By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Wednesday, May 12, over 250 intellectually disabled Alabamians, their families, caregivers, and advocates rallied in from of the State House for legislators not to cut mental health services in Alabama in the 2016 budget year.
Henry Parker with Montgomery Area Public Health said, “Hopefully we can get the legislature to understand that people with disabilities are productive members of society. If we take away these services, the effects will be devastating.”
Alabama Department of Mental Health Commissioner Jim Reddoch said, “Several rallies have been held across the State and there has been great turnout…these programs are already underfunded and can’t take another round of cuts.”
Commissioner Reddoch said that they have been talking with a lot of legislators:
“But, I am hearing that we are not getting a lot of traction. Mental health has had $40 million worth of cuts since 2007. Now we are expected to be able to absorb cuts of up to $100 million…How do we do that without cutting essential programs that are currently in operation? I just don’t get it… We won’t be able to make those kinds of cuts without serious consequences. We can not continue at the level we are at today. There will be significant cuts if we don’t get new revenues. Either they don’t believe what I am saying or they don’t care.”
Reddock said that the problem seems to be in the Senate:
“The House is moving toward some funding. We know you are going to lose programs that people depend on. I have been in State government for 30 years. I have never seen anything like this in my life. I have never seen it this bad.”
State Rep. Darrio Melton (D-Selma) said, “One of the greatest things I have participated in as a legislator is special Olympics…We can not afford to cut the Department of Mental Health. We need to do right by the people of Alabama. Your life does matter. I will continue to fight for the Department of Mental Health.”
State Rep. Paul Beckman (R-Prattville) told the crowd, “I care. I have supported mental health for 30 years. My wife is a psychiatric nurse. I dare legislators to think outside of the box. The problem is here today. We need to do something now. I will not let your voice be unheard.”
Rep. Beckman said, “We don’t need the Governor to blackmail legislators to raise taxes. The solution is in communications between the House and the Senate. When we communicate we can solve all the problems. Contact your legislators and your Senators and ask them to think outside of the box. I am with you 100 percent.”
Terry Prezent, the Executive Director of The Arc of Alabama said,
“A person can wait for years in Alabama and never receive services. The national average is 11 months. Minimal services will prevent more costly services later. It is anticipated that there will not be enough services to carry for baby boomers as they age. Alabama is dead last in what it invests in the developmentally disabled community. Alabama provides no services for those with autism. The closure of the intellection facility has been successful. Community based facilities are getting it right. Now is not the time to go backwards. There is a possibility of cuts of between $11 million and $35 million. Without federal matching dollars could mean a loss of $33 million to $105 million.”
People First of Alabama said in a statement:
“Lawmakers in Alabama must be made aware that we are worthy of funding human services that allow us to be contributing members of our communities. Investing in appropriate supports keep us safe and productive in our own homes with friends, neighbors and families. Any reduction in current funding levels will jeopardize desperately needed services and lead to catastrophic impact on our ability to move forward toward meaningful lives. Improvements in education and vocational programs, community supports means less reliance on public supports and more satisfaction. Reduction in funding community programs actually will result in greater PUBLIC financial responsibilities and take us BACKWARDS.”
On Thursday, May 13, the House Ways & Means General Fund Committee passed a 2016 General Fund budget with cuts to the Department of Mental Health of $5,274,822 (5 percent) from 2015 levels.
Governor Bentley had requested an increase of over $53 million.
Merrill defends social media comments, questions motives of Black Lives Matter movement
During the interview, he blamed most of the uproar on “liberal, white women” who have “attacked” him on social media.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill regrets some of his recent controversial comments on social media but he refused to acknowledge that he should be held to a higher standard as an elected official and made no apologies for “defending” himself.
Merrill took part in a lengthy, wide-ranging interview on the Alabama Politics This Week podcast. The sometimes contentious back-and-forth conversation covered an array of topics, from Merrill’s comments — in which he encouraged one man to get a sex change — to his views on race, religion and election fraud claims.
