By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) was re-elected in November 2014, with an incredible landslide victory over former Congressman Parker Griffith. Bentley crushed his weak GOP Primary opponents and cruised to an easy victory over Griffith, refusing to debate along the way. From that glorious victory to the present, little had gone right for the Bentley Administration and the Governor has acted more and more irrationally.
The day after winning his victory, Bentley claimed that he had just discovered there were problems in the State General Fund (SGF), a bizarre claim since everybody knew the SGF had been propped up through the 2015 fiscal year by a raid of the Alabama Trust Fund approved by voters at the urging of Bentley. That $140 million a year had to be made up somehow.
Even though Republicans had a supermajority in both Houses of the Alabama legislature, the Governor then appointed a Democrat, former Speaker of the House Seth Hammett as Chief of Staff.
In the months between his victory and the 2015 legislative session, he failed to meet in formal talks with the leaders of the legislature to set the agenda for the second Bentley terms or even to craft a SGF solution prior to the 2015 Legislative Session.
Bentley left Mrs. Bentley at their home in Tuscaloosa while moving in to the Blount mansion in Montgomery. This whole time, Mrs. Rebekah Caldwell Mason moved from being his campaign consultant to play a much more public role in the administration of the State. Affair rumors that had been swirling since 2014, began to pick up steam.
Mason was getting paid by a shadow foundation that does not report who contributes money to it or why.
The Doctor-turned-Governor then unilaterally proposed a 45 percent increase in the SGF by raising taxes on almost everyone in the State and moving $240 million in use taxes from the Education Trust Fund (ETF to the SGF) even though Bentley had just been reelected touting smaller government and no new taxes. When State Senator Bill Holtzclaw (R-Madison) put up a billboard affirming his no new taxes pledge, the Bentley Administration shut down ongoing road projects in Holtzclaw’s district. At a meeting with Republican legislators an angry Bentley vowed to shut down State moneys into the districts of legislators who opposed his tax plan. The disaster of a plan was dead on arrival at the Legislature.
Senate President Del Marsh (R-Anniston) attempted to throw Bentley a lifeline by introducing a controversial plan to raise SGF revenue by allowing casino gaming and creating a lottery. Bentley refused to back that or any other gaming plan, insisting instead that the Legislature pass his $540 million tax plan.
While still claiming the State was in a fiscal crisis, the Governor insisted that the legislature borrow $50 million in bonds to build a $110 million beach front hotel and conference center to replace the old Gulf State Park Lodge destroyed by a hurricane early in former Governor Bob Riley’s (R) administration. Bentley then went on talk radio and trashed the Senate General Fund Committee Chairman Arthur Orr for resistance to his beachfront project. 2015 legislative session budget negotiations collapsed and the legislature passed a lean SGF budget with cuts to state general fund agencies across the board. The Governor then vetoed the 2016 fiscal year SGF budget and the 2015 legislative session ended in disaster.
June 2015, Gov. Bentley in a knee-jerk reaction to a mass shooting in South Carolina unilaterally ordered all of the Confederate flags be removed from the Capital grounds. The move generated some positive press nationally but angered a large component of Bentley’s base. Hundreds of Confederate flag supporters descended on Montgomery protesting the removal of the flags from the Confederate Veterans Memorial and the house where Jefferson Davis lived.
The Governor then agreed to give Marsh and Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) time to craft some sort of consensus deal. Without ever providing any sound rationale for doing so, Bentley and Mason then inexplicably broke out of that deal and ordered the legislature to come back on Monday for a hastily called special session in four days. An angry legislature came back and then promptly went on vacation for three weeks. When they returned Speaker Hubbard crafted together a series of tax increases that would have raised approximately $180 to $200 million for the SGF. Conservatives in the legislature balked at any part of the plan. Hubbard and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Steve Clouse (R-Ozark) were able through sheer force of personality and threats to get that out of committee. When it went to the House floor, Democrats refused to support the plan because it did not include a lottery. The Governor was taken by surprise by the move, as he just assumed that the Democrats would support his plan to fully fund Medicaid (a program whose costs was rising exponentially due to anemic job growth and the effects of Obamacare).
The second Special Session ended in total disarray as Bentley was still refusing to accept any politically possible compromise, Democrats were refusing to vote for a Republican tax increase plan with no lottery and conservative Republicans in the legislature were increasingly hostile to any tax increases. No SGF budget even passed on to the increasingly unpopular Governor in that session.
