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Roby tours tornado-ravaged Wetumpka

Brandon Moseley

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via Nicole Jones

Rep. Martha Roby, R-Alabama, said Friday her thoughts are with all those impacted by the tornado in Elmore County on Saturday.

“I was on the ground in Wetumpka yesterday to visit with residents and local leaders, and I assured them that my office stands ready to assist in whatever ways we are able,” Roby said. “As we await further details about the full scale of damages, I will be praying for those who have been hurt by this disaster.”

On Jan. 19, an EF-2 hit the city of Wetumpka in Elmore County inflicting significant damage. Almost miraculously, no lives were lost, and only minor injuries have been reported.

“The Monday following the tornado, I joined Gov. Kay Ivey and other local officials to spend time on the ground with those impacted,” Roby said. “I had the opportunity to see the devastation firsthand, and it was heartbreaking to say the least. The beautiful, historic First Presbyterian Church was destroyed, and First Baptist Church of Wetumpka sustained terrible damage. The Wetumpka Police Station, senior citizens center and recreation center were also lost in the tornado. More than 35 homes and dozens of businesses were damaged or destroyed. Wetumpka and its residents are in the midst of determining the extent of damages and planning for what needs to be rebuilt, and we must do our very best to help however possible.”

“I am deeply grateful to the local leaders and first responders who immediately jumped to action to begin securing the area and putting the pieces back together for the people who have lost so much,” Roby continued. “During this very challenging time, it has also been encouraging to see the community come together and begin the rebuilding process like a family. Mere hours after the storm, the Elmore County Emergency Management Agency heard from more than 1,000 individuals who signed up to volunteer their time and resources to the clean-up efforts. “

If anyone is local and personally interested in helping out with clean-up in downtown Wetumpka or in Elmore County, they can contact the Elmore County EMA by calling 334-567-6451.

The Elmore County Commission and city of Wetumpka are asking that volunteers please call ahead and follow instructions to ensure proper coordination in order to maximize recovery efforts and resources.

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Residents of Wetumpka or Elmore County who need non-emergency assistance related to the tornado should call 211 until further notice. Any emergency calls should still be directed to 911.

Economic developer Nicole Jones also toured the tornado-ravaged historic area and spoke with a representative from the Elmore County EMA, who stated they were thankful to have so much help from surrounding towns that they did not plan to take any additional volunteers that week.

“If you look for the blessing amidst the storm, I could not think of a better bicentennial moment than a community banding together for the common good,” Jones said.

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Call the Elmore County EMA with any damage reports.

“The family of First Presbyterian Church, Wetumpka wishes to thank everyone for the overwhelming expressions of love, care and concern for our congregation and historic sanctuary,” said Jonathan Yarboro, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church.

Moving forward the church will be worshipping on Sundays at the Wetumpka Depot with worship services beginning at 11 a.m. Salvage work on the sanctuary began on Monday, Jan. 28. They promised to reclaim all reasonable materials for reuse. This is a tedious process, but they wish to reuse all they can and to make everything they cannot use themselves available to interested parties in the community.

“Thank you again for your prayers and support,” Yarboro said. “Our historic sanctuary will be rebuilt as it was. The church at Bridge and Bridge will return as it has been since 1856. Be blessed and be a blessing.”

Since 1950, there have been 149 tornados in Alabama in the month of January. The worst month for tornados in Alabama is April with 493. March is second with 277, followed by November with 278. There are fewer Alabama tornados in the summer months with 73 in June, 74 in August and 76 in July.

2019-01-21 Post-Tornado Wetumpka Walking Tour

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Elections

Sessions says Alabama doesn’t take orders from Washington after Trump inserts himself in race again

Brandon Moseley

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GOP Senate candidate and former Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, released a statement pushing back against President Donald Trump’s endorsement of his opponent, former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, in which he said “Alabama does not take orders from Washington.”

The blunt comments were in response to a Twitter post from Trump once again inserting himself in the Alabama Senate race.

“I’ve taken the road less travelled,” Sessions said. “Not sought fame or fortune. My honor and integrity are far more important than these juvenile insults. Your scandal ridden candidate is too cowardly to debate. As you know, Alabama does not take orders from Washington.”

This was after Trump tweeted, “Big Senate Race in Alabama on Tuesday. Vote for @TTuberville, he is a winner who will never let you down. Jeff Sessions is a disaster who has let us all down. We don’t want him back in Washington!”

Trump has called his decision to appoint Sessions as U.S. attorney general his “biggest mistake” as president.

The rift between the two former friends began in 2017 when Sessions, newly appointed as attorney general, recused himself from the Russian collusion investigation. Sessions has steadfastly defended the decision and continues to maintain that he was forbidden by U.S. Department of Justice policy forbidding anyone who was part of a campaign from investigating that campaign.

Sessions was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump in the 2016 presidential election and worked tirelessly throughout 2016 as a surrogate for the Trump campaign.

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Sessions maintains that had he not recused himself from the Russian collusion investigation things would have gone worse for Trump. As it was, his duties in the matter fell on fellow Trump appointee Rod Rosenstein, who appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel.

The special counsel investigation successfully prosecuted a number of close Trump associates for various failings in their personal and professional lives, but ultimately never was able to indict the president or a member of the Trump family, and it never was able to produce tangible evidence that the 2016 Trump campaign was involved in collusion with Russian intelligence agencies to defeat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Sessions is running for the Senate seat he gave up to be attorney general.

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Tuberville has been avoiding the media since a New York Times report detailed how Tuberville’s business partner David Stroud cheated investors out of their savings and was sentenced to ten years in prison. The two had formed a hedge fund, managed by Stroud, a former Lehman Brothers broker. Tuberville maintains that he was Stroud’s biggest victim, but the investors sued Tuberville, who settled out of court.

Sessions’ campaign maintains that incumbent Sen. Doug Jones’ campaign will capitalize on the scandal during the general election similarly to how they capitalized on allegations against former Chief Justice Roy Moore to win the 2017 special election to win the Senate seat vacated by Sessions to be attorney general.

Sessions was a late entrant into the Senate campaign. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, has endorsed Sessions.

“Jeff Sessions is a good friend and a respected former colleague,” Shelby wrote. “I believe he is well-suited to return to his role as United States Senator for the state of Alabama, where I served with him for more than 20 years. He has my full support and endorsement.”

Sessions was Senator from 1997 to 2017. He was U.S. Attorney General from 2017 to Nov. 2018. Prior to his Senate service, he served the state as Alabama Attorney General, Republican Party Chairman, and U.S. Attorney under Presidents Ronald W. Reagan (R) and George H. Bush (R). Sessions was also a former assistant U.S. Attorney and a U.S. Army reserve officer. He is a native of Alabama who grew up outside of Camden in rural Wilcox County.

The Republican primary runoff is on Tuesday. In order to vote in any Alabama election you must: be registered to vote, vote at your assigned polling place, and have a valid photo ID. It is too late to register to vote in this election or obtain an absentee ballot; but if you have an absentee ballot today is the last day to return it either through mail or by hand delivering it to your courthouse absentee ballot manager’s office.

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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: 

  • 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. 

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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. 

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. 

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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: 

  • 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. 
  • 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. 
  • 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- 
  • 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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House

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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