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HB317: The players

Bill Britt

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Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, seated, passes a pen to Alabama Speaker of the House, Rep. Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, left, as he signs into law the Responsible Budgeting and Spending Act with Rep. Greg Canfield, R-Vestavia Hills, in a ceremony at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, Ala., Friday, March 11, 2011. The bill, sponsored by Canfield, is the first passed in this year's regular legislative session and allows for a "rolling reserve" process to make the Education Trust Fund resistant to proration. (AP Photo)

Sometime after 10 a.m. today, the Alabama Senate will take up HB317, a bill to exempt a specific class of individuals from the state’s ethics laws.

During a hearing on the bill before the Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development Committee, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh told the committee members that the legislation was, “of utmost importance.” Marsh’s pleas have been echoed by a host of players without any of them making a case as to why the measure is so urgently needed.

Often, understanding who is supporting a piece of legislation answers why it is of “utmost importance.” Likewise, it is critical to know who is not in favor of the measure.

Bentley appointees gather with Bradley Arrant lawyers

HB317, as initially conceived, is reportedly the brainchild of Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield, who was appointed to his post by disgraced Gov. Robert Bentley.

When the initial bill’s flaws were pointed out, Canfield turned to another Bentley appointee – Attorney General Steve Marshall, and together they teamed with lawyers from Bradley Arrant to rewrite HB317.

The bill that emerged allowed for “less than full time” economic development professionals and opened a loophole to enable current public officials to avoid the state’s two-year revolving door statute and become economic development professionals as soon as they left office.

Both of these flaws have repeatedly been pointed out in media reports and committee meetings, but Canfield, Marshall and those supporting HB317 have refused even to acknowledge these provisions exist in the legislation.

Muzzling the help

Ethics Commission Chairman Judge Jerry L. Fielding has endorsed the bill — despite a warning by the commission’s executive director, Tom Albritton, that HB317 would weaken current laws.

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Marshall has said the bill was written by or in cooperation with the AG’s public corruption unit led by Matt Hart, which after further study, it appears Hart only wrote a section that doesn’t include the offending language added by Bradley Arant lawyers.

However, no one has heard directly from Hart or Albritton, and according to those close to the action, both have been notified to stand down or face dire consequences.

Enter the Big Dogs

According to multiple lobbyists speaking on background, Will Brooke, co-founder of mega investment firm, Harbert Management Corporation, is pushing HB317. Brooke played a significant role in the conviction of former Speaker Mike Hubbard on felony ethics violations. Brooke’s cooperation with the state’s prosecution is what kept him from being charged along with Hubbard. Brooke is said to see the “less than full-time” clause as a way to influence lawmakers, like Hubbard, in the future without fear of legal entanglements. As a less than full-time economic development professional, Brooke or anyone else, for that matter, would not be constrained in giving boatloads of money to public officials. It is worth noting that Brooke’s company gave Marshall’s campaign $60,000.00 last month.

Also working hard to pass HB317 are lobbyists from Regions Financial Corporation, which is believed to be currently under investigation due to its involvement with the downfall of State Rep. Oliver Robinson, who over the last few months pleaded guilty to accepting bribes to his foundation. Regions purchased thousands in advertising in Robinson’s foundation newsletter. It is rumored that Regions is funding other lawmakers with similar arrangements.

Also, lobbyists for BCA’s Billy Canary are working to pass HB317. Canary, like Brooke, was deeply involved with Hubbard and his schemes to use his office for personal gain and, like Brooke, testified against Hubbard to avoid prosecution.

Also played

The Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development Committee is chaired by State Sen. Phil Williams, who is stepping down from office at the end of his term. Williams was under investigation by state law-enforcement until then Gov. Bentley stepped in to help “his brother in Christ,” as former members of Bentley’s staff recalled his moniker for Williams.

Williams, after his first year in the state Senate, amassed a consulting business that netted him some 37 clients, which law enforcement believed to be illegal. While Williams has maintained his innocence, it is reported that upon his retirement from office, charges may be filed against him.

