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Nine stories to keep an eye on in 2019

Chip Brownlee

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9. Who will challenge Sen. Doug Jones in 2020?

It may have been only a year ago that Doug Jones won in a historic victory that sent a Democrat from Alabama to the U.S. Senate for the first time in a quarter century, but he’s up for re-election in 2020.

With that election just around the corner, a slate of Republican candidates will begin announcing their candidacies in 2019. No one is guaranteed the Republican nomination, but there are few names leading the pack. Rep. Bradley Byrne — a former gubernatorial candidate and Republican from South Alabama — has all but announced his candidacy. State Auditor Jim Zeigler, a long-shot candidate, mind you, has launched an exploratory campaign. And could former senator and attorney general Jeff Sessions run for his old seat?

These questions will likely be answered in 2019 as Republicans prepare for what could be a heated and highly contested primary in 2020.


8. Prison construction and lawsuits

The state of Alabama’s aging and dilapidated prisons have been an issue for years. Most of them were built in the 1960s and 1970s, and the existing prisons would require more than $400 million in renovations to be brought back up to standards. At the same time, they remain overcrowded despite sentencing reform, and the constitutionality of Alabama’s prisons have been routinely challenged. Federal judges have said Alabama’s prison conditions are unconstitutional, and another lawsuit remains to be decided.

Lawmakers tried twice in 2016 and 2017 to pass a billion-dollar prison construction plan pushed by Gov. Robert Bentley and ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn, but both attempts failed. The Department of Corrections has hinted that it may try a version of that plan again during the 2019 session. It’s also possible they could try leasing instead of building their own prisons.

Either way, the state of Alabama’s prisons will be on the agenda in 2019, and the second phase of a massive lawsuit brought by the SPLC could be on the docket next year, though no start date has been set.


Mike Hubbard looks toward his family after receiving sentencing on Friday, July 8, 2016, in Opelika, Ala.
Todd Van Emst/Opelika-Auburn News/Pool

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7. The Supreme Court’s Hubbard decision

It’s been more than four years since then-House Speaker Mike Hubbard was indicted on 23 felony ethics charges in 2014. In 2016, he was convicted of 12 of those charges. Following that guilty verdict, Hubbard began appealing his conviction — a process that has been drawn out and will likely last into 2019.

Earlier this year, the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld 11 of the 12 counts, but Hubbard appealed again to the Supreme Court, which is reviewing his case. Their decision on whether to take up his case could be released in early 2019. If they take up the case, it could be months or more than a year before they reach a decision. But if they deny his appeal, Hubbard could finally begin his four-year prison sentence. He remains free on appeal bond until a final decision is made.

The Supreme Court’s decision on Hubbard’s case will have lasting implications for Alabama’s ethics laws. Though Hubbard championed them in 2010, his conviction in 2016 has led to a near all-out onslaught on the laws. A Supreme Court decision denying Hubbard’s appeal or upholding his conviction could lend some credence to the laws, which remain under scrutiny in the state Legislature.


6. Can Democrats become relevant again?

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Democrats were hopeful in 2018 that they could cut into some of the Republican supermajority in state Legislature, their hold on most seats in the state’s congressional delegation and their grip on all statewide elected offices. But they failed.

Democrats weren’t able to take any Republican-held seats in Congress, and Democrats even lost seats in both chambers of the state Legislature. Democrats have less power now in Alabama than ever since the Reconstruction Era — at least outside the state’s biggest cities.

If they want to become relevant statewide again, they’ll have to find a way to win. Some Democrats, including Sen. Doug Jones, have called for new leadership of the Alabama Democratic Party. But Nancy Worley, the ADP chairwoman, and Joe Reed, the leader of the powerful Alabama Democratic Conference, have held onto their power.

It isn’t clear where Democrats go from here. If they hope to have any chance to hold onto their lone U.S. Senate seat and gain any seats in the House in 2020, they’ll have to make some changes in 2019.


5. Katie Britt takes over at BCA

The Business Council of Alabama — one of the state’s largest and most influential lobbying organizations – has a new leader, Katie Britt. Sen. Richard Shelby’s former chief of staff, Britt is expected to bring a new outlook to the organization, which fell under fire during the final few years of former president and CEO Billy Canary’s tenure.

