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Legislature Faces Several General Fund Options

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

State General Fund agencies want more money than the General Fund is likely to have in tax receipts. By most accounts, the State needs $261 million to cover the needs of the various agencies and departments in the troubled Alabama General Fund.

Most of this shortfall dates back to the 2012 legislative session. Instead of raising taxes or cutting the budget then, the legislature went to the taxpayers and asked to raid $400 million from the Alabama Trust Fund to cover expenses through the 2014 elections. The voters agreed, almost everybody was reelected including Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) who ran on a no new taxes pledge in 2014.

With time running out in the 2015 legislative session, it is anybody’s guess how the legislature will handle this.

There are a number of plans being discussed.

The first plan was proposed by Governor Bentley.  Bentley asked for the legislature to raise taxes without a vote of the people. Bentley proposed raising taxes on car sales, rental cars, banks, public utilities, cigarettes, tobacco, etc. The Bentley plan was introduced with much fanfare but has failed to get much support in the legislature or with the people of Alabama. State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R), Attorney General Luther Strange (R), and Public Service Commission President Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh (R) have all come out in opposition to the massive tax increases and the plan has been roundly condemned on talk radio stations across the State.

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GOP lawmakers were given four more years by their voters promising not to raise taxes.  Just six months later, few seem eager to tell voters that they lied and new taxes really were necessary. The Bentley plan or some parts of it could still pass, but a lot of people are going to have to change their positions in the next few days.

The next plan was proposed by the House Finance and Taxation Committee. The GOP lawmakers have drawn up a leaner meaner general fund budget. The GOP plan would mean cuts to virtually every State agency. The $260 million in cuts would be exacerbated by cuts in federal matching funds. Bentley has roundly criticized the plan saying that it would result in the release of prisoners, less state troopers on the roads, hurt criminal investigations, closing of state parks, slower prosecutions, poorer functioning courts, hurt poor seniors in nursing homes, and cut programs for children.

Many conservatives scoff at this gloom and doom scenario and say that there are options to sensibly downsize a bloated state government. 

The Alabama Policy Institute’s Katherine Robinson and Caleb Crosby wrote recently, “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.”

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Senate President Del Marsh (R from Anniston) is promoting a plan where the state generates revenues by expanding gambling in the State. The Marsh plan (which borrowed a lot from an earlier House Democrats plan) would create a State lottery and make a compact with the Poarch Creek Indians (PCI) dropping the State’s objections to PCI’s operations which violates current state law; but is protected by the US Bureau of Indian Affairs. PCI would pay taxes to the State. The Marsh plan would also extend gaming rights given to the Indians to Victoryland, Greene Track, the Mobile Dog Track, and the Birmingham Race Course. Voters would have to approve the lottery and likely the casino gambling expansion. The Birmingham Race Course is promising to bring horse racing back to Alabama if the plan is approved.

Polls show that voters support a lottery; but most of the voters support an education lottery, like Georgia’s Hope Scholarships that sends kids to school. This lottery would go straight to the State’s troubled general fund and would not give kids any money for schools and would have no direct effect on schools. That has the potential to be a much harder sell.

A fourth plan being promoted by Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) is simply a compact with the Indians alone. Under the terms of the compact that Speaker Hubbard negotiated with PCI would preserve the Indians monopoly on gaming. The State would get taxes on the future gaming.  PCI has promised to pay the state $250 million the first year to address the 2016 General Fund shortfall, plus future revenues.

Legal analysts have advised the Alabama Political Reporter that the Indian gaming plan, like the Marsh plan, would also require an expensive referendum if they want to expand the gaming at the site to include table games and/or slot machines.

Critics of the Indian plan are critical of PCI having a monopoly and Birmingham supporters are critical because all of the money goes to Montgomery and South Alabama. The Marsh plan would make Birmingham a destination city for gamblers from Atlanta and Nashville.  The PCI plan simply formally legalizes gaming facilities that are already operating. Proponents of the Marsh plan say their plan would generate thousands of new jobs.

Gambling critics argue that the state shouldn’t balance its budget by encouraging people’s gambling addictions.

Governor Bentley said that the Marsh bill, “Makes Alabama look like Las Vegas. It is one of the worst bills I have ever seen.”

