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Perspective | The Top Ten Alabama Politics Stories of 2017

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

1. The … Democrat from Alabama?:

The reddest of the red states turned purple on Dec. 12. Democrat Doug Jones pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in recent political history, beating Republican Roy Moore and taking over Jeff Sessions’ vacated U.S. Senate seat.

Yeah, sure, Moore was a polarizing candidate, who was disliked even within the Republican Party. And yes, Moore was dogged by claims of child molestation and dating teenagers when he was in his 30s. But none of that erases the historical significance of Jones’ win — the first statewide win for a Democrat in this state in more than 20 years.

For more than a month, this race captured the attention of the nation, as Alabama was swarmed by national media outlets. Not only did it feature a national villain in Moore, the race was truly a rarity: a competitive election in which even the insiders were unsure what would happen. In the end, after trailing most of the night, Jones claimed a 22,000-vote win.

From beginning to end, it was one compelling story — the top one of 2017.

2. Bye, Bye Bentley:

Only in Alabama could the resignation of the governor, after pleading guilty to campaign finance crimes and in the midst of an impeachment investigation over an affair with his top aide, not be the state’s top political story. The sad saga of Robert Bentley, Alabama’s former governor, was a doozy. But it lacked the staying power and the national attention to put it No. 1.

Still, there was plenty of juice to draw attention. Who could forget the racy, vomit-inducing text messages between Bentley and his mistress, advisor Rebekah Mason? They were made public by the special prosecutor who was investigating Bentley for the House Judiciary Committee, which was considering impeaching the governor for misusing state funds to conceal and facilitate his affair.

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That impeachment was stopped short when Bentley pleaded guilty to two counts of violating campaign finance laws. He resigned in disgrace — although his cabinet and other Republicans gave him a standing ovation on his way out.

3. A Very Strange Appointment:

If we do nothing else in 2018, let’s make sure that we always remember how badly Luther Strange screwed up 2017 for himself. On the heels of his office convicting House Speaker Mike Hubbard on 12 felonies, then Attorney General Strange was the most popular politician in Alabama. He was a lock for any higher office he chose.

Then he made a dreadful miscalculation. Betting on Alabamians’ short memories and some protection from a governor whose butt he just saved, Strange accepted the appointment to fill Jeff Sessions’ U.S. Senate seat from Bentley.

Small problem: Strange’s office was conducting an investigation of Bentley, an investigating that personally involved Strange and that had put a stop to the Legislature’s impeachment investigation.

The stench was too much. And when Bentley was eventually booted and new Gov. Kay Ivey rescheduled the Senate’s special election for December, Strange was toast. He lost by 10 points to the worst Republican candidate in Alabama history.

4. A Run Out Sentance:

It was a fishy hire that angered most educators from the start, and Michael Sentance’s tenure as Alabama’s public schools superintendent never got better. A year into the job, and after angering nearly everyone he came in contact with, Sentance was forced to resign in September.

His resignation was well received by state educators and lawmakers, who, in rare agreement, had soured on the Massachusetts transplant. From curious staffing decisions to a gruff demeanor to odd trust issues to ill-advised statements criticizing teachers, Sentance united a number of usually-hostile groups to agreement on at least one thing: Michael Sentance needed to go.

5. The ‘High-stepper’ Administration:

When Robert Bentley resigned in April, Alabama needed a new governor. Enter: Kay Ivey, the state’s second female governor. Ivey, 72, is a well-known figure around Montgomery, having served in state government for decades.

Ivey promised to steady the ship and help the state recover from a crazy run of political scandals. Her office has certainly avoided scandal and pretty much all controversy, with Ivey steering clear of hot-button issues whenever possible. The strategy has been mostly successful, with Ivey currently rated as one of the nation’s most popular governors.

6. The Race Before the Race:

Before Doug Jones v. Roy Moore, there was Luther Strange v. Roy Moore. There was less national attention but almost as much nuttiness. That included the GOP establishment dumping tens of millions of dollars into the race in an effort to push Strange to victory — a move that was so totally ignorant of the political climate in Alabama that it’s staggering.

