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Senate to put economic developer bill on fast track

Chip Brownlee

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The Alabama Senate meets during the 2018 legislative session. (Chandler Walker/APR)

A bill that would create a new class of individuals dubbed “economic development professionals” and essentially exempt them from lobbying provisions in the state’s ethics laws is on the fast track in the Alabama Senate.

A Senate committee will consider the bill, HB317 by Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton, on Wednesday, and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said Tuesday that it could be on the floor as early as Thursday if the committee gives it a favorable report.

“I expect it to come out [of committee],” Marsh said. “I would hope so, that we would take it up for consideration.”

After delaying the bill in the Senate last week, Marsh — who initially said he wanted to talk through the bill before it moved forward — met with Gov. Kay Ivey to discuss the bill’s future.

Marsh said he is now satisfied with the bill.

“I’ve been in contact with the attorney general and the ethics commissioner,” Marsh said. “There are two bills that I’m looking at, that’s one of them, that deal with ethics. Those are the two bills that I will consider.”

Gov. Ivey asks Pro Tem Marsh to press forward with controversial bill

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The Senate Committee on Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development is scheduled to take up the bill at 1:30 p.m.

The bill, which has been the subject of some controversy, would define a new class of economic development professionals, provide for some economic development negotiations to remain confidential to protect the plans and exempt those economic development professionals from needing to register as lobbyists.

Lobbyists are subject to stricter regulation under the state’s ethics laws, and by exempting the economic development professionals, they would be subject to less oversight from the Ethics Commission and fewer provisions of the ethics laws.

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Johnson and supporters of the bill have argued that the bill is needed because current law puts Alabama at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting big business to the state.

Some lawmakers have expressed opposition to some wording in the bill, which could potentially allow lawmakers to avoid the “revolving door” statute in Alabama’s ethics laws that prevents lawmakers from immediately becoming lobbyists after leaving their positions in the Legislature.

The law does not explicitly bar lawmakers from immediately engaging in economic development after they leave office.

“I have tremendous concerns about parts of this,” Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, said last week during a meeting of the committee. “If you engage people for money, you are lobbying.”

Several other Republican senators have indicated they have concerns about the bill, and given the packed schedule of the final weeks of the session, one or two filibustering senators could spell the end of the bill.

The bill will need to move quickly through the Senate as the Legislature is expected to finish up the session by the end of the month. If changes are made in committee or on the floor, the bill will need to go back to the House for final approval before heading to the governor’s desk.

“As long as we get the budgets passed and all of the work of the people done, if we’re finished by the 29th and we can save the taxpayers’ money, we’ll go home,” Marsh said.

 

Chip Brownlee is a political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Teachers are scared and frustrated about starting school. Many aren’t coming back

Teachers are scared to death. And the biggest reason they’re scared to death is because they haven’t seen any sort of real, aggressive plan from anyone. 

Josh Moon

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Terrified. Confused. Frustrated. 

Those are the terms teachers — both fulltime and substitute teachers — from across Alabama used to describe how they feel about schools reopening in about a month in this state. 

Over the course of the last week, I have spoken to dozens of teachers, principals, administrators and employees from school systems around the state. On Sunday, I used social media to solicit more comments, asking teachers and school employees if they have been provided specifics about the upcoming school year and how they’re expected to handle students and staff testing positive for COVID-19. 

Their answers were eye-opening and infuriating. 

Because it was obvious that the federal Department of Education — at the urging of the White House — and the Alabama State Department of Education — at the urging of the feds — are seemingly willing to march thousands of students, teachers and staff into school buildings and tightly-packed rooms in the middle of a pandemic without a plan to protect any of them. 

Not even a little bit. 

Among the shocking pieces of information provided by teachers and employees, these stood out: 

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  • There is no plan to screen students, teachers or staff prior to school starting. 
  • There is no statewide plan for quarantining students, teachers or staff should someone at a school test positive. 
  • There will be no requirement that students wear masks. 
  • There is no statewide plan to contact trace any positive student, teacher or staff member. 
  • Teachers don’t know if they’ll be required to quarantine if they come in contact with a coronavirus-positive student or employee, and they don’t know if a quarantine will eat into their leave days. 
  • No one knows if there will be mandatory testing of students if another student in class tests positive, or who will pay for such tests. 
  • There is currently no plan in place to address the very obvious teacher shortage that is about to strike Alabama schools. 

