By Beth Clayton
On Thursday, the Alabama House of Representatives will vote on SB231, the proposed legislation to develop a tract of land in Gulf State Park by building a lodge and conference center.
What will this do?
The intent of the legislation is to develop a convention center and vacation spot that will be usable for the average Alabama family, said David Perry, Governor Bentley’s chief of staff in the House Economic Development and Tourism committee meeting.
“This will be a first-class facility,” Perry said. “It will be a facility that all Alabamians will be proud of and can use.”
“You would not want to put this through a competitive bid process and be forced to go with the low bidder. There’s going to be a lease for another company to run it. You wouldn’t want to be forced to go with a Motel 6 if that’s not what the people of Alabama deserve,” Perry said.
During the committee meeting, Perry discussed the importance of making sure that at least half of the rooms in the new facility are affordable for the average Alabama family.
When discussing the average Alabama family, keep in mind that the US Census Bureau reports a median household income of $42,934. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average US household spends approximately $1,415, or 3 percent of the annual household income, on vacation and pleasure trips.
In the average Alabama household, 3 percent of the annual income constitutes approximately $1,288 for the travel budget.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics further estimates that the average family spends 23 percent of their travel budget on lodging. Using this figure, the average Alabama family spends approximately $296 on vacation lodging.
For a three to six day vacation, this leaves the average Alabama family paying $50-$100 per night, including taxes and fees.
In keeping with Perry’s reference to the Motel 6 chain, a three-night stay in June at the nearest in-state Motel 6 (located in Mobile, Ala.), would cost $150.44.
If the Governor intends to stay with his plan to make at least 50 percent of the rooms accessible to the average Alabama family, a six-night vacation at the new Gulf State Park facility would need to be around the price point of a Motel 6.
Do we need this lodge and conference center?
David Perry, the Chief of Staff for Governor Bentley addressed the House Economic Development and Tourism committee last week in support of the legislation. Perry said that Governor Bentley is tired of traveling to Destin and would like to see the business kept within the state.
Less than 20 miles down the beach, just off the coast, the Orange Beach Event Center can fulfill all of the proposed requirements of the new Gulf State Park facilities, with a variety of beach-front hotels in a range of price points only a short drive away.
The Orange Beach Event Center can be flexible for a variety of functions, with 18,000 square feet of space. The space can accommodate dinner for 1,800, a reception for 2,000, and an exhibition space that holds 100 booths. Additionally, the space can break out into smaller meeting rooms and features a full catering kitchen.
Understandably, conferences with out of town guests may need event space and hotel rooms on the same property to ease travel issues.
The Perdido Beach Resort is only a few miles down the road from Gulf State Park. This beach-front resort offers 347 guest rooms and 45,000 square feet of total event space, making it the fifth largest hotel in the state, according to Business Alabama.
What will the project provide that the Orange Beach Event Center and the Perdido Beach Resort do not already provide?
One major point of contention for many Republicans is that the gambling prohibition amendment was stripped from the bill on the senate floor. During the senate committee, Senator Trip Pittman added an amendment to prohibit gambling from ever being allowed on the property at Gulf State Park. However, debate was taking too long, so Pittman stripped amendments from the bill so that the bill would have a chance to reach the House and make it to the Governor before the end of the session.
When the bill went to the House committee, a gambling prohibition amendment was not proposed. The committee voted to give the original legislation a favorable report to send it to the House floor.
If the bill passes the House as written, there will be no provisions to prohibit gambling.
Under this legislation, if it becomes law, the people of Alabama could rent out their state park to house a casino.
The Gulf State Park is owned by the people of Alabama, and the people of Alabama have adamantly spoken out against gambling, time and time again.
How will we pay for this?
According to section 9 of the bill, “other than project revenues, only National Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) funds or Restore Act funds may be expended to implement this act. If the State of Alabama does not receive or has not be awarded any National Resource Damage Assessment funds or Restore Act funds for the purposes of this act by December 31, 2015, this act is repealed on January 1, 2016.”