There was also Moore dressed up like Yosemite Sam, waving a tiny pistol around while on stage at a campaign rally and Strange spending an entire debate telling everyone that Donald Trump knows his name and maybe likes him.

7. Your Prison Plan or Mine?:

In the 2017 Legislative Session, state lawmakers were absolutely going to do something about our overcrowded prisons that were just begging for a federal takeover. They spent weeks on the plans, hashing out ideas, shifting money around, placating this group after that group, and in the end, they did … nothing. As usual.

And so, federal Judge Myron Thompson did it for them, issuing a ruling this summer that called Alabama’s mental health care for prisoners “abysmal.” Now Thompson is overseeing a massive overhaul of the prison systems, including mental health care, health care, population and staffing.

8. Statues > Children:

Aside from prison talk, the 2017 Legislative Session was dominated by three topics: Autism therapy coverage, daycare regulation and Confederate monuments.

All you’d ever need to know about Alabama’s Legislature is summed up by the results: full protection for monuments, partial coverage for autism therapy and no protection for toddlers in church daycares.

Lawmakers passed a bill protecting monuments, requiring local municipalities to go through a state commission before they can alter or move a historical monument. That law, obviously set up to protect Confederate memorials, was immediately challenged by Birmingham, which placed a box over a large monument in its city part in the wake of the Charlottesville riots.

Autism therapy is an accepted treatment that has shown measurable results. Most states require insurance companies to include the therapy in their coverage options. Alabama did not prior to 2017. After a long debate — one that filled the State House with parents of autistic children and turned ugly repeatedly — there will be some coverage moving forward. But there will be an age cap.

Toddlers in church daycares weren’t so lucky. They didn’t even get partial protection. A bill that would have required church-operated daycares to adhere to the basic safety standards imposed on non-church daycares failed to pass — again. A few weeks later, 5-year-old Kamden Johnson died after being left in a van on a hot day by a worker at an unlicensed daycare. That worker would not have been employed at a licensed daycare due to her criminal history, but the failing of the daycare bill left church-affiliated daycares without a requirement to background check all employees.

9. The Dumbest Conspiracy:

In order to get Michael Sentance voted in as superintendent, Jefferson County superintendent — and longtime State Department of Education administrator — Craig Pouncey had to be moved out of the way.

A lawsuit filed against a state school board member, the former interim superintendent and three ALSDE attorneys says Pouncey was pushed aside after a campaign to smear his name by filing a bogus ethics complaint and then spreading around evidence of Pouncey’s investigation. The clumsily-handled plot landed the group in front of a legislative committee conducting an investigation of the scheme.

The highlight: State school board member Mary Scott Hunter denying she spread rumors about Pouncey during questioning by Sen. Gerald Dial, who responded by telling Hunter that she had told him of the rumors.

10. The Montgomery Takeover:

It was a genius plan to start with, but ended up being a cause of Sentance’s departure — the state takeover of Montgomery’s public school system, the third largest system in the state.

Originally approved by Sentance in order to curry favor with a state school board member and to please white business owners in Montgomery, the Montgomery takeover was a popular move. It became less so with each subsequent decision made by Sentance, including the hiring of more administrators and racking up debt.

Now, everyone is unhappy, the system is on the verge of cutting more than 100 teachers and not one dime of state money wasted on the takeover has gone towards additional teachers or school resources.

 

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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.

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.

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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.

 

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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House OKs bill to clarify consulting contracts by state legislators

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Tuesday, the Alabama House of Representatives passed a bill to try to clarify how legislators accept consulting contracts under Alabama’s 2010 ethics law. Some pundits have suggested that House Bill 387 is actually designed to weaken the existing ethics law.

Sponsor state Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, argues that the legislation is merely a clarification and is intended to prevent legislators from inadvertently crossing the line into illegality.