Among all of those problems — and all of the unknowns that will go into them — a teacher shortage is probably the most certain, and possibly even the most important. 

Because Alabama had a big problem with getting enough teachers to fill its classrooms prior to the current pandemic. Now, as we near a ridiculously-early start date, and teachers across the state begin to realize that there simply is no plan in place to protect them, hundreds are weighing their options. 

And the mass exodus could be staggering. 

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Which, honestly, shouldn’t be surprising. Even if there were a great plan in place, most teachers over the age of 60 would be on the fence about working during this pandemic. In Alabama, that’s a decent percentage of the state’s total number of teachers and a big percentage of substitute teachers. 

Now, add to that list all of the teachers who are at-risk or have underlying conditions that put them at greater risk should they contract COVID-19. 

Then add all of the teachers who can afford to either not work or who have other employment options. 

Now, add in ALSDE’s complete and utter joke of a “roadmap” for reopening — which only served to scare the living hell out of most school employees — and you’ve got a serious mess. 

“I know for a fact that eight of my teachers are probably not coming back and it could be as high as 12,” a principal of a school in Montgomery told me. “There aren’t people to fill those spots and we’ll be fighting with every other school in this city and surrounding area for substitutes.”

That same story is playing out all over the state. 

Because teachers are scared to death. And the biggest reason they’re scared to death is because they haven’t seen any sort of real, aggressive plan from anyone. 

Instead, the instructions appear to be: Do all of the things you were doing before, and then add in socially distancing your students, monitoring them for COVID symptoms and trying not to become sick yourself. Oh, and also maybe help with checking kids’ temps and quarantining them, since 300 or so of our state’s schools don’t have nurses. 

Would you go back to work in that environment if you had any other choice? 

There is, however, a glimmer of hope. But only a glimmer. 

Gov. Kay Ivey has apparently taken a liking to the Safely Opening Schools (SOS) plan that I talked about a couple of weeks ago. That’s the plan from the school nurses association, which is backed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, that would use CARES Act funds to put a nurse in every school and also build a stand-alone first aid/quarantine area for every school. It would also provide on-site testing and equipment to check the temps of students at a variety of different points. 

Ivey has invited several lawmakers to speak about the plan to the state Board of Education during Tuesday’s work session. 

APR has also learned that the SOS plan is one of several being considered by the White House to be part of its recommendations to schools across the country. 

That plan isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t address all of the problems that teachers, students and staff will face every day. But it does take some burdens off teachers, and could help prevent flare-ups and outright hot spots. 

And maybe, just maybe, it’ll ease some of the very real, very understandable fears.

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Education

UA staff, faculty and students want on building names review committee

Eddie Burkhalter

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The University of Alabama's main library. (CHIP BROWNLEE/APR)

The University of Alabama Systems last month announced the removal of three Confederate memorial plaques and the formation of a group to study the names of all buildings on all UA System campuses. 

But that group consists of a group of trustees only, who are tasked with the work and charged with making the final decision which doesn’t sit well with the United Campus Workers of Alabama Local 3965, which on Friday asked that UA faculty, staff and students should be included in the process. 

“Though we applaud the UA System’s commitment to removing painful reminders of racism on campus, we believe it can do better and move faster to remedy a situation that is long overdue,” the union chapter said in a press release Friday. “We believe that the expertise and critical perspective of UA staff, students, and faculty must be included in any future decisions about renaming buildings.” 

