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State Still in General Fund Budget Chaos

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

In February, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) announced that the State faced a general fund budget shortfall and his answer to that would be to raise taxes.

Gov. Bentley said then, “We have to face the problems and we have to do it with boldness. I am going to present a plan to the legislature to do it.  I am going to push for it.”

Eventually, Bentley proposed $541 million in tax increases.  While Bentley found a bipartisan group of sponsors for his agenda none of his bills have progressed very far in the legislature.

On Monday, April 27, Gov. Bentley spoke to the Chamber of Commerce in Cullman County:

“We are facing a tremendous crisis in our General Fund Budget that will impact every Alabama County if not addressed by the Alabama Legislature.  I am committed to finding new revenue so our State agencies can continue to provide essential services to Alabamians. For decades, we have failed to address the way our non-education state agencies are funded.  With no one-time money available to support the General Fund and debts that are owed, we have a real crisis on our hands…Now is the time for real solutions to address our budget challenges.  I was elected to solve problems, and I urge members of the Legislature to work with me to put this State on a successful path forward.  By working together, we can make Alabama better for future generations.”

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While Bentley found a bipartisan group of sponsors for his agenda, none of his bills have progressed very far in the legislature; which has been very skeptical about both the problem and the Bentley’s solution.

There is a General Fund Budget that is before the legislature with no revenue increases that would mean deep cuts to just about everything in the General Fund.

Governor Bentley said in Cullman: “The Alabama Legislature is considering a proposal that deeply cuts funding for State services. Each State agency was created by law to provide specific services to taxpayers.  If enacted, these cuts will put the State in a position incapable of providing many of the essential services of government.”

State Senator Phil Williams (R-Rainbow City) said:

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“I have said all along that I do not favor raising taxes on Alabamians and I stand by that. The problem is not whether we have enough revenue (we do), the problem is how our current revenue is spent, appropriated, allocated, and earmarked. A change must be made to allow the State to do business like a business.”

On Monday, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) offered a solution that was first proposed by state House Minority Leader Craig Ford (D-Gadsden).  Sen. Marsh is proposing starting a State lottery, signing a compact with the Poarch Creek Indians allowing them to operate in the state in exchange for a share of the revenue, and allowing gaming at Victoryland, Greene Track, the Birmingham Race Course, and the Mobile Dog Track.

Former Gov. Bob Riley (R) had shut down electronic bingo at those facilities during his last term in office after the courts ruled that Alabama Law did not allow electronic bingo machines. The Poarch Creek casinos have been able to stay open to this point because the Federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs maintains that they have jurisdiction over Indian gaming and PCI’s operations are legal……an opinion disputed by Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange (R).

Senator Marsh claimed in a statement, “These two ideas will generate hundreds of millions of new dollars for State programs at a time when essential government services may be cut.  And 11,000 new jobs that will positively impact families throughout our State.”

Sen. Marsh said, “At a time when we are talking about either massive budgets cuts or higher taxes, this is certainly something we need to take a look at and consider,” he said.  “I’m not sure there are any ideas out there that can create 11,000 new jobs while generating that kind of revenue for State government.”

Meanwhile according to original reporting by the Montgomery Advertiser’s Bryan Lyman and Josh Moon, the Poarch Creek Band of Indians are telling legislators that they would prefer an exclusive arrangement with the State that would generate $250 million a year for State revenues.

Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) wrote on Facebook, “Interesting. Poarch Creek Indians offer to bail out State with $250 million if the state will not allow any further gambling — just the present Indian operations. No more.”

State Senator Paul L. Sanford (R) said:

“There are three or four Republicans that are willing to filibuster a lottery/gaming bill, yet they offer no options. Ideas they would rather raise your taxes and protect the Indian Bingo machines.  Ask all Republicans to support SB12 my Recurring Revenue Bill that would shift approx. $150 million in excess revenue to the General Fund. That’s right. I said it. Excess Revenue. Otherwise this money goes into the Stabilization Fund. Seems like a good time to stabilize our budgets while looking to the future with the Recurring Revenue Act.”