On Friday, August 28, Mrs. Dianne Bentley, who had been alone in Tuscaloosa since at least January, while still keeping up her First Lady duties, filed for divorce from the fifty year marriage. Bentley was taken by surprise by the legal move. Rumors of the affair between Bentley and Mason were made public. Bloggers Roger Shuler and Donald Watkins independently broke the story, which was picked by mainstream media.
In September, during the Second Special Session to fix the SGF Marsh and Hubbard were able to craft a plan where the legislature would raise $66 million in taxes on cigarettes, prescription drugs, and nursing home beds while moving $66 million in use taxes from the ETF. Bentley waffled on the lotter, but too late to get a bill passed. Hubbard and Marsh were able to barely get the votes to get the plan and the resulting SGF budget out of the legislature. The governor was forced to accept the deal or risk getting nothing in a third Special Session.
Through three legislative session Bentley kept demanding a $50 million bond issue for the conference center hotel in a hurricane zone. Failing to get that passed, Bentley elected to take the money from the BP oil spill settlement. Environmental groups sued contending that the money was for coastal restoration and not public works monuments. They would win the lawsuit, but Bentley vowed to build his luxury state-owned hotel anyway, despite the cuts endured by most general fund agencies.
Hammett left as the Chief of Staff and was never replaced, as Mrs. Mason was acknowledged by everyone as being the de facto power in the Bentley administration. Bentley would later settle with Mrs. Bentley before depositions could begin. Mrs. Bentley took most of the money, the Alabama football tickets, two homes on the gulf and gets to live in the couple’s Tuscaloosa home until the end of Bentley’s second term.
Bentley retaliated against legislators who refused to support his tax plan by closing 31 driver’s license offices, four state parks, a number of Alabama National Guard armories, and even some state owned liquor stores. Since rural Black Counties were the hardest hit by the moves and since Alabama requires a valid ID to vote, the NAACP and the Obama Administration accused the state of voter suppression by making it harder for rural voters to get drivers licenses. The state was sued and litigation over the matter is ongoing even though Bentley has relented to a point and agreed to open the driver’s license offices one day a month.
Governor Bentley and Mrs. Mason held a private meeting with the Alabama Republican Party Steering Committee. The group held a frank discussion with the Governor in which members accused him of hurting the Republican brand in Alabama. Days later someone released an audio tape of the secret meeting to pro-Bentley political columnist and reporter Chuck Dean. Angry steering committee members accused Mason of being the party who taped the meeting and shared it with the press.
Bentley began rebuilding the old Governor’s mansion on the gulf coast. The $1.8 million project was done on Bentley’s order even though the state was suffering the effects of a SGF budget cuts. Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) said the Governor was rebuilding the wrecked mansion to make up for the two Gulf Coast homes he lost in the divorce settlement with Mrs. Bentley.
Again, there was little in the way of actual communications between the Bentley Administration and the legislature prior to the 2016 legislative session. The Governor claims he needs an additional $100 million for Medicaid in fiscal year 2017 to pay for the same services and implement the troubled Medicaid reform plan which is supposed to transform the disastrously expensive state Medicaid agency from a State managed fees for service model to a managed care model managed by regional care organizations (RCOs). The legislature passed the Medicaid reform legislation in Bentley’s first term but did not pass a funding mechanism to actually pay for implementing the plan. The budget that passed the legislature on Wednesday, March 23 came up $85 million short of what Bentley claims he needs to keep up with demands for healthcare from the state’s nearly one million Medicaid beneficiaries.
Bentley has also proposed replacing 16 Alabama prisons with four new much larger prisons. The Governor wants an $800 million bond issue to pay for his controversial new prison building scheme. The massive new prisons will be all built by one contractor for the $800 million upfront. It will take three decades to pay off the bonds and there is no funding mechanism in place for paying down the new debt; but the Bentley Administration claims it can pay $50 million a year through improved efficiency….even though Alabama already spends less per prisoner per day of any state in the country. That bill was carried over in the Senate on Wednesday after opponents questioned the soundness of adding all of that new debt.
Bentley is threatening to veto the SGF budget. State Senator Jabo Waggoner (R-Vestavia) said on Tuesday that the legislature expects Bentley to veto the budget, but said that they will override his veto.
In any other administration the prisons and the SGF budget would be the biggest news stories of the week. Not in the Bentley Administration. The Governor shocked everyone by raising the pay of members of his cabinet and staff……in some cases by as much as $75,000 a year.