The local union chapter in the press release made a list of demands, including: 

  1. A) faculty, staff, and student representation from all three UA System campuses. We demand that faculty, staff, and students from each campus be appointed as full members on the Committee. 
  2. B) complete transparency of committee business. As faculty, staff, graduate employees, and students, we are the people suffering the everyday violence of entering buildings named after and plaques glorifying slave owners, scientific racists, Confederate leaders, and segregationists. All meetings and deliberations must be open to the public and announced through system-wide press releases at least 48 hours before the meeting. All email or other communication dealing with the committee or committee business must be voluntarily provided to any person or organization that requests them without the submission of a formal FOIA request. 
  3. C) public hearings/listening sessions. We demand the full committee host public hearings or listening sessions so that the voices of community members, faculty, staff, graduate employees, and students suffering the everyday violence of walking by or entering buildings named after and plaques glorifying slave owners, scientific racists, Confederate leaders, and segregationists are heard and placed in the public record.-MORE- 
  4. D) committee recommendations be executed by January 15, 2021. We demand the Board of Trustees require the committee report be completed, published, and made publicly available via online PDF no later than October 1, 2020, with board approval and official name changes in place by the first day of spring 2021 classes. 

The union noted that research on named UA buildings has already been done, indluding UA historian Hilary Green’s The Hallowed Grounds Project and Green’s Race, Memory, Identity project

“Al Brophy’s foundation work, University, Court and Slave and other scholarly works have addressed these building namesakes as had James Sellers, several Crimson White journalists and other campus chroniclers.  Faculty expertise will help make the committee’s work more efficient, if consulted,” the local union chapter states in the release. 

UA Systems Board of Trustees President pro tem Ronald Gray appointed Trustees Judge John England, Jr., Barbara Humphrey, Vanessa Leonard, Harris Morrissette, Scott Phelps and Stan Starnes to the committee to review building names. 

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The announcement by UA Systems states that the final decision regarding recommendations by the committee “will be made by the full Board of Trustees at a public meeting, at a time to be announced.”

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Legislature told budgets are in good shape despite pandemic and economic downturn

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Members of the Alabama Senate were in Montgomery Thursday for hearings on the budget, where Senators were told that both of the budgets are in good shape looking forward to 2021.

The meeting was chaired by Senate Finance & Taxation Committee Chairman Greg Albritton.

Kirk Fulford is the Deputy Director for the Fiscal Division of the Legislative Services Agency.

“I don’t know a better time to do this than in the middle of the biggest health emergency we have ever see and a recession,” Fulford said of the Senate decision to hold a budget hearing in July while the legislature is not in session. “I hope you hold more of these between now and the start of the next legislative session.”

“Both budgets you passed are in good shape looking forward to 2021,” Fulford said predicting that both the State General Fund (SGF) and education trust fund (ETF) would be able to avoid proration even if the economic downturn is protracted and state revenues experience no growth at all in fiscal year 2021, which starts October 1.

The state of Alabama uses a very arcane budgeting system where over 93 percent of revenues are earmarked and all the money goes into two budgets set by the Legislature (the ETF and SGF). There are also $billion of dollars in revenues to state agencies not included in the budgeting process. The state also collects another roughly $7.5 billion in federal dollars in a typical year, most of it in matching funds.

Despite the economic crash that occurred in March due to the forced economic shutdown and the lingering economic costs to fight the spread of the coronavirus, Fulford said that he expected that both budgets will finish 2020 with growth. Much of that was due to the robust economy the state experienced from Oct. 1 to Feb. 28 before the coronavirus crisis and Fulford broke the state’s fiscal performance down for both budgets into separate income statements for the Oct. 1 to Feb. 29 period and the Mar. 1 to June 30 period.

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The SGF, which funds non-education state agencies, budget was $2,151,954,704.

“Things were growing great through February,” Fulford said.

Since then the state’s lodging tax receipts have experienced a decrease of $7,4 million and oil and gas revenues are down $4.4 million; however the new Simplified Sellers USE Tax grew by $51 million thru June. More people are buying more of their stuff online and SSUT allows the state to collect much more taxes on those online sales.

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“The General Fund’s strength is built on several changes that have been made by the legislature,” Fulford said. “The state has not prorated the general fund budget since 2012.”

Fulford predicted that the state will not need to prorate the general fund, “Even if there is a recurrent COVID situation and even if there is another shutdown.”

