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Conservative Opposition to Gaming and Tax Plans (Opinion)

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

GOP candidate after GOP candidate running for office in 2014 said that they were for limited government, rightsizing government, and no new taxes, yet here we are a few months later and now GOP leaders are telling us that we need new revenues.  Nobody much talked about the revenue issue during last year’s election that has dominated this year’s legislative session.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) is pushing a plan that would take an additional $541 million a year in from the private sector. Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (R from Auburn) is proposing over $100 million in new taxes and giving the Poarch Creek Indians a statewide gaming monopoly in exchange for a $250 million one-time windfall payment to balance the general fund.  Even Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R from Anniston) has gotten on the new revenue bus proposing: a state lottery, opening up casinos at Victoryland, Greenetrack, the Birmingham Race Course, and the Mobile Dog Track to Class III gaming as well as the Governor  signing a compact with the Poarch Creek Indians.

On Wednesday, May 6 the Alabama Political Reporter asked former State Senator Scott Beason (R-Gardendale) when did Alabama Republicans started running for office promising higher taxes and expanding gambling in the State?  Sen. Beason said that he has been in Alabama politics for a long time and he has never seen anything like it.  Beason said he could not recall any GOP candidates ever having success by promoting higher taxes and gambling expansion.

Former Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead said in a statement on Facebook, “If I told you 6 months ago that Alabama’s Republican Governor, Speaker of the House and President Pro Tem of the Senate would each have a separate plan to increase government spending by proposing tax increases, a lottery and casino gambling, most people would say I had lost my mind. But, that is what is happening. If you are opposed to these Democrat ideas you should contact your legislator and tell them to oppose these liberal ideas.”

Time is running out on this legislative session.  Under the arcane rules of the legislature, if the Governor’s tax proposals are not considered by this week in Committee they are dead for the Session and they are not on any committee schedule we have seen to this point. That will effectively eliminate Governor Bentley’s fantasy revenue plan without it visiting the floor of either House. Gov. Bentley failed to sit down with legislative leaders before this session and craft any sort of plan together. Instead legislators were forced to read about the Governor’s legislation in the press like everybody else. Threatening the legislators if they did not bow down to his demands has not won over many hearts and minds in Montgomery and it appears that the death of his unpopular tax plan is a result of this failure to communicate. Undaunted the Governor is threatening to bring everyone back for multiple special sessions if he does not get his money.

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That leaves the Marsh gambling expansion plan and the Hubbard plan to give the Poarch band of Creek Indians a monopoly and raise a number of taxes for a total of over a $100 million. Speaker Mike Hubbard’s plan is on very shaky legal footing and if passed is almost certainly going to be challenged in the courts on state constitutional grounds. The only reason that plan is making any traction is that it has the backing of the powerful Speaker of the House: Rep. Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn).  Speaker Hubbard through sheer force of will has moved his package of tax increases through Committee and they will be considered on the House floor next week.  Speaker Hubbard has accepted a Poarch Creek offer of $250 million for a gaming monopoly that would bring Class III gaming to the Indians’ casinos in Wetumpka, Montgomery, and Atmore.  The Indians have reportedly also suggested that they might be willing to add a casino somewhere North Alabama casino to help with economic development there.

The tax increases are very unpopular with legislators and faces stiff opposition in the Senate. Many legislators speaking off the record have expressed reservations about giving anyone a gaming monopoly.  The popular Speaker’s influence may be waning due to his approaching criminal trial on 23 counts of felony ethics violations. If convicted, a new Speaker will have to deal with this budget mess before 2017 rolls around.

Voice of Alabama Politics Pundit and talk radio host Baron Coleman wrote recently, “It’s unclear what Republicans in the lower chamber are thinking by going along with Speaker Hubbard’s plan. Many legal experts believe Hubbard will be watching the 2018 elections from the comfort of a 10×6 cell in one of our state’s overcrowded and underfunded resorts for the criminally-inclined. He has nothing to lose.”

Hubbard will likely have to gain the support of House Democrats for cloture votes on his bills next week during what are expected to be marathon House sessions.