Merrill has come under fire over the last few weeks for his interactions on social media, and a number of civil rights groups have called for him to either apologize or resign. During the APTW interview, he blamed most of the uproar on “liberal, white women” who have “attacked” him on social media and said he wasn’t going to allow someone “to hit me over the head and not fight back.”
“You expect me, as an elected official, if someone comes up and knocks me in the head, I’m supposed to just take it? That’s your expectation?” Merrill asked.
Host David Person responded: “My expectation is that you, as a public servant, would have a level of deportment that would be different than the average person.”
Merrill acknowledged that he probably went too far in his responses and has since started ignoring or blocking people who attempt to antagonize him.
Later in the interview, when asked about his retweet of a video and a “war on whites” comment, Merrill said he has since deleted his retweet and that it didn’t reflect his true feelings. But when asked about his thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement, Merrill responded that “all lives matter.” He then launched into a biblical explanation of his feelings.
When Person explained the history and meaning of the BLM movement — and that it doesn’t seek to elevate Black lives above anyone, but instead merely wants to see equal value — Merrill responded by stating the BLM movement has been “co-opted.”
“I’m afraid to tell you this, but I think there’s a number of people across the nation who have co-opted what your intent was — if that was your intent — and they’ve changed the narrative … and tried to make it something else … which is that Black lives are superior and if you can’t agree that Black lives are superior then you have no place in the conversation,” Merrill said.
That is patently false, and the leaders of the BLM movement have taken great care to make equality and acceptance the primary goals of the movement. The false narrative introduced by Merrill — that the BLM movement is somehow racist — is a popular one on right-wing websites and TV shows, but it has been credibly debunked numerous times by numerous reputable sources.
Merrill also addressed his controversial comments about election fraud, defended claims he made that appear to be false and talked his way around questions about Alabama’s voter ID law.
You can listen to the full interview at the APTW website or you can search for and subscribe to the podcast wherever you get your podcasts.
Ivey says no new restrictions on day Alabama broke COVID case, hospitalization records
“We know what to do, what works. I have no plans to shut down any businesses. No plans to shut down businesses,” Ivey said.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey told reporters Thursday she has no plans for new restrictions on businesses despite the state recording record high new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations Thursday.
“We’ve been dealing with this thing for quite some time,” Ivey said, according to AL.com. “Several months. We know what to do, what works. I have no plans to shut down any businesses. No plans to shut down businesses. They’re doing a good job of protecting their patrons. We need to keep our folks working and earning a living.”
Ivey was speaking to reporters after a ceremony at the National Guard headquarters in Montgomery, according to the news outlet.
“So yes, the numbers are rising. We know what to do. We know that the masks and social distancing and personal hygiene works. Folks, just keep it up. We’ll get through this. The vaccine’s coming,” Ivey said.
The Alabama Department of Public Health reported a record high 3,531 new cases Thursday, and the state has averaged 2,461 cases each day for the last two weeks, a 28 percent increase over the previous two weeks.
The number of people in Alabama hospitals with COVID-19 on Thursday reached a record high 1,827. That’s nearly 40 percent higher than two weeks ago. Huntsville Hospital had a record-high 338 COVID-19 patients on Thursday, after a string of record-setting daily hospitalizations. UAB Hospital was caring for a record 127 COVID-19 patients Wednesday and 125 on Thursday.
Ivey issued a statewide mask order in July, when the state was experiencing a surge in coronavirus and hospitals were beginning to be stressed with an influx of COVID-19 patients. She extended that order several times, but it’s set to expire Dec. 11, if she doesn’t extend it again.
After a peak of new daily deaths on July 31, which was nearly two weeks after Ivey’s mask order, the number of Alabamians dying each day from COVID-19 began dropping significantly, according to data from the Alabama Department of Public Health.
In April, Ivey decided to extend her “stay at home” order, which included closures of non-essential businesses, and told reporters that “all of our decisions that I’m going to make are based on data. Not a desired date.”
Ivey on Nov. 5 relaxed restrictions on businesses, including capacity limits inside retailers, entertainment venues and gyms, and eased social distancing requirements in restaurants, barbershops, salons and gyms, with restrictions.
“Simply put, this should be welcome news as we get ready for the upcoming holiday season, which is often the bread and butter for retail, and especially for locally-owned small businesses,” Ivey said at the time.
