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Bill Britt

The 2014 Agenda: Doing Away with Oversight, Accountability, Scrutiny or Punishment

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—Last year, Senate Bill 122 was placed on the legislative calendar under the guise of “streamlining government.” In reality, the bill was an egregious power grab by the leadership of the Republican Supermajority. There is already a plan in place to bring the bill back before lawmakers in 2014.

Most senators, including the one who sponsored the bill, had little knowledge of what was in the actual legislation and even less about its undisclosed agenda.

If enacted, SB122 sponsored by Sen. Jimmy Holley (R-Elba) would have abolished longstanding institutions such as the Legislative Council, the Legislative Committee on Public Accounts, the Joint Fiscal Committee, the Legislative Building Authority, and the Permanent Legislative Committee on Reapportionment.

In essence, if passed into law, SB122 would have given almost all oversight of the legislature services as well as the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts into the hands of a small number of legislators.

Even more troubling, those members would serve at the whim of the Speaker of the House and the Senate President Pro Tem giving them unchecked powers. Their budgets, expenditures, and all processes would become a black hole in which the Speaker and Pro Tem could act with impunity.

This year, the legislature is looking to add another level of “self-protection” to not only its leadership, but for all members of the Legislative body. This comes in the form of a pair of bills HB34 and HB35 that would first, “require each department and agency of the Alabama Legislature to notify in writing each member of the Legislature whenever a legal action is instituted against the department or agency or any of their employees acting in their official capacity, and to post the notice on the Internet website of the Alabama Legislature.”

Secondly, it would make all communications between, “the Legislature and an officer or the Legislature is privileged and confidential.” This legislation coming from Democrat Joseph Mitchell.

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These three bills taken together would create a governmental body that would be beyond investigation or punishment.

Law enforcement would not be able to call a legislator or anyone on their staff or another legislative personal to give testimony against anyone in the State House.

It would also give legislators a “heads-up,” if any investigation was initiated.

But, much of this would never happen because under SB122, the Office of Public Examiner would be without the ability to investigate public offices because of the influence of the legislative leadership.

In the case of the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts, a handful of legislators could decide the fate of any investigation by the public examiners.

Currently, the department is an independent auditing agency according to its state website, the department has, “the authority to perform audits of the accounts of all entities receiving or disbursing public funds.”

The men and women who make-up the department are the watch dogs against public corruption at every level of state and local government.

Many investigations by the Attorney General, various District Attorneys and Federal law-enforcement are a result of an audit conducted by the Office of the Public Examiner. The finding of an examiner’s audit is used as “prima facie” evidence in court proceedings.

What should be frightening to anyone who cares about honest government is that SB122 eliminates the autonomy and independence of the Chief Examiner’s office and places it under the legislators, who can manipulate the process. This is a case of passing a law that would allow the foxes to guard the hen house. In the right hands, SB122 would allow a particular party to decide who is investigated, or what information would see the light of day. This bill would also strip the  employees of the Examiners of Public Accounts of their merit system status making them vulnerable to firings at the whim of the legislators.

Without the audits performed by the Examiners of Public Accounts, the Jefferson County sewer debacle would never have been prosecuted. Also, Roy Johnson and the criminal activities within Alabama’s two-year college system would have never been revealed.

SB122 opens the door for corruption while closing the door on how the government uncovers public corruption.

Under existing law, the auditors at the department enjoy the protection of Merit pay.

Under SB122, that will be removed.

Last year when asked about SB122 and the removal of merit pay from the public examiners office  Gov. Bentley said, “I believe that the public accounts office should be under the merit system and not be beholden unto a group of twelve because they need to be independent.” He added “They need to feel like they can make judgments independently.”

The group the Governor is referring to is the junta that would be created by the Speaker and the Senate President Pro Tem under SB122.

The Governor said that he believed that it concentrated too much power into the hands of too few people.

He also said, “I have not heard any complaints on how the system is working right now, so I am just wondering why you change a system that is working well?”

But the hidden agenda behind much of the so-called consolidation legislation is simply an attempt to concentrate unlimited power into the hands of a few, while also giving them the ability to act without fear of investigation or prosecution.

