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What is a Governor to Do?

Graham L. Champion

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By Graham L. Champion

Imagine that you are the Governor of the State of Alabama. You issue an “invitation” to 140 of your closest friends to come to Montgomery for a Grand Ball that all who were invited had been expecting but you decided that you would move the date of that Grand Ball up five weeks earlier than anyone had expected. As we all know when you are “looking forward” to such a grand event there is a great deal of planning that goes into getting ready and if your timetable is moved up that much, what are you to do. You have not made your reservations for a place to stay, dinners have not been arranged with close friends and colleagues, other plans that you have must be rearranged. Complaints and grumbling can be heard from across the entire state about the “promise” the Governor had made about when the Grand Ball would be, but wait, the Governor states that he never “agreed” about when the Grand Ball would be held. He only “listened and indicated that five weeks later sounded good” but he never “agreed”.

Fast forward a few days and examine the plight of the Governor in preparing for his Grand Ball. He has issued a surprise invitation on Friday for the Ball on Monday yet he has no entertainment (Sponsors) for the Ball. Few, if any, can be found to lay out the Governor’s plans for the event. When the appointed time for our Grand Ball arrives, the guests assemble, look around and realize that it will not be the Grand event that had been promised and say to one another, “this does not look like it is going to be fun. I am going home and will be back for the party we all thought we would have when we started planning it.’

That would make for a good story line for television except for one thing – it is essentially, what we have just witnessed in Alabama. The Alabama Legislature convened in Extraordinary Session at 4:00pm on Monday, July 13, 2015 at the Call of Governor Robert Bentley. As was witnessed during the 2015 Regular Session of the Legislature there was no consensus among the Governor, the Senate or the House as to how to begin solving the State’s budget problems or on where additional revenue might come from. The Governor, since the adjournment of the Regular Session, has been emphatic that any Call for a Special Session would be very limited. Let us see just how limited the Call was:

❖Basic Issues – He has proposed a revised General Fund Budget and indicated that all gambling issues were specifically excluded. In his reference to gambling the Governor states in the Call that it will require a 2/3 vote to pass any gambling legislation. That is incorrect on its face since gambling legislation requires a Constitutional Amendment and the Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that even though a Proposed Constitutional Amendment might not be in the Governor’s Call other provisions of the Alabama Constitution only require a 3/5 vote to approve.

❖Budget Reform – The Governor has proposed four different concepts on budget reform. His first shifts more than $210 million from the Education Trust Fund (ETF) to the General Fund. While that sounds good in theory Members of the Legislature are not about to let that happen without first backfilling the hole that would be created by the move. His plans for a backfill (see below in “Increase in Growth Revenue) have two chances of passage and to borrow an old saying “the two chances are Slim and None and Slim is on the way out of town”. There are also proposals about how to use the settlement money from the BP Settlement. SB 1 and SB 2 both address the use of the funds with SB 1 being slightly more specific and expansive in how to use the money. SB 13 by Senator Gerald Allen mentions, among other settlements, the BP Settlement and proposes a Constitutional Amendment setting up a new Trust fund. As proposed, any settlements payable to the State in excess of $2 million, the funds would be deposited into this new Trust Fund. While that might sound good on the surface think about the multimillion-dollar settlements received by the state that include restitution. That would mean that in a settlement of say $50 million that included say $30 million in restitution $2 million would be paid to the victims and the other $28 million of the restitution would be paid to the State General Fund. Can you say unintended consequences?

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❖Increase in Growth Revenue – There are five different revenue (tax) matters included in the Call. The first is a change to the Business Privilege Tax that benefits many small businesses (as the Governor said on Monday at a civic club speech) if you have a number of small LLCs, as I (the Governor) do you will no longer have to pay that tax. It will only hit the big corporations. Estimated increase $35 million+. He is also proposing a tax on tobacco products equal to $0.25 per pack of cigarettes and an equivalent tax on other tobacco products and e-cigarettes. Estimated increase $75 million+. To help backfill the hole in the ETF he is giving the Legislature an option – 1) eliminate the deduction for FICA taxes on your state income tax return or 2) pass a tax on soft drinks and fruit juices equal to $0.05 per 12 ounce equivalent. There would be no tax on bottled water or milk products. Each of these increases produce an estimated $183 million+. In addition, his final increase removes an ability from exemption from withholding on employees who file and exemption certificate with their employer. Estimate increase $12 million+.