Bentley is expected to be a witness in the April Mike Hubbard trial for 23 charges of felony ethics violations. Sources close to the investigation speculate that because Mrs. Mason did not want Bentley testifying in any court room, where possibly questions could be asked about her and the Governor’s relationship, the Bentley Administration supported defense efforts to remove prosecutor Matt Hart from the case, in hopes that the trial could be delayed or the case dismissed by the court. When Montgomery lawyer, campaign manager, and talk radio personality Baron Coleman (after being a longtime Mike Hubbard critic) volunteered to become a Hubbard defense witness, the AG’s office asserted that Coleman was a paid State informant.
Gov. Bentley ordered long time friend and Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) head Spencer Collier to refuse a Hart request for an affidavit in the Hubbard case acknowledging that Coleman was working for law enforcement thus making his testimony privileged. Realizing that failure to supply this affidavit, could possibly be criminal obstruction of justice Collier defied Bentley’s orders and complied with Attorney General’s office request, asserting that it was his duty to honor the prosecution request. Bentley was enraged. He suspended Collier and installed his longtime body guard and the head of his the State’s dignitary protection service Stan Stabler as the acting ALEA Secretary.
Stabler, allegedly acting on the orders of Mason and Bentley, then sacked most of the leadership at ALEA alleging that there was improper use of State resources without waiting for the Attorney General’s office to investigate any of the allegations, much less empanel a Grand Jury to look at the allegations of misconduct.
An angry Collier then denounced Mason and publicly exposed the long talked about affair. Audiotapes of Mason and Bentley appear to confirm that the pair were indeed lovers. Bentley and Mason both acknowledge that the audiotape is indeed them and that the conversation was inappropriate; but continue to maintain that no physicality ever actually happened.
Mason’s husband, Jon Mason, heads the Governor’s faith based initiatives office and is paid $92,000 per year.
Meanwhile a growing number of voices are calling on Attorney General Luther Strange to investigate Bentley’s increasingly bizarre conduct and whether or not crimes may have been committed.
On Thursday, Strange said in a statement, “In light of the accusations of potential wrongdoing that have been made over the last two days, and the numerous inquiries that my office has received, I would like to assure the public that the Attorney General’s Office takes very seriously any allegations involving potential criminal misconduct. My office has a strong record of probing illegal activity in this state and we will continue to do our job. That said, pursuant to our longstanding policy regarding pending criminal investigations, I will have no further comment at this time.”
On Friday, Auditor Jim Zeigler filed a formal ethics complaint against Governor Bentley. Zeigler said, “The Governor continues to disgrace the state of Alabama and in my official capacity as State Auditor, I am required to report these suspected violations.” The Governor denies any criminal wrongdoing.
Gov. Bentley is expected to call another Special Session to try to force the legislature to give him more money to spend on the Alabama Medicaid Program which has been hemorrhaging money at an increasing pace.
Most major newspapers and a growing number of legislators including State Senator Shay Shelnutt (R-Trussville), State Representative David Standridge (R-Hayden), and House Minority Leader Craig Ford (D-Gadsden) have called on Bentley to resign over the scandal that has appeared on many national news sites.
Bentley is refusing to resign and is refusing to fire Mrs. Mason. Legislators and columnists alike have questioned whether Bentley can possibly be effective at moving his agenda forward at this point.
Tuberville calls for term limits, balanced budget and lobbying reform
Tuberville has also made a major media buy across the state to trumpet this message.
Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville’s campaign began emphasizing key structural reforms that the Republican nominee hopes to advance if elected to the U.S. Senate including congressional term limits, withholding lawmakers’ paychecks unless a balanced budget is passed and a ban on former officials becoming lobbyists.
“Only an outsider like me can help President Trump drain the Swamp, and any of the proposals outlined in this ad will begin the process of pulling the plug,” Tuberville said in a statement. “Doug Jones has had his chance, and he failed our state, so now it’s time to elect a senator who will work to fundamentally change the way that Washington operates.”
Tuberville has also made a major media buy across the state to trumpet this message.
“You know Washington politicians could learn a lot from the folks in small town Alabama, but Doug Jones … he’s too liberal to teach them,” Tuberville added.
Polls consistently show that term limits are popular with people across both political parties, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that imposing term limits would be adding a qualification to be a member of Congress and that can only be done by constitutional amendment.
It is an unspoken truth that when Americans send someone to Congress they never come back. They either keep getting re-elected like Alabama’s own Sen. Richard Shelby, who is in his sixth term in the Senate after four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. On the other hand, they may become lobbyists getting paid to influence their colleagues on behalf of corporations, foreign governments or some well funded non-government organization.
Tuberville said he would ban that practice.
A balanced budget amendment almost passed in the 1980s and again in the 1990s.