A number of high-dollar members — from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama to Alabama Power and Regions Bank — temporarily withdrew from the group because of their dissatisfaction with Canary’s leadership style. While the big players are back, Britt — the first woman to serve as the organization’s president and CEO — will face a challenge in renewing the organization’s strength and influence.


4. The Ethics Commission

The Alabama Ethics Commission has been under fire for years for lax enforcement of the state’s ethics laws. Secretary of State John Merrill and a number of others, including opinion columnists at APR and other news organizations, have criticized the commission for writing off campaign finance fines and for collapsing separate campaign finance violations into fewer charges.

On top of that, the commission is increasingly referring violations to district attorneys to prosecute. That practice — known as shopping for a DA — has come under fire because some have said the commission is picking DAs who will go easy on those accused of violating the law.

The Ethics Commission has one primary goal — to uphold the ethics laws — but it has been routinely accused, by a handful of lawmakers and journalists alike, of doing the opposite. And the members on the commission are largely unaccountable to anyone other than themselves.

As we enter 2019, it’s clear that the Ethics Commission will face more big decisions, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get any tougher with its charge. That reality exists while lawmakers are considering a massive rewrite of the ethics laws and there appears to be no champion of strong ethics laws.


3. Attorney General Marshall

Despite winning re-election by a large margin in November, Attorney General Steve Marshall had a rough year. His primary for attorney general was toughly contested, and one of his former Republican opponents accused him of illegally taking a PAC-to-PAC transfer.

The Ethics Commission, in a 3-to-2 vote, said it had insufficient evidence to refer him for prosecution under the state ethics laws. That’s one vote short.

Marshall recently fired Matt Hart, the chief of the public corruption division in his office. Hart’s firing was met with intense criticism by some, but many lawmakers were at least privately supportive of the decision. Hart had prosecuted a number of public corruption cases involving both Republicans and Democrats.

At the same time, Marshall is leading what could be a massive re-write of the state’s ethics laws. He’s chairing the committee convened to discuss the re-write, all while under scrutiny by opponents who say he is too lax on the laws.

As we head into 2019, the scrutiny of Marshall is sure to continue as the committee drafting the ethics re-write continues its work.


2. Gov. Kay Ivey begins her first full term

Gov. Kay Ivey is one of the most popular governors in America, and she won her first full term as governor by wide margins in November. She’ll be sworn in on Jan. 14 to begin a four-year term. Ivey has largely avoided controversy during her first year and a half of being governor, but questions have loomed about her health, though she has maintained she is healthy.

During her first partial term, Ivey promised to “right the ship of state,” a promise she says she’s kept. She removed lobbyists from state boards and commissions and has championed Alabama’s improving economy.

But as she begins her first full term, she’ll face a number of obstacles. Among them, issues on this list: a gas tax, prisons and the ethics law re-write. The first year of her term could be consumed by Republican in-fighting on these issues and others.


1. Gas tax and infrastructure

As 2019 rolls around, so does the beginning of the next legislative quadrennium. The quadrennium refers to the four-year term of the Legislature. With that, comes a new freshman class of state legislators ready to get to work. First on their plate this year is assumed to be a gas tax, which some lawmakers have been calling for for years but each year it has failed to pick up the steam needed to pass.

This year looks like the year, if ever. Republican leadership of both the House and the Senate, including Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh and Speaker Mac McCutcheon, and Gov. Kay Ivey have named the gas tax as their top priority. They say its needed to improve and add capacity to the state’s highway system and, perhaps more importantly, to replace aging bridges.

The Legislature hasn’t increased the gas tax since 1992 when a nickel was added. Proponents of the increase say the proposed 18 cent-per-gallon increase is needed to catch up as the state lagged behind in maintaining its road infrastructure.

But opponents, including the more conservative, anti-tax wings of the GOP and some Democrats, fiercely oppose the measure. Some Democrats have said the increase would be more detrimental for the working poor, who would feel more of its effects.

As the legislative session begins, expect a big battle — perhaps an up-hill one — on the gas tax.

 

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Likely Republican primary voters reject Poarch Creeks “winning” plan

Bill Britt

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A survey of likely Republican primary voters obtained by APR shows that a majority do not support giving the Poarch Band of Creek Indians a monopoly over gaming in the state despite the tribe’s promise of a billion dollars.

