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Gov. Kay Ivey calls special session on gas tax

Chip Brownlee

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Gov. Kay Ivey delivers the 2019 state of the state address before a joint session of the Alabama Legislature in the Old House Chambers of the Alabama State Capitol on March 5, 2019. (Chip Brownlee/APR)

Gov. Kay Ivey has called a special session intended to force lawmakers to focus on her proposed gas tax hike. Her decision comes after she said she would do so “if necessary” during her second State of the State address just an hour earlier on Tuesday.

The governor’s call during the beginning of the regular legislative session is just another hint at how seriously she is taking her promises to raise the motor fuels tax this year to fund infrastructure investment.

“It’s time to make our crumbling infrastructure a problem of the past,” Ivey said Tuesday night. “As governor, I say enough is enough.”

In a somewhat quietly dramatic sequence of events, the Senate and House Tuesday night voted to adjourn the regular session until March 19 just minutes after Ivey’s address, opening up the opportunity for Ivey to issue a proclamation declaring a special session.

Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, then said the proclamation would be coming “any minute.”

Then it did — right after 8 p.m.

Such a move forces the Legislature to focus on infrastructure — mainly the gas tax. Alabama’s constitution allows the governor to list purposes in their call for a special session, and anything outside of those listed issues is unlikely to be addressed by lawmakers.

“Due to the dire need to act now, I am [calling] the Alabama Legislature into a special session, focused solely on passing this critical infrastructure legislation,” Ivey said in a statement. “Beginning tomorrow, as we enter this special session, we must shift our focus and tackle this issue together! It’s time to make our crumbling infrastructure system a problem of the past.”

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Ivey’s special session will be focused on a motor fuels tax increase, legislation about a Joint Transportation Committee to provide for effective legislative oversight of ALDOT’s use of the gas tax revenue and legislation that would give the Alabama Highway Finance Corporation authority to borrow money and issue bonds for the purpose of improving the Alabama State Docks and the Mobile Bay ship channel.

The money for the Port of Mobile has been in quiet discussion for months, if not years. It’s seen as a bargaining chip in the game of trying to get the gas tax through.

Anything not in the call requires a two-thirds vote of each house to be enacted, a hoop that lawmakers are unlikely to try to jump through during the special session.

The Senate adjourned to give two weeks for a special session within the regular session. The regular session will resume on March 19. Depending on how fast the chambers move on the bill, there could be votes on the gas tax by Friday if lawmakers choose to come back Friday.

The governor always delivers her State of the State address at the beginning of each year’s legislative session. The 2019 regular session began Tuesday morning. Republican leadership in both chambers have said they hoped to have Ivey’s bill — a broad effort to increase revenues for infrastructure investment — on the floor for a vote by Thursday.

Even in the now-called special session, the bill would still need to go through the typical three-day process before it could be voted on, but the special session also disposes of some procedural loopholes.

One is the budget isolation resolutions, essentially a preliminary vote on a bill. Because Alabama’s constitution requires the Legislature to pass balanced budgets, lawmakers have to vote on a resolution that essentially acknowledges they haven’t gotten to that yet.

To pass legislation before budgets are submitted to the governor, a chamber must first approve a Budget Isolation Resolution — or BIR — by a three-fifths vote of the quorum.

The BIRs can sometimes be a snag for the majority party early on. In a special session, no BIR is required.

Ivey’s proposal would raise the motor fuels tax by 10 cents over the next three years.

Ivey’s infrastructure bill would raise gas tax by 10 cents, place fees on electric and hybrid vehicles

Dubbed the Rebuild Alabama Act, is being carried in the Alabama House of Representatives by Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, and in the Senate by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, Prattville.

Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, are strongly supportive of the measure.

Given the unified stance of the GOP leadership, it’s likely the bill will move swiftly through the legislative process regardless of whether or not Ivey calls a special session.

 

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Governor

State leaders briefed on efforts to combat coronavirus

Brandon Moseley and Nicole Jones

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State leaders held a conference call Monday led by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on the coronavirus that is sweeping the state of Alabama and state efforts to fight the spread of the deadly virus.

State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said that he appreciated Governor Ivey’s statewide shelter in place order that was issued through April 30 on Friday.

Harris said that the state is using Google tracking of cell phones to measure how closely the people of Alabama follow their orders to stay in their houses, except for necessary travel to buy groceries, prescriptions, and other essentials.

Harris said that approximately 1,900 Alabamians had been diagnosed with COVID-19. 250 of them have been hospitalized. 125 of those are in intensive care. There have been 44 deaths reported and the Alabama Department of Public Health was in the process of confirming that COVID-19 was the cause of death.

