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Senate delays vote on economic developer bill after negotiations

Chip Brownlee

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Sen. Phil Williams speaks with Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, discussing a piece of economic development and ethics legislation. (Chip Brownlee/APR)

A controversial bill that would exempt a class of “economic development professionals” from having to register with the state as lobbyists appears to have made it through a round of intense negotiations and sits in a position to pass.

Those negotiations, which took the better part of the weekend and most of Tuesday, produced a new substitute intended to appease several opponents to the bill inside the Legislature’s upper chamber. And it seems to have done so, though the Senate again adjourned Tuesday without voting on the bill.

With the proposed changes to the bill, the Senate ended up averting Sen. Dick Brewbaker’s threatened filibuster, and the delay Tuesday night ended up having more to do with a prolonged debate over Sen. Rodger Smitherman’s racial profiling bill downstairs in the House of Representatives, where representatives spent the day attempting to work out a compromise on that piece of legislation.

Smitherman was attempting to slow down the economic development bill in the Senate as a way of maintaining enough leverage and time to get his racial profiling bill out this session.

HB317, sponsored by Rep. Ken Johnson in the House, has been the subject of scrutiny from a number of senators and has been bogged down in the chamber for the past week, but leadership has made passing the legislation an obvious priority.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh speaks in favor of HB317. (Chip Brownlee/APR)

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, is carrying the bill in the Senate.

The bill is set to be the first on the agenda when the chamber returns Wednesday morning for what is expected to be the final day of this year’s legislative session — unless things go off the rails.

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Brewbaker and others raised concerns over the past week that the bill’s wide-ranging provisions could open the door for some people to avoid the ethics laws. The bill would exempt any professional economic developer from having to register as a lobbyist, thus essentially exempting them from the statutes in the ethics laws that pertain to lobbyists.

Others were concerned that the bill didn’t include a “revolving door” provision, the lack of which could have allowed former lawmakers to skirt a two-year ban on lobbying.

Sen. Phil Williams, R-Gadsden, proposed a substitute Tuesday that seemed to largely appease Brewbaker and others, although it didn’t win everyone over.

“I believe we do (have the votes to pass it), as much as we’ve tightened it up now. It is decidedly a tight piece of legislation, and I believe it’s exactly what we say it is, which makes it virtually impossible, by hook or crook, to get around the ethics laws,” Williams said.

Williams’ changes included a two-year revolving door provision, clarified the definition of an economic development professional and prohibits those who would otherwise have to register as a lobbyist from registering as economic development professionals instead.

“The only people who will have the opportunity for the exemption are the true economic developers that were never intended to be in the (ethics) bill to begin with,” Williams said.

If passed, the law will expire on April 1, 2019, thanks to a so-called sunset provision, giving lawmakers a year to come up with a long-term fix to the ethics laws. That would allow lawmakers to work these changes into a comprehensive rewrite of the ethics laws proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh earlier in the session. That rewrite is expected to be a priority during next year’s session.

“I think that by recognizing apparently the 2010 rewrite left something nebulous, or at least seen to be nebulous, they’re going to definitely have to revisit this in the broader comprehensive review,” Williams said. “But that was also the purpose of the sunset.”

Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, who spoke a couple of times against the bill, said he wasn’t impressed with the sunset provision as a safeguard.

Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, speaks against HB317, a controversial economic development and ethics bill. (Chip Brownlee/APR)

“We don’t sunset anything,” Singleton said. “We don’t even have windows in here where we can see the sunset. … I think it’s going to go on.”

While lawmakers have conceded that lobbying is at least partly a component of economic development work, the bill says that economic development professionals are not lobbyists “unless and until he or she seeks incentives through legislative action that are above and beyond, or in addition to, the then current statutory or constitutional authorization.”

That is, economic developers can lobby for incentives and other deals as long as they aren’t lobbying to change the law to get better incentives. Otherwise, they have to register as lobbyists.

“As soon as they ask for something that doesn’t currently exist in the law … or as soon as they approach the Legislature for any action at all related to a project they’re working on, they become lobbyists,” Williams said. “We get it. Report it. Report it all at that point.”

Other provisions of the ethics laws — like those that prohibit lawmakers from accepting a thing of value — will still stand.