And in the end

Bentley appointees, Hubbard’s companions and the ever-present remnants of former Gov. Bob Riley’s machine have all come together it appears to push for a bill, which will benefit a few, while weakening the laws without a specific immediate need.

 

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Congress

Sen. Doug Jones: COVID-19 relief should not be a partisan issue

Chip Brownlee

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Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, said Friday during a live-streamed press conference that the Senate should begin debating the next COVID-19 relief package, and Republicans in Congress should stop playing partisan politics with urgently needed COVID-19 relief.

“That bill is not perfect at all. There are a number of things in there that I don’t think will be in a final bill,” Jones said of the House’s $3 trillion HEROES Act. “It’s not perfect, but it is something to start talking about. It is a shame that Senate Republicans have made this into a partisan issue, trying to say that this was some kind of Democratic ‘wish list.’ It is not.”

The $3 trillion relief package includes nearly $1 trillion in aid to struggling state and local governments and another round of $1,200 payments to individual taxpayers and up to $6,000 per family.

The bill, which passed the House last week along partisan lines, appropriates billions for COVID-19 testing and contact-tracing and provides money for hazard pay for essential workers, among many other provisions its 1,800 pages.

“It is a wish list for cities and counties, which we’ve been talking about,” Jones said. “The first line essential workers that have been there that we don’t need to lose — so much of our workforces in city and county governments. It’s a wish list for the CDC and the NIH to continue funding for research, not just for a vaccine, but for therapeutics for how to treat this virus until we get that vaccine. It’s a wish list for businesses.”

The Paycheck Protection Program, which provides loans and grants to small businesses and nonprofit organizations, would also get additional funding in the new relief bill.

Jones has called for a plan to give small businesses another round of help in paying employees by using payroll processors instead of banks, which have, at times, been slow in delivering aid to businesses and have prioritized clients with whom the banks had a pre-existing relationship.

Jones urged lawmakers to consider using payroll companies rather than banks when the first installment of the Payroll Protection Program was taking shape.

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The House’s HEROES Act also includes provisions that clarify PPP provisions for small businesses and would ensure that PPP funding can reach underserved communities and nonprofits. It adds $10 billion for emergency grants through the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program.

“It has a form of the program that we have — not as scaled up as much as I would lie, but it’s got a program that will help keep businesses operating and their payroll operating as a supplement, an add on to the Payroll Protection Program,” Jones said. “So it’s a wish list, really, for the American people. It’s just a shame that it has been politicized as partisan, because it should not. None of this should be partisan.”

President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the House-passed legislation were the Senate to pass it, and House and Senate Republicans have decried the legislation as too expansive.

Republican members of Alabama’s congressional delegation have called it Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “wish list” and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks called it “socialist.”

The 1,800-page bill also includes $175 billion in housing support, student loan forgiveness and a new employee retention tax credit.

Republicans have particularly opposed provisions in the bill that would require all voters to be able to vote by mail beginning in November and another that would temporarily repeal a provision of the 2017 Republican tax law that limited federal deductions for state and local taxes.

Trump has also opposed a provision in the bill that would provide $25 billion for the U.S. Postal Service, which has struggled amid the COVID-19 crisis and could become insolvent without support.

The HEROES Act was declared by some as “dead on arrival” in the Republican-controlled Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has so far refused to take up the bill. Senators returned back to their home states this week until early June.

“The goal when we get back is maybe … enough talks will be going on, that we can pass some legislation in a bipartisan way,” Jones said. “Because there is an urgency.”

Jones said he didn’t believe the bill would pass as it is currently written, and that he doesn’t know what the final version would look like, but “we need to be talking about it. It’s a starting point,” he said.

The legislation also provides $75 billion for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, which public health experts say are essential for reopening the economy safely and avoiding a second wave of the virus in the fall.

