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Bill Britt

What to do about Bentley?

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Vice, vainer and corruption has left Alabama a leaderless State, but there is hope that some with integrity will step forward to fill the void.

Governor Robert Bentley has long ago forfeited any claim of moral leadership and to list his many failings would be as tedious as it is long.

However, calls for his impeachment may be premature.

How can those who defended former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard chanting “innocent until proven guilty” in the face of his indictment on 23 felony counts of public corruption now feign such righteous anger at this scoundrel Bentley? Hubbard was convicted of 12 of those charges and today, many of those same individuals who blithely ignored Hubbard’s malfeasance want to hang the fool on Goat Hill.

For years, State Auditor Jim Zeigler has been the most prominent voice in opposition to our State government’s incompetence, inefficiency, and squandering. There may be those who question his style, but the substance of his railings against Gov. Robert Bentley, the Department of Finance and other agencies are factual and honest.

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Over the last several months, the House of Representatives, the Department of Finance, and now the Attorney General’s Office have witnessed changes in leadership. The reputations of those individuals who now hold these positions of power are not of self-serving, incompetence or corruption.

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, Finance Director Clinton Carter, and Attorney General Steve Marshall have all taken their post at a time when our State is in dire need of competent moral leadership to right this floundering ship of State.

Not one of these individuals are new to command but they are recent occupants of such high offices.

McCutcheon and Marshall have an independence not afforded Carter, who serves at the pleasure of the Governor. But Carter is working diligently to restore integrity to a department that was subject to no less than four investigations under the former Acting Director.

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So far Marshall is making the right moves to ensure the public that he will helm his office with tenacity and honesty. But it is McCutcheon who must show not only those in the House but for all Alabamians he is fighting on their behalf.

Like many individuals serving during Hubbard’s reign of corruption, McCutcheon made mistakes, and there are those who can’t seem to let that go. They should remember that they too cast their vote for Hubbard, even after he was indicted by a Lee County Grand Jury. And then there are the “Hubbardites” who so wildly feasted on the toxic elixir served during Hubbard’s orgy of greed, that they are even now delusional and threatening to divide the Republican House Caucus.

McCutcheon wants to wait to make leadership changes, but him may want to revisit that notion.

Bentley may very well deserve to be removed from office, but where’s the profit? What is the benefit to the State? How does the House now do to Bentley what it would not do to Hubbard? Hubbard was a crook who used his office and those around him for personal gain, while every House member stood by while Van Davis, Matt Hart and company use the courts to remove him from office.

Bentley has not been indicted so why the rush to judgment. Long-serving former Montgomery District Attorney Ellen Brooks is called upon to lead the team that toppled Hubbard, to investigate Bentley, and for now, that should be enough.

But what to do about Bentley?

Rather than impeaching the Governor, Speaker McCutcheon, joined by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, and all constitutional officers with spin, should quietly confront Bentley and if necessary his alleged lover and confidant Rebekah Caldwell Mason, and give them notice that it is time to shut up or stand down. They should tell Bentley that he must be content to visit Cracker Barrel and local groceries to tell the people how much he loves them. If not, then they should publicly denounce him and let the shame cow him into excepting the fact that he is the lamest of ducks. We are far past the hour when Bentley can earn political redemption, but if he can be put in a box before he is put out to pasture, all the better for the State.

Speaker McCutcheon is now the de facto leader of our State. If joined by Marsh, Marshall, Zeigler, Treasurer Young Boozer, Commissioner John McMilan, Secretary of State John Merrill and others, they together can bring Bentley to heel while assuring the State that they have the people’s best interest going forward.

Calmer heads will need to prevail so that the 2017 Legislative Session is not derailed by a sideshow of impeachment.

Impeachment before indict is a fools errand.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Let’s hope for Reed’s success

Reed’s temperament and style appear right for this moment in Alabama’s history.

Bill Britt

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State Sen. Greg Reed has been chosen as the next president pro tem of the Alabama State Senate.

State Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, will lead the Alabama Senate as president pro tem during the upcoming 2021 legislative session. What changes will Reed bring to the upper chamber, and how will his leadership differ from his predecessor? No one knows for sure.