❖Economic Development – At a time when we cannot level fund state government this legislation creates an Authority to issue Bonds to finance the construction of a major resort hotel complex at Gulf State Park. While this is a very worthwhile project, the optics of borrowing money to build a hotel while your house is burning does not make the greatest political sense.

As the Legislature adjourned on Monday the House of Representatives, which is the body in which all revenue measures must start, there were no pieces of legislation introduced. By law, the Legislature has a maximum of 12 Legislative Days (LD) within a 30 Calendar Day (CD) period to complete its business in a Special Session. Monday was Legislative Day 1. They have adjourned until August 3, which will be Calendar Day 22. At best, the schedule may look something like what is outlined below:

❖Monday, August 3 – LD 2, CD 22 – House introduces revenue measures. Senate could take Second Readings on legislation reported out of Committee.

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❖Tuesday, August 4 – LD 3, CD 23 – House takes Second Readings on revenue or other measures. Senate CAN begin debate of legislation receiving a Second Reading on August 3 and any legislation passing the Senate could get its First Reading in the House.

❖Wednesday, August 5 – LD 4, CD 24 – House CAN begin debating revenue and other measures if there are any that received their Second Reading on August 4. Any measure passed by the full House could get its First Reading in the Senate. Senate legislation reported from House Committees could get a Second Reading in the House.

❖Thursday, August 6 – LD 5, CD25 – House legislation reported out of a Senate Committee could get its Second Reading in the Senate. Senate legislation that has received its Second Reading in the House could reach final passage and be sent to the Governor.

❖Friday, August 7 – LD 6, CD 26 – House legislation that is reported out of Senate Committee could receive final passage in the Senate and be on its way to the Governor. If all necessary items are passed, the Legislature could adjourn Sine Die.

❖Saturday, August 8 – LD 7, CD 27 – More of the same in both the House and Senate

❖Sunday, August 9 – LD 8, CD 28 – More of the same in both the House and Senate. Last day for legislation to pass the House of Origin and have a mathematical chance of final passage.

❖Monday, August 10 – LD 9, CD 29 – More of the same in both the House and Senate

❖Tuesday, August 11 – LD 10, CD 30 – More of the same in both the House and Senate. Final day permitted by law for the Special Session to meet.

The schedule above assumes that all legislation can move simultaneously and that there will be cooperation among Members of the House and Senate and within their own bodies. The truth of the matter is that before a General Fund budget can be considered and passed there is going to have to be movement and adoption of revenue increases as well as backfilling the ETF or the budget proposed by the Governor is dead in the water. Another complicating factor for the Governor is that he needs to find Sponsors for his legislation. As of adjournment Monday afternoon, there were still a number of Bills without a loving, or for that matter any, Sponsor.

The bottom line as seen here is that the Governor believes there is widespread support within the Legislature for his package, is totally opposed to gambling as a solution and that the problem is with the Leadership in the Legislature as he expressed on Monday. The Senate is looking to gambling rather than taxes to solve the financial crisis and the House appears to be opposed to gambling as proposed in the Senate. The House is reportedly considering some combination of new revenue and a compact with the Poarch Creek Indians. At the end of the day, it will be a total surprise if anything productive comes out of this Special Session. Look for the Legislature to be called back for at least one, if not more, Session(s).

The Alabama House will reconvene at 5:00pm on Monday August3, 2015.

The Alabama Senate will reconvene at 4:00pm on Monday August 3, 2015.

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Opinion | Giving thanks and staying safe

“As we’ve learned to adjust our daily routines and activities throughout the course of this pandemic, we know this Thanksgiving will not look like those of the past.”