Since that failure, Congress has increasingly passed bigger and bigger budget deficits. The U.S. government borrowed more money during the eight years of President George W. Bush’s presidency than the government had borrowed in the first 224 years of the country combined.
President Barack Obama followed and the TARP program propped up the post-Great Recession economy. Rather than cutting the deficit, President Donald Trump invested billions in the military and a tax cut without cutting domestic spending. The 2020 coronavirus crisis has further grown the budget.
The government has borrowed trillions to prop up the economy and provide stimulus while investing billions into medical research and treating the virus victims. Congress is currently debating a fifth stimulus package that would add more to the deficit.
Both a balanced budget amendment and a term limits amendment would have to be ratified by the states if passed by Congress. Tuberville is challenging incumbent Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama.
House passes General Fund Budget
By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
The Alabama House of Representatives passed the state General Fund Budget on Tuesday.
The General Fund Budget for the 2019 fiscal year is Senate Bill 178. It is sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose. State Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, carried the budget on the House floor. Clouse chairs the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee.
Clouse said, “Last year we monetized the BP settlement money and held over $97 million to this year.”
Clouse said that the state is still trying to come up with a solution to the federal lawsuit over the state prisons. The Governor’s Office has made some progress after she took over from Gov. Robert Bentley. The supplemental we just passed added $30 million to prisons.
The budget adds $50 million to the Department of Corrections.
Clouse said that the budget increased the money for prisons by $55,680,000 and includes $4.8 million to buy the privately-owned prison facility in Perry County.
Clouse said that the budget raises funding for the judicial system and raises the appropriation for the Forensic Sciences to $11.7 million.
The House passed a committee substitute so the Senate is either going to have to concur with the changes made by the House or a conference committee will have to be appointed. Clouse told reporters that he hoped that it did not have to go to conference.
Clouse said that the budget had added $860,000 to hire more Juvenile Probation Officers. After talking to officials with the court system that was cut in half in the amendment. The amendment also includes some wording the arbiters in the court lawsuit think we need.
The state General Fund Budget, SB178, passed 98-1.
Both budgets have now passed the Alabama House of Representatives.
The 2019 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, 2018.
In addition to the SGF, the House also passed a supplemental appropriation for the current 2018 budget year. SB175 is also sponsored by Pittman and was carried by Clouse on the floor of the House.
SB175 includes $30 million in additional 2018 money for the Department of Corrections. The Departmental Emergency Fund, the Examiners of Public Accounts, the Insurance Department and Forensic Sciences received additional money.
Clouse said, “We knew dealing with the federal lawsuit was going to be expensive. We are adding $80 million to the Department of Corrections.”
State Representative Johnny Mack Morrow, R-Red Bay, said that state Department of Forensics was cut from $14 million to $9 million. “Why are we adding money for DA and courts if we don’t have money for forensics to provide evidence? if there is any agency in law enforcement or the court system that should be funded it is Forensics.”
The supplemental 2018 appropriation passed 80 to 1.
The House also passed SB203. It was sponsored by Pittman and was carried in the House by State Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton. It raises securities and registration fees for agents and investment advisors. It increases the filing fees for certain management investment companies. Johnson said that those fees had not been adjusted since 2009.
The House also passed SB176, which is an annual appropriation for the Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The bill requires that the agency have an operations plan, audited financial statement, and quarterly and end of year reports. SB176 is sponsored by Pittman and was carried on the House floor by State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chatham.
The House passed Senate Bill 185 which gives state employees a cost of living increase in the 2019 budget beginning on October 1. It was sponsored by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville and was being carried on the House floor by state Rep. Dimitri Polizos, R-Montgomery.
Polizos said that this was the first raise for non-education state employees in nine years. It is a 3 percent raise.
SB185 passed 101-0.
Senate Bill 215 gives retired state employees a one time bonus check. SB215 is sponsored by Senator Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Guntersville.
Rich said that retired employees will get a bonus $1 for every month that they worked for the state. For employees who retired with 25 years of service that will be a $300 one time bonus. A 20-year retiree would get $240 and a 35-year employee would get $420.
SB215 passed the House 87-0.
The House passed Senate Bill 231, which is the appropriation bill increase amount to the Emergency Forest Fire and Insect and Disease Fund. SB231 is sponsored by Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kyle South, R-Fayette.
State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chathom, said, “Thank you for bringing this bill my district is full of trees and you never know when a forest fire will hit.
SB231 passed 87-2.
The state of Alabama is unique among the states in that most of the money is earmarked for specific purposes allowing the Legislature little year-to-year flexibility in moving funds around.