Over the last several months, PCI has orchestrated a massive media blitz to convince Alabamians that they have a winning plan for the state’s future in exchange for a Tribal-State compact and exclusive rights to Vegas-style casino gaming.

The survey commissioned by the Republican House and Senate caucuses and conducted by CYGNAL, a highly respected Republican polling firm, found that only 34.1 percent of likely Republican primary voters are buying what the tribe is selling. On the contrary, nearly 50 percent of Republicans oppose the plan, with almost 40 percent voicing strong opposition.

Of those surveyed, females are against the plan by nearly 50 percent, with men weighing-in at almost 60 percent unfavorable to PCI’s proposal.

Perhaps most significant is that PCI’s monopoly plan was widely rejected in areas where the tribe already operates casinos. In the Mobile area, nearest Windcreek Atmore, over half of Republicans see a monopoly unfavorably. The same is true in the Montgomery area, where PCI has two gaming facilities.

Not a single big city surveyed in the state held a favorable view of PCI’s plan with Birmingham and Huntsville rejecting the tribal monopoly by almost 50 percent.

Very conservative, somewhat conservative and moderate voters didn’t view the plan as positive.

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Ninety-one percent of respondents said they defiantly would be voting in the upcoming Republican primary on March 3.

PCI has lavished money on media outlets throughout the state, garnering favorable coverage, especially on talk radio and internet outlets. The tribe has also spent freely on Republican lawmakers.

Perhaps some good news for PCI is that Republican primary voters believe that state legislators are more likely to represent special interests above the interests of their constituents.

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PCI lobbyists continue to push the tribe’s agenda at the State House in defiance of Gov. Kay Ivey’s call for no action on gaming until her study group returns its findings.

The survey found that Ivey enjoys a 76.3 percent favorability rating among likely Republican primary voters.

 

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ADECA names Elaine J. Fincannon as new deputy director

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Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs Director Kenneth Boswell announced on Thursday that Elaine J. Fincannon has been appointed as the agency’s deputy director.

Fincannon most recently served as Senior Vice President for Investor Relations for the Business Council of Alabama. She worked with BCA for over 25 years as part of its senior team, working with a diverse range of business leaders and CEOs of Alabama’s largest employers. During that time, she also served as BCA’s liaison to Alabama’s trade associations and to the more than 100 chambers of commerce throughout the state. She also served on the President’s Committee and Corporate Partners Committee for the Alabama Automotive Manufacturer’s Association and was a part of the Alabama Aerospace Industry Association’s membership committee.

“Elaine Fincannon’s extensive knowledge and experience with the public and private sector in our state made her an ideal choice to be ADECA’s new deputy director, and I am pleased that she has decided to bring those talents to the agency,” ADECA Director Kenneth Boswell said. “Elaine is mission-focused, forward-thinking and detailed-oriented, which are the exact skills needed to serve as deputy director of ADECA. She and I will work closely together to continue supporting Gov. Ivey’s mission of improving the lives of all Alabamians.”

Fincannon is an active member of the community, serving as a member of the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, the Junior League of Montgomery, the Montgomery Humane Society, Auburn University Montgomery Alumni Association and other volunteer efforts. She also served as a member of the American Society of Association Executives and was an officer of the Association of State Chamber Professionals. She has a bachelor’s degree of science from AUM and was honored with a Distinguished Chamber Professional Award in 2019 by the Chamber of Commerce Association of Alabama.

Fincannon joins ADECA with a focus on working with Boswell to meet the agency’s mission to strengthen and support local communities.

“It is an honor to join ADECA during this time, and I am grateful to Director Boswell and Gov. Ivey for this appointment,” Fincannon said. “I plan to work diligently to serve the people of Alabama to the absolute best of my ability.”

 

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Alabama Workforce Council delivers annual report touting improved career pathways

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The Alabama Workforce Council (AWC) recently delivered its Annual Report to Gov. Kay Ivey and members of the legislature. The report highlights the many and varied workforce successes from 2019. It also outlines policy recommendations to further solidify Alabama as a leader in workforce development and push the state closer to Ivey’s goal of adding 500,000 credentialed workers to the state’s workforce by 2025.