Williams said if the bill passes the Senate, he expects the House to concur Wednesday.

Proponents of the economic development bill argue that the Legislature needs to clarify that economic development professionals — specifically a subgroup of individuals dubbed site selectors — are not considered lobbyists. Declining to do so would put the status of economic developers up in the air and leave the state at a disadvantage when pursuing economic development deals, Williams, Marsh and other proponents say.

The discussions arose after a 2015 trade magazine article claimed Alabama’s ethics laws inadvertently required those individuals to register as lobbyists. Since then, the Ethics Commission has wavered on whether to clarify the matter, effectively kicking the decision to the Legislature this session.

Lawmakers worry that if they don’t clarify that economic development professionals are not lobbyists, the Ethics Commission might make a different determination, hurting Alabama’s standing when it comes to those high-dollar deals.

Sen. Paul Sanford proposed an amendment to narrow HB317 to include an exemption for only a small portion of economic developers. (Chip Brownlee/APR)

Williams said economic development officials in other states have cast doubt on companies’ ability to negotiate in Alabama, though the lawmaker didn’t point to any specific instances of that happening. The state recently secured one of the largest economic development deals in recent memory when it attracted a massive Toyota-Mazda factory to Huntsville.

Sen. Paul Sanford, Brewbaker and other Republicans have argued that the ethics laws have been in place since 2010 with no problem. “Why the sudden urgency to “fix” something that doesn’t appear to be broken?” they’ve asked. Sanford and Brewbaker led a push Tuesday to narrow the law by proposing an amendment to only cover site selectors who are members of the Site Selectors Guild.

Site selectors are a subclassification of economic developers who provide strategy and negotiation capabilities to corporations seeking the best outcome for tax credits, abatements, grants and reimbursable loans when deciding a location for a project.

“It’s the main thing I’ve been saying all along: Go back to the site selector language,” Brewbaker said. “All of the arguments come when you expand it into economic development. It’s not that they both aren’t related; they are. But one is simple and easy to define, and the other is a lot broader, which creates all of these other problems that we have been arguing about for two weeks.”

Sanford’s proposal to do just that failed by a vote of 10 to 18.

By expanding the exemptions beyond just site selectors, Sanford said, the bill could open the door to corrupt antics.

“(When we wrote the ethics laws), we were all worried about the undue influence on public officials and legislators and all of that, but this basically says these guys can almost do what they want because they’re exempt from the law,” Sanford said.

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National

Byrne secures authorization for additional Austal ship in NDAA

Brandon Moseley

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Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Alabama, this week announced that the House Armed Services Committee approved the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 by a vote of 56 to 0. The bill includes a Byrne amendment authorizing $260 million to construct an additional Expeditionary Fast Transport vessel at Austal Mobile. The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for a vote for passage.

“Today’s defense authorization bill received strong bipartisan support and will ensure that the men and women of our military have the resources necessary to protect American interests and safety,” Byrne said. “Like most legislation, the bill isn’t perfect, but the committee’s willingness to work together towards a common goal should be a template for the entire House of Representatives to follow.”

“It is great news for Southwest Alabama and our entire nation that the committee accepted my amendment to authorize the construction of an additional EPF at the Austal shipyard in Mobile,” Byrne said. “Passage of this amendment acknowledges the critical role the 4,000 men and women at Austal Mobile play in supporting our nation’s military readiness and moving us closer to our goal of a 355-ship fleet. In fact, just this week we reached a landmark when the Austal-built USS Oakland LCS was delivered to the Navy, becoming the 300th ship in our Navy’s fleet. Construction of an additional EPF will strengthen Austal’s footprint in Mobile and bolster its contributions to our national defense, and I hope Congress moves quickly to pass this bill into law.”

The NDAA sets policy and authorizes funding for the entire United States military and has been passed by the House each year for the previous 59 years. The bill is expected to receive a vote in the House as soon as this month.