Martha Roby

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(APR GRAPHIC)

Thanksgiving is a special holiday because it provides us an entire day each year to pause and give thanks for the many blessings we have received. Particularly amid a global pandemic, the stress and craziness of life often make it easy to lose sight of just how much we have to be thankful for.

Although this holiday season will look different for us all due to the current health pandemic, we must remember the countless ways in which we are blessed.

Whether you are gathering with loved ones or remaining in the comfort of your own home, I hope we all take time to celebrate gratitude — something we may not do enough of these days.

This year, it is especially important we remember those who have been impacted by the coronavirus. This horrific virus we continue to battle has stolen the lives of over 250,000 Americans and 3,400 Alabamians.

During this season of Thanksgiving, I hope you will join me in prayerfully remembering those who have lost a loved one to this virus as well as those who are suffering from it. My prayers are with those who are missing a family member or friend this holiday season.

As we’ve learned to adjust our daily routines and activities throughout the course of this pandemic, we know this Thanksgiving will not look like those of the past. Please be mindful of any safety measures and precautions that have been put in place to help protect your family and those around you.

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The Alabama Department of Public Health released guidance that includes a list of low, moderate and high-risk activities in order to help Alabamians have a safer holiday season. ADPH suggests a few lower-risk activities such as having a small dinner with members of your household, preparing and safely delivering meals to family and neighbors who are at high-risk or hosting a virtual dinner with friends.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends hosting an outdoor gathering and limiting the number of guests.

While the road to recovery is not always easy, I am confident that we will get through this health crisis together, and we will be better because of it. The American people are resilient, and we will not let this virus knock us down.

In the spirit of the holiday, I want to take this opportunity to tell you that I am thankful for the responsibility to serve our state and country in the United States Congress.

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I am honored to be in a position to make a difference on behalf of Alabama’s 2nd District, so thank you for allowing me to serve you. From the Roby family to yours, we hope you have a happy and healthy Thanksgiving.

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Opinion | 400 years later, the Pilgrim story is more relevant than ever

“I think that giving thanks for the land that we call home is especially important this year.”

Robert Aderholt

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(APR GRAPHIC)

This Thanksgiving will be different from any other we have had in our lifetimes.  This past year has been a struggle, as every single one of us has had their normal lives disrupted.  Many of us have also lost friends and family as the Coronavirus has swept through our communities. To say 2020 has been a trying time would be an understatement.

This year has not been unlike that first year the Pilgrims spent after landing at Plymouth Rock; their crossing of the Atlantic, their year of loss and struggle and their ultimate triumph.

Four hundred years ago, a group of 102 passengers set sail from England on a ship known as the Mayflower. They left their homeland with eyes set on the New World, where hopes of religious freedom and entrepreneurial opportunities awaited. Today, four centuries later, the New World that these pilgrims found is now the greatest country in the world, the United States of America.

As we look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving in a few days with our loved ones, (as best we can under the current situation) I think that giving thanks for the land that we call home is especially important this year. With the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing, we can look back and admire those brave men and women who embarked on a dangerous journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Many of the passengers aboard that ship sought religious freedom that would only be possible here in the New World. That religious freedom they risked their lives for remains a value we treasure and must continue to defend today.  Sadly, it’s a freedom we too often take for granted each and every day.

And when rough weather forced the Mayflower to land in Massachusetts rather than Virginia, the seeds of democracy were sewn. It was the Mayflower Compact that gave way to the Pilgrims establishing a colony that created its own laws and abided by them. This incredible feat of getting consensus among a diverse group is what led to the first self-governing document in the New World. The Mayflower Compact established something that had never been done before but was soon to be replicated on a larger scale when the nation’s Founding Father’s put pen to parchment and drafted the Constitution. 

It was the brave passengers of the Mayflower who started the tradition of a day of giving thanks in the year 1621. That first year, especially the winter of 1620-21 was harsh and deadly.  Of the 102 original passengers, 45 died the first year. Many died from exposure to the cold, from diseases and from malnutrition. Four entire Mayflower families also died that first winter in Massachusetts.