Asked by a reporter on Nov. 5 how Ivey came to decide to loosen restrictions for business amid growing COVID-19 cases, Ivey said: “Well, we’re just gonna have to encourage people to wear their masks, social distancing and practicing precautionary protocols to stay safe.”
Public health experts say it takes around two weeks after a change, such as a mask order, to begin noticing differences in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Deaths are an indicator that lags even further behind new cases and hospitalizations, however.
During the two weeks leading up to Ivey relaxing those restrictions on businesses on Nov. 5, Alabama added 22,094 cases. In the two weeks following her decision, the state added 26,752 cases. During the next two weeks, the time frame during which public health experts believe results of such changes can become evident, Alabama added 34,449 cases, a nearly 60 percent growth in cases from the two weeks prior to Ivey relaxing restrictions.
“It must be made clear that if you are over 65 or have significant health conditions, you should not enter any indoor public spaces where anyone is unmasked due to the immediate risk to your health,” a report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force on Sunday reads. “You should have groceries and medications delivered.”
Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of UAB’s Division of Infectious Diseases, told reporters Tuesday that there is a possibility that hospitals will have to set up mobile hospitals to care for the rush of patients, and that she worries hospitals may not have enough staff to care for “what might be a tidal wave of patients in the next month.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield made a dire prediction Wednesday.
“The reality is December and January and February are going to be rough times. I actually believe they’re going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation,” Redfield said.
Report: Alabama ranks 47th in the nation in child well-being
The state’s poor ranking is also a drop from Alabama’s ranking last year of 44th in the nation.
Alabama ranked 47th in the nation in child well-being, according to this year’s Alabama Kids Count Data Book, published by VOICES for Alabama’s Children , and the poor ranking comes before the impacts of COVID-19.
The state’s poor ranking is also a drop from Alabama’s ranking last year of 44th in the nation. Alabama improved or remained the same in 14 of 16 categories studied in the report, but the improvements were outpaced by other states.
“We have actually not really gotten worse, but we’re not improving as fast as other states,” said Stephen Woerner, executive director of VOICES for Alabama’s Children, a Montgomery children’s advocacy nonprofit that helps compile the report.
Woener, speaking to APR on Monday, said that the data collected for the report was collected before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it may be two years before enough data is compiled to determine the impact the pandemic has had on Alabama’s children. This year’s Kids Count book will be a critical benchmark used to measure those impacts, he said.
“I don’t think there’s a single indicator in this book, beyond the demographics, that is not going to be impacted. Whether it’s food security, or infant mortality. Just across the board. Across all 70 indicators. All of them are going to see impacts,” Woener said.
He’s especially paying attention to COVID-19’s impact on education in the state, Woerner said.
“With remote learning and kids being out of school, schools closing down and that being so sporadic and community specific, we’re going to see impacts that are significant and not even across the board,” Woerner said.
Woerner also stressed that the pandemic hasn’t brought about new problems, but only worsened existing inequities and challenges facing children and their families statewide.
“A good way to look at that is the childcare system,” Woerner said. “Access to affordable, high quality, safe childcare. That system was already incredibly fragile to begin with, and COVID has decimated it.”
The state got down as low as 10 percent of child care centers open in April, and has increased to 85 percent open in mid-October, but of those open, the centers are averaging 66 percent capacity, Woerner said.
“We’ve been told by the national level that as many as 40 percent of child care providers may be out of business by the end of the year, if we don’t do a significant influx of federal funds to help support it,” Woerner said.
Alabama ranked 45th in economic well being, but improved slightly from 2010 to 2018, dropping from 28 percent of children living in poverty to 24 percent during that timeframe.
The state is seeing improvements in third grade literacy and Alabama’s pre-K program continues to expand, Woerner said.
“We’ve seen really good places where our investments have paid off, but we’re going to have to continue to prioritize them,” Woerner said.
The report did find racial disparities in education, however. During the 2018-2019 school year. Black students were suspended at a rate of 19 percent, which was twice as high as all other races, at a rate of 9.9 percent or less.