According to a letter from the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustee Council dated April 16, 2013, the Framework Agreement to provide $1 billion in early restoration projects is the largest of its kind ever reached.
The NRDA process allows trustees to “evaluate injuries to natural resources and the services they provide so the Trustees can ensure those resources and services are fully restored,” the letter says.
The letter continues to explain ten early restoration projects. totaling $71 million, that BP has agreed to fund under the Framework Agreement, including:
1. Marsh creation,
2. Costal dune habitat improvements,
3. Nearshore artificial reef creation,
4. Oyster cultch restoration,
5. Construction and enhancement of boat ramps to compensate for lost recreational uses of resources, and
6. Improvements to nesting habitats for beach-nesting birds and sea turtles.
Additionally, the Gulf State Park project plans to use money from the federal RESTORE Act. According to the Audubon Society, the RESTORE Act diverts Clean Water Act penalty fine funds to the Gulf states, rather than to unrelated federal spending.
“The RESTORE Act creates an essential framework to manage and finance the Gulf Coast recovery,” the Audubon Society’s fact sheet says. The act mandates that the fines will be spent according to the following breakdown:
• 60% of penalties will be allocated to Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, half of which will be used to fund the Council’s federal environmental plan and half of which will be distributed to the five Gulf States, based on oil spill impacts, spent according to the individual states’ plans.
• 35% will be used for economic and environmental restoration in the Gulf Coast states.
• According to the RESTORE Act, this money “shall be used to carry out projects and programs to restore, protect, and make sustainable use of the natural resources, ecosystems, fisheries, marine habitats, coastal wetland, and economy of the Gulf Coast.”
• More specifically, this money may be used for at least one of the following activities: “(1) Coastal protection projects and activities, including conservation, coastal restoration, hurricane protection, and infrastructure directly affected by coastal wetland losses, beach erosion, and the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (2) Mitigation of damage to, and restoration of, fish, wildlife, or natural resources. (3) Implementation of a federally approved marine, coastal, or comprehensive conservation management plan, including fisheries monitoring. (4) Programs to promote tourism in a Gulf Coast State. (5) Programs to promote the consumption of seafood produced from the Gulf Coast ecosystem or adjacent Federal waters. (6) Planning assistance and the administrative costs of complying with this subsection.”
• 5% will be used to monitor the Gulf Coast ecosystem.
Under item number four above, the Gulf State Park project could qualify for RESTORE Act funding. On the Gulf Spill Restoration website, the project is described as an effort to “market the Alabama Gulf Coast as a destination, thus enhancing the area’s economy and quality of life for all residents.”
The description continues to state that visitors come to the beaches for “white sandy beaches, a safe destination and a clean, unspoiled environment.” Furthermore, “as a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, those factors were no longer perceived to be descriptive of the area and, in fact, were at significant risk,” the description states.
Additionally, the decrease in tourism resulted in a decline in the “aesthetic values of their costal environment” and the economic support for the local businesses and communities. The coastal cities of Baldwin County saw a loss of $64.3 million in lodging revenue alone, the description says.
Among the losses in revenue and usage is Gulf State Park, with new modifications that were “underused,” including a swimming pool and camp store.
“The development of a convention center will be an effective and appropriate venture to offer increased access to the state’s beaches, wildlife and waters in order to mitigate the injury created by the Deepwater Horizon disaster,” the project description says.
While the project will likely contribute to the tourism and economic development of the region, bringing in additional revenue from conventions and travel, is a resort–a potential casino–the best way to spend money allocated to restore the Gulf Coast from the Deepwater Horizon disaster?
Visit the Gulf Spill Restoration project website to learn more about what other states are doing with their NRDA money: http://www.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov/restoration/early-restoration/early-restoration-projects-atlas/.
Many states are using their funding to restore the ecosystems damaged by the oil spill through projects such as dune restorations, artificial reef habitats and marsh creation.