One little known fact is that the House amended SB122 to give sole authority to grant press credentials to the Speaker of the House and the Lt. Governor. Under the current rules, the non-partisan Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House have the authority to grant press credentials to members of the media.

But, so outraged were some in the Republican Supermajority at the reporting of the Alabama Political Reporter that the amendment was added and championed by Rep. Greg Wren (R-Montgomery) and was referred to by many as the “Britt Amendment.”

The goal of these bills is to shield the Legislative body from oversight, accountability, scrutiny or punishment.

If these bills pass, the result will be a carnival of lies, law breaking, coercion, threats, bribes, misappropriations of tax dollars and more.

This appears to be the exact intention of the Republican Supermajority.

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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Bill Britt

Opinion | Fear not, fight on and don’t faint

Bill Britt

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The spread of COVID-19 in Alabama is worse today than it was yesterday, and in all likelihood, it will be more devastating tomorrow.

The realities of the moment challenge us to be strong, resilient and persistent.

On Sunday, the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections in the state passed 1,800, with 45 reported deaths. Those numbers represent real people, our fellow citizens, friends and loved ones.

The latest figures coming from the state may be only a hint of what’s next.

More of us will survive this disease than succumb to it, but we will all feel it, even naysayers and deniers.

The fight against this pathogen is not a sprint that will end swiftly; it is a marathon. Therefore, perseverance is critical. In sports, as in life, perseverance separates the winners from the losers.

Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

As a state and a nation, the times demand we keep going without fear.

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These are not the worst of times; these are trying times that will pass. This is not a happy talk but a message from history. History teaches that humans are adaptive and, therefore, survivors.

It doesn’t mean that horrible things aren’t happening; they are.

People are sick, some are dying, but all the while along with doctors, nurses and health care providers, there is a legion of ordinary Alabamians doing simple things that in the context of this calamity are extraordinary.

Individuals who deliver groceries, stock shelves and cook take out are putting themselves at risk so others can eat. The same can be said of thousands that are keeping essential services open.

These individuals are displaying the very essence of perseverance — the will to push forward when it would be easier to quit.

In George S. Patton’s speech to the Third Army during World War II, he delivered many memorable lines that are not easily quoted in a general publication. Patton was fond of profanity. But many apply to our current situation.

“Sure, we all want to go home. We want to get this war over with. But you can’t win a war lying down,” Patton said.

We will win if we don’t give in and don’t quit.

This isn’t hell for all, but it is for some.

Now is a time for each of us to do what we can to ensure that we all survive.

My mother was fond of quoting scripture and sometimes with her own unique twist.

Galatians 6:9 was one of her go-to verses.

“And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap if we faint not.”

She would say, “Now, that doesn’t mean you won’t get woozy, or that you won’t need to take a knee. It says don’t faint — never give up.”

Then she would round it off with, “‘Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,’ to heck with the flesh, it will follow where the mind tells it to.”

What we do now will determine who we will be as a state and nation once this pandemic subsides. Will we be better, stronger, and more humane, or will we further cocoon into tribes who are weaker, disparate and frightened?

Fear not, fight on and don’t faint.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Take action, lead

Bill Britt

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My wife and I lived in New York City on 9/11 and heard the first plane roar overhead before crashing into tower one of the World Trade Center. That act of terror was swift, startling and violent.

COVID-19 is a slow-burning fire consuming resources, businesses and most terribly, lives.

Any reasonable person knows that now is a time to take decisive actions, big and small.

In the days following the attacks of 9/11, our leaders followed a steady drumbeat to war, a war that still lingers.

Today, there is no one to battle except the virus itself, and anyone with eyes to see and a mind to reason understands that our nation and state were ill-prepared to lead the charge.

This doesn’t mean that government leaders aren’t trying; it simply means at varying levels they were not ready.

In the aftermath of 9/11, some excused the government’s ineptitude to detect the plot against the United States as a failure of imagination.

But a few weeks after the terrorist attack, I met with a top insurance executive who said that their company had gamed out a scenario where two fully fuel 747s would be highjacked and crashed into each other over the island of Manhattan setting the entire city ablaze.

