Editors note—Since May the “Alabama Political Reporter” has published over two dozen stories on Medicaid and the upcoming September 18 constitutional amendment.

We have looked at the issue from many sides and see the pros and the cons of the debate. Perhaps the biggest take away has been that the lack of funding for the Medicaid agency and the Department of Corrections is a systemic problem. It has been a continuous crisis never faced in any meaningful way by democrats or republicans.

The time for finger pointing and recrimination will, in 24 hours, be replaced by a vote. It would not be fair to call it a vote by the people as most Alabamians will go about their business on September 18 happily unaware of what is taking place in their name.

The few, the powerful and the informed will cast their ballots and the result will show whose will won the day.

MONTGOMERY —On Tuesday, the voters of Alabama will be asked to vote on a constitutional amendment that will give the government leaders of Alabama the right to transfer $145.8 million a year for the next three years from the Alabama Trust Fund (ATF) to the General Fund.

What follows are the words of some of the state’s leaders.

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Governor Bentley said in a recent interview, “Already, Alabama provides among the lowest level of benefits for Medicaid recipients when compared to other states. Any significant cuts would have devastating consequences. In order to avoid those cuts, Medicaid needs at least $600 million in the next fiscal year. If the constitutional amendment passes, we will be able to fund Medicaid at that level.”

Governor Bentley like many in the medical field understands the dire consequences of not funding Medicaid, the health delivery system of Alabama is dependent on Medicaid being whole. “If Medicaid is funded at less than $600 million, the strain on the entire healthcare system would be severe.”

House Minority Leader Craig Ford, (D-Gadsden), sees the picture differently, “In less than two years, the Republicans have chosen to raid the Alabama Trust Fund and make devastating cuts to our schools, public safety, and public health.

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“The budget passed by the Republican supermajority does not provide enough money to provide those services, meaning Alabama will lose that federal matching money and Medicaid would collapse unless voters approve a constitutional amendment to allow the state to raid the Alabama Trust Fund.

“So not only did the Republicans pass a budget that relies on raiding the state’s savings account, they passed the responsibility of making that choice on to the voters. They put you, the voter, in a position where you have to decide if we are going to raid the state’s savings account or if we are going to let the state’s Medicaid program – which provides 70 percent of payments to nursing homes, 60 percent of payments to pediatricians, and 30 percent of payments to family practitioners – collapse.”

Ford has urged voters to say no to the September 18 amendment.

Senator Dick L. Brewbaker (R-Montgomery), has had strong words for those who are for and those who oppose the amendments, here are some of his thoughts on the issue.

“The voters have a big decision to make on September 18. The voters will decide whether to take $145 million a year for three years from the principal of the Alabama Trust Fund to shore up Alabama’s General Fund Budget. This is a game changing decision. It will decide the direction of state government for a long time to come. Supporters say a ‘yes’ vote will ensure an orderly reform of state government and warn of mass prisoner releases and a collapse of the healthcare system should the amendment fail. Opponents argue that a ‘no’ vote will force state government to live within its means, protect the state biggest savings account from greedy legislators and will force reform now instead of some time in the future. Both sides are oversimplifying a complicated situation.

“So, how should you vote? It depends on your view of your elected leadership. If you believe that the Governor and the legislature are sincere when they say they need time to insure orderly reform and that they are committed to pass such reform, by all means vote ‘yes.’ If, on the other hand, you think what this is really all about is a bunch of politicians trying to get themselves off the hook for three years so they can put all this off until after the next election, vote ‘no.’

“This is a big deal. Whatever you decide, go vote. This is not one the citizens can afford to sit out.”

Representative Patricia Todd, (D-Birmingham) recently stated, “I am conflicted like probably a lot of people in the state about this for many reasons.”

However, Todd said that she has come to understand that the September vote is not about Medicaid. “This is about those in control not wanting to do what is necessary to ensure a sound fiscal policy for our state.” She continues, “The majority party [republicans] and the Governor signed this stupid no-tax pledge which they feel locked into, yet they turn around and raise fees.” Todd laughs, “Do they think the people of Alabama are so stupid they don’t know the difference between a tax and a fee?”

She says that the constitutional amendment is another attempt by the legislature to pass the buck, “Whatever happens they will say, ‘We didn’t make that decision, the voters did.’”