An Expeditionary Fast Transport is a 338-foot shallow draft aluminum catamaran designed to be multi-mission capable of intra-theater personnel and cargo lift, providing combatant commanders high-speed sealift mobility with inherent cargo handling capability and agility to achieve positional advantage over operational distances. Bridging the gap between low-speed sealift and high-speed airlift, EPFs transport personnel, equipment and supplies over operational distances with access to littoral offload points including austere, minor and degraded ports in support of the Global War on Terrorism/Theater Security Cooperation Program, Intra-theater Operational/Littoral Maneuver and Sustainment and Seabasing. EPFs enable the rapid projection, agile maneuver and sustainment of modular, tailored forces in response to a wide range of military and civilian contingencies such as Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief. It is a non-combatant transport vessel characterized by its high volume, high speed, and flexibility. Its large flight deck can accommodate a variety of aircraft.

The EPF is designed to transport 600 short tons of military cargo 1,200 nautical miles at an average speed of 35 knots in Sea State 3. The ships are capable of operating in shallow-draft ports and waterways, interfacing with roll-on/roll-off discharge facilities and on/off-loading a combat-loaded Abrams Main Battle Tank (M1A2). The EPF includes a flight deck for helicopter operations and an off-load ramp that allow vehicles to quickly drive off the ship. The ramp is suitable for the types of austere piers and quay walls common in developing countries. The ship’s shallow draft (under 15 feet) will further enhance littoral operations and port access. This makes the EPF an extremely flexible asset for support of a wide range of operations including maneuver and sustainment, relief operations in small or damaged ports, flexible logistics support or as the key enabler for rapid transport.

EPF has a crew of 26 Civilian Mariners with airline style seating for 312 embarked troops and fixed berthing for an additional 104. Military Sealift Command (MSC) operates and sustains the EPFs, which will be allocated via the Global Force Management for Theater Security Cooperation, service unique missions, intra-theater sealift and special missions.

Byrne represents Alabama’s 1st Congressional District.

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Health

Second Julia Tutwiler Prison worker dies after testing positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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A second employee at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women has died after testing positive for COVID-19, the Alabama Department of Corrections said Thursday. 

The worker recently tested positive for coronavirus and has since died, the Alabama Department of Corrections said in a press release, which doesn’t note when exactly the person tested positive or passed away. 

The death comes as cases and deaths among inmates and staff continue to mount across the state’s prisons. 

ADOC last week announced the first death of a prison worker at Tutwiler, while an outbreak of COVID-19 at the infirmary at the Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore County resulted in the deaths of two men serving there.   

As of Thursday there have been 10 confirmed coronavirus cases among inmates and 30 cases among staff at Tutwiler prison. At Staton prison, there were 18 cases among inmates and 23 among workers. 

ADOC on Thursday also announced another worker at Tutwiler self-reported that they tested positive for COVID-19, as did a worker at the Bullock Correctional Facility and one at Limestone Correctional Facility. 

Additionally, another inmate who was exposed at the infirmary at Staton prison, two and St. Clair Correctional Facility and two at Easterling Correctional Facility also tested positive for the virus. 

Confirmed cases among staff continue to outpace cases among inmates, and that likely comes down to access to testing. ADOC doesn’t offer free testing for staff, but ask that any worker who tests positive outside of work self-report the test results to the department. Inmates must either be exhibiting symptoms and be tested at the request of an ADOC physician, or they are tested at local hospitals while being treated for other conditions, which is how the majority of confirmed cases among inmates have been identified. 

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Even though confirmed cases among inmates — 75 as of Thursday — remains much lower than confirmed cases among staff — 171 as of Thursday — nine inmates have died after testing positive for the virus, while two workers have died after learning they were positive for the virus. 

Of the approximately 22,000 inmates in Alabama prisons, 413 have been tested since the start of the pandemic, according to ADOC’s statistics.

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Courts

Supreme Court sides with Alabama in COVID-19 voting case

Brandon Moseley

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The U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision Thursday blocked a federal district judge’s order that would have made it easier for many Alabamians to vote during the pandemic, issuing an emergency stay of the lower court’s injunction in People First of Alabama v. Merrill.

The court’s more liberal justices dissented, while the five conservative justices voted to strike down the lower court ruling, which had blocked absentee ballot witness requirements in a few Alabama counties and a statewide ban on curbside voting programs.

The decision to grant the stay means that Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill’s ban on curbside voting remains in place, and he may intervene into any county in Alabama to prevent curbside voting.