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It was not a failure of imagination, just as the coronavirus outbreak isn’t either. In both cases, it was inaction.

Winston Churchill said, “I never worry about action, but only inaction.” Our leaders have been slow to act. He also said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”

So it is again, there is nothing new under the sun.

It’s easy to sit back and critique, second guess and rattle off to anyone who will listen to how you would have done it differently. Armchair pundits and Monday morning quarterbacks are always in abundance.

Leadership is rare and only in times of real human crisis do we see who is up for the challenge.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the famous line from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961. “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Alabamians may not know how to shelter-in-place, but we do know how to hunker down for a spell.

What we don’t do very well is nothing.

At APR, we are busier than ever trying to inform the public on the ever-expanding calamity accurately. We neither seek to sensationalize or trivialize the news.

Daily, my concern is for the people of our state, the human toll this crisis will reap.

Yes, the economy is essential, but jobs and businesses can be replaced. Who can replace a human life?

No one knows when this pandemic will subside or what cost we will pay for early missteps, but every life saved is a victory and every life lost should weigh heavily on our souls.

The Biblical account of Job is rich in its instruction about loss and suffering. Job’s family, home, and business were all destroyed, but afterward, they were restored by a devine second chance.

And what did Job do to break the chain of misfortune?

“And the LORD restored Job’s losses when he prayed for his friends. Indeed the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before.” KJV Job 42:10.

If you don’t pray, think about your friends and wish for their well-being.

All across our state, prayers and well wishes I’m sure are raining down.

We are all in the midst of a potential catastrophe of unknown proportions.

Yes, the government can do more and they must, but each of us should do what we can to help others as well. We must all lead in our own way.

The people of our nation and state are rising to the occasion, but still, many are in denial and they are adding to the problem.

Leadership is not an elected or appointed position; it is a choice; leaders stand up and lead.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Have hope

Bill Britt

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Healthcare professionals and scientists seem to indicate that we are closer to the beginning of the COVID-19 calamity than at the middle or the end.

But even in times of real human crisis, hope isn’t dead but remains a vital thread in the fabric of what we know as the human spirit.

In his eighth State of the Union address in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon.”

This is part of the message Roosevelt relayed to the American people as he prepared the nation to enter World War II.

Across the nation and here in Alabama, everyone is experiencing disruption to daily life.

Worry, doubt and fear is everywhere as minute-by-minute bad news rolls in like a spring deluge.

“Hope Springs Eternal,” is a phrase from the Alexander Pope poem An Essay on Man in which he wrote:

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast;

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Man never Is, but always To be blest.

The soul, uneasy, and confin’d from home,

Rests and expatiates in a life to come.”

“Hope is, of course, the belief one holds during difficult circumstances that things will get better,” writes Saul Levine M.D., Professor Emeritus in Psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego in Psychology Today. “It is unique to our species because it requires words and thoughts to contemplate possible future events.”

Dr. Levine concludes that hope is the very nature of the optimism that drives us to work toward overcoming.

“It has religious meaning for believers in God, who through prayer trust that their future will be protected by their Deity,” said Levine. “But the presence of hope is secular and universal, and serves as a personal beacon, much like a lighthouse beckoning us during periods of darkness and stormy seas.”

There is a reason for alarm as the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been uneven, ineffectual and at times bordering on dereliction of its duty.

For years, there has been a movement to shrink government to a size where it can be drowned in a bathtub. The response by the federal government to the COVID-19 outbreak is a manifestation of that thinking.

Except for Gov. Kay Ivey, most state officials have remained near mute or totally silent during the crisis. Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth has offered encouragement. Still, others seem to be in hiding except for a few Republicans who have sought to politicize the moment by criticizing U.S. Sen. Doug Jones and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

These times call for decisive leadership, frank words about the realities facing our State but not political pandering.

Diseases like COVID-19 are not partisan, seeing neither Democrat or Republican. The State’s political leaders—the real ones—need to offer solutions, not partisan finger pointing.