Rep. Craig Ford wrote Sunday, “On the one hand, I’m glad to see Republicans embracing the Democratic Party’s legislative agenda. A lottery has been a part of Democrats’ platform for decades, and I’ve been proud to sponsor the lottery bill every year since I became Minority Leader.   On the other hand, it’s a sad statement on the extreme partisanship in Montgomery. Even after Rep. Steve Clouse, the Republican chairman of the General Fund budget committee, signed on as a co-sponsor of my lottery bill, the Republican leadership in the legislature still couldn’t bear to support a Democrat’s bill. Instead, they will take my lottery bill and Rep. Thomas Jackson’s (D-Thomasville) resolution authorizing the governor to negotiate a compact with the Poarch Creek Indians, and combine them into one Senate bill just so they can say it’s a Republican bill instead of a Democrats’ bill.  This kind of behavior is downright childish and insulting to the taxpayers! I think most people would agree they’d rather have a lottery and compact than more taxes. Political Party shouldn’t even enter into the equation!”

2010 was the last time the state legislature seriously considered a gambling bill.  The bill passed the then Democratic controlled state Senate but stalled in the House when it was revealed that the FBI was investigating gambling magnates and legislators on bribery and conspiracy charges.

Most people support an education lottery like Georgia’s, where the lottery proceeds pay for college scholarships. The proposed lottery and gambling expansion will be used for Alabama Medicaid, prisons, courts, State troopers, and other general fund agencies.  Without any direct benefit for them or their families it is questioned by some if a lottery and expanded gaming can even pass a vote of the electorate.

The Alabama Policy Institute (API) opposes the gaming expansion.  API’s Katherine G Robinson and Caleb Crosby wrote, “API has proposed or supported a number of ideas that, if implemented, would help fill the budget gap. We’ve researched and recommended various cost-saving reforms to our public pensions, Medicaid prescription reform, eliminating vacant positions within state government, privatizing ABC and bidding out various nonessential government services, exploring tax amnesty to generate revenue already owed to the State, and bringing health insurance premiums of State employees more in balance with those of private sector workers. Some of these ideas are making their way through the legislature and some are not. All of them would be challenging to pass-they are all disfavored by one group or another–but none of them exploit the poor.  Using the excuse of a budget shortfall to pave the way for more gambling is irresponsible, the effects of which would plague our State long past the political careers of those leading this charge.”

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Department of Justice sues Ashland Housing Authority alleging racial discrimination

“AHA has engaged in a pattern or practice of race discrimination by steering applicants to housing communities based on race,” the complaint alleges. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday filed a lawsuit alleging that the Housing Authority of Ashland violated the Fair Housing Act by intentionally discriminating against Black people who applied for housing because of their race.

The DOJ in its complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, names as defendants the Housing Authority of Ashland, the Southern Development Company of Ashland Ltd., Southern Development Company of Ashland #2 Ltd. and Southern Development Company LLC, which are the private owners and managing agent of one of those housing complexes.

The department’s complaint alleges that the Ashland Housing Authority denied Black applicants the opportunity to live in overwhelmingly white housing complexes on the city’s East Side, while steering white applicants away from properties whose residents were predominantly Black in the West Side. The AHA operates seven public housing communities spread across both areas, according to the complaint.

“From at least 2012 to the present, AHA has engaged in a pattern or practice of race discrimination by steering applicants to housing communities based on race and by maintaining a racially segregated housing program,” the complaint alleges.

The federal government states in the complaint that as of June 2018, 69 percent of all AHA tenants were white, but 99 percent of tenants at Ashland Heights, on the East Side, were white, 92 percent of tenants at another East Side community were white and 91 percent of tenants at yet another East Side housing development were white.

Similar disparities were seen in public housing communities in the West Side, the complaint states.

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AHA kept separate waiting lists for both segregated areas, the complaint alleges and allowed applicants who decline offers of housing “without showing good cause, even when they decline offers for race-based reasons,” to maintain their position on the waiting list, in violation of AHA’s own policies intended to prevent race discrimination.

“On April 11, 1968, one week after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the United States enacted the Fair Housing Act to outlaw race, color and other forms of discrimination in housing. Denying people housing opportunities because of their race or color is a shameful and blatant violation of the Fair Housing Act,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division in a statement. “The United States has made great strides toward Dr. King’s dream of a nation where we will be judged by content of our character and not by the color of our skin.”

“The dream remains at least partially unfulfilled because we have not completely overcome the scourge of racial bias in housing,” Dreiband continued. “Discrimination by those who receive federal taxpayer dollars to provide housing to lower-income applicants is particularly odious because it comes with the support and authority of government. The United States Department of Justice will not stand for this kind of unlawful and intolerable discrimination. The Justice Department will continue to fight to protect the rights of all Americans to rent and own their homes without regard to their race or color.”

U.S. Attorney Prim F. Escalona for the Northern District of Alabama said in a statement that individuals and families should not have their rights affected by their race or national origin. “Our office is committed to defending the civil rights of everyone,” Escalona said.