The market viability study to determine whether or not the economic impact will be worth the investment should be ready late this summer or early fall.
When the market study becomes available, the Governor will decide whether or not he will move forward with the project, at which time he may issue requests for proposals.
Wait, he MAY issue requests for proposals?
Correct. In the House committee, Representative Joe Hubbard (D-Montgomery) raised the issue over the wording in the legislation.
Section 4(a) of the bill says, “The Governor may issue requests for proposals, in part or in whole, for the construction, development, improvement, lease and beneficial use of a project to persons whom the Governor shall have determined are qualified.”
In committee, Hubbard proposed an amendment to change the word “may” to “shall,” in order to make it mandatory for the Governor to issue requests for proposals, should the market study show that it is viable to move forward with the project.
Essentially, Hubbard was told there was no time for an amendment if they planned to get the legislation through before the end of the session. An amendment would mean that the bill would go back to the Senate, where it would likely be tied up by Democrat filibusters and die before the end of the session.
David Perry, the Governor’s chief of staff, ensured Hubbard that the word “may” simply means that he is not required to issue requests for proposals if the market study shows that the project is not viable.
The word “shall” is used throughout the remainder of the bill.
He “shall” enter into negotiations of a project agreement.
The Committee on State Parks “shall” meet to approve or reject a project agreement.
Under Perry’s argument, all “shalls” should be “mays” since the Governor may or may not choose to move forward with the project.
So who SHALL get the contract?
In an area with an economy so widely damaged by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, investing all of the restoration money into one area could be interpreted as a narrow approach to reviving the Gulf Coast economy.
Building a lodge and conference center does nothing to restore the ecosystem and marine habitats. It does nothing to help fishermen who lost revenue from the decimated sea life. It does help the tourism industry, which is only one component of the Gulf Coast.
Follow the money on this one.
Opinion | Former Sen. Brewbaker supports Montgomery tax referendum
If we want Montgomery to change for the better, we are all going to have to start living in our community rather than off of it.
I am in full support of the property tax referendum on the ballot this November. That may surprise some people because I have been critical of the performance of the Montgomery County Public School System in the past.
Until recently, student performance has generally been poor, financial management has been historically problematic, and there have been real and persistent problems with transparency. New Board leadership has worked hard to address these issues in a real way, but there is still work to be done.
However, whether we are talking about cars or public education, there is such a thing as trying to buy too cheap. Montgomery has been paying the legal minimum in property tax support for decades. It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone that our schools’ quality reflects our financial commitment to them.
Yes, it’s true that more money isn’t always the answer, but it’s also true that money is part of the answer. Sometimes the bare minimum isn’t enough, and this is one of those times.
Most people who vote on this referendum will not have children currently attending MPS. If you are one of those people, vote yes anyway.
Our public school population is declining because many young couples with children are leaving our city because they know their children can get a better education elsewhere.
This loss of young parents will eventually kill this city. We have got to turn the schools around before Montgomery’s tax base is eroded beyond repair. Whether you have kids in the system or not, if you care about your local tax burden or the value of your property, it’s time to vote ‘yes.’
Need another reason to vote yes? Ok, here’s one: Montgomery will eventually lose both our USAF bases if we don’t show the Air Force we are serious about improving our failing schools. Already less than half of the airmen stationed in Montgomery bring their families with them.
Many military families view MPS as so low quality that they won’t subject their children to them. If we don’t fix our schools, sooner or later we will lose Maxwell and Gunter. If you don’t believe that would be an economic nightmare for our city, ask around.
At the end of the day, passing this referendum is not only a vote to help children succeed, but also a vote to save the city in which we all live. It’s ok to be hopeful, it’s ok to be optimistic even about the future of Montgomery and its schools.
If we want Montgomery to change for the better, we are all going to have to start living in our community rather than off of it.