Wingo said that his bill would require legislators to notify the Alabama Ethics Commission that they have entered into a consulting agreement in an area outside of their normal scope of work.

State Rep. Paul Beckman, R-Prattville, said, “I have never understood why members of this body were allowed to take contracts as consultants or counselors.”

Wingo said, “Never do I use the word counselor in my bill; it is consulting.”

Beckman asked, “Are we going to be getting into an area where  every time we turn around we create a bureaucratic nightmare where we have to go get an opinion. These opinions whether it is orally or written don’t hold up in a court of law.” Beckman said, “We are serving the people here but we get this admonition that we can still be a consultant if we get an opinion.”

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Wingo said, “This does not apply to professions where a member is currently licensed.”

Beckman said, “I would like to see more opinions coming out of the Ethics Commission. Right now we have the Ethics Commission competing with the Attorney General’s office over who has more authority.”

State Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, said,”This happened to a friend of mine. He just got out of prison. He was a state senator and had a written letter from the Ethics Commission which his lawyer read at trial and the jury convicted him anyway.”

Rogers never named his friend, but reporters think he was talking about former state Sen. Edward Browning ‘E. B.’ McClain who spent over 22 years in the legislature until he was convicted on 47 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, bribery, and money laundry in 2009.

A federal jury found that McClain and the Rev. Samuel Pettagrue were guilty in a scheme where McClain would secure public funds for Pettagrue’s community programs and then receive a kickback once the funds were in hand. McClain was sentenced to five years and ten months in prison. McClain was not prosecuted under the Alabama ethics law as the state has a much weaker ethics statute then. The current ethics law was passed in 2010.

Rogers said, “If they offer me a consulting contract for a field like aerospace engineering that I know nothing about they are trying to pay me off. If you can already be a consultant for something you know about why would you seek a consulting contract for something you don’t know about.

Rogers this is how they can pay you off for your vote.”

State Rep. Artis “A.J.” McCampbell said, “I don’t like making changes to things like this because we get into things called unintended consequences.”

McCampbell was reading from the bill and Wingo said, “You are reading from the original version it has completely changed.” “We worked tirelessly on this bill with the Ethics Commission this is not a fly by night bill.”

“If a member of the legislature enters into a contract to do a consulting contract outside of their normal field of work this bill requires that they consult with the Ethics Commission first,” Wingo said. “It is up to the member to notify the Ethics Commission not to the company or person offering them the money.”

State Representative Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said, “Everybody but legislators are allowed to do contract work up to $30,000.”

Rep. Wingo said, “This is not intended to be a roadblock.”

State Representative Arnold Mooney, R-Indian Springs, said, “The whole purpose of this is not to prevent members from doing work in your field.” “What you are doing is offering to protect me.”

State Representative John Knight, D-Montgomery, asked Wingo what the Alabama Attorney General said about this legislation.

Wingo replied, “I have not contacted the Attorney General.”

Knight responded, “Something from the Ethics Commission does not carry a lot of protection from the Attorney General. We have seen that in the past. I think the Attorney General and the Ethics Commission should be in agreement in the working on this.”

Wingo answered, “Maybe this is a first step.”

Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, asked, “Do we have anybody doing work outside of their regular scope of work?”

Wingo answered, “Yes I think so.”

Wingo said, “If we had had this bill four or five years ago maybe we could have been spared the embarrassment that this body experienced with the former Speaker.”

Wingo was referring to former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard who was convicted of 12 counts of felony ethics violations in June 2016. Ironically, Hubbard is largely responsible for creating the ethics law that he was found guilty of violating 11 times in his relentless pursuit of outside contracts and personal wealth.

Unlike McClain, however, Hubbard has not yet served any of this sentence.

House Bill 387 passed 67-0 with 26 legislators abstaining.

The bill now moves to the Senate for its consideration.

(Original reporting by the Alabama Media Group’s Lisa Osborn in 2009 was consulted in this report.)

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