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Legislature

Municipalities lay out their legislative agenda for 2019

Brandon Moseley

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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Corruption

Former State Sen. David Burkette pleads guilty, avoids jail

Josh Moon

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Former Alabama Sen. David Burkette

Former State Sen. David Burkette will avoid jail time and be sentenced to a 30-day suspended sentence as part of a plea deal reached on Monday. 

Burkette, who pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Fair Campaign Practices Act, will also have to pay a $3,000 fine and serve 12 months of probation as part of the deal. He was sentenced in Montgomery Circuit Court on Monday after being charged two weeks ago with failing to deposit more than $3,600 in contributions into campaign accounts — a misdemeanor.

He also resigned his seat in the Alabama Senate as part of the plea deal. 

“I’m just happy to still be here,” Burkette told the court following his sentencing, according to multiple media reports. 

The former senator suffered a stroke in 2018 and has been confined to a wheelchair since. His current health status played a role in his sentence considerations. 

The charges against Burkette stem from a series of complaints filed against him with the Alabama Ethics Commission — all of them related to various issues during his time on the Montgomery City Council. The charge for which he pleaded guilty occurred in 2015.

The Ethics Commission referred numerous charges to the Alabama attorney general’s office, according to sources familiar with the investigation of Burkette, but the attorney general’s office elected to charge Burkette with only the misdemeanor as part of the deal that saw him resign. 

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“Candidates for public office at the state, county and municipal levels must comply with the State’s Fair Campaign Practices Act,” said Attorney General Steve Marshall. “Personally profiting from campaign funds erodes public confidence in the system and will not be tolerated.”

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Legislature

Former state senator arrested on charges of violating campaign finance laws

Josh Moon

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Former State Sen. David Burkette

David Burkette has been officially arrested. The former state senator from Montgomery, who resigned on Tuesday as part of a plea deal with the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, was formally charged on Thursday with a single misdemeanor count of violating the Fair Campaign Practices Act. 

According to a press release from the AG’s office, Burkette’s charge stems from him depositing campaign donations into his personal account instead of into his campaign accounts, as required by the FCPA. The alleged crimes occurred in 2015 and 2016 when Burkette was serving on the Montgomery City Council. 

The complaint alleged that, in 2015 and 2016 while running for the Montgomery City Council, Burkette intentionally failed to deposit $3,625.00 in campaign contributions into his campaign checking account, and instead, deposited or cashed those contributions into or against his personal bank account,” the AG’s release stated. 

The single misdemeanor charge is surprising given the lengthy list of allegations against Burkette submitted to the Alabama Ethics Commission. APR obtained a copy of the original report, which was submitted in October 2018. 

In addition to more than $40,000 in allegedly improperly spent council discretionary funds that were flagged by auditors for the city of Montgomery, Burkette was also accused of inappropriately donating tens of thousands more to suspect charities and two sororities, including his wife’s.

The Ethics Commission referred Burkette’s case to the AG’s Office in October 2019.

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Legislature

Pro-Growth Conference kicks off with Doug Jones, discussions on COVID impact and a living wage

Josh Moon

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Sen. Doug Jones speaks on the floor of the U.S. Senate. (VIA CSPAN)

What happens if you just give impoverished citizens $500 per month — no strings attached? Good things, it turns out. The people use that income to buy food, medicine and basic necessities for life. They take a day off work if they’re sick and actually get treatment. They quit a second, hourly-wage job that they are overqualified for and instead work towards obtaining a better, higher-paying primary job. 

These are things that the city of Stockton, California, has learned in its year-long living wage program.

The program, while limited in size — only 125 people — has proven to be a larger success than city officials had hoped, and it has opened their eyes to a new, more proactive style of governance, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs told Alabama elected officials. 

Tubbs was the featured speaker on Tuesday at the first day of the Pro-Growth Policy Conference, a three-day forum for Alabama elected leaders with guest speakers from around the country offering tips and best practices. 