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The lawsuit seeks damages to compensate victims, civil penalties to the government to vindicate the public interest and a court order barring future discrimination and requiring action to correct the effects of the defendants’ discrimination.

The DOJ in a press release encouraged those who believe they have been victims of housing discrimination at the defendants’ properties should contact the department toll-free at 1-800-896-7743, mailbox 9997, or by email at [email protected] Individuals who have information about this or another matter involving alleged discrimination may submit a report online at civilrights.justice.gov.

The DOJ in August the U.S. Housing and Urban Development determined that the Decatur Housing Authority was disallowing Black people to live in public housing located in riverfront towers while requiring Black people to live in less attractive apartments elsewhere.

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Economy

Clean water advocates want a comprehensive water plan for Alabama that creates jobs

Under new leadership, a plan for preserving clean water and fair access to it may be within reach in Alabama.

Micah Danney

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Environmentalists are optimistic about making progress on water resource issues and the state’s climate change preparedness under the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden and next Congress, particularly because the president-elect is indicating that economic gains go hand-in-hand with protecting the environment.

“It’s really exciting to see the Biden administration put jobs in the same conversation with their climate and environmental policies, because for too long there has been that false argument that jobs and the environment don’t go together — that you can’t have a regulated business sector and create jobs,” said Cindy Lowry, executive director of Alabama Rivers Alliance.

On a recent post-election call with other advocates, Lowry said that the current policy outlook reinforced the importance of voting. There have been some steps forward for conservation during the presidency of Donald Trump, she said, like the president’s signing of the Great American Outdoors Act in August, but the administration has prioritized industry interests.

Under new leadership, a plan for preserving clean water and fair access to it may be within reach in Alabama.

“We have spent so much time and energy as a movement trying to defend and basically just hold the line against so many of the rollbacks, and now we can focus on moving forward on certain areas,” Lowry said.

Julian Gonzalez, a clean water advocate with the nonprofit Earthjustice in Washington D.C., said on the call that the incoming Congress will be the “most environmentally aware Congress we’ve had.” Still, the real work remains.

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“Everything needs to be one conversation, and you should be able to go call your Congressperson and say, ‘How are you going to fix America’s water problem?’ and they should have an answer, but right now that’s not the case,” Gonzalez said.

For Alabama’s water advocates, priorities are what to do with coal ash, how to prepare for droughts and flooding, improvements to water and wastewater infrastructure and providing relief to communities that have been affected by environmental degradation.

While production of coal ash has reduced due mostly to market-driven decreases in the burning of coal, enough facilities still use it that Alabama is developing its own permitting process and regulations for storing it. The Biden administration can provide leadership on the issue, Lowry said.

While many people associate water issues with drought, Lowry said the topic encompasses much more than that. Pipes that contain lead need to be replaced. There’s plenty of water, she said, but the state needs a comprehensive water plan that prepares communities for drought management, especially as more farmers use irrigation, which uses more water.

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Her organization has been working toward a state plan that can ensure fair access to water without depleting the environment of what it needs to remain stable.

With the increased frequency and intensity of storms being attributed to climate change, water infrastructure will need to be upgraded, Lowry said. Many communities rely on centralized treatment centers to handle their wastewater, and many of those facilities are overburdened and experience spills. Storms and flash floods push old pipes and at-capacity centers past their breaking points — pipes leak or burst and sewage pits overflow.

Lowry said that there has been some progress in recent years on funding infrastructure upgrades in communities and states. It’s a more bipartisan conversation than other environmental issues, and communities that have been hit hard by multiple storms are starting to have new ideas about how to rebuild themselves to better withstand the effects of climate change.

Still, Alabama’s preparedness efforts are all reactionary, which is why a comprehensive water plan is a priority, she said.

“Policies like that — proactive policies that are really forward-thinking about how we will make decisions if we do run into challenges with our environment — are something that this state has not been very strong on,” she said.

Lowry hopes for more emphasis on environmental justice, with official agencies working more with local municipalities to provide relief to communities hurt by pollution and weather events. Such problems are characteristic of the Birmingham area, where Lowry is based, and the Black Belt.

She wants to see stronger permitting processes for industry projects and easier access to funding for cleanups in communities that need them. North Birmingham activists have been trying for years to get a Superfund site there on the Superfund National Priorities List.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to address these problems, Lowry said. Having multiple avenues for access to funding is important so that all communities have options. Smaller communities can’t always pay back loans, so they need access to grants.

