Tuesday, the Alabama League of Municipalities presented their 2019 legislative agenda to the state press corps in Montgomery.
Ken Smith has been the Executive Director of the League of Municipalities since 2006.
Smith said that the League has been in existence for 84 years and that they look forward to moving forward with all stake holders to pass their legislative priorities in the upcoming legislative session.
Greg Cochran is the chief lobbyist for the League.
Cochran said that they have also had a good working relationship with legislators; but in recent years “We have seen this dynamic shift in the legislature,” We have had to become more reactionary. In the last few years we have seen more of a change to preempt a city.
“We work hand in hand with the big five,” Cochran said. “There are unique challenges for the big five that other cities don’t have.”
The big five are Birmingham, Montgomery, Huntsville, Mobile, and Tuscaloosa.
Cochran said that the first priority on their legislative agenda is passage of the motor fuel tax.
“We are in agreement on the plan,” Cochran said. We met endless hours with the governor’s office and the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT). “We have come into agreement.” The plan will be a 12 cent a gallon increase in gasoline and diesel fuel taxes. Eight cents will go to the state. Three cents will go to the counties and one cent for the municipalities.
Cochran said that that is necessary to get us back to where we need to be to remain competitive with neighboring states.
Cochran said that there are a number of projects that are needed, “None more important than the Mobile port so that we can continue to import raw materials to our manufacturers” and so they can export their goods.
Cochran said that ALDOT and the Governor will have a grant program awarded by ALDOT.
Cochran said that online sales tax collections are another item on the League’s agenda.
The legislature passed a sales tax on out of state online retailers of eight percent. They tweaked it last year to include online malls, third party retailers like Amazon, Wal-Mart.com, and E-bay.
“Wal-mart.com’s sales were up 43 percent last year,” Cochran said. That went into effect in January. It replaces what our cities are losing in the brick and mortar sales. That is 8 percent now; but the average sales tax in the state is 9.5 percent, we want that raised to 9.5 percent so the competitive advantage that the online sales have will be eliminated.
People are suing the employees of cities, Cochran said. “Employee liability is very important to our cities. We want to make sure that our employees have coverage.”
Unfunded mandates by the legislature is another issue, Cochran said. There is a bill to provide firefighters with cancer coverage. “They originally wanted to put it under workers comp that would potentially bankrupt our cities. We are looking at alternatives. Such as picking up their deductibles and copays.”
“Preemption is another issue that we are looking at,” Cochran said. AT&T, Verizon, and the cell companies are looking at putting up more cell towers. Instead of negotiating with municipalities they want to negotiate one deal with the state. We are opposing that bill.
New state Senator Chris Elliott has a bill that would end police and planning jurisdictions, Cochran said. We feel that is a bad bill. If you look at how cities grow the only way to prepare for new homes coming it to the city is to have jurisdictional authority with police and planning. We want to continue to have that authority.
Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange said that online sales taxes have been coming in for a couple of years now on a voluntary basis. $12 million came in to the state in December. We anticipate on that bringing in $30 million headed to 120 million. The brick and mortar are suffering. Requiring online retailers to pay sales taxes keeps the local retailer in business.
Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller said that, “Those local businesses are the people that support the Opelika band, cheerleaders. and those sorts of things. We are not going to see that from Amazon. We are all concerned about those local small businesses.”
Guntersville Mayor Leigh Dollar said, “It is imperatives that we do everything possible to make sure that they stay in business.
Cochran said, “Sales tax and business licenses drive the economy of our cities. We want to make sure that our local businesses have an opportunity to thrive.”
Dollar said that small business is even more important for the small cities, because the big box stores don’t come here.
Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks said, “38.7 percent of our business is sales tax and business licenses.”
“Some of the issues that affect the big cities are different,” Strange said. “At the end of the day we want to be representatives of the league. The port of Mobile is so vital to all of us, particularly with Hyundai being here.”
Strange said that he gets phone calls every day about accidents on I-65 or I-85; but, “Those are state highways they are not Montgomery highways; so we work collaboratively with the state and the county.”
“We are pleased to stand with the governor,” Strange said on the fuel tax increase. “This is a user fee.”
Ken Smith is the Executive Director of the League of Municipalities.
“It takes a collaborative effort,” Smith said. We come together to learn from each other and we appreciate what all of our members do. They do this out of love for their communities.
The Alabama Political Reporter asked: The opponents of the gas tax point out that according to the U.S. Census from 2010 to 2017 the population of Alabama only increased by only 90,000 people. Florida and Georgia have a lot of growth we really don’t so why are we sinking all of this money into road work for growth, when we have no growth?
Strange replied, “How do yi think you get to Florida? You go through Alabama. It is a user fee. You talk to a farmer who is trying to get products to market.
“75 percent of all the miles driven in Montgomery County are in the city,” Strange said. “55 percent of all the road miles driven statewide are in the cities. That is why we say we ought to get 50 percent (of the road tax money).