An exasperated Todd concludes by saying, “I know I am on a tear about this but none of this is rocket science, it’s common sense, transparency. I mean discussion, dialog, agree to disagree, civil discourse. You bring in experts, you find out what has worked in other states make sound choices, but by George lead!”

Mary Scott Hunter, of the Alabama School Board had this to say in an editorial.

“In the future, our prosperity will totally depend on how well we use our limited resources, and I certainly understand this as a member of the State Board of Education. I also understand that this vote is a close call, and I do not question the members of my party who have decided to support the plan.

“I, however, cannot find enough positives in the plan to overcome my concerns that this plan is a provisional not a permanent solution. This initiative will, I predict, pass if the voter turnout is low. Low voter turnout will mean organized special interests will turn out their voters and will sway the vote.

“When will we live within our means in Alabama if not now? I recognize that there will be a lessening of services, but we have options that have not been properly explored Medicaid Reform, Sentencing Reform, Cigarette Tax, Gaming Compacts with our Indian Casinos all come to mind. I respectfully disagree with my colleagues in state government who believe that borrowing from our state’s oil and gas trust fund is the best option.”

Dr. Henry Mabry, Executive Secretary of the Alabama Education Association said in our interview with him, “It was obvious at the beginning of the session that the General Fund was going to need more revenue, it was obvious last year, it’s the same every year,” Mabry began. “The Governor had proposed that the money to cover the General Fund shortfall come from the Education Trust Fund, we tried to work with legislators to come up with some alternatives to address the problem facing the state.”

Mabry points out that traditionally the General Fund has “lived hand-to-mouth because it doesn’t have revenues that grow that much.” Over the years, the state legislature has passed some laws that have raised state revenues but not enough to even keep up with simple inflation.

“Take for instance drivers licenses, those costs have been stagnant since around 1983,” said Mabry. “The ABC board taxes have remained the same and the cigarette tax has actually declined over time.”

He says that because we have a general fund that relies on a “quilted patchwork of revenue sources that just don’t get the job done” the state will forever remain underfunded unless there are more revenues.

“Now, because the General Fund has remained mainly static, the resources have not grown to meet the demand,” says Mabry.

“A million of our citizen are served by Medicaid. That is one million out of 4.8 million, that is a huge part of our population. Is that going to change? No it’s not, because our people are poor. We are supporting this amendment because there is a responsibility to take care of the weakest among us,” said Mabry. “We want to see that those responsibilities are addressed.”

There have been many who gave voice to the vote on September 18, these are a few, now it is your turn.

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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Alabama revenues grew despite COVID pandemic, analysis shows

Tax revenue into the state’s General Fund was 7 percent higher this year the Education Trust Fund brought in an additional $209 million in 2020 compared to 2019. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama’s strong economy going into the COVID-19 pandemic, and billions in federal aid to address the health and economic crisis, has helped the state’s two largest budget funds to grow this year, according to a study released Thursday. 

According to an analysis by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, tax revenue into the state’s General Fund was 7 percent higher this year than it was in 2019, and Alabama’s Education Trust Fund brought in an additional $209 million in 2020 compared to 2019. 

“According to Finance Department officials, Alabama ended 2020 with $330 million balance in the ETF and a $315 million balance in the General Fund,” wrote PARCA’s Tom Spencer in the report. “That was result both of revenues that exceeded the budgeted amounts and expenditures that were lower than what was appropriated.”

The growth came despite the spike in unemployment that began in March and hasn’t yet abated, and despite mandatory business closures in March and April and the restrictions still in place to protect against the spread of the coronavirus. 

The author of the report said the growth is due in part to the state’s strong economy before the pandemic hit. Unemployment was at a historic low between October and March, and prior to the pandemic, income tax receipts were up approximately 7 percent over the same period in 2019. 

Additionally, $4.1 billion in federal COVID-19 aid has been committed to individuals and municipalities in Alabama, and consumer spending shifted but didn’t stop, the author notes. 

The federal Paycheck Protection Program preserved payrolls, and unemployed workers received $600 per week in a supplement to unemployment insurance, which both helped prevent the state’s tax revenue from taking a bigger hit. 

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“Sales taxes dropped, then recovered and have been up and down in the months since. At the same time though, tax on internet purchases surged, offsetting the erosion in sales tax. Unlike some other states, Alabama’s sales taxes apply to groceries and medicine and thus it tends to be more stable,” Spencer wrote in the report. 