Opinion | FEMA’s Hurricane Sally response
So, how has FEMA performed in responding to Hurricane Sally? So far, pretty darn well.
Most people in Alabama have heard of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration. Its name is a little misleading because emergencies by their nature aren’t so much managed as responded to, often after the fact. You can’t manage a tornado or an earthquake, for example, but you can and should respond to it.
Hurricanes are facts of life down here and nearly every part of our state, not just the coast, have been affected in some way by at least one. We can prepare for hurricanes and guard against the worst consequences and that starts with each of us as individuals, family members and citizens doing our part to be prepared to protect and take care of ourselves, family members and neighbors. Alabamians are actually pretty good at doing that.
But, there is also a role for governments at all levels. Local governments actually play the most important public role because they are closest to the people of their areas and have the first responders already employed and trained to take care of the needs of local residents during the period running up to, during, and in the immediate aftermath of the storm. State governments manage the preparations before the storm and provide the support local governments need afterward to do their jobs. The federal government supports the state and local efforts, which typically means providing the lion’s share of the money needed, anywhere from 75 percent to 90 percent of the costs. So there’s not one emergency management agency involved in responding to hurricanes but three, corresponding to each level of government.
The day before Hurricane Sally hit, I was individually briefed by the Director of the National Hurricane Center Ken Graham, FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor and Coast Guard officials. That same day I went to the White House and made sure we had a good line of communication in case we needed help, which looked likely at the time. I have to say, the White House was immediately responsive and has continued to be so.
How has FEMA handled the federal response to Hurricane Sally? When the state of Alabama requested a pre-storm disaster declaration, which triggers federal financial support for preparations and response during the storm, FEMA and the White House gave the okay in just a few hours. On that day before when I spoke with the White House, I asked them to send FEMA Administrator Gaynor to my district as soon as possible once the storm cleared to see the damage and meet with local officials. He came three days after the storm and spent several hours touring the damage with me and meeting with local leaders. When the state of Alabama requested a post-storm declaration, triggering federal financial support for public and individual assistance, FEMA and the White House responded affirmatively in less than 48 hours – record time.
Public assistance is federal financial support for the costs to state and local governments as a result of a storm. This includes water bottles and meals ready to eat for locally requested points of distribution, debris removal and cleanup costs (think of the large tandem trucks picking up debris piled up on the right of way), as well as the costs to repair damage to public buildings and infrastructure like roads and bridges, and in the case of Sally damage to the Port of Mobile.
Individual assistance, as the label states, goes to individuals affected by the storm. Private assistance won’t pay something you have insurance for, but it does pay for a variety of losses, particularly having to do with an individual’s home. So far 60,000 Alabamans have applied for individual assistance and already FEMA has approved $42 million. If you haven’t applied for individual assistance there’s still time for you to do so online at DisasterAssistance.gov, or if you need help in applying call FEMA’s Helpline at 1-800-621-3362. If you have applied for individual assistance and have been denied, appeal the decision because frequently the denial is simply because the applicant didn’t include all the needed information.
Many people were flooded by Sally and over 3,000 of them have made claims to the National Flood Insurance Program. Over $16 million has already been paid out on those claims. The Small Business Administration has approved over a thousand home loans to people with storm losses, totaling over $40 million, and many more loan applications are still pending.
So, how has FEMA performed in responding to Hurricane Sally? So far, pretty darn well. I want to thank FEMA Administrator Gaynor for coming down here so quickly after the storm and for FEMA’s quick and positive responses to all our requests. And I want to thank President Trump for his concern and quick response to Alabama’s requests for disaster declarations. Hurricane Sally was a brutal experience for us in Alabama, but FEMA’s response shows that government can do good things, helping people and communities when they really need it.
Opinion | An inspirational pick
Many progressives, it seems, claim to believe in the power of women, but only for women who think and talk like they do.