The SGF includes appropriations for the Alabama Medicaid Agency, the courts, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, the Alabama Department of Corrections, mental health, and most state agencies that are no education related. The Alabama Department of Transportation gets their funding mostly from state fuel taxes.
The Legislature also gives ALEA a portion of the gas taxes. K-12 education, the two year college system, and all the universities get their state support from the education trust fund (ETF) budget. There are also billions of dollars in revenue that are earmarked for a variety of purposes that does not show up in the SGF or ETF budgets.
Examples of that include the Public Service Commission, which collects utility taxes from the industries that it regulates. The PSC is supported entirely by its own revenue streams and contributes $13 million to the SGF. The Secretary of State’s Office is entirely funded by its corporate filing and other fees and gets no SGF appropriation.
Clouse warned reporters that part of the reason this budget had so much money was due to the BP oil spill settlement that provided money for the 2018 budget and $97 million for the 2019 budget. Clouse said they elected to make a $13 million repayment to the Alabama Trust fund that was not due until 2020 but that is all that was held over for 2020.
Clouse predicted that the Legislature will have to make some hard decisions about revenue in next year’s session.
Day Care bill delayed for second time on Senate floor, may be back Thursday
By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter
The day care bill, which would license certain day care centers in Alabama, was once again delayed on the state Senate floor after one lawmaker requested more information.
Its brief appearance Tuesday ended with state Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, saying a compromise had not yet been worked out with the bill’s detractors.
Alabama’s Senate has been hesitant to act on the legislation because of complaints of state Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville, who has been an opponent of the bill since its introduction last year. The bill’s delay on Tuesday marks the second time its been taken off the Senate’s agenda.
The bill has had a rocky time in this year’s session, but the bill’s sponsor state Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said she is still confident about its passage out of the Legislature.
Warren, D-Tuskegee, filed the bill this session with the support of influential lawmakers including Gov. Kay Ivey, who told reporters last year that she though all day cares should be licensed.
Mainly sparked by the death of 5-year-old boy in the care of a unlicensed day care worker, the bill had great momentum coming into this year’ session.
Despite the growing support from lawmakers, Religious groups had concerns that the bill would increase state-sponsored reach into religious day cares in churches and non-profit groups.
Spearheading the dissenters was Alabama Citizens Action Program, a conservative religious-based PAC.
Warren, proponents, and ALCAP announced a compromise to the bill while it was still in the Alabama House.
Announced by ALCAP originally, the new bill was a weaker version in that it did not require that all day cares in the state be regulated. Instead, religious-based day cares would only need to be registered if they received federal funds. At a Senate committee meeting in February, Warren said a similar requirement was about to come from federal law in Congress.
The bill moved through the House in a overwhelming vote in favor of the proposal and passed unanimously out of a Senate committee a few weeks ago.
Warren, speaking to reporters after its passage from the House, said she was unsure if the bill would encounter resistance in the upper chamber.
It was the Senate that killed the daycare bill last year amid a cramped last day where senators took the bill off the floor. The bill may face similar complications this year, as lawmakers seem to be preparing to adjourn within a few weeks.
Fantasy sports bill fails on Senate floor
By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter
Would-be Fantasy Sports players in Alabama will have to wait to legally play in the state following a Senate vote on Tuesday.
The Alabama Senate decisively killed a bill to exempt fantasy sports from the state’s prohibition on gambling.
Not even entertaining a debate on the Senate floor, the proposal was killed during a vote for the Budget Isolation Resolution, which is usually a formality vote preluding a debate.
Fantasy sports are contests where participants select players from real teams to compete on fantasy teams using the real-world players’ stats.
Since 2016, the practice has been illegal in Alabama following a legal decision by the Attorney General’s Office that categorized it as gambling.
The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, predicted the bill’s failure during a committee meeting two weeks ago, where the bill passed unanimously.
- Sen. Paul Sanford speaks to reporters after a Senate Committee meeting on Feb. 28, 2018. (Samuel Mattison/APR)
Speaking to reporter’s after the committee meeting, Sanford said the decision to file the bill was mainly a philosophical belief that the practice shouldn’t be illegal.
Sanford, a fantasy sports player before its ban, said that fantasy sports are a way to bring people closer together and not a means to win money. The Huntsville senator is not seeking re-election.
The bill’s failure in the Senate follows its trajectory last year too. A similar version of the bill, also sponsored by Sanford, failed in the Senate during the final days of the 2017 Legislative Session.
Since Sanford is retiring, it is unclear if the bill will even come back next session, or if it will even have a Senate sponsor.