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Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) has borrowed his plan from ideas originally put forward by the House Democratic Caucus.  The Marsh/Democrats plan would fund the general fund with a state lottery, class III gaming at the three Indian casinos, as well as at the four dog tracks in Birmingham, Greene County, Mobile, and Shorter.  The Marsh plan would require a referendum of the voters because it is a Constitutional Amendment.  The Marsh plan does not include new taxes or a $250 million one time payment so the estimated $261 million hole in next year’s budget will likely not be fully addressed though some legislators have suggested borrowing money to carry the state over until the gambling revenues come in, though Marsh himself has suggested that the state tighten its belt to get through the gap.

On Tuesday, May 5 the Alabama Political Reporter asked Marsh why if we are going to open Alabama up to gambling, why we don’t we go to Las Vegas and sit down with all the players in that business and invite them to all bring their proposals to Alabama.  You say that Mike Hubbard’s plan would create a monopoly; but your plan creates a cartel of Milton McGregor, Greentrack, the Poarch Creek Indians, and the ownership of the Mobile Dog Track, why not let the gaming commission decide who gets these licenses?

Sen. Marsh replied I have no problem with that.  If somebody wants to bring that amendment on the floor I am willing to change it.  Marsh said that his plan gives 20 year deals for those already in the state but if the gaming commission wants to bid it out in ten years he is open to that.  “I want the best possible bill.”  I am open to any ideas.

The Alabama Political Reporter asked Sen. Beason which of the two plans he preferred.  He said when your choices are between a bad plan and a worse plan you choose option C: none of the above.  Beason said that the state is doing their budgeting all wrong.  They are asking the department heads how much money do you need to keep doing what they are doing and then coming up with an amount or revenue needed to achieve that number.

Sen. Beason said that the state should instead come up with the expected revenue available and then prepare a budget in order of priorities.  Beason said that some in Montgomery are using the Obama playbook and are identifying the programs that people actually like and are threatening those programs in order to try to get people in line behind the tax increases.

State Representative Will Ainsworth (R-Guntersville) said in a statement on Facebook, “Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2015 were over 28 Billion in Alabama. I will not support Taxes or Gambling until we fix what’s wrong in Government. The narrative in Montgomery that we need more revenue is wrong and I plan on fighting any revenue increase. Revenue proposals are the easy way out.”  Ainsworth said that the state should follow the example of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R) who, “Turned a $3.6 billion deficit in Wisconsin to a surplus without raising taxes.”

The Alabama Policy Institute’s Katherine G. Robinson and Caleb Crosby wrote recently, “The General Fund woes present a very real challenge for our leaders, but the public is being fed a number of false choices as to how this problem must be solved. We should not be forced to choose which revenue generator is the least offensive. There are still plenty of good ideas and even bills on the table that would help the state do what the private sector does–scale back spending in a down year. The appeal of easy money through gambling is that those tough decisions can be sidestepped, but not without repercussions.”

Alabama’s Republican National Committeewoman Vicki Ann Drummond said recently, “I am not for gambling and I am not for taxes and if I were down there (Montgomery) I would vote against both.  I do believe there are a lot of places where we can cut back.”

Former Chairman Armistead wrote recently, “Government sponsored gambling is dishonest, financially damaging to citizens and is a major contributor to the unfairness and inequality in American life. It’s a policy experiment that has failed.  It has failed because it is proven itself to be blatantly dishonest and it has failed to generate genuine economic growth.  Predatory gambling is a something-for-nothing scheme that veils the most cut-throat business in the country.”

A recent Alabama Political Reporter polls shows that Alabama voters oppose tax increases 52.6 percent to 33.7 percent disapprove.  Only 12.0 percent strongly approve of raising taxes, while 40.7 percent strongly disapprove of raising taxes.  Republican primary voters are even less supporting of tax increases.

Las Vegas-style gambling is however supported by 55.5 percent while only 31.0 percent disapprove of Las Vegas-style gambling.

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

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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