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Recent school shooting proves Montgomery’s fragility

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon 
Alabama Political Reporter

For the city of Ferguson, Mo., it wasn’t the shooting of Michael Brown that caused widespread rioting and looting and brought scrutiny from the Department of Justice; Brown’s death Ferguson, Mo., it wasn’t the shooting of Michael  – later ruled a justifiable shooting – was simply the spark that set the city ablaze.

A report from the DOJ found that systemic Law Enforcement mistreatment of minorities, coupled with municipal policies that violated the rights of the city’s poorest citizens and a failing school system that left most young people with little hope of ever advancing from poverty, combined to drive an angry wedge between two sides of the town. And as that chasm grew over several years, Ferguson was left sitting in a pool of gas, just waiting on a spark.

In quiet conversations over the past several weeks, State Law Enforcement officials have expressed concerns that Montgomery could be a sort of pre-riot Ferguson – a town divided along racial lines, just waiting on an incident to push it over the edge.

“I really am concerned that we have a problem there in Montgomery and it’s something that we need to get a handle on quickly,” a State Law Enforcement official told me recently. “You have a lot of the same sort of elements at play there that have caused problems in other cities. I don’t like the way this is escalating.”

A source told APR that new Attorney General Steve Marshall is exploring outreach opportunities with community leaders and city officials within the Capitol City. Among all the things the new AG was briefed on after taking the job, the source said, the State of Montgomery was considered one of the most important.

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The fragile state of the city was on display over the past two weeks, following a school shooting at a local high school.

Everyone essentially agrees on what happened: 16-year-old Quinterrious Norman fired a handgun twice just off the Robert E. Lee High School grounds. One bullet struck a car, going through the back glass. The other struck a 16-year-old girl in the neck.

The victim, Tessa Desmet, was in critical condition but is expected to survive, and a full recovery is a real possibility. Norman was promptly arrested.

But to understand the continuation of this story, there are just two facts that matter: Desmet is white. Norman is black.

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On social media and in various in-person, group meetings, race has been the dividing the line over nuanced and complicated issues. Most notably: the treatment of Norman by Montgomery’s court system.

The 16-year-old Norman was charged as an adult, because he stole the weapon he used to commit the crime. In addition, Montgomery District Court Troy Massey, who is black, denied Norman bond – an odd ruling for what was essentially a crime of recklessness.

Almost immediately, Massey drew heat from civil rights activist groups and local members of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was so much heat that a day after his decision to revoke Norman’s bond, Massey responded to the criticism with a Facebook post that was critical of a specific activist.

In a subsequent post, Massey linked to a local newspaper story on the shooting, and in another, he thanked friends for their support during the trying time.

Backlash to the point that it pushes a judge – one that isn’t eligible for re-election – to respond in such a way isn’t normal. But for Montgomery, at this point, it’s expected.

Capitol Problems

To understand the current situation, you first have to understand the unique problems that plague this town.

First and foremost, Montgomery is divided, even in 2017, by race. There are, essentially, two towns within one – the white community that attends mostly private schools and lives within select communities on the city’s east side; and the black community that attends public schools and resides in the city’s north and west sides.

Those two sides of town rarely interact – ever.

It is not particularly uncommon for a wealthy white kid in Montgomery to have no meaningful interaction with black person for the first 18 years of his or her life. And those who do mostly interact with private school black kids.

There is almost no personal connection between the wealthy in Montgomery, who are mostly white, and the poor, who are mostly black.

That separation doesn’t end after high school. The Montgomery Country Club, where the mayor and several city leaders are members, remains one of the most segregated clubs in America, despite allowing in its first black member a few years ago. (That black member has since left and threatened a lawsuit over the treatment he received from club members.)*

The social problems that result from such separation are easy to find, starting with those segregated schools. Montgomery’s mostly-black public schools are failing and in the midst of a state takeover. The public schools are also massively underfunded and there hasn’t been a tax hike in decades.

A couple of years ago, the city was slapped by a federal judge for a very Ferguson-like scheme to pay the city’s bills by arresting and jailing people – primarily minorities – who couldn’t pay their traffic fines. Montgomery, at the time, took in nearly twice as much in municipal fines as Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile combined.

Longtime black Montgomery residents will tell you that the issue wasn’t exactly a secret within the city’s black community, where there has long been a distrust of police. And in Montgomery, that distrust is earned – through decades of lynchings, beatings, shootings and murders that police in Montgomery either participated in or turned a blind eye to.

Other problems between the cops and minority citizens have widened the chasm. There were the shootings of Bernard Whitehurst (1975) and Bobby Joe Sales (1983), in which Montgomery police attempted embarrassing cover-ups.

In February 2016, a Montgomery officer shot and killed an unarmed black man, Greg Gunn, just steps from Gunn’s front door. Gunn had broken no laws and wasn’t a suspect in any crime.

While the officer who shot Gunn has since been arrested for murder, the city’s response – like in the Whitehurst and Sales shootings – was one that was less than compassionate for the victim. Mayor Todd Strange has elected to keep the officer, A.C. Smith, on the police department’s payroll – despite a city regulation that allows for Smith to be fired if indicted for a felony.

Strange also made the tone-deaf decision to hire suspended judge Lester Hayes to a city position just days after Hayes was suspended by the Judicial Inquiry Commission for his role in the city’s scheme to lock up indigent defendants. The JIC eventually ruled that Hayes couldn’t hold the job, but the damage was done.

With each of these decisions, the mayor – and the city leaders who support him – have pushed a wedge between city hall and the black community. That community has started to take notice, and the anger and unhappiness has been evident.

Unequal Treatment

Those feelings played a large role in the upheaval following the Norman shooting.

The curious decision to revoke bond – even made by a black judge – was evidence again of the system treating a young, black man differently, unfairly. After all, the nephew of another judge had recently been arrested for shooting into Maxwell Air Force Base and making threats directed at the local police. He received bond, and his crimes weren’t exactly equitable to Norman’s, their treatment by the court was night and day.

Making matters worse, Norman caught the attention of local activist Karen Jones – the same woman Massey criticized in his Facebook post – several years ago, when pictures and videos of a then-13-year-old Norman being bullied by other students started to show up online. That bullying continued until at least a few weeks ago, when the most recent video of Norman being beaten by two students was posted on YouTube.

The background only added to the anger for Jones and others. And Facebook posts began to circulate asking that people attend planning meetings and prepare for protests.

Within a few days, Massey ordered a mental evaluation of Norman. And last Thursday, he reinstated Norman’s bond, setting it at $195,000.

The turmoil has not gone unnoticed.

The sentiment among many white Montgomery residents – particularly those who leave comments on news stories and on social media – is anger. They can’t believe that the sympathy has been shifted from the victim of the shooting to the shooter.

The two sides have been involved in a social media war. Threats have been made – some so serious that the police have gotten involved. The group backing Desmet has promised counter-protests.

And with every hateful word, every racial slur, every refusal from all involved to listen to each other, Montgomery moves closer to dropping the match.

* The Montgomery Country Club currently has a small number of black members. Membership figures aren’t publicly available but several club members expressed concern that this story could mislead readers into believing that MCC had no black members. A recent lawsuit filed by a former club employee placed the number of black members at less than five.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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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.

Brandon Moseley

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Republican Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville (TUBERVILLE CAMPAIGN)

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.

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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.

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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.

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House passes General Fund Budget

Brandon Moseley

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Day Care bill delayed for second time on Senate floor, may be back Thursday

Sam Mattison

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Fantasy sports bill fails on Senate floor

Sam Mattison

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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.

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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.

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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.

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