By Congressman Jo Bonner
This is the last column I will write as your congressman. As such, I hope you’ll permit a few reflections on the journey, as well as acknowledge some of the seeds that have been planted along the way.
As you may recall, my father died when I was 13, leaving my mother – and a few years later, a step-father – the responsibility to help keep me on the straight and narrow.
Like many young boys in a similar situation, I was blessed to be surrounded by a whole bunch of really good people who had a hand in influencing me to make more good decisions than bad.
Teachers, ministers, my wonderful sister, Judy, and brother Jim, and, of course, family and friends… they all played a major role in those early years. I’ve often said I might have been a 9th grade dropout, because I really didn’t understand the importance of conjugating a verb, had it not been for Mrs. Margaret Thornton, the school librarian, and Mrs. Barbara Kelley, my English teacher, who saw far more potential in me than I saw in myself.
Throughout the years, that circle of friends would thankfully grow.
During the summer of my junior year at The University of Alabama, I had a rare opportunity to intern for a man who would go on to influence me for the rest of my life; someone who, even then, I looked up to as a true statesman, Congressman Jack Edwards.
A day after graduation in May of ‘82, I set out to try to help a family friend, Lieutenant Governor George McMillan, be elected Governor of Alabama. Along the campaign trail that hot summer, I was introduced to another man who would also go on to have a profoundly positive impact on my life, then-State Senator Sonny Callahan, who was running for Lieutenant Governor.
Like George, Sonny’s race didn’t turn out so well. But two years later, when Sonny ran for Congress with Jack Edwards’ strong encouragement, I saddled my journalistic talents – that only a few years before I didn’t even know existed – to a real jewel of a man.
Sonny Callahan went on to be elected to Congress in November of ’84 and, as the old saying goes, the rest is history. First as his press secretary and later as his chief of staff, Congressman Callahan afforded me the opportunity to work side-by-side for one of the best. Not only was he a tremendous mentor, he soon became like a second father.
Eighteen years later, both Sonny and Jack played an integral role in helping me become only the third person to represent South Alabama in Congress since 1964. I know in my heart if Daddy were alive today, he would be so incredibly proud that his son would be inspired to do good for so many others because of the outstanding examples set by Jack Edwards and Sonny Callahan.
Since this is a column, not a book, there obviously isn’t enough space to thank all the many other people by name – mayors, probate judges, state legislators, editors and reporters, chamber officials, and countless civic leaders. There were a lot of “just friends” as well.
Without question, one and all helped make these years in elected office unforgettable to say the least.
Along the way, the people of Alabama’s First Congressional District have afforded my staff and me an opportunity to come into your homes – and into a lot of your hearts – and be a part of your families. Somehow we have managed to survive two monster hurricanes, Ivan in 2004 and Katrina a year later, the most awful recession since the Great Depression, a war in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, not to mention the worst oil spill in U.S. history. And that’s just been during my 10 ½ years as your congressman.
During this time, we’ve also worked together, as I said at the top of this column, to plant a few seeds that will hopefully bear fruit for a long, long time. Make no mistake, landing Airbus last year, getting ThyssenKrupp in 2007 and obtaining the contracts for new Navy ships at Austal in 2010 were all transformational moments that have – and will continue to – change South Alabama for the better.
Throw in passage of the RESTORE Act in 2012, as well as funding for Highways 83 and 84, a new Federal Courthouse for Mobile that, I predict, will soon be under construction, as well as some solid investments at the Mitchell Cancer Center at The University of South Alabama, to name just a few legislative highlights, and we’ve tried with all our might to make good use of the time we’ve had.
As everyone knows, a good coach doesn’t win a championship unless he or she is surrounded by great people. And as I close this column for the last time, I would be extremely remiss in not mentioning, by name, the men and women with whom I have had the pleasure of working on your behalf for all these years.
While the names Al Spencer, Eliska Morgan, Landra Day, Frazier Payne, Jon Hand, Bryan Parker, Allison Clark, Rachel Kaiser, Marcy Pack, Suzannah Weeks, Errical Bryant, Nancy Tippins, Kelle Strickland, Mike Sharp, Michael Galloway, Brad Hicks, Watson Donald, Luke Strange, Matt Weinstein, Kristen Morris, Matt Rhodes, Nancy Wall, Mike Lewis, Elizabeth Roney, Jill Chenoweth, Jeanne Cabe, Kay Williams, Brooks Chew, Brandy Jackson, Courtney Soward, Dixie Patrick, Jessica Sheppard, Ashley Nichols and Kristi Broadfoot might not be household names to you, these extremely talented, dedicated public servants have, over varying amounts of time during the past decade, worked their hearts out for the people of South Alabama.
Oftentimes standing in the shadows of a spotlight cast on someone else, their unselfish service and unquestionable loyalty to South Alabama made anything I was able to accomplish possible. I owe each one of them more than mere words can convey.
Finally, I must thank my beautiful wife, Janée, and our two wonderful children, Lee, almost 18 and Robins, 15, for their love, support and encouragement.
It’s not always easy being the spouse or child of someone in public life. Sometimes my vote on a controversial piece of legislation, or an answer to a question at a town meeting that ends up making the local news, can cause a case of severe heartburn around the family dinner table.
Lee was seven and Robins was four when Speaker Hastert administered the Oath of Office to me in January of 2003. But like it should be for all parents, our daughter and son are God’s greatest blessing to Janée and me.
Lastly, I must thank you, my bosses.
It never mattered to me whether you were a Democrat or Republican, black or white, liberal or conservative, for I have always looked upon the 670,000 people who lived in Alabama’s First Congressional District as the people who employed me.
Even when we disagreed, and there were those times, I hope I never embarrassed you – I certainly tried my best not to – and I trust you will always know that being only the fifth person, during the past 95 years, to wear the title of “Representative” in the U.S. House from Southwest Alabama will always, and forever, be one of life’s greatest honors.
Janée joins me in saying thank you. May God bless you and your family. And may God always bless the greatest nation on the face of the earth, The United States of America.
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.