“We are not going to get the growth unless we address the infrastructure,” Mayor Dollar said. “We have to invest back into our state.”
“How many years ago should we have addressed the interchange in Birmingham,” Strang said. How many years ago should we have addressed I-65.
“We as a state have to tell our story,” Dollar said. “I have had visitors from out of state and they act so surprised that this is Alabama. Yes, we have running water. Yes, we have paved streets. We have internet.
Smith said a lot of this is about cars getting more fuel efficient so that there is less and less revenue coming in in fuel taxes.
“I don’t want my car out of align every time I run on Alabama roads either,” Dollar said.
Fuller said, “The total tax burden we have has go to be 50th in total per capital burden. None of us like taxes I wish we could have gotten it done on our good looks and charm; but it takes money. Most of the folks in Alabama live in cities.”
Cochran said the last time we have addressed the fuel taxes was 1992. We have not addressed this in two generations.
APR asked: What would happen to the cities and towns if the state banned sales taxes on food.
“It would be devastating to cities and schools,” Dollar said. Though it would depend on how the bill written; but without the revenue from sales taxes on foods we would have to cut services and have layoffs.
APR asked: A lot of people get all of their meats and some get whole meals delivered by one of these meal plans do they pay any sales taxes?
“We are starting to with the 8 percent,” Strange said.
The 2019 legislative session begins in March.
Alabama lawmaker pre-files legislation to allow removal of Confederate monuments
If passed, the measure would permit counties and cities to relocate historic monuments currently located on public property.
Alabama State Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, introduced legislation this week in advance of the 2021 legislative session that, if passed, would permit counties and cities to relocate historic monuments currently located on public property. Givan’s bill, HB8, would also provide for the relocation of historic memorials to sites appropriate for public display.
“Across the state of Alabama, citizens are calling for the removal of prominently placed statues and monuments that are insensitive or offensive to the communities that surround them,” Givan said. “City and county governments must be able to address the demands of their citizens. This legislation provides a tool for local governments to safely remove these artifacts so that they can be moved to a site more appropriate for preserving or displaying the historical monument.”
Removing the monuments and historical markers is currently illegal under Alabama’s Memorial Preservation Act, which the state Legislature passed in 2017. Givan has been an outspoken opponent of that Republican-sponsored legislation. In 2018, Givan introduced a measure to repeal the bill that barred the removal of monuments.
“I believe HB8 can achieve bipartisan support,” Givan said. “My bill seeks to balance the wishes of the people. It respects the will of communities that want the monuments removed. It also respects those who wish to preserve history. With this legislation, Confederate monuments could be relocated to a public site, like Confederate Memorial Park, whose purpose and mission is to interpret and tell these stories. When the Legislature convenes, I hope to have the support of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.”
If enacted, HB8 would permit county and municipal governments to remove memorial monuments, including permanent statues, portraits and markers, located on public property in their jurisdictions. It would require a transfer of ownership of the removed monuments to the Alabama Department of Archives and History or the Alabama Historical Commission. Finally, the bill would instruct Archives and History or the Historical Commission to maintain and display monuments removed by local authorities in a location accessible for public display.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps track of Confederate monuments and memorials across the country, released an update to its Whose Heritage report, which tracks symbols of the Confederacy on public land across the United States. They report at least 30 Confederate symbols have been removed or relocated since George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020.
These include 24 monuments removed, 5 monuments relocated and the Mississippi state flag replaced. Since the Charleston church shooting in 2015, 115 total symbols have been removed from public spaces. These include 87 monuments that have been removed or relocated from public spaces. At least 78 monuments were removed and nine were relocated.
SPLC says there are still nearly 1,800 Confederate symbols on public land, and 739 of those symbols are monuments. The SPLC has prepared an “action guide” to help community activists target Confederate historical markers and memorials for removal.
President Donald Trump has denounced what he calls “cancel culture” that seeks to remove historical monuments and statutes.
“There is a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for, struggled, they bled to secure,” Trump said. “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.”
Marsh’s budget hearing compared to revenge porn
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, has scheduled a general fund budget hearing for early July — purportedly to prepare for the 2021 Legislative Session that begins in February.
But that is not the real reason for the budget hearing, according to Senate insiders who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid provoking Marsh. The actual purpose of public hearings, according to multiple sources, is to try to find a way to embarrass Gov. Kay Ivey.
In a press release from his office, Marsh says the budget meetings will focus on funding prison reform and rural broadband.
However, an agenda circulated for a July 9 budget committee meeting obtained by APR makes no mention of broadband and focuses entirely on the Ivey administration’s spending.
In the press release, Marsh said that the budget hearing is needed to address “a potential $2 billion-dollar prison reform proposal.”
But according to the Governor’s Office and published reports about Ivey’s prison reform plan, there is no mention of a $2 billion proposal as Marsh claims.
He also states that the other reason for the hearings is to address “a stunning lack of rural broadband investment.” However, broadband is not an item on the agenda.