Reed succeeds Sen. Del Marsh, who has served as president pro tem since Republicans took control of the Statehouse in 2010. Marsh, along with then-Gov. Bob Riley, current felon Mike Hubbard and ousted BCA Chair Billy Canary orchestrated the 2010 takeover that saw the Republican rise to dominance.

Reed, who won his Senate seat the same year, was not a charter member of the Republican ruling class, but he benefited from the power sift.

Mild-mannered and studious with a quiet charm, Reed has steadily ascended the ranks of Senate leadership. His silver hair and calm determination have served him well. Reed is a senatorial figure straight out of Hollywood’s central casting.

In all, Reed is nearly universally liked and respected, which in the near term is a hopeful sign of potential success. But political leadership always comes with a warning: “Friends come and go, enemies accumulate.”

Reed’s relationship with Gov. Kay Ivey is certainly less contentious than Marsh’s and gives rise to the belief that there will be greater cooperation between the executive and the Senate.

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With the economy and public health under dire stress due to the ravages of COVID-19, legislative priorities are fixed: get people back to work and eradicate the coronavirus.

However, one of Reed’s first tests will be whether he can cool the smoldering anger of those senators who still feel the sting of Ivey’s rebuke over the allocation of CARES Act funds. He will also need to resist those who want to punish the administration over its use of public health statutes to implement mask mandates and other safety measures to prevent the deadly coronavirus spread.

Despite outward declarations of a unified body, the State Senate is a small, insular and unwieldy beast where egos loom large and consensus on policies is often tricky to achieve except on “red meat issues.”

Building a coalition on policy in the Senate is often a combination of horse-trading, cajoling and carefully applied pressure. The way forward in the near term is exact: pass legislation that spurs economic recovery and mitigates the health crisis at hand.

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But Reed will also simultaneously need to recognize what comes next for justice reform, prison construction, gambling and a myriad of other pressing issues. His job will be to understand the prevailing winds, which are evolutionary, not revolutionary.

As author Doris Kearns Goodwin noted in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: “For political leaders in a democracy are not revolutionaries or leaders of creative thought. The best of them are those who respond wisely to changes and movements already underway. The worst, the least successful, are those who respond badly or not at all, and those who misunderstand the direction of already visible change.”

Reed’s temperament and style appear right for this moment in Alabama’s history.

As President Abraham Lincoln said, “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Let’s all hope that Reed passes the test.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Clorox, anyone?

There is no comprehensive plan on how to hold the upcoming legislative session safely — not even a rudimentary one.

Bill Britt

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In less than 100 days, the state Legislature will return to Montgomery for the 2021 Legislative Session. As of now, there is no comprehensive plan on how to hold the session safely — not even a rudimentary one.

But perhaps there is a reason to keep the statehouse shuttered as the Legislature seems to have forgotten the governing principles that the nation was built upon, and (hint, hint) it was never a slogan.

One individual at the Statehouse said that there would be a vaccine by February, so why worry about holding Session as usual. Perhaps this individual also believes that a disinfectant cure or a UV light remedy is right around the corner. News flash, as of press time, intravenous Clorox and lightbulb suppositories are still in phase one trials.

Pandemic humor aside, the surprising thing would be if the Legislature actually had a plan at all.

There have been rumors of a plan, even mentions of one, too, but nothing that would allow lawmakers, lobbyists and the public to realistically gather to conduct the peoples’ business in a relatively COVID-free environment.

We all want a miracle, but miracles are outside legislative purview, and while prayer is needed at the Statehouse, so is commonsense and a plan.

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One plan in consideration is to limit the number of people who can enter the building. That’s a bad idea because the public has a right to witness government action and advocate for causes.

At the end of the truncated 2020 session, the Legislature curtailed the number of people in the Statehouse, which violates the law and good government spirit.

Lawmakers come to Montgomery to do the peoples’ business — at least that’s what they say at campaign events and pancake breakfasts. Of course, they don’t really conduct the people’s business in Montgomery. That’s just a figure of speech.

Legislators represent the people when they are running for office or giving chats at Rotary, but when most — not all — enter the Statehouse, they work for special interests.