Robinson and Crosby wrote, “The success of lotteries and gambling, of course, depends upon the participation of the poor and vulnerable. The State then becomes addicted to these funding streams and politicians actually desire for more and more individuals and families to recklessly spend their money this way. Calls to further expand gambling will become incessant and government will be expanded right along with it. Simultaneously, Alabama’s leaders will become owned by these entities whose power and influence is made possible through money lost by our own State’s gamblers.”

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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National

Today is Thanksgiving

Today is a national and state holiday. Schools, banks, government offices and many private businesses are closed.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Four hundred years ago, on Nov. 11, 1620, after 66 days at sea, a group of English settlers landed near what is today Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Onboard the Mayflower were 102 men, women, and children, including one baby born during the Atlantic crossing, who made up the Pilgrims.

The Mayflower, captained by Christopher Jones, had been bound for the mouth of the Hudson River. The ship took a northerly course to avoid pirates, but the decision to avoid the then widely traveled sea lanes to the New World took the ship into bad weather, which had blown the Mayflower miles off course and left the ship damaged. Off Cape Cod, the adult males in the group made the fateful decision to build an entire colony where none had existed prior. They wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact.

“In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc. Having undertaken for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.”

After a few weeks off Cape Cod, they sailed up the coast until they reached Plymouth. There they found a Wampanoag Indian village that had been abandoned due to some sort of plague. During the Winter of 1620-1621 they lived aboard the Mayflower and would row to shore each day to build houses. Finally, they had built enough houses to actually move to the colony, but the cold, damp conditions aboard the ship had been costly.

Some 28 men, 13 women (one of them in child birth), and 8 children died in that winter. Governor John Carver would die in April. His widow, Kathrine White Carver, would follow a few weeks later. There is some recent archaeological evidence suggesting that some of the dead were butchered and eaten by the survivors.

The Mayflower and her crew left for England on April 5, 1621, never to return.

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About 40 of the Pilgrims were religious Separatists, members of a Puritan sect that had split from the Church of England, in defiance of English law. In 1609, they immigrated to Holland to practice their religion but ran into problems there too. Others in the group had remained part of the Church of England but were sympathetic to their Separatist friends. They did not call themselves Pilgrims, that term was adopted at the bicentennial for the Mayflower voyage. The members of core Separatist sect referred to themselves as “Saints” and people not in their sect as “Strangers.”

In March 1621, an English speaking Native American, named Samoset, visited the Plymouth colony and asked for beer. He spent the night talking with the settlers and later introduced them to Squanto, who spoke even better English. Squanto introduced them to the chief of the Wampanoag, Massasoit.

Squanto moved in with the Pilgrims, serving as their advisor and translator. The friendly Wampanoag tribe taught the Pilgrims how to hunt and grow crops. The two groups began trading furs with each other.

William Bradford, a Separatist who helped draft the Mayflower Compact, became the longtime Plymouth Governor. He was also the writer of the first history of the Plymouth Colony and the Mayflower. Bradford’s more notable descendants include author, dictionary writer and scholar Noah Webster; TV chef Julia Child; and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

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In the fall of 1621, 399 years ago, the Pilgrims invited their Wampanoag Indian friends to a feast celebrating their first harvest and a year in the New World with a three-day festival. This has become known as the first Thanksgiving.

Today is a national and state holiday. Schools, banks, government offices and many private businesses are closed.

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Health

Alabama hospitals nearing COVID-19 summer surge levels

Wednesday was the 18th straight day with more than 1,000 people in hospitals in Alabama with COVID-19. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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UAB Chief of Hospital Medicine Dr. Kierstin Kennedy.

Alabama hospitals reported caring for 1,483 people infected with COVID-19 on Wednesday, the highest number of patients since Aug. 11, when the state was enduring its summer surge. Wednesday was also the 18th straight day with more than 1,000 people in hospitals in Alabama with COVID-19. 

The seven-day average of hospitalizations was 1,370 on Wednesday, the 36th straight day of that average rising. The Alabama Department of Public Health reported 2,453 new cases Wednesday. The 14-day average of new cases was — for the eighth day in a row — at a record high of 2,192. 

Across the country, more than 80,000 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 on Tuesday, a record high and the 15th straight day of record hospitalizations nationwide, according to the COVID Tracking Project, a coronavirus tracking website.

The CDC this week recommended people not travel for Thanksgiving to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. 

“The only way for us to successfully get through this pandemic is if we work together,” said Dr. Kierstin Kennedy, UAB’s chief of hospital medicine, in a message Tuesday. “There’s no one subset of the community that’s going to be able to carry the weight of this pandemic and so we all have to take part in wearing our masks, keeping our distance, making sure that we’re washing our hands.” 