The first day of the conference began with an opening talk from Sen. Doug Jones, who pressed the need for Medicaid expansion and how expansion has aided other red states. Jones also highlighted the need for broadband expansion and talked about a bill he has in the Senate that would create a broadband main office and dish out about $20 million in money for affordable access.

“Now (with COVID), we know how needed it really is,” Jones said. “We see the homework gap that we have. We know there’s a need for more telemedicine. My bill would consolidate in one office all of the monies for broadband … and provide affordable access.”

Jones said the current COVID pandemic has highlighted just how badly we need better access to broadband in Alabama, and a major area of concern right now is healthcare. 

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Highlighting that point, Brandon Garrett, the chief operating officer of the National Minority Quality Forum, and Dr. LaTasha Lee, the vice-president of social and clinical research, demonstrated the many ways in which inequality in health care and health care options is harming impoverished communities. 

A number of factors play into that inequality, but a lack of access to updated means of communication and tools is one of the biggest. 

“(Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) said that, ‘Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane because it results in physical death,’” Lee said. “That’s what we’re seeing currently with COVID-19 and sickle cell disease. These two diseases are affecting the minority community and causing death, and they make a great argument that such health care disparities really are a social justice issue.”

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Correcting such issues was one of the goals of Stockton’s living wage experiment. Now, Tubbs said, a working person can afford to stay home or get tested if they’re feeling symptomatic, whereas before that person — scared of missing a paycheck or losing the job altogether — might come to work with the virus and infect an entire workplace. 

That alone, Tubbs said, has restored dignity to a number of residents. 

“This is not easy, especially with budgets the way they are,” Tubbs said. “But I don’t know how we continue to live with the status quo as it is.

“I think part of being a leader, as we are, is having the courage to do something about what we’re seeing. We have to be able to do that.”

The Pro-Growth Policy Conference will run both Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Wednesday’s round of conferences will focus on state grants, economic development around the state and what the 2021 legislative session might look like. 

On Thursday, the event will wrap up with talks by the Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson and Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell.

 

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Elections

Russell Bedsole wins Republican runoff in HD49

Brandon Moseley

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House District 49 Republican nominee Russell Bedsole

As of press time, it appears that Russell Bedsole has won a narrow victory over Mimi Penhale in the special Republican primary runoff election in Alabama House District 49.

At press time, Bedsole had a 166-vote lead in unofficial results on the secretary of state’s website.

“We won,” Bedsole declared on social media.

Bedsole is an Alabaster city councilman and a Shelby County Sheriff’s Department captain.

“Sadly, tonight did not turn out in my favor. Despite the loss, I feel like God truly used this opportunity to help me grow in my walk with Him, and gave me the opportunity to increase my testimony,” Penhale said. “I feel so incredibly blessed by the people I have met on this campaign and the experiences I have had. I am disappointed in the outcome, but what an honor it is to have the confidence of 1,183 people across House District 49! Thank you!!”

Russell Bedsole had 1,249 votes, or 51.36 percent, to Mimi Penhale’s 1,183, or 48.64 percent, to win the House District 49 Republican primary runoff.

There were just 2,432 votes cast in the special primary runoff election. Shelby County was the decisive factor in the election. Bedsole won Shelby County with 762 votes, or 71.42 percent, to Penale’s 305 votes.

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Penhale carried Chilton and Bibb Counties, but could not overcome Bedsole’s strong performance in Shelby County.

The provisional ballots will be counted on Sept. 8, 2020, and certification of votes will occur on Sept. 16, 2020.

Bedsole will face Democratic nominee Sheryl Patton in the special general election on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020.

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The vacancy in House District 49 was created when State Rep. April Weaver announced her resignation to accept a presidential appointment as a regional director in the Department of Health and Human Services.

In a statement, the Alabama Republican Party thanked “each of the candidates that qualified for offering themselves up for service in the Alabama State House of Representatives.”

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