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But those who survived persevered.  While it wasn’t called Thanksgiving back then, it was a joyous celebration of the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest that they invited nearby Native Americans to join. Some two hundred and forty years later, President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be observed on the final Thursday of each November. 

While we are still struggling through the season of COVID, we can look to those 102 brave souls from four centuries ago who also struggled.  But they trusted that brighter days and the prospect of freedom were on the horizon.   Not only that, but they looked to God for their guidance and thank him for bringing them to the place we are today.  

So, on this Thanksgiving, while we still struggle, we can take comfort from those who came before us.  We owe so much to the Pilgrims, as God put it in their hearts to travel to the New World.  Furthermore, they set before us a spirit of Thanksgiving to the all-knowing God.  And that is an example for us today, perhaps even more so than ever.

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Opinion | Record voter turnout in Alabama shows need for voting legislation

“When Alabamians had reasonable and secure options to access the ballot, they exercised their right to vote in the highest numbers in state history.”

JaTaune Bosby

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(STOCK PHOTO)

More than 140 million voters took part in the historic 2020 election. Alabamians cast 2.3 million ballots, and cast absentee ballots in record numbers. More than 300,000 absentee votes were requested in-person or by mail.

Headlines have lauded the level of participation; however, we must be careful in allowing a narrative to capture a moment while erasing the history and evolution of voter suppression in this state and across the Deep South.

That is why now more than ever, we must expand voting in Alabama.

The full enfranchisement of voters based on race has only been in place for 55 years since the passing of the Voting Rights Act, but that has since been undermined with the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision, which removed federal oversight from state voting regulations and allowed for burdensome requirements like voter ID to become the standard.

Alabama, the very battleground for voting rights in this country, once again backslid and since then has remained even behind many of our neighbors as far as options for voting.

However, this year, when Alabama emerged as a hotspot for COVID-19, state leaders ensured voters would have more choices when casting their ballot this year by permitting use of the absentee and in-person absentee voting for all registered voters.

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This opportunity energized voters, as we saw long lines outside of courthouses across Alabama, from Mobile and Montgomery to Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. Voter turnout exceeded 66 percent nationwide and 61 percent in the state.

When Alabamians had reasonable and secure options to access the ballot, they exercised their right to vote in the highest numbers in state history.

These numbers show that Alabama voters want more voting options prior to Election Day, and it is now up to lawmakers in this state to take a stance for the citizens of Alabama. In the upcoming legislative session, the Alabama legislature must ensure we make voting expansion a priority.

The right to the ballot box should not depend on signatory requirements or excuses to be able to vote safely by mail, as millions of Americans did this past election. Passing legislation can give working parents, caregivers, people with disabilities, and all voters more choices so that voting is made simple and accessible for all Alabamians.

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This historic fight of Civil Rights activists in this very state sent a message to not only the rest of the U.S., but to the world, that democracy and the right to vote is one of our most powerful tools to make our voices heard.

This year, our collective voices have been resounding, and despite our circumstances — a global pandemic, an international social movement, and major political shifts that have impacted our families and our communities for decades to come — we ensured that our voices were heard at the ballot box.

Today, we must aim to be a shining example once again of democracy’s promise and demonstrate that free, fair and accessible elections drive civic engagement at every level and give the people of Alabama the voice in our government that we deserve.

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Opinion | Warning: Your blood may boil

“One truth can not be denied. Someone was up to no good. And their empty proclamations to put our children first were lies.”

Larry Lee

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(APR GRAPHIC)

OK. It is not unusual for me to lose my cool in this very weird and very crazy political turmoil swirling around us. And why not when we are engulfed in adults acting like children?

However, none of these get me stirred up like the saga I am about to relate.

The reason being I know too much about what happened and heard many of the lies and attempts at deception in person. And certainly, because at the end of the day, it was the public school students of Alabama who paid the costs incurred because certain “public officials” betrayed the public trust.