On Thursday, Gov. Kay Ivey loosened more of the state’s “safer-at-home” restrictions, allowing entertainment venues to reopen Friday and sports to resume by mid-June.

Jones urged Alabamians to continue adhering to social-distancing guidelines, to listen to public health officials and to wear masks. He said reopening the economy and preserving public health don’t have to be at odds.

“I think the governor has done as great a job as she could to try to be very strategic, to be thoughtful on how to do this,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, I also believe that a lot of people in Alabama are only hearing part of her message. They’re only hearing the message that you can go to church, you can go to the theater, you can go out to eat, and they’re not listening as much to the messages about personal responsibility.”

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Gov. Kay Ivey moved the football again

Josh Moon

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I understand how Charlie Brown must have felt. 

The disappointment and surprise when Lucy moved that football one more time. The betrayal. The embarrassment. The anger. 

I know those feelings, because far too often I’ve experienced them with Alabama politicians. I want so badly to believe that our elected lawmakers are good and smart people who care about the citizens of the state. That they’re not money-grubbing, selfish dolts who will sell us all out for a nickel and new socks. That they will lean on science and facts when crafting policy and ignore the noise from the ignorant minority screaming the loudest. 

And so, far too often, I believe in someone who I know, deep down, is just going to let me down. Who’s going to move that football at the last minute. 

On Thursday, it was Gov. Kay Ivey moving the football. 

It seems like only last month that I was writing a column praising Ivey for her sound judgment and decision-making. That’s because it was last month when Ivey ignored the screaming crazies calling for a “reopening” of Alabama in the midst of a global pandemic that is, quite clearly, getting worse in this state. 

Ivey listened to real doctors. She leaned on facts. She had a cute comeback — “data over dates” — to shoot down any notion that a calendar day would carry more weight than the data showing infection and hospitalization rates. 

We had a governor making sound decisions rooted in public safety and health. She refused to budge on the matter and refused to let money outweigh the value of human life. 

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It was a great time to be alive in Alabama. 

And then, Kay Ivey moved the football. 

A week ago, after telling people that it would be data that determined when Alabama reopens, and that she would follow the White House guidelines for reopening, she did neither. Instead, she did exactly what she said she wouldn’t do — used a date to determine that it was time to lift restrictions. 

The lockdown had gone on too long, Ivey said, and it was time to lift it. 

She did so as positive cases were on the rise. And with absolutely no plan for comprehensive testing and tracing — the one thing that Ivey and all medical experts said we HAD to have before we could safely lift restrictions. 

Then, on Thursday, Ivey was back again to lift more restrictions — the day after the mayor of Montgomery told the world that his town and the surrounding three counties are out of ICU beds because of a massive outbreak of new cases. Hospitals in Montgomery are now transporting ICU patients to Birmingham. 

Still, there went Ivey, lifting restrictions to allow strip clubs and concert venues and casinos to reopen. Just in time for the Memorial Day weekend rush — a coincidence, no doubt. 

The reason for all of this is easy to understand. 

There is no plan to save people. 

The testing and tracing we were supposed to have — that would have allowed us to more safely reopen and go about our lives while the carriers of the virus and those exposed to those people are sequestered — have never materialized. And it is painfully obvious at this point that we will never have it. 

In addition, there is no true guidance from the White House, and what little has come from there, we’ve mostly ignored. We’re supposed to have at least seven straight days of reduced positive cases. We don’t have one day. 

There’s also the Idiot Factor — the groups of crazy people screaming about tyranny and government overreach because they have to put on a mask to shop at Publix. These are the same people who think strapping a bulletproof backpack on their kids to go to school instead of expanding background checks is simply the price of freedom. 

Add it all up, and it’s pretty easy to see what Ivey did: Tossed up her hands and said to hell with it, y’all be careful out there. 

And that’s disappointing. Because I believe the majority of Alabamians — and there are polls to back this up — were grateful for her measured approach and data-driven decisions. And I think most understand that there are ways to both reopen the economy and still keep in place restrictions that both limit the spread of the virus and impress upon people the danger it still poses. 