Harris said that almost half of the Alabama dead are under the age 65. They typically with heart disease or diabetes. Half of Alabama’s deaths are African Americans. Harris attributed this to the high prevalence of heart disease and diabetes among Alabama’s Black community.

Of the infection cases, 270 are health care workers. Harris expressed concern about the ramifications of the loss of health care workers from the front lines. Harris expected that the state will see peak hospitalizations around April 16 to17.

Harris said that the state has ordered more ventilators. He expects an order of refurbished models as early as Tuesday and has signed purchase agreements for additional ventilators. Harris said that in case of a surge the Mobile Civic Center and Sheraton Hotel and the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center will be used as alternative treatment sites. The state has completed an assessment of using Huntsville’s civic center over the weekend. The state is still working on staffing and equipment plans need for the alternative care sites. The Governor’s office is reaching out to retired health care workers for filling those staffing needs.

Harris said that the Blackbelt and Wiregrass areas now have COVID-19 testing sites. 66 of Alabama’s 67 counties have confirmed cases of COVID-19.

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall (R) said that it is a Class C Misdemeanor for those who do not abide by the recent Public Health orders. Marshall said that he has had lots of request for copies of the order. They are also frequently asking questions about the parameters for the order.

Marshall said that price-gouging is illegal and that his office is working directly with the acquisition team to acquire health resources we need . His office has issued guidance for municipalities. The AG’s office has five teams with specific categories to answer questions for consistent, accurate responses.

Marshall said that there is no definition of “quarantine” in Alabama code law and requested that the legislature address this in the law.

Senate President Pro Tem. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said that there is a concern that we could run out of ventilators in Lee County. Marsh asked if we have some transferred to that area from areas that are not seeing the surge.

The ADPH responded that we are moving from area-to-area. The ventilators are physically owned by the individual hospitals. The ADPH receives reports of what hospitals are needing ventilators. When ADPH gets a request, the ADPH goes to the hospital that owns and reaches out to see if a transfer is possible. The Community colleges have ventilators and have donated to Lee County. As demand spreads over the state, the concern is that those not being used will be used; hence the reason why ADPH is working to acquire MORE ventilators rather than move around.

State Senator Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, expressed his concern that when the spike hits many rural areas have no hospitals, no ICUs, no respiratory therapists, etc.

ADPH said that their plan for rural areas is that the Governor’s office has activated the Medical Planning Unit of the Alabama National Guard to work on transportation options to move patients to areas where care can be provided.

Singleton suggested that the state try and work with local cable companies to see if they will offer free WiFi during the crisis.

Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, asked: When the surge occurs, are those plans already in place, or are they being implemented at this point?

The ADPH response was that it was a combination. The Department has been working for years with hospitals to increase capability in emergency situations and have completed exercises within the past year. The Department is also developing plans for initial capacity. The plan includes: the conversion of hotels, civic centers, etc. ADPH is working with the Army Corps of Engineers and Alabama National Guard to develop alternative facilities. These are expected to open within the next two to three weeks. They are still working with Corps for staffing and equipment plans.

McCutcheon asked if there is a good cooperative spirit around the state between ADPH and hospitals regarding logistics, personnel, etc.?

ADPH answered Yes, there is an ADPH staff member working with each hospital. The Governor’s volunteer services division is working to recruit back retired medical personnel and unemployed medical professionals. They opened a portal on Friday afternoon. Almost 250 have signed up to assist.

McCutcheon asked: with the nursing homes is ADPH anticipating more problems within the nursing home community?

ADPH answer: No. ADPH providing PPE to nursing homes and educating personnel on infection control measures.

Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed (R-Jasper) asked: we have heard a lot of information at the national level about different levels of testing, antibody amounts, immunity, etc. – Where does the ADPH see the testing ideas moving forward? What are the next steps for other types of testing?

The ADPH answer: focused on diagnostic testing so we get a picture of what the disease is doing. Some of the blood testing involving antibodies will be more beneficial later as we look at results. Diagnostic testing is essential at this time so we can look at and control the spread of the disease. ADPH is looking at every FDA-approved testing option across the state.

House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels (D-Huntsville) asked: Are we contacting some of the closed hospitals about possible sites?

The ADPH responded that the factors they are looking at includes the hospital density relate to the population, current outbreaks (hotspots). They have looked at recently-closed hospitals and whether or not the effort is as effective as a larger-capacity alternative facility. The ADPH is looking at all options; but staffing is a concern. We cannot depend on sister states because this is a national and international crisis.

Rep. Daniels suggested looking at nursing students and medical students for help, especially those who are graduation soon and suggested looking at universities for alternative sites.