“We’ve got to continue to highlight those disparities and recognize that we can’t afford to fail any of our kids, and our kids are not inherently failures,” Woerner said.
Jones applaudes inclusion of his anti-money laundering legislation in defense bill
The bill aims to combat illicit financial activity by terrorists, drug traffickers and other criminals.
U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, and a bipartisan group of three other senators applauded the inclusion of their anti-money laundering legislation in the National Defense Authorization Act.
Jones and Sens. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, and Mike Rounds, R-South Dakota, in September 2019 introduced their Improving Laundering Laws and Increasing Comprehensive Information Tracking of Criminal Activity in Shell Holdings (ILLICIT CASH) Act which aims to combat illicit financial activity by terrorists, drug traffickers and other criminals.
“For too long, our anti-money laundering laws haven’t kept up with the rapidly evolving methods that criminals and terrorists use for illicit financial activities,” Jones said in a statement Thursday. “Our bipartisan bill is the largest comprehensive effort in decades to improve transparency and will give prosecutors, national security officials, law enforcement, and financial institutions the modern tools they need to crack down on money laundering and terrorist financing. Its inclusion in the annual defense bill is a great step forward for the rule of law and for the security of all Americans.”
If approved as part of the NDAA, the ILLICIT CASH Act will require shell companies, which are often used to launder money from criminal enterprises, to disclose their true owners to the U.S. Department of Treasury. It would also improve communication between law enforcement, financial institutions and regulators, according to a press release from Jones’s office.
According to research from the University of Texas and Brigham Young University, the U.S. remains one of the easiest places in the world to set up an anonymous shell company. A recent report by Global Financial Integrity found that in every state in the U.S. more information is currently required to obtain a library card than to register a company.
“To form a company in any state in the U.S., it is not necessary to identify or provide any information about the person(s) who will ultimately be controlling the company. In some cases it isn’t even necessary to provide information about who will be managing the company and, where some information about managers (i.e. officers or directors) is required, it is very limited,” the report states.
“Human traffickers, terrorist groups, arms dealers, transnational criminal organizations, kleptocrats, drug cartels, and rogue regimes have all used U.S.-registered shell companies to hide their identities and facilitate illicit activities,” the press release reads. “Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies find it increasingly difficult to investigate these illicit financial networks without access to information about the beneficial ownership of corporate entities involved.”
The ILLICIT CASH Act includes the following elements:
- Setting national exam and supervision priorities to improve AML-CFT outcomes and better target federal resources in the effort to identify evolving criminal and national security threats.
- Establishing federal disclosure requirements of beneficial ownership information that will be maintained in a comprehensive federal registry, with strict privacy protections, accessible by federal and local law enforcement.
- Improving the recruitment and retention of top talent to combat money laundering and terrorism by providing special hiring authority at the Department of Treasury and FinCEN.
- Prioritizing innovation and technology in AML-CFT monitoring and reporting through the establishment of a new Subcommittee on Innovation and Technology, updated guidance on financial technology risk assessments, and a Financial Crimes Tech Symposium.
- Facilitating communication and information sharing between FinCEN, national security agencies, law enforcement and financial institutions through the establishment of new programs and reporting mechanisms.
- Requiring law enforcement agencies and regulators to formally review regulations within the Bank Secrecy Act to ensure regulations, guidance, reports and records are highly useful in countering financial crime.
- Requiring streamlined data and real time reporting of suspicious activity reports, and requiring law enforcement to coordinate with financial regulators to provide periodic feedback to financial institutions on their suspicious activity reporting.
- Prioritizing the protection of personally identifying information while establishing a clear path for financial institutions to share AML-CFT information for the purposes of identifying suspicious activity.
- Preventing foreign banks from obstructing money laundering or terrorist financing investigations by requiring these banks to produce records in a manner that establishes their authenticity and reliability for evidentiary purposes, and compelling them to comply with subpoenas. This legislation also authorizes contempt sanctions for banks that fail to comply and increase penalties on repeat BSA violators.
- Ensuring the inclusion of current and future payment systems in the AML-CFT regime by updating the definition of “coins and currency” to include digital currency.