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Yes, some do care, and all are convinced they are doing a great job, but just like the plan to open the Statehouse safely on Feb. 3, it’s sadly an absurd pretense.

The majority of the Legislature consists of Republicans, who used to have a firm sense of what the party represented. While I hate to offend my many friends, the current party couldn’t find the most defining principles of traditional governance in our nation if you gave them a GPS and a flashlight.

Let me humbly run down a short list of things that should matter in no particular order.

For the list, I will turn to the 2006 book American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia: “Classical liberalism is the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and the press, and international peace based on free trade.”

Classical liberalism has nothing to do with modern liberalism and everything to do with our Republic’s founding. Classical liberalism underpins the Constitution’s foundation, Federalist Papers and the vast majority of the founding generation’s ideology, which created our nation’s governing structure.

Private property rights are fundamental to what Jefferson called the pursuit of happiness.

And guess what is an individual’s most precious piece of property? Their person. Yes, a person’s body and mind are an individual’s greatest possession. A person’s right to live freely with only a minimum amount of government intrusion is essential to happiness. The government’s job is not to tell us how to live, rather keep others from harming us, killing us or taking our stuff.

Every year Montgomery seems intent on an ever-expanding agenda to meddle in people’s private lives.

Real estate and other property is significant but can’t be thoroughly enjoyed if we are dead or in chains designed by the good intentions of the Legislature. Lawmakers are not to be the central planning committee for the soul.

The government should promote a relatively unhampered market economy. Tariffs anyone? Trade wars? No one wins a trade war. Everyone loses. Winning simply means the other side lost more or gives up. It’s like a bar fight. Nobody wins it because everyone gets beaten up — but one got it worse.

How about the rule of law? I hear it talked about a lot, but the law must be just for everyone. If the law is applied unequally, is it really the law?

We hear a lot about Second Amendment rights as if that’s the big one. But what about freedom of the press? Is that less important? As the nation’s second president John Adams said, “Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”

The press is not the enemy of the people. Is there bias? Sometimes. Is there poor reporting? On occasion. But the real enemy are the politicians who defame or attempt to delegitimize the media for not supporting their political agenda. An AR-15 can be coercive but have a free county without a free press in impossible.

Freedom of religion is also paramount to our nation’s principles as free people have a right to worship without government interference or mandate. But believe me, some religious leaders would see a government-imposed religion as long as it’s the one they like. I often wonder, does religion require a strong man or strong faith? Today it’s hard to tell. Like all rights, if you take away the freedom to worship or not, and the whole system of liberty fails.

Last but not least, international peace based on free trade: If a nation is making money by trading with another country, it doesn’t have a good reason to bomb it. Likewise, the bounds of capital are generally stronger than political ideology. Money may not make the world go ’round, but a lack of it sure can unleash terrible conflict.

After this exercise in futility, I’ve decided I’m glad the Legislature doesn’t have a plan to open the 2021 session. Why bother? Because the very ideals that genuinely make life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness a reality are the ones at greatest risk of being trampled upon by the Legislature.

Clorox anyone?

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Prisons, justice reform and the art of the possible

Politics is bound by the art of what’s possible. It is also true that those who never dare the impossible rarely achieve even the possible.

Bill Britt

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For years, prison reform advocates, media outlets and even a few public officials have called for new correctional facilities to address Alabama’s dangerously overcrowded prisons.

Now that it’s happening, some aren’t happy with how Gov. Kay Ivey is addressing the problem.

Is the Ivey Administration’s plan perfect? No. But building new facilities along with criminal justice reform — while all imperfect — is the last best hope to correct generations of cruel treatment, endangered correctional officers and corrupt practices.

German chancellor and statesman Otto von Bismarck said “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best,” this is the state of a workable solution to Alabama’s prison needs and criminal justice reform.

Yet, there is a concerted effort underway to stop the Ivey Administration from acquiring three new men’s prisons under a build-lease agreement.

Some lawmakers want another crack at financing additional facilities through a bond issue, and others want more say in the process. Still, the fact is that Ivey’s actions are the result of decades of legislative indifference and inaction to adequately address the appalling conditions at Alabama’s correctional facilities.