Harris said that PPE has to be reserved for the health care industry because they have the most contact with COVID-19. The Department is placing orders in to get more in for other groups.

State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey said that the State Department of Education is working with a skeleton crew due to COVID-19 concerns.

Mackey said that Birmingham City and Jefferson County schools have begun closing down their community feeding sites. The lack of staff is the biggest reason for closing. There are not enough folks to carry out the meal service plans. Other superintendents have expressed similar situations. They are looking at private vendors stepping in. Birmingham was feeding 4,000 students per week out of 26,000 students. The students are being fed one last time today and will receive multiple meals to take home for the week. When folks are not available to do the work, school systems cannot get the food out. Suppliers also cannot get food to the schools because of COVID-19-related logistics issues.

Mackey said that he has encouraged vendors to provide pre-packaged meals, which are acceptable under USDA guidelines; however, they are not available with many current vendors. Some sites are giving out 21 meals a week for students to use for the entire week. The U.S. Dept. of Education will give Alabama an opportunity for a waiver for a carry-over for federal money – they do not want federal money returned… in a predicament with excess of money that is supposed to be sent to Washington; however, feds the do not want it back and are working on the waiver. Nonprofits are also assisting to pay for meals, but that money can only go so far

Mackey said that they are having issues with hackers “zoom bombing” the E-learning. This is a security threat for educational systems. The schools have issued remote WiFi to high-poverty areas.

Mackey said that they are issuing teacher certifications for students at college level graduating this spring and/or summer waiving the requirement of student teaching experience. Will issue a certificate, along with waiver a to postpone deadlines to pass any required standardized tests for a year. Teachers who are due for recertifications will not lose their certifications during this time for failure to complete continuing education requirements. Due to fears of COVID-19, some school systems do not have enough folks willing to come to work.

House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, asked: In rural areas, teachers have to pick up supplemental materials for students. Are amendments possible post- Friday’s Public Health Order?

Dr. Mackey response said that the State Dept. of Education received requests to amend their plan. Can they mail them? Yes – it is expensive but necessary in some cases. Other areas are rotating in shifts so only a few folks are coming to pick up at a time. Some systems have drive-through service where parents can pick up materials through car line window.

Dr. Don Williamson with the Alabama Hospital Association said that efforts to prohibit elective surgeries have opened up capacities 52 percent of hospital beds are available for use as of today; 800 ventilators are available as of today; and 35 percent of ICU beds are available as of today. There are plans for alternative sites in Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile, Huntsville, Auburn, and Tuscaloosa. Williamson expressed interest in Anniston, Dothan, and the Quad-cities. The challenges are acquisition of personal protection equipment (PPE).

Dr. Brandon Farmer with the Alabama Nursing Home Association said that there are 231 skilled nursing facilities in the state. As of this morning, 31 facilities, 13-15 percent have a COVID-19 exposure, which can be characterized as an employee and/or residents that have tested positive. They are testing everyone who has come in contact with a resident or employee that has tested positive .

Farmer said that the nursing homes are immediately isolating infected residents and if needed are transferring those patients to the appropriate hospitals to receive acute care. The patients are transferred back into the building when hospital deems it acceptable. The nursing homes have created COVID-19 only wings and/or buildings in hotspots. The nursing home owners are collaborating with hospital systems to design this to help ease the capacity and surge that hotspot hospitals anticipate. The nursing homes are looking at converting former assisted living facilities into COVID-19 buildings.

Farmer said that there is still a significant shortage in PPE / if needed to isolate with clean PPE, we are looking at $120 per patient per day, which is above what is normally in place. When a caregiver tests positive, the caregiver is immediately quarantined, along with people who were around the caregiver. To incentivize staff to work with COVID-19 patients, the nursing homes have been giving $2-$5 per hour raises.

Farmer said that they are working to see that federal matching appropriation are disseminated quickly. The CARES ACT has earmarked funds for COVID-19 combatants. The nursing homes are working to get it.

Governor Ivey said that the sister of Representative Dexter Grimsley (D-Abbeville) passed away over the weekend from COVID-19.

Ivey said that her controversial decision to issue a stay at home order for the state made on Friday afternoon was not taken lightly.

“Stay at home, wash your hands and do not touch your face when you have to go out,” Ivey stated.

“The next few weeks are going to be the worst for Alabamians- hence the reason why the Governor’s office took a more drastic step on Friday,” Ivey said. “Do not look for loopholes within the law – COVID-19 is a crisis.”

Ivey said that she is aware that industry is impacted, but folks may not be alive to work if folks do not stay at home.

Ivey said that a new website, All Together Alabama, will be launched this week for constituents to receive accurate information related to COVID-19.