Marsh’s enmity toward Ivey was on full display in the days after the governor revealed his “Wish list” in May, to spend federal relief money on a variety of projects only vaguely related to the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to those who regularly interact with the Senate, he is still angry that Ivey exposed his plan to appropriate nearly $1.9 billion in federal relief money to finance pet projects, which included spending $200 million on a new State House.
The money the state received under the CARES Act was to be allocated to shore up business, citizens’ interests and institutions ravage by the shutdown due to the spread of COVID-19.
First, Marsh denied the existence of a “wish list,” then he said Ivey asked for it, and finally, he took ownership of the list and said he thought $200 million for a new State House is a “good idea.”
For weeks after the debacle, Marsh aided by some Senate Republicans tried to spin what happened without success.
Marsh had also wanted to use $800 million in CARES Act funds to build out rural broadband and had reportedly hoped to use the budget meeting to push his broadband plan forward.
Ivey blocked his plan to use CARES Act funds for pork projects and convinced the Legislature to reject Marsh’s preferred budget in favor of Ivey’s executive amendment.
“First Ivey made him look greedy and foolish and then she turned most of the Legislature against him,” said one of APR‘s sources.
Recently, Ivey was once again a step ahead of Marsh when just days after he announced his July budget hearings to consider broadband expansion, Ivey released her plan to spend $300 million on rural broadband, stealing his thunder.
According to APR‘s Senate sources, Ivey’s latest move was another blow to Marsh’s ego.
“Del, [Marsh] has power, but he’s never had to deal with a governor who knows how to counter him,” said another Senate insider.
Another regular observer of Marsh said, his latest move to hold budget hearings is akin to “revenge porn.”
“She dumped him, and now he wants to get even, sounds a lot like revenge porn to me,” the source said.
At the July hearing, Ivey Administration officials will be questioned on CARES Act spending, budgets for the department of corrections and pardons and parole.
Finance Director, Kelly Butler, will testify to what CARES funds have been spent and what remains.
ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn will be queried on several issues, including hiring, overtime pay, prison construction, and Holman prison’s status and personnel.
Pardons and Paroles Commissioner, Charles Graddick, will face the committee to discuss personnel costs, equipment purchases with an “emphasis upon computers, software, vehicles, office furniture and other substantial expenditures,” according to the document.
Lastly, the committee will question Personnel Department Director, Jackie Graham, to give an account for DOC and ABP&P personnel growth plans.
While it is wholly within the Legislature’s purview to approve and exercise oversight of government spending, this is not what the budget hearings are about according to APR’s sources.
According to several Senate insiders and others with knowledge of Marsh’s thinking, this is a move to paint Ivey’s administration as “out of control on spending.”
“This is a trap Marsh hopes to use for PR, but what if there’s nothing to see, how does he spin it,” asked an individual with close ties to the administration. “She’s kicked his tail before; she’ll likely do it again,” the source said.
Senate pro tem requests general fund committee begin hearings in July
Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, R-Anniston, announced today that he has asked Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee Chairman Greg Albritton, R-Range, to begin holding General Fund Committee meetings in preparation for the next session.
In an effort to be better prepared because of uncertainty in state revenue as a result of COVID-19 pandemic Senator Albritton has agreed with Senator Marsh and has invited Legislative Services, the Department of Finance, Pardons and Paroles, Corrections and the Personnel Department to provide updates to the committee.
“Typically, we begin this process closer to sessions however because of uncertainty about state income and possibility of special sessions, we felt like it was important to get started much earlier than usual in this process,” Senator Albritton said. “The Legislature has done an excellent job managing our budgets over the past few years. So much so that Alabama was able to weather the storm of the COVID-19 shutdown this year with little impact to our vital state services. We understand that we will not have final revenue projections until after July 15th, but we must continue to do our due diligence and ensure that we use taxpayer money sensibly.”
“We want to make sure that all public money is being used wisely, now and in the future,” Senator Marsh said. “We have many pressing issues facing the state such as a potential $2 billion-dollar prison reform proposal and a stunning lack of rural broadband investment which need to be addressed whenever the Legislature is back in session and it is our duty to make sure we are prepared and kept up to speed on these matters. Furthermore, the taxpayers deserve a clear and transparent view of how their money is being used.”
The hearings are scheduled to begin July 9 in the Alabama State House.
Part-time employee in lieutenant governor’s office tests positive for COVID-19
A part-time employee in Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth’s office, who the office said works only a handful of hours each week, tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday, according to a press statement.
The employee, whose work area is separated from the rest of the staff, last worked in the office on the morning of Thursday, June 18.
All members of the office staff have been tested or are in the process of being tested for COVID-19 in response, and, thus far, no additional positive results have been reported.
In addition, the State House suite has been thoroughly cleaned and will remain closed until all employees’ test results have been returned.
Employees are working remotely from home, and phones are being answered in order to continue providing services to the citizens who need them.