Several sectors of Alabama’s economy have done well during the pandemic, including the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control Board, which contributed an additional $17 million to the General Fund, an increase of 14 percent. 

But still other sectors suffered, including lodging tax. The tax on hotels and vacation rentals was down 15 percent for the year, and collected almost $9 million less for the General Fund.

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“For the current fiscal year, FY 2021, Finance officials are relatively confident that revenues will more than cover the budgets. Lawmaker scaled back spending plans in light of the pandemic,” Spencer wrote in the report. “As long as there aren’t additional unforeseen shocks to the economic system, the Alabama economy should generate the revenue needed to make the budgets as adopted this spring.”

If the state’s economy were to take a larger hit, Spencer noted, the state still has rainy day funds for both funds. 

RESERVE FUND BALANCES

  • ETF Budget Stabilization Fund – $373,269,077
  • ETF Rainy Day Account – $465,421,670
  • GF Budget Stabilization Fund – $27,297,483
  • GF Budget Rainy Day Account – $232,939,781

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Featured Columnists

Opinion | Electing Tuberville could cost Alabama billions

If your conscience or decency isn’t enough, vote your wallets.

Josh Moon

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Sen. Doug Jones, left, and Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville, right.

Money matters in Alabama. Oh, I know that we’re not supposed to say that out loud. That we’re supposed to promote our image of southern grace and hospitality, of churchiness and care, of rich people never getting into heaven. 

But the truth is greed is our biggest character flaw in this state. 

Every problem we have can be traced back to our unending thirst for dollars. Our ancestors didn’t keep slaves because they hated black people. They did it because they loved money and the difference in skin color gave them an excuse — a really, really stupid excuse — to mistreat other humans to take advantage of the free labor. 

Our rivers and lakes and dirt aren’t filled with poisons from factories because we’re too dumb to understand how this works. They’re that way because our politicians are paid off to turn a blind eye to the dumping of toxic waste. 

Our schools aren’t terrible because we have dumb kids or bad teachers. It’s because we’re too cheap to pay for them. 

You see what I mean? It’s our lust for the almighty dollar. Every time. 

We love money. 

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Which makes me seriously wonder why so many people in this state are going to vote for a man who will cost us all — and especially our biggest businesses — so much of it. 

Tommy Tuberville will be like a money vacuum for Alabama. Billions of dollars will vanish for this welfare state that relies so much on federal contracts, federal programs and federal dollars. 

If you doubt this, don’t simply take my word for it. Just Google up the press releases from Sen. Richard Shelby’s office from the last, say, six years — the most recent span in which Republicans have controlled the Senate. 

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Almost every single release is about Shelby securing millions or billions of dollars in federal funding for this project or that project, getting the state’s share of dollars from a variety of different programs and initiatives implemented by Congress. 

Shelby and I obviously have different political viewpoints, but it’s hard to argue that the man has been successful in securing money for Alabama. Lots and lots of money. 

Money for airports and roads. Money for defense contractors in Huntsville. Money for the port in Mobile. Money for car manufacturers. Money for farmers. 

Money. Money. Money. 

Shelby can do that because of three things: He’s on the right committees, he’s a member of the party in power and he’s liked by the right people.

Tuberville will be none of those things. 

Most pundits are predicting that Democrats will take over the Senate, tipping the balance of power and giving the party control of both houses and the White House. 

That automatically means that a first-time senator in the opposition party will have little to no say in any decisions. 

But what’s worse for Tuberville, and for Alabama, is that other Republicans don’t like him either. 

Establishment Republicans essentially openly campaigned against Tuberville in the primary, tossing tens of millions of dollars behind his opponent, Jeff Sessions. They even favored third-place finisher Bradley Byrne over Tuberville. 

It’s not hard to understand why — he’s clueless. 

I know that’s a Doug Jones talking point, but this one happens to be true. Let me give you an example: On Thursday, Tuberville tweeted out what was meant to be a shot at Jones, claiming that Alabama’s current senator wouldn’t meet with Trump’s Supreme Court nominee because Jones knows “he won’t have much time in the Senate to work with her.”

If you’re unaware, the Senate doesn’t “work with” the Supreme Court. They’re separate entities. 

Combine that with his other nonsensical answers on COVID relief, school reopenings, the Voting Rights Act, senate committee assignments, education, foreign affairs — really, the list is almost endless — and it shows how little work he’s put in over the last two years to understand this job he’s applying for. 