But we’re not doing that. Not anymore. 

Instead, we’re back to taking the easy way, back to catering to big business and rightwing crazies, back to ignoring science and data. 

The football was moved again.

 

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Governor

Alabama AG warns against nursing homes taking stimulus checks

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama’s top law enforcement officer on Friday warned against nursing homes intercepting federal stimulus payments to long-term care residents who are Medicaid recipients, but the state’s Nursing Home Association says it’s not aware that is happening, and it hasn’t been contacted by the Alabama Attorney General’s Office over the matter. 

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall in a press release Friday said that federal stimulus checks from the CARES Act cannot be seized by nursing homes to pay for care. 

“We are now beginning to receive a few reports of concern that some Alabama nursing homes may be attempting to take stimulus checks from residents who are Medicaid recipients. If this is happening, it needs to stop now,” Marshall said in a statement. “These stimulus checks are rightfully and legally the property of the residents and must be returned. Confiscation of these checks is unlawful and should be reported to my office.”

Mike Lewis, spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, in a message to APR on Friday said that all concerns reported to the office will be reviewed and investigated.

“There have been four such reports thus far,” Lewis said in the message.

Alabama Nursing Home Association President Brandon Farmer in a separate press release Friday said that since the federal government’s announcement of the stimulus payment, the association advised members that any stimulus payment deposited to the accounts of nursing home residents was not to be used to reimburse the facility “and is the sole property of the residents.”

“We urge Attorney General Steve Marshall to let us know if he has any reports of diversion of residents’ stimulus payments so that we may clarify any misunderstanding that may exist,” Farmer said. “At this time, we are unaware of any facility where such diversion is occurring.

Farmer said the association has encouraged Marshall to contact them any time he has a concern about nursing homes, or has information he wants to pass along to our members.

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“As we have done throughout this pandemic, we stand ready to work with local, state and federal leaders to support Alabama’s nursing home residents and employees,” Farmer said.

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Economy

Jefferson County extends closure of night clubs, theaters and other entertainment venues

Chip Brownlee

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The Jefferson County Department of Health has extended closures of “high-risk” entertainment venues in the state’s most populous county as those types of businesses can begin opening in the rest of the state.

“Even though things have been opening up, it does not mean that things are better in our community in terms of the spread of COVID-19,” Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson said Friday. “In fact, I would say it may be more dangerous now to let down your guard than it has been ever since this pandemic began.”

The extended closures in Jefferson County’s updated health order apply to night clubs, concert venues, theaters, performing arts centers, tourist attractions like museums and planetariums, racetracks, adult entertainment venues, casinos and bingo halls, among others.

“Other than those entertainment venues, this order is the same as the statewide order that was issued yesterday,” Wilson said.

Jefferson County’s order remains in place until June 6.

Gov. Kay Ivey’s amended safer-at-home order, issued Thursday, allows those businesses to reopen with social-distancing restrictions and sanitation requirements statewide.

“The reason we are doing this is that we are continuing to see increases in cases of COVID-19 per day in Jefferson County,” Wilson said. “They have been trending up since that last order was issued statewide on May 8.”

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Wilson said current COVID-19 hospitalizations have also increased from 103 to 130 since the state’s more restrictive stay-at-home and safer-at-home orders were lifted earlier this month.

“We want to stay ahead of it and not get to the point where they are overrun,” Wilson said.

In Montgomery County, hospitals are facing a dire shortage of intensive-care beds as cases there have more than doubled since the beginning of the month.

Jefferson County and Mobile County, which have their own autonomous health departments, have the authority to issue more stringent public health orders.

Wilson said he received approval from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris to issue the new order. The governor said Thursday that she would support Mobile and Jefferson County should the issue more stringent orders.

The Jefferson County health officer continued to encourage residents to wear face masks or another face covering while out in public.

“We all need to protect each other,” Wilson said.

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