Gov. Ivey acknowledged the recent progress stating, “the continued efforts of the AWC and the various state agency partners in transforming our workforce are substantial. Significant work has been accomplished to ensure all Alabamians have a strong start and strong finish. We will continue to bolster our state’s economy through dynamic workforce development solutions to help us reach our ambitious goal.”

The AWC, formed in 2015, was created as an employer-led, statewide effort to understand the structure, function, organization and perception of the Alabama workforce system. The goal of the AWC is to facilitate collaboration between government and industry to help Alabama develop a sustainable workforce that is competitive on a global scale. 

“This report details the tremendous efforts of the dedicated AWC members and their partners who have greatly contributed to the progress of building a highly-skilled workforce.” noted Tim McCartney, Chairman of the AWC. “To meet ever-growing job needs of an expanding economy, we have put forth recommendations to bring working-age Alabamians sitting on the sidelines back into the workforce to address our low workforce participation rate.”

Included among the many highlights from the report are:

  • Created the Alabama Office of Apprenticeship to support apprenticeships and work-based learning statewide.
  • Established the Alabama Committee on Credentialing & Career Pathways (ACCCP) to identify credentials of value that align with in-demand career pathways across Alabama.
  • Furthered foundational work toward cross-agency outcome sharing through the Alabama Terminal on Linking and Analyzing Statistics (ATLAS).
  • Commissioned statewide surveys to better understand the characteristics, and potential barriers, of the priority population groups (during record-low unemployment) identified as likely to enter or re-enter the state’s workforce. 
  • Provided technical assistance, support staff and grant writing services to a cohort of over 30 nonprofits from across the state enabling them to expand services and directly connect more Alabamians to training and economic opportunity. Services helped cohort members secure over $6.4 million in grant money through various out-of-state grant programs.
  • Identified and evaluated 17 population segments of potential workers and determined the likelihood of adding members of those respective population segments into the workforce. Within this process, issues affecting the state’s labor participation rate were also detailed. 

Vice-Chair of the AWC Sandra Koblas of Austal USA commented, “the energy around workforce development in Alabama right now is incredibly exciting. We are working together with businesses, nonprofits and agency partners to reduce barriers, increase opportunities and grow the state’s overall economy.”

The full report can be viewed here.

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To learn more about the Alabama Workforce Council please visit: www.alabamaworks.com/alabama-workforce-council

 

 

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Shelby announces $733,150 ARC POWER Grant for Opportunity Alabama

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U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, R-Ala., Wednesday announced that Opportunity Alabama, Inc., a nonprofit initiative in Birmingham, Alabama, is the recipient of a $733,150 Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) POWER grant.  This grant will fund the Creating Opportunity for Alabama (COAL) Initiative.

“ARC’s decision to award this funding to Opportunity Alabama will help significantly boost private investment and business development throughout our state’s coal-impacted communities,” said Senator Shelby.  “I am proud this nonprofit initiative is working to help our local communities understand and capitalize on Opportunity Zones.  These federal funds will facilitate an improved quality of life in Appalachian Alabama, creating hundreds of jobs and dozens of new businesses.”

“Opportunity Zones, and the private investment they incentivize, are helping uplift communities throughout the Appalachian Region,” said ARC Federal Co-Chairman Tim Thomas.  “Opportunity Alabama is working to ensure communities understand and are able to capitalize on this program to improve Appalachian Alabama, and this POWER investment will have a big impact on that mission.”

 The project will create an investment funding and business development ecosystem targeted to the federally designated Opportunity Zones in 36 coal-impacted counties in Alabama.  As a result of the ARC grant, Opportunity Alabama will work with a team of local, state, and national partners in a three-phased approach.  The first phase will work on building a local capacity to effectively prepare for and attract Opportunity Zone investments, focusing particularly on rural communities.  The second phase will create a pipeline of investment opportunities to attract substantial private investment by facilitating demand studies, environmental assessments, and construction cost estimates.  The third and final phase will focus on developing and implementing an impact-investment data collection and analysis process to make it easier for investors to deploy their capital.

This project will yield 250 new jobs, create 25 new businesses, and leverage $100 million in private investment.  In addition to the federal grant provided for the project, Alabama Power and the Alabama Power Foundation are expected to provide private financial support.

Opportunity Alabama is a nonprofit initiative dedicated to connecting investors with investable assets in Alabama’s Opportunity Zones.

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