On Tuesday, the Governor plans to hold a Ribbons of Hope press conference with ministers, the medical community, and first responders at 9:00 a.m. The Governor is asking citizens to tie ribbon around trees, mailboxes, etc. as a symbol of prayers and hope for the healthcare workers and first responders.

Economic developer Dr. Nicole Jones said, “Governor Ivey, the Alabama Department of Public Health, and leaders throughout our state are working around the clock to assess all possible remedies for the COVID-19 crisis. It is critically important for all Alabamians obey the most recent Public Health Order to slow the spread. Stay at home if at all possible. If you must leave, wash your hands, wear a mask, wear gloves, and do not touch your face.”

“The State of Alabama has taken proactive measures to ensure residents have access to assistance and information,” Dr. Jones said. “On Monday afternoon, the Office of the Governor launched the “All Together Alabama” website (www.ALtogetheralabama.org) for Alabamians who need help or who want to help.”

 

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House

Alabama Legislature plans to return to work briefly March 31

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Senate is planning to get to only a few big, constitutionally mandated items before calling an end to the year’s legislative session amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but whether they’ll get those tasks accomplished remains to be seen. 

Senate leadership is advising lawmakers who fall into “at-risk” categories because of their age or pre-existing medical conditions to not attend the Senate’s meeting when it resumes.

Among the items legislators tentatively plan to tackle before gaveling the session closed sometime in the future are the passage of the Education Trust Fund budget and the General Fund budget, which is the Legislature’s only constitutionally mandated duty.

And “other bills deemed necessary.” 

The state Senate’s Plan of Action, obtained by APR Friday, states that the Senate will meet at 2 p.m. on March 31 for its 14th legislative day. 

“The intent for this legislative day is to advance only essential attendance items and then to adjourn to a date certain for the 15th Legislative Day. April 28 has been discussed with the House,” the plan reads. 

The State Senate’s plan: 

“As leaders, it is imperative that we demonstrate that the business of this state carries on in an orderly and systematic fashion while adhering to the recommendations of our public health officials.

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The Alabama Senate will meet on Tuesday, March 31 at 2:00 pm at the Statehouse in the Senate Chamber as scheduled. This will be the 14th Legislative Day.

The intent for this legislative day is to advance only essential attendance items and then to adjourn to a date certain for the 15th Legislative Day. April 28 has been discussed with the House.

Below is a draft agenda for Tuesday, March 31.

  • Gavel In
  • Pledge and Prayer
  • Roll Call
  • Excuse all Senators
  • Points of Personal Privilege
  • President Pro Tem Marsh
  • Majority Leader Reed
  • Minority Leader Singleton
  • Adjourn to date certain for 15th Legislative Day.

“It is highly recommended that any Senator that falls into any of the at-risk categories stay away from the March 31 Legislative Day,” the plan advises. “However, each Senator’s personal wish will be accommodated.”

Any Senator or staff member that is ill, has been ill, or has been in the same room of anyone that has had any symptom of illness in the 72 hours preceding the March 31 Legislative Day must stay away from the March 31 Legislative Day, according to the Senate’s leadership.

A disinfecting station will be provided under the canopy of the second-floor rear entrance for each senator to disinfect hands and cell phones as they enter the State House and as they leave the Statehouse.

“We must ensure that we practice all Health Department recommendations while at the Statehouse,” the plan reads.

Social distancing will be accomplished by having senators report to their offices by 1:45 p.m. They will then walk into the chamber as the roll is called and then go back to their offices.

“As much separation as possible is required therefore greetings must be verbal only from a distance of 6 feet or greater,” the plan reads.

The remainder of the session will be held possibly Tuesday, April 28 through Monday, May 18.

This timeframe includes three weeks of the session plus the last day of May 18.

A specific plan for meeting more days than normal will be developed and provided prior to the next legislative meeting date.

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House

$200,000 in campaign finance penalties deposited into State General Fund

Staff

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Act 2015-495, which went into effect beginning with the 2018 Election Cycle, allows the Secretary of State’s Office to issue penalties to Political Action Committees (PACs) and Principal Campaign Committees (PCCs) that fail to timely file campaign finance reports.

As of today, the Office of the Secretary of State has collected $202,504.20 which has been deposited into the State General Fund to benefit the people of Alabama.

Conversations with the Senate and House General Fund Chairmen are currently underway to determine the best way to allocate these resources to counties.

Anyone who receives a campaign finance penalty is able to appeal their penalty to the Alabama Ethics Commission who has the authority to overturn a penalty.

“When I campaigned for this office in 2014, I made a promise to