Now, that might be just fine with Alabama voters who care more about the party affiliation and owning the libs, but it’s not OK with grownups who take the job of running the country seriously. 

And those people — both Rs and Ds — don’t like Tuberville or his here-for-an-easy-check-like-always approach to one of the most serious jobs in the world. 

He will be frozen out of the most sought after committee assignments. His voice will carry zero weight. His presence will be all but forgotten. 

And in the process, so will Alabama. Especially in two years, when Shelby retires and his senior status is lost. 

In the meantime, Jones is highly respected by senators on both sides of the aisle. He already has a presence on top committees, and is so well liked within the Democratic Party that he’s on the short list to be Joe Biden’s AG, should he not be re-elected. 

The choice seems pretty simple. On the one hand is a competent, prepared and serious statesman who knows how to maneuver his colleagues to get the most for the state. On the other hand is an unprepared, uncaring, lazy carpetbagger who doesn’t understand any process. 

If your conscience or decency isn’t enough, vote your wallets.

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Health

At least 248 COVID deaths reported in Alabama in October

The cumulative death toll in Alabama has risen by 248 to 2,788 in October and by 124 in the last week alone.

Brandon Moseley

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We’re a little more than halfway through the month of October and the Alabama Department of Public Health has already reported at least 248 deaths from COVID-19.

The cumulative death toll in Alabama has risen by 248 to 2,788 in October and by 124 in the last week alone.

At least 378 deaths were reported in the month of September, a rate of 12.6 deaths per day over the month. In the first 17 days of October, the rate has been 14.6 deaths per day, a 15.9 percent increase from September.

Deaths were higher in July and August. The cumulative death toll increased by 582 in August and 630 in July, the worst month of the pandemic for the state.

On Saturday, ADPH reported that 1,288 more people in the state were confirmed positive with the coronavirus, and on Sunday the count increased by 964. The number of confirmed cases in Alabama has risen to 172,626.

There have been 17,925 new cases Alabama in October alone. The state is averaging almost 996 cases per day in October, which is up from September.

The state had 28,643 new coronavirus cases in September, 38,335 cases new cases in August, and 49,678 cases in July. Public health officials credit Alabama Governor Kay Ivey’s statewide mask order on July 15 with slowing the spread of the virus in the state, but the virus has not gone away.

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ADPH reported 823 hospitalizations for COVID-19 on October 17, the most recent day for which we have data. While hospitalizations for COVID-19 are down from the peaks in early August in Alabama have risen from Oct. 1 when 748 Alabamians were hospitalized, a 10 percent increase from the first of the month.

The state of Alabama is continuing to struggle to protect its most vulnerable citizens. At least 6,497 residents of long term care facilities in Alabama have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, 247 of them in October.

There have also been 3,362 cases among long term care workers in Alabama, including 197 in the month of October. Some 9,819 Alabama health care workers have also contracted the coronavirus.

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Most people who test positive for the novel strain of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, are asymptomatic or have only minor symptoms, but in about one out of five cases it can become much more severe.

For older people or people with underlying medical conditions like obesity, heart disease, asthma, cancer, diabetes or HIV, COVID-19 can turn deadly. COVID-19 is the abbreviated name for the medical condition caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Some 1,115,600 people worldwide have died from COVID-19 worldwide, including 224,284 Americans. There are 8,972,704 known active cases in the world today.

Public health officials warn citizens that coronavirus remains a present danger in our community. Social distancing is the best way to avoid spreading the virus. Avoid venues with large groups. Don’t shake hands or hug persons not living in your household.

Avoid leaving your home as much as possible and wear a mask or cloth face covering when you do go out. Avoid touching your face and wash your hands with soap frequently. Hand sanitizer is recommended.

A coronavirus vaccine may be available in the coming months, but we don’t yet know when or how effective it will be.

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Environment

ADEM director weighs-in on coal ash pond closures

APR spoke with ADEM Director Lance LeFleur to understand the process and how the public could be assured that steps taken would lead to a safe and effective outcome.

Bill Britt

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ADEM Director Lance LeFleur

Over the next few weeks, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management will hold public hearings on the regulated closures of three coal combustion residuals storage sites, commonly referred to as coal ash ponds.

