By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
It is sometimes hard to find material for a top-stories-of-the-year piece.
That is not the case for 2016.
If anything, trimming this one down to just 10 – by way of carefully including a number of stories inside broad categories – was the trouble. It was no easy task, but here’s the official APR rankings of Alabama’s Top 10 stories of 2016.
- Mike Hubbard gets a room at the Big House: There was no better political theater this year – and maybe this decade – than the ethics trial of former House Speaker Mike Hubbard.
Ripped from a Grisham novel, the legal circus in Lee County had it all: drama, media fights, big names, tense courtroom moments, big blunders and dramatic verdict. Hubbard was convicted of 12 felony violations of the ethics laws he helped pass, and pending appeals, will serve around four years in prison.
- Robert Bentley gets freaky: If there was one thing you didn’t have to worry about when Bentley, the 67-year-old grandfather and Mr. Burns stunt double, took office, it was an extramarital affair.
Well, funny story.
Turns out, the world’s a crazy place, as we learned early in 2016, when cringe-inducing tapes of the Governor speaking to his (alleged) mistress, Rebekah Mason, were made public.
The breast-grabbing affair also had the added elements of two of the state’s top cops filing lawsuits against Bentley and Mason, with the cops claiming they were wrongly and exposing (allegedly) the dirty secrets of Bentley and Mason. It has ended with Bentley facing impeachment and the focus of at least one grand jury investigation.
- Roy Moore gets bounced … again: It’s probably a miracle he made it as long as he did, but Moore, Alabama’s outspoken and controversial Supreme Court Chief Justice, was suspended from the bench for the remainder of his term in September for issuing a directive to probate judges to ignore a US Supreme Court order.
Moore had previously challenged a federal judge’s order that struck down the State’s ban on same-sex marriages. And when the highest court issued its ruling, Moore once again directed probate judges to not issue any same-sex marriage licenses (a directive that most probate judges ignored).
The SPLC’s Richard Cohen – the same man who filed a complaint in 2003 that resulted in Moore’s first removal from the bench – filed the current complain with the Judicial Inquiry Commission.
- Alabama gets busted inflating graduation rates: It had to be the worst kept secret in all of the State – Alabama’s remarkable graduation rates were artificially inflated. In December, reluctantly and after an investigation by the US Dept. of Education, Alabama finally admitted what everyone knew.
The rates had been inflated in two ways – by miscounting certain special education diplomas and by school districts misusing grade and credit recovery programs to pass students who hadn’t earned passing grades.
- State school superintendent controversy: Craig Pouncey seemed destined to be Alabama’s next state superintendent of education. Yet, Michael Sentance holds the job. What happened?
An anonymous letter claiming that Pouncey cheated on his dissertation by misusing state resources happened to land on the desks of state school board members. One of those members just happened to pass that accusation along to the Alabama Ethics Commission. The Ethics Commission, which can barely return a phone call in a 24-hour period, somehow managed to work up a preliminary statement that Pouncey was being investigated in less than a day after receiving the complaint.
Tah-dah: Michael Sentance gets the job. And something stinks in Montgomery.
- Lottery bills crap out: This was the year it was finally going to happen – Alabama was getting a lottery.
The people are behind a lottery and basically would support any form of legalized gaming that aids the state’s depleted coffers. Those coffers have rarely been so depleted, and the outlook for filling them rarely so bleak.
But two shots at it failed.
Why? Because of politics and Native Americans.
The Poarch Creek Indians aren’t looking to increase competition from zero, so they mounted a push against legalized casinos. Those would-be casinos then mounted a push against a lottery bill that expands the Poarch Creeks’ empire. And round and round we go.
- Medicaid funding … it’s bad: The state’s lawmakers entered the 2016 session knowing well that Alabama faced a huge general fund budget shortfall. Their solution: cut poor people’s health care by $85 million.
That decision led to a special session, in which the disgraced governor directed the Legislature to fix that huge hole.
Those lawmakers responded by finding no longterm fix the huge expense, instead opting to patch the hole with one-time BP oil spill money in 2018.
So, it will be back.
- But we do have $800 million for prisons: Alabama’s prisons are essentially hell on earth: overcrowded to the point of federal violations of law, understaffed to the point of danger and essentially one big riot.
In response to years of neglect and underfunding – not to mention sentence mandates that stack prisoners – Bentley proposed an $800 million fix. He wants to build four super prisons with 4,000-plus beds in three men’s prisons and 1,200 beds in a new women’s prison. They would also close all but two existing prisons.
The plan was killed in the Legislature, because lawmakers scoffed at the costs and the bidding processes. There was also concern about what might happen to the communities surrounding existing prisons.
- Finance department has glitch or two: What’s better than one non-working phone? A whole pallet of them.
That little snafu – a pallet of unused government cell phones worth thousands collecting dust – was just one of the finance department’s myriad issues.
There was also the suspension of two finance department officials by Bentley for the vague reason of allowing contract workers too much access to ALEA’s criminal information system. Both workers were eventually reinstated.
There was also an FBI audit, the results of which have not been made public.
- Trump wins, Sessions’ seat goes up for grabs: Donald Trump was, no surprise, the favorite among voters in Alabama. And it was this state – and Sen. Jeff Sessions – that helped push Trump to his early success in the Republican primary race.
As a reward for that early loyalty, Trump has nominated Sessions as his attorney general. That’s a pick that’s sure to be controversial and create quite the buzz during Sessions’ Senate confirmation hearing. It also started a State free-for-all for Sessions’ open Senate seat.
Top candidates have been working night and day to sway Bentley, who can either appoint the new seat holder or call for a special election.