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Even some advocates are working against the prison plan and while their intentions may be good it seem to their hand wringing is almost as disingenuous as lawmakers whining.

What’s worse are those who spread disinformation to discredit process.

Many good people have worked hard to bring about an end to the state’s barbaric prison system and unfair justice, but lately it seems there is an outright movement to derail much needed change— simply because it’s not enough. As the saying goes, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

There have been so many false claims and sly manipulations of facts about the prison plan as to make even a hardened journalist want to cry “fake news.”

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But as for Ivey, frankly, my dears, I don’t think she gives a damn.

Here’s the hard truth. The Ivey Administration is building three new men’s prisons, and nothing will stop it. The fact is that three prisons are not enough; the administration should move forward to build a new women’s facility as soon as practicable.

Politics is bound by the art of what’s possible. It is also true that those who never dare the impossible rarely achieve even the possible.

Failing to recognize when the once impossible is coming to fruition is a sad reality. Still, in politics, as in life, good things happen while most people are navel-gazing or complaining.

Having visited three state prisons, St. Clair, Elmore, and Tutwiler, I can say without a doubt, the conditions in those places are a living hell.

A report from the U.S. Department of Justice released in April 2019, found “reasonable cause to believe that Alabama fails to provide constitutionally adequate conditions and that prisoners experience serious harm, including deadly harm, as a result.”

DOJ’s investigation revealed that prisoners were susceptible to “an enormous breath” of sexual abuse and assault but other types of violence as well, including gruesome murder and beatings that went without intervention.

When the state incarcerates a criminal, it assumes custodial care for that individual. No matter how heinous the crime or foul the person, the state has an obligation to feed, clothe, house and provide essential human services for their care and welfare. Another element is often overlooked; when a person is committed to prison, they lose their freedom, not their humanity. Therefore, under the law, they cannot be subject to cruel and unusual punishment.

Building three new men’s prisons is just the start; it must be accompanied by criminal justice reform.

“We are able to have a serious discussion about prison reform in Alabama because we have a governor who is serious about putting solutions into place,” Ivey’s press secretary Gina Maiola recently told APR. “Prison infrastructure is a key part of the equation, but criminal justice reform is also needed,” Maiola said.

By executive order on July 18, 2019, Ivey established the Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy. The Study Group released its findings on Jan 31, 2020.

The Study Group entered its mission with one pressing question; “What policies and programs can the State of Alabama implement to ensure the long-term sustainability of our prison system without jeopardizing public safety?” according to Supernumerary Associate Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons, Jr., who led the effort.

In a letter to Ivey on the Study Groups finding, Lyons wrote [T]he challenges facing our prison system are exceedingly complex—ranging from the elimination of contraband weapons and drugs to the recruitment, retention, and training of correctional staff to the size of the inmate population and to the physical condition of an aging and far-flung prison infrastructure.” He further wrote, “But having thought through many of these issues with my Study Group colleagues, especially our legislative members, I can report to you that some meaningful answers to this question are not just possible; they are within our grasp.”

Prisons without justice reform is a hollow victory, and the Ivey Administration is committed to bringing about reasonable reforms.

“Prison infrastructure is a key part of the equation,” said Maiola, “but criminal justice reform is also needed.”

The issues facing Alabama’s prisons and criminal justice system are complex, and generations in the making; therefore, arriving at a universally acceptable solution is not imaginable for the moment if ever. But what once seemed impossible is soon to be realized.

No one gets everything they want, but it’s a great step toward getting what is needed simply because it’s possible.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Amendment 4: Stairway to heaven or highway to hell?

If you wouldn’t trust that august body to manage your checkbook, reconfigure your last will and testament, or redefine the terms of your car loan, then you should vote no.

Bill Britt

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Amendment 4 will appear on the Nov. 3 general election ballot asking the voters to approve a constitutional amendment to remove racist language from the 1901 Constitution and recompile other sections for content and clarity.

If you trust state lawmakers to “recompile” the state’s governing document, then vote yes.

If, however, you wouldn’t trust that august body to manage your checkbook, reconfigure your last will and testament, or redefine the terms of your car loan, then you should vote no.