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Kennedy said the best way she can describe the current situation is “Russian Roulette.” 

“Not only in the form of, maybe you get it and you don’t get sick or maybe you get it and you end up in the ICU,” Kennedy said, “but if you do end up sick, are you going to get to the hospital at a time when we’ve got capacity, and we’ve got enough people to take care of you? And that is a scary thought.” 

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Wednesday reported an increase of 60 confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths. Deaths take time to confirm and the date a death is reported does not necessarily reflect the date on which the individual died. At least 23 of those deaths occurred in November, and 30 occurred in other months. Seven were undated. Data for the last two to three weeks are incomplete.

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As of Wednesday, at least 3,532 Alabamians have died of COVID-19, according to the Department of Public Health. During November, at least 195 people have died in Alabama from COVID-19. But ADPH is sure to add more to the month’s tally in the weeks to come as data becomes more complete.

ADPH on Wednesday announced a change that nearly doubled the department’s estimate of people who have recovered from COVID-19, bringing that figure up to 161,946. That change also alters APR’s estimates of how many cases are considered active.

ADPH’s Infectious Disease and Outbreak team “updated some parameters” in the department’s Alabama NEDSS Base Surveillance System, which resulted in the increase, the department said.

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Corruption

Judge reduces former Alabama Speaker Mike Hubbard’s prison sentence

The trial court judge ordered his 48-month sentence reduced to 28 months.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard was booked into jail to begin serving his four-year sentence for ethics violations in September. (VIA LEE COUNTY DETENTION CENTER)

Lee County Circuit Court Judge Jacob Walker on Wednesday reduced former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s prison sentence from four years to just more than two. 

Walker in his order filed Wednesday noted that Hubbard was sentenced to fours years on Aug. 9, 2016, after being convicted of 12 felony ethics charges for misusing his office for personal gain, but that on Aug. 27, 2018, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed convictions on one counts. The Alabama Supreme Court later struck down another five counts.

Hubbard’s attorneys on Sept. 18 filed a motion to revise his sentence, to which the state objected, according to court records, arguing that “Hubbard’s refusal to admit any guilt or express any remorse makes him wholly unfit to receive any leniency.”   

Walker in his order cited state code and wrote that the power of the courts to grant probation “is a matter of grace and lies entirely within the sound discretion of the trial court.” 

“Furthermore, the Court must consider the nature of the Defendant’s crimes. Acts of public corruption harm not just those directly involved, but harm society as a whole,” Walker wrote.

Walker ruled that because six of Hubbard’s original felony counts were later reversed, his sentence should be changed to reflect that, and ordered his 48-month sentence reduced to 28 months. 

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Wednesday said Walker’s decision to reduce Hubbard’s sentence was the wrong message to send.

“Mr. Hubbard was convicted of the intentional violation of Alabama’s ethics laws, the same laws he championed in the legislature only later to brazenly disregard for his personal enrichment,” Marshall said in a statement. “Even as he sits in state prison as a six-time felon, Mike Hubbard continues to deny any guilt or offer any remorse for his actions in violation of the law.  Reducing his original four-year sentence sends precisely the wrong message to would-be violators of Alabama’s ethics laws.”

Hubbard was booked into the Lee County Jail on Sept. 11, more than four years after his conviction. On Nov. 5 he was taken into custody by the Department of Corrections.

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News

Nick Saban tests positive for COVID-19, has “mild symptoms”

It’s unlikely Saban will be able to coach in person during Saturday’s Iron Bowl against Auburn.

Eddie Burkhalter

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University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban.

University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban has tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of the Iron Bowl and has mild symptoms, according to a statement from the university on Wednesday. 

“This morning we received notification that Coach Saban tested positive for COVID-19,” said Dr. Jimmy Robinson and Jeff Allan, associate athletic director, in the statement. “He has very mild symptoms, so this test will not be categorized as a false positive. He will follow all appropriate guidelines and isolate at home.” 

Saban had previously tested positive before Alabama’s game against Georgia but was asymptomatic and subsequently tested negative three times, a sign that the positive test could have been a false positive. He returned to coach that game. 

It’s unlikely Saban will be able to coach in person during Saturday’s Iron Bowl against Auburn, given the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for quarantining after testing positive and with symptoms. Neither Saban nor the university had spoken about that possibility as of Wednesday morning.

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