While ADEM receives high marks from federal regulators and businesses within Alabama, there is always a certain skepticism that surrounds environmental issues both on the left and the right side of the political spectrum.

Recently, APR spoke with ADEM Director Lance LeFleur to understand the process and how the public could be assured that steps taken would lead to a safe and effective outcome.

“I know that there’s skepticism about government,” LeFleur said. “And it’s healthy to have skepticism about government, state governments, local government, federal government. Skepticism is part of how we operate.” But LeFleur wants the public to know that ADEM’s first purpose is Alabamians’ health and safety.

“Our mission is to ensure for all Alabamians a safe, healthful and productive environment,” LeFleur said. “It’s a mission that ADEM and its nearly 600 employees take very seriously.”

LeFleur says while there are many competing sides to the issues that arise from coal ash disposal, ADEM must focus on “science and the laws.”

According to LeFleur, there are two primary issues that must be addressed when closing coal ash ponds: “avoid threats of spills into waterways or onto land, and preventing and cleaning up groundwater contamination from arsenic, mercury, lead and other hazardous elements that may leach from the coal ash.”

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EPA does not classify coal residue as hazardous waste, but LeFleur says that all closures must ensure dangerous elements are not leaching down into the groundwater.

“I think there’s pretty much unanimous opinion that these coal ash ponds need to be closed; they need to be closed properly,” said LeFleur. “And we need to clean up the groundwater that’s in place.”

He says that the entire process will take decades, but the power companies have committed to safely closing the coal ash ponds. “We are dealing with power companies that are going to be around for a long time. And they, they are obligated to get the result right,” said LeFleur.

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Alabama currently has 14 regulated CCR units at eight sites throughout the state. They are comprised of 10 unlined surface impoundments, one lined landfill, one lined surface impoundment all closed, and two lined landfills still in operation.

Public hearings are a significant part of the permit granting process, according to LeFleur, and ADEM’s website allows any individual to review every document and comment about a coal ash pond’s closing.

“You can see all of the comments that we received,” LeFleur said. “Every issue raised during the comment period and written response to comments are available.” ADEM’s website also includes the closure plans as well as all correspondence between agency and utility companies.

According to ADEM, the purpose of these hearings is to allow the public, including nearby residents, environmental groups, and others, opportunities to weigh in on the proposed permits.

“This past summer, Alabama Power, TVA, and PowerSouth held informational meetings in the communities where their affected plants are located to explain their proposed groundwater cleanup plan —including the CCR unit closure component— and answer residents’ questions,” said LeFleur.

Closing a unit requires months of planning with ADEM engineers to make sure all procedures are followed correctly. Federal rules for closing CCRs have only been around since April 2015, when EPA released final measures for management and disposal of CCRs from electric utilities. In 2018, ADEM issued its state CCR rule, which closely tracks the federal regulations.

Under both Presidents Obama and Trump, the EPA has allowed for coal ash sites to be closed by two methods — closure in place and by removal.

Alabama’s utilities have chosen the cap in place method. Some environmental groups prefer removal. But estimates say that moving CCRs from Alabama Power’s Plant Barry would take around 30 years with trucks leaving the site every six minutes.

“Regardless of which method of closure is used, that process will take a couple of years to accomplish at these sites,” said LeFleur. “If it’s kept in place, the material has been de-watered then pushed together to create a smaller footprint, and then that will be covered with an impervious cover.”

The objective, according to ADEM, is to protect the groundwater and the environment from pollution.

Power providers and environmentalists seem to agree there isn’t a perfect solution. Public hearings are to ensure that community voices and those of environmentalists are heard.

“This entire process is designed to stop contamination to groundwater and future contamination to groundwater; those are the most important facts now,” said LeFleur. “There are always political issues, you know, at least two sides, and sometimes there’s three, four or five sides. We focus on science and the laws. That’s what we do.”

While ADEM has its critics, it receives a high rating from the EPA, and an annual survey by the Alabama Department of Commerce finds that it gets top marks from business and industry in the state.

ADEM’s first public hearing on coal ash permits will be held Tuesday, Oct. 20, for Alabama Power’s Miller Steam Plant in west Jefferson County. The meeting will be at 6 p.m. at the West Jefferson Town Hall. Other upcoming hearings are Thursday, Oct. 22, for Plant Greene County located in Greene County and Oct. 29 for Plant Gadsden in Etowah County.

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