Lowry emphasized that new jobs must be created without exacerbating climate change. Although Alabama tends to look to heavy industry for economic gains, she said she’s hopeful that a different approach by the Biden administration will trickle to the state level.

Lowry also said that conversations about climate change in Alabama have to be put in terms of what is happening in Alabama.

For her and other environmentalists working in the Deep South, it’s all about relationships and establishing trust. The environment becomes a less partisan issue when you focus on the basics, she said, because everyone wants clean water.

“I’ve found it much more easy to have conversations with elected officials at the state level in places like Alabama, where people do kind of grow up a little closer to nature and conservation, and [by] just kind of meeting people where they are,” Lowry said.

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Governor issues statement urging school systems to return for in-person learning

The governor urged local school districts to resume in-person instruction.

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Gov. Kay Ivey held a Coronavirus update Press Conference Wednesday September 30, 2020 in Montgomery, Ala. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday issued the following statement, urging schools to resume in-person instruction.

“Due to COVID-19, 2020 has been an extremely challenging year for everyone, especially for our parents, teachers and students. I’m extremely grateful for the flexibility everyone has shown as they have adapted to virtual instruction,” Ivey said. “However, virtual and remote instruction are stop-gap measures to prevent our students from regressing academically during the pandemic. These practices cannot — and should not — become a permanent part of instructional delivery system in 2021. As we are learning more about COVID-19, we are seeing more and more clear evidence pointing out that our students are safe in the classroom with strong health protocols in place.”

“There are nearly 9,800 fewer students enrolled statewide in this academic year and a five percent reduction in students on the kindergarten level,” Ivey said. “This will not only result in a critical learning loss for our students today but will also likely lead to an equally negative impact on the readiness of our workforce in years to come.”

Additionally, it could have an equally important economic loss that affects funding for classrooms and teacher units, according to the governor.

“As we begin the holiday season and contemplate a return to a normalcy in 2021, I strongly urge our education leadership on both the state and local levels to return to in-person instruction as soon as possible,” she said. “My Administration will work with Dr. Mackey, all of our local superintendents and the Legislature to ensure that our kids are back in the classroom in 2021. Our employers, our families, our communities, Alabama’s taxpayers, and most importantly, our students, deserve nothing less.”

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News

Energy Institute of Alabama names Alabama Transportation Institute’s Parrish as senior policy adviser

Alabama Transportation Institute Executive Director Allen Parrish is the newest senior policy adviser for the organization.

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Allen Parrish

The Energy Institute of Alabama is pleased to welcome Alabama Transportation Institute Executive Director Allen Parrish as the newest senior policy adviser for the organization.

In this role, Parrish will provide expert guidance to EIA to continue serving as the leading voice and advocate for public policies that ensure reliable, affordable and clean energy for Alabamians.

“The addition of Dr. Parrish’s experience, expertise and voice as a Senior Policy Advisor will greatly benefit EIA for years to come. His accomplishments speak for themselves, and we are grateful for his vision and ongoing commitment to the people and economy of Alabama,” said EIA Chairman Seth Hammett.

Parrish began his career at the University of Alabama, where he worked for 26 years as a professor of computer science and ultimately served as the founding director of the Center for Advanced Public Safety.

In 2016, Parrish left the university to become the founding chair of the Cyber Security Program at the U.S. Naval Academy. He most recently served as the associate vice president for research at Mississippi State University before coming back to Alabama as ATI executive director in February 2020.

“Here at the Alabama Transportation Institute, we are focused on innovative research solutions to build and maintain a transportation system that propels Alabama forward by increasing safety, furthering economic growth and conserving our energy resources,” Parrish noted. “Whether it’s smart cities, electric vehicles, freight delivery efficiency or simply ensuring quality roads and bridges, we are committed to a 21st Century transportation system that supports our state’s economic vitality.”

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Parrish joins an already well-established suite of senior policy advisers that are helping to further EIA’s mission. Additional senior policy advisers include Jim Sullivan of The Sullivan Group, Dr. Steven Taylor of Auburn University’s Center for Bioenergy and Bioproducts and Oliver Kingsley of Auburn’s College of Engineering.

“EIA, ATI and the state of Alabama are lucky to have someone like Dr. Parrish leading the collaborative transportation efforts and policy development that continues to modernize our state’s transportation system,” said Alabama Power Company’s Houston Smith, who serves as the EIA vice chairman. “We fully support these efforts and modern infrastructure initiatives, like electric vehicles, that are major drivers of our state’s economy.”

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