A century ago, the Suffragettes finally succeeded in winning the right to vote for women. They would be thrilled to see the nomination of a woman so uniquely qualified to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court as Judge Amy Coney Barrett, were they alive today. It’s easy to imagine them storming the streets of America and urging that Judge Barrett be confirmed, and by a wide margin.
After all, the four female justices nominated before her were confirmed with lopsided votes by the U.S. Senate: 99-0 for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, 68-31 for Justice Sonia Sotomayor, 63-37 for Justice Elena Kagan and 96-3 for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Sadly, it speaks to the times in which we are living that Judge Barrett’s vote by the Senate will most likely come down to a tight vote, with nearly every Democrat opposing her nomination.
As governors who are either the first or second females to be elected in our respective states, we are rightfully proud to see diversity expand among the highest levels of government. Notably, however, our support for Judge Barrett hinges not on her being a female, but rather her superior intellect, unflappable composure and impeccable integrity, all which combine to make her eminently qualified in every way.
Regretfully, we know – as do many others – that the climb for women into the upper echelon of American leadership has always been a bit steeper. After all, when was the last time a man’s haircut, the color of his tie or suit or the number of children in his family were scrutinized as part of the public discourse?
It is bittersweet that Judge Barrett followed her father’s advice that she could do anything her male counterparts could do, only better, and yet, sadly, millions of women appear to oppose her nomination simply because she interprets the law as-written, rather than siding with them on every issue. Is this the new standard for qualification?
Many progressives, it seems, claim to believe in the power of women, but only for women who think and talk like they do.
We applaud President Trump for choosing Judge Amy Coney Barrett for service on our nation’s highest court; she may well be one of the most qualified, extraordinary picks during the past century, and we urge the United States Senate to confirm her nomination in short order.
We especially like the direct answers Judge Barrett provided to two of the Senate Judiciary Committee members who questioned her last week.
When Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, suggested that Judge Barrett would vote in the same manner as the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative for whom she had clerked earlier in her career, she calmly responded, “I assure you I have my own mind.”
And when the Committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, asked her whether she believed that Medicare was unconstitutional, she cited the “Ginsburg Rule,” so named for the late justice she will be following, of providing “no hints, no previews, no forecasts.”
Perhaps one of the most powerful witnesses to speak in support of Judge Barrett was her former law student at Notre Dame, Laura Wolk.
Ms. Wolk is totally blind, but before pursuing the “impossible dream” of becoming the first blind law clerk at the Supreme Court last year, she was struggling with her classwork as a first-year law student, fearful of failing.
Laura recalled, “Judge Barrett leaned forward and looked at me intently. ‘Laura,’ she said, with the same measured conviction that we have seen displayed throughout her entire nomination process, ‘this is no longer your problem. It’s my problem.’”
Ms. Wolk went on to say that Judge Barrett helped her see a pathway to success. She said the Judge will “serve this country with distinction not only because of her intellectual prowess, but also because of her compassionate heart and her years of treating others as equals deserving of complete respect.”
When Judge Barrett raises her right hand to take the oath to “administer justice without respect to persons” and to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” it will be a win-win for every female – young and old alike during the past 100 years – who has dreamed of seeing women advance to the top positions of our government.
Moreover, it will be a signal to every little girl – and boy – that the most qualified individual will get the job.
Governors Kay Ivey of Alabama, Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Kim Reynolds of Iowa authored this column.
Opinion | Hearings give public opportunity to weigh in on coal ash plans
ADEM will make sure the closure and cleanup of the coal ash sites will be done in a way that will protect the state’s land and water resources now and in the future.
The mission of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management is to ensure for all Alabamians “a safe, healthful and productive environment.” It’s a mission that ADEM and its nearly 600 employees take very seriously.
Ensuring a safe, healthful and productive environment means more than simply being the environmental cop, though that certainly is part of ADEM’s job. When the Alabama Legislature passed legislation in 1982 that led to the creation of ADEM, lawmakers’ intent was for the agency to promote public health and well-being.