Fulford praised the legislators for moving that growth revenue to the general fund. Prior to the redistribution of use taxes from the ETF to the SGF, use taxes brought in less than $one million to the general fund. The Simplified Sellers Use Tax and the Supreme Court ruling in Wayfair vs South Dakota changed all of that. In FY2019 the SSUT brought in $70 million. Fulford anticipates that it will bring in $125 million in FY2020 is complete.

In addition to the SSUT Fulford credited legislators for their conservative budgeting and for in 2012 the legislature changed how the Alabama Trust Fund pays out its oil and gas trust fund moneys from a market fluctuating model to a fixed payment model. The Alabama Trust Fund will pay $104 million for the SGF in the current year and $116 million for the next year.

Fulford predicted that the SGF will have 2021 receipts of $2.406,000 receipts with $46 million in growth in FY2021. Fulford said that the FY2021 SGF budget passed by the legislature is $170 million more than the FY2020, but $170 million less than the Governor had predicted in February. “It is still the highest general fund in state history.”

Fulford next broke down the ETF, the education budget.

“We were anticipating above average growth rate in 2020,” Fulford said.

The 2020 ETF budget estimated receipts of $7,582,260.

Fulford said that thru February the ETF receipts were up 8.04 percent primarily due to increase in income and sales tax revenues. From March 1 to June 30 revenues have declined by 17.83 percent versus the same period in 2019. ETF revenues in that period have declined by $405,862,551.

Fulford said that part of that is due to moving the payment dates back, both the income tax deadline of April 15 to July and the quarterly estimated payments.

“We will know more by the end of the month,” Fulford predicted, “We anticipate that a lot of that money will come in in July. We will know by the end of the month what those numbers look like.”

Despite the economic collapse total ETF growth for 2020 is 1.09 percent. Net receipts are $5,473,075 by the end of June. $58,980,858 in growth due to the large annual growth before the COVID-19 impact of $224.5 million.

Fulford said that a provision in the Rolling Reserve Act allowed the state Finance Director to transfer $301.6 million from the budget Stabilization Fund to alleviate cash flow problems in the ETF. The state may not need that money anymore by the end of July, depending on July receipts.

Citing the Rolling Reserve Act and the conservative budget passed by the legislature, Fulford predicted that the state an cover ETF next year even at zero growth in revenue.

State Finance Director Kelly Butler explained to the Senators how the CARES Act was being appropriated to the state. The estimated total allocation to Alabama was $4.100,738,000 for COVID-19 expenses. $1.9 billion was appropriated to the state to spend. $115 million had to go to Jefferson County leaving state government with $1.789 billion to appropriate. Butler explained that the money is very limited in what it can be spent on and the state has had to have guidance from federal officials on their latest interpretations of the CARES Act rules.

Fulford explained that the Payroll Protection Program has greatly benefitted state finances.

Alabama businesses received 7,878 loans thru the closing of the PPP program deadline on June 30.

“408,803 jobs were retained because of the loan program,” Fulford said. “The situation with our economy would be vastly different if that program had not been established.”

State Senator Jim McClendon (R-Springville) said that a record over 2000 people tested positive for coronavirus just today. If everyone follows the health protocols, that person and everyone in that household have to self quarantine for 14 days if they don’t have it and if they do get COVID-19 or have to care for someone with COVID-19 they could be out from work for over a month.

Fulford acknowledged that there was a “Trickle down effect to everyone in that household,” and that “Has an impact going forward and one that you have to pay attention to.”

“I am concerned about the long lasting effects of this virus,” Butler said. “We are going to have to learn to live with this virus until it is cured, an effective therapy is developed or a vaccine.”

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Legislature

State senators briefed on prison construction plans

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn told members of the Senate budget committees Thursday that the department if moving forward with the process of seeking bids on three new state prisons.

Among other topics addressed was the status of the Alabama Prison Program.

Dunn said that because of the long neglected maintenance of the existing prisons, “We are being required to decommission a facility every 23 months.”

Dunn said that they have already decommissioned Draper and the main facility at Holman and there could be another prison that has to be decommissioned in the next year.