Voters in every county in the state must still follow all the required witness, notary and photo ID requirements for absentee ballots.

Federal District Judge Abdul Kallon had found in favor of the plaintiffs and issued an order allowing local officials to implement curbside voting. Merrill and the secretary of state’s office appealed the lower court ruling to the Supreme Court, who issued the emergency stay.

The court could still hear Alabama’s appeal, but the ruling was a blow for the groups representing the plaintiffs in the case. Caren Short is the senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“While we are deeply disappointed with today’s ruling, we look forward to presenting our clients’ case at trial later this summer,” said Short. “Our goal is simple though unfortunately at odds with Alabama officials. We want to ensure that during the COVID-19 pandemic, Alabama voters will not be forced to choose between exercising their fundamental right to vote and protecting their health or the health of a loved one.”

Deuel Ross is the senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

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“We are deeply disappointed by the Supreme Court‘s stay,” said Ross. “Unfortunately, this means that Alabama voters who are at greater risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 will be required to risk their health and violate CDC recommendations in order to vote on July 14. This is occurring at a time when COVID-19 infections are soaring in Alabama and nationwide. Nonetheless, the litigation will continue and we intend to seek relief for our clients and other voters in time for November.”

Plaintiffs argued that making voters go to the polls and wait in line to show a photo-ID would be a bar to voting given the fear of the coronavirus in Alabama. Voters will have to decide whether voting in the July 14 party runoff elections is really worth the risk of possibly contracting the novel strain of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and possibly dying.

At least 14 Alabamians died from COVID-19 on Thursday, taking the state death toll to 961. Additionally, 1,162 Alabamians tested positive for the coronavirus.

The state argues that voter ID and other security measures are necessary to protect the integrity of the vote and prevent voting fraud. Since his election as Alabama secretary of state, Merrill has said that it is his goal to “make it easy to vote and hard to cheat.”

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Elections

Gary Bauer endorses Hightower for Congress

Brandon Moseley

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Congressional candidate Bill Hightower’s campaign announced Wednesday that he has received the endorsement of national social conservative leader Gary Bauer.

“I am proud to endorse Bill Hightower for Congress,” Bauer said. “Bill is a man of God who is an unapologetic voice for faith, family and freedom. He has worked to defend the unborn both in public and private life for 40 years and there has been no stronger advocate for protecting our religious liberties.”

“Bill Hightower has a proven pro-family, pro-life record that the voters of south Alabama can count on,” Bauer said. “As their congressman, I know Bill Hightower will stand with President Trump to defend our values, protect our constitutional rights, secure the border and put hard-workings America first.”

“Susan and I have followed Gary Bauer since his service to President Reagan, and his later work on the Family Research Council,” Hightower said. “Because of our personal support of James Dobson’s, Focus on the Family, with whom Gary worked, we have for at least 30 years leaned heavily upon his conservative, family-oriented commentary on culture. It is an honor to be endorsed by Gary, because like him, I am a staunch supporter of Israel and deem our religious freedoms as core to who we are as Americans.”

Bauer currently serves as president of American Values, a public policy think tank, and was Washington director of Christians United for Israel Action Fund. Bauer has held several positions in the administration of former President Ronald Reagan including deputy under-secretary of education from 1982 to 1985 and under-secretary of education from 1985 to 1987.

Bauer was then appointed assistant to the president for policy development, a position he held until January 1989. He later served as a senior vice president of Focus on the Family and as president of the Family Research Council.

In 2000, Bauer sought the Republican nomination for president of the United States. Then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush won the nomination and went on to win the 2000 election.

Hightower is running in Alabama’s 1st Congressional District in the July 14 Republican Primary runoff against former State Rep. Barry Moore, R-Enterprise.

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Incumbent Congressman Bradley Byrne is not running for re-election.

Hightower has a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Alabama and a master’s degree from Vanderbilt University. Hightower has worked for several Fortune 500 companies around the world before moving back to South Alabama in 2002. He has started and run several small businesses in the Mobile area. Hightower is a husband, father and grandfather.

The winner of the Republican nomination will face the winner of the Democratic primary runoff in the Nov. 3 general election. On the Democratic side, James Averhart is running against Kiani Gardner.

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