The term “healthful” in ADEM’s mission statement speaks directly to that. ADEM’s work is to contribute to the health of Alabama’s environment and the health of all Alabamians.
An example of that work is managing the process that will determine how coal combustion residuals (CCR) – or coal ash – are dealt with in a safe and effective manner. Managing CCR promotes a healthful environment by protecting our land and water.
On Oct. 20, ADEM will hold the first of a series of public hearings on permits drafted by ADEM to require electric utilities to safely close unlined coal ash ponds at their power plants and remediate any contaminated groundwater. The hearings, and the comment periods leading up to them, give the public the chance to provide ADEM input on the requirements in the draft permits.
To understand how we got to this point today, let’s go back to Dec. 22, 2008, in Kingston, Tenn. On that frigid night, the containment dike surrounding massive ponds holding decades worth of CCR produced by the coal-burning TVA power plant collapsed, spilling more than a billion gallons of coal ash sludge into the Emory River and onto 300 acres of land.
That spill drew the attention of regulators and the nation to the issue of coal ash storage, for which there was little regulation at the time. It also started the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the road to adopting a federal CCR rule, which took effect in 2015. The Alabama Environmental Management Commission approved a state CCR rule in 2018, patterned after the EPA rule.
The rules address two primary issues: closing coal ash ponds to 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.
Both the EPA and state rules give the electric utility operators two options in closing the ash ponds. One allowable method is to excavate the millions of tons of coal ash and either move the coal ash to a lined landfill or find an approved beneficial use for the ash. The other is to cap in place, where an impervious cover, or cap, is placed over the ash impoundment. Both methods have been used successfully for decades to close some of the most contaminated sites in the nation.
It must be emphasized that the closure method selection is made by the utilities, as allowed by both federal and state rules. Alabama Power, TVA and PowerSouth all elected to utilize the cap-in-place option.
The permits will also set out the steps to be taken to clean up contaminated groundwater caused by the coal ash ponds. ADEM’s job, in its environmental oversight role, is to ensure the closure and groundwater remediation plans proposed by the utilities and included in the permits meet federal and state standards and protect both waterways and groundwater. The permits provide for regular monitoring to confirm the closure and cleanup plans are being implemented as required. If necessary, the plans will be adjusted to ensure the intended results are being achieved.
Currently, ADEM has scheduled public hearings on the permits for three Alabama Power plants. The first is Oct. 20 for Plant Miller in Jefferson County, followed by Oct. 22 for Plant Greene County and Oct. 29 for Plant Gadsden in Etowah County. Permits for the other five sites in Alabama are in development, and hearings will be scheduled when they are complete.
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 plans(including the CCR unit closure component) and answer residents’ questions.
The draft permits, the hearings’ dates, locations and times and other information are available on ADEM’s website, www.adem.alabama.gov. The public can also mail or email comments related to the permits, including the closure plans and groundwater remediation plans, directly to ADEM during the proposed permits’ 35-day minimum comment periods, which will run one week past the date of the public hearings. Those comments will be considered in the decisions to issue the permits, and ADEM will provide a response to each issue raised.
For maximum protection of the environment, ADEM encouraged the power companies to go beyond the minimum requirements of the state and federal CCR rules. ADEM’s scientists and engineers who analyzed the plans through an exhaustive review and revision process determined the final plans provide the environmental protections Alabamians expect and deserve. But we want to hear from the public.
Certainly, there are pros and cons of each option in closing the coal ash ponds. The daunting task of cleaning up contaminated groundwater will be undertaken regardless of which closure method is utilized. As one opinion writer recently said, there is no easy answer to the coal ash problem. But this is a matter we cannot duck. We must deal with our coal combustion residuals – by EPA requirement and for the sake of our environment.
Here’s what you can count on from your state agency charged with protecting your environment. ADEM will make sure the closure and cleanup of the coal ash sites will be done in a way that will protect the state’s land and water resources now and in the future.
Ensuring that is our mission.