The question is straightforward. Do you trust this Legislature with this important task?

The ballot measures lead sponsors were Sen. Rodger Smitherman and Rep. Merika Coleman, both Black Democrats, and it was passed with an overwhelming majority in both the House and Senate. This would seem to give legitimacy to the claim that at its heart, this is a referendum to remove racist language from the state’s Constitution.

However, Amendment 4 is a Trojan horse to allow the state Legislature to manipulate the state’s Constitution using past racism as cover. (Let’s not forget the recent racially charged monuments preservation act.)

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This Amendment isn’t a benign effort to cleaning up the Constitution; it is a way for lawyers, lobbyists and lawmakers to rewrite the Constitution using sleight-of-hand.

After speaking about the need to eliminate racist words in the Constitution, Coleman actually points to the real reason the Republican supermajority supported the measure.

“Coleman said it’s not just a social issue,” according to reporting by Mary Sell. “But an economic development issue ‘for those of us who want to bring industry, new ideas, new technology, new research, new employees that are diverse into the state of Alabama.'”

The driving force behind the so-called recompilation is mostly about money, bringing more in and for the government to spend it more easily.

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Eradicating racism from the state’s Constitution is a noble effort, but not if it opens the flood gates to more mischief.

In 2012, the Legislature offered a more narrow amendment which claimed to remove racist language from the Constitution only to have it revealed that it also eliminated a child’s right to a state-provided public education.

About that Amendment, also known as Amendment 4, then-Sen. Hank Sanders wrote, ”It proposes to remove racist provisions from the Alabama Constitution that have no real legal impact.”

The indent of the 2012 measure was to do away with a child’s right to public education; removing racist language was simply bait for the unaware.

The same is true of the current Amendment 4 because the offensive words have no bearing on how the state is governed.

The U.S. Constitution contains racist language and holds racist ideals, but they no longer have the weight of law.

“Consider the 14th Amendment. No part of the Constitution speaks more forcefully to the power of law to transform social relations,” notes Richard Albert, a constitutional law professor at The University of Texas at Austin. “It guarantees that no state shall ‘deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’ And yet the Constitution still today counts a slave as ‘three-fifths’ of a person.”

“The First Congress debated whether a constitutional amendment should entail changes to the original text but ultimately chose to record changes in the higher law as sequential amendments to the end of the document,” according to Albert.

The founders determined it was best to leave offense clauses in the text and add amendments to the end; Alabama has followed their example.

Hurtful words matter and should be condemned but protecting citizens from a Legislature who would exploit constitutional change for their own benefit is also dangerous.

Removing racist language from the state’s constitution is morally right, but not if it lets deceptive lawmakers legalize unethical conduct. The state shouldn’t exchange one wrong for another.

Those who support Amendment 4 say that it will not change the Constitution; just cleans it up by removing all racist language; deleting duplicative and repealed provisions; consolidating provisions regarding economic development; and arranging all local amendments by county of application. And nothing in the amendment permits more money to be spent on economic development than is currently available. Those who want to foster greater commercial growth believe that condensing and clarifying sections of the Constitution will help define Alabama as a more business-friendly state.

However, anyone with a rudimentary understanding of textural construct knows that merely moving a comma can dramatically change a sentence’s meaning. Consider the many tricks which can occur with a cut and paste constitution.

For example, “I say to you today, I’m going to give you a million dollars.” That statement means at some point in the future, I’ll give you the money. But, “I say to you, today I’m going to give you a million dollars.” That means you’re going to get cash now. One little comma makes a lot of difference.

Alabama’s 1901 Constitution is some 800 pages long. How many lawmakers have read it; how many will read the “recompiled” Constitution? Most? Like none.

The Legislature asks us to suspend disbelief, pretending that nothing nefarious is going on and that they are sincere, and their intentions are good.

Sincerity is no guarantee of honesty, and as for good intentions, we all know where that leads.

Rock songs say there is a stairway to heaven and a highway to hell. Obviously, rockers understand the traffic patterns better than our lawmakers.

Amendment 4 is a fraud that will weaken the state and lead to further legalized corruption.

The ballot measure is in fact about money and power under the guise of racial equity.

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