“This issue is due to 30 years of neglect and is beginning to have a direct and measurable impact on our ability to do our jobs,” Dunn told the Senators. “We likely will have to decommission another one.”

Dunn explained that ADOC had requested corporations and consortiums to prepare proposals on building the mega-prisons in Spring 2019. By Fall ADOC had been able to ask four groups to make proposals to the state.

“Two have self-eliminated,” Dunn told Senators, Two groups submitted proposals to the state in May and now ADOC is in the process of studying the financials of the two remaining bidders. “The financial evaluation could be finished by the end of July.”

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Dunn said that ADOC will be able to identify the bidder that has been invited to negotiate with the state as soon as August or perhaps in early September. There will be three bids, one for each of the three new facilities. The Governor will then negotiate with the bidder on the three contracts for the three facilities.

Dunn said he hoped that the contracts will be finalized by January. “The lease payments will come out of the general fund?

State Sen. Jim McClendon (R-Springville) asked: “Does the legislature have any role in this at all?”

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Dunn said that one of the benefits of building the new facilities is that they will be, “Considerably more staff efficient than our facilities now. There will be staff savings, consolidation savings, and energy savings. It is not our intent to come to the legislature and ask for a bump up to pay for this.”

“We have requested to have facilities with a 50 year expected life,” Dunn said. “The maintenance is included in the contract.”

Dunn explained that the lease contracts will be for 30 years. “Something will have to occur after 30 years.”

Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison (D-Birmingham) asked if the state will own the three mega-prisons at the end of the thirty-year contracts.

“I do not know at this point what exactly will happen at the end of the lease,” Dunn answered. “We will not own the buildings.”

State Sen. Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) said, “We are going to spend $2 billion and never own it!”

“I can’t speak to what will or will not happen in the future,” Dunn responded.

State Sem. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) said, “We have not build a new facility in 30 years. Facilities built 30 years ago are pretty worthless.”

The state is facing lawsuits in federal court over its chronic prison overcrowding.

“We will not completely extinguish the overcrowding problem by building these new facilities,” Dunn told the Senators.

“The purpose of these three new facilities is to more from warehousing criminals to rehabilitating citizens,” Dunn said. “These new facilities are built with that vision in mind. 95 percent of our inmate community will eventually return to the community.”

It is in our best interests to prepare those inmates for their return to society Dunn said. “Right now our facilities fight against that they don’t support that.”

“These are huge projects,” Dunn said when asked to provide estimates of when the new prisons would open. There will be a six month stagger between the opening of each of the three facilities. The construction time for each facility is ranged from 28 to 36 months. The third facility is bigger than the other two and it will take more time. “We will be negotiating all of that.”

“Currently we are at 155 percent capacity,” Dunn said. “Once we get these facilities built we will be somewhere between 120 and 125 percent capacity.”

“137.5 percent was the number used in the California case,” Dunn explained. “We wanted a number below that. We felt the need to build in a buffer to protect the state.”

Sen. Bill Beasley (D-Clayton) said, “I am concerned about the local governments, the water and sewer boards who have entered into debt to support current facilities. How are they going to be compensated for if they have indebtedness?”

“We are working on an infrastructure masterplan,” Dunn answered. “Did it stay in inventory? Could it be repurposed? Could it be re-missioned for another purpose? Could it be a lite industrial site? We have had talked with the Department of Commerce and Secretary Canfield about that.”

“Nothing is going to close or change for two or three years when we open the first facility and they are staggered after this.” Dunn said. “Those concerns will all be vetted. I do not have the ability to make any commitment at this time.”

Dunn said that the main facility at Holman prison has been closed taking their population fown from 1000 prisoners to 314.

“Death row has been moved,” Dunn added. That staff has been decreased. “28 members have been reassigned from Holman to Fountain Correctional Facilities a mile and a half away.”

Dunn said that ADOC is currently in negotiations with a corporate owned prison in Perry County to purchase that facility and convert it into a transitional reentry center.

“We are in active negotiations with then and hope to have some news soon,” Dunn said.

Dunn also briefed the Senators on the COVID-19 impact on ADOC at the same committee meeting.

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