Gov. Kay Ivey and her staff are doing their best, Press Secretary Gina Maiola is keeping the press informed almost hourly, likewise Communications Director Leah Garner is guiding the governor’s message so that the public is informed. Health officer, Dr. Scott Harris’, briefings are realistic, sobering and needed. Ivey’s chief of staff, Jo Bonner, is a steady hand quietly and methodically aiding the governor and the various agencies who need support.

There have been missteps and blunders, but the governor’s office is meeting a Herculean challenge with calm and efficiency.

If good intentions and best efforts are worth anything, if giving it one’s all is the best any of us can do, then Gov. Ivey and her staff deserve appreciation.

The situations in the State will worsen before it is better.

No one knows how long COVID-19 will plague our State, but be assured that hope and faith beat worry and fear every time.

In what has become known as the “Four Freedoms Speech,” FDR also had a message for the world. “Men of every creed and every race, wherever they lived in the world” are entitled to “Four Freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Our present danger will pass and we will once again need to work to preserve the four freedoms that FDR spoke about so many years ago.

Hope is one of our greatest assets in times like these. Please remain safe, have courage and believe that better days are ahead.

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Bill Britt

Analysis | Alabama Power is keeping the lights on for everyone, that’s not enough for some

Bill Britt

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Alabama Power Company last week announced that it had not and would not disconnect any of its utility customers during the COVID-19 crisis. That commitment was not enough for the environmental group GASP or Energy Alabama.

That was the simple story I was writing when the absurdity of the situation dawned on me.

This is no time to politicize a crisis.

The hardworking women and men at Alabama Power are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 battlefield making sure the citizens and businesses of the state have reliable energy despite the dangers posed by the coronavirus virus.

Since the Governor’s emergency declaration Alabama Power has determined that there would be no disconnects and no late fees.

“We have not terminated service for any customer since the declaration of emergency by the state,” wrote APCO spokesperson Michael Sznajderman to APR. “It has been our policy since that declaration that no customer financially affected by this health crisis will experience a service interruption.”

But GASP and Energy Alabama want Alabama Power to do more for customers impacted by COVID-19. Alabama Power has said it will work with each customer who has been affected by the crisis with no disruption of service and no late fees.

But again, that is not enough for GASP and Energy Alabama.

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Electrical power is an essential resource, so is food and gasoline, but no one is demanding that Publix or Exxon-Mobile provide groceries and fuel without payment. And neither has a food chain or filling station offered a free supply of gas or groceries until the end of this critical period.

For any individual or group to demand free gas and food would be seen as absurd, but somehow utilities should shoulder the burden, and they do.

For those who cannot pay their utility bills, Alabama Power is giving what amounts to an interest-free loan.

Credit card companies are still charging interests and late fees and no customers are being able to spend without limits, but that is what Alabama Power is doing for its customers.

However well-meaning these demands being made by GASP and Energy Alabama are, they seem to be more political than practical.

But Alabama Power has been a target of political grandstanding since Gov. George C. Wallace determined that racist rhetoric wasn’t enough to win every election and he needed a “cause” to fight for the common man. Wallace vilified Alabama Power for political gain, nearly bankrupting the company along the way.

All good populist crusades need a villain to rail against, synthesizing the fight to a David versus Goliath trial with the populist as the champion.

Of course, most times when a journalist slams Alabama Power, the left cheers, but if anyone dares to point out facts that might agree with the utilities company’s position, they must be on the take.

How silly and cynical is the world of politics where everything is conspiratorial and everyone is getting paid?

At APR, we present arguments left, right and center and when we see injustice or absurdities, we are not afraid to speak.

Alabama Power is a big company that employs thousands of Alabamians and for decades, it has been the foil of politicians, environmentalists and others.

Right now, Alabama Power’s employees are working tirelessly to keep the lights on for every citizen and business in the state.

Now is not a time for political grandstanding or seeking a fight where none truly exists.

Alabama Power has said it will not disconnect any customer or charge late fees and will work with those who need help once the crisis passes.

For now, “Always on” is a reassurance to every citizen who is out of work or struggling to make ends meet in this challenging time.

GASP and Energy Alabama may have a role to play, but during these trying times, we are better if we work together for our community and not our political causes.

Since publishing this article Alabama Power issued a more definitive statement view here. 

 

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