This all unfolded in 2016, when the State Board of Education made one of the most boneheaded moves I’ve ever witnessed by hiring Mike Sentance of Massachusetts to be our state superintendent of education. He was a disaster. Not an educator, never a teacher, principal or local superintendent. Had applied for the Alabama job in 2011 and didn’t even get an interview.

State educators were almost solidly committed to wanting Jefferson County superintendent Craig Pouncey to get the job. They considered giving the job to Sentance a slap in the face (The fact that Sentance lasted one year before packing his bags removed any doubt that he was a very bad choice).

Sentance was announced as the choice on Aug. 11, 2016. But even then, rumors of misdoing were afoot and then-State Sen. Gerald Dial called for an investigation into the hiring process within a week.

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Someone orchestrated a smear campaign against Pouncey, obviously to hurt his chances of being selected by the State Board of Education. A packet of info was distributed to each board member alleging wrongdoing by Pouncey. All board members discounted the info — except Mary Scott Hunter of Huntsville.

Let’s fast forward a moment. When the dust finally settled, Pouncey filed suit against Hunter and others. And just last week, Bill Britt, the editor of the Alabama Political Reporter filed the following:

“A defamation suit filed by Pouncey against former school board member Mary Scott Hunter was recently settled with Pouncey being awarded $100,000 by the state. According to Pouncey’s attorney, Kenny Mendelsohn, no admission of liability by Hunter was offered under the terms of the agreement.

"It is estimated the state spent as much as a million dollars or more on defense attorneysto protect Hunter and others. APR was able to identify nearly a half-million dollars in attorneys fees paid during the case, but assigning a final dollar figure is nearly impossible, because four contracts with top-tier law firms were for $195 per hour and open-ended.

"The settlement puts an end to years of hearings, investigations, lawsuits, and recriminations.”

[You can read all of APR’s story here.]

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I spent hours and hours tracking this story. What I learned was disgusting and sickening. It was obvious that the trust citizens had placed in elected officials to protect the interest of public school students was ignored. This was not about helping kids and teachers and administrators and trying to find the best state superintendent possible, it was about political agendas and adults trying to cover their ass.

I am no kid. The first-ever real life political campaign I was part of was in 1972. Which is to say that I’ve seen my share of political shenanigans. But none more repulsive than what happened in 2016.

Dial asked the attorney general to investigate what took place. Then he and his colleague, Democratic Sen. Quinton Ross, passed a resolution creating a legislative committee to investigate. I went to each of these sessions. They were standing room only. All kinds of folks showed up, including some of Alabama’s most recognized lobbyists.

One of the more amazing things that happened was when Mary Scott Hunter, an attorney herself, told Dial that “she did not know the rules” about how the state ethics commission was supposed to handle anonymous complaints.

So Pouncey filed suit in an effort to clear his name. I don’t blame him. I would have as well.

Among the things about all this that never made sense is why the state of Alabama footed the legal bill for defending those in the suit, especially Hunter.

Her actions were of her own choosing. She became a rogue state board member. She did not consult with other members before she began making sure the Ethics Commission had a copy of the bogus complaint. No other board members did this.

For whatever reason, she took matters into her own hands in an effort to harm Pouncey.  She was outside the bounds of her duties and responsibilities as a state board member.

But as is common, this legal action moved at the speed of paint drying. Then COVID-19 got in the way and civil suits got shoved to the end of the line. The best, most recent guess as to when the case would show up on a court docket was at least two years from now.

The state offered to settle for $100,000. After careful consideration with his attorney, Pouncey reluctantly decided to settle. I know Pouncey well. He has told me repeatedly that this was never about money. Instead, it was about his reputation and how certain people were willing to put politics above the interest of students. But the expectations of such ever happening grew dimmer with each day and the suit was settled.

The truth will never be known. A court will never render a verdict pointing out guilty parties. We are only left with our assumptions, based on pieced together facts gleaned from discussions and paperwork.

But one truth can not be denied. Someone was up to no good. And their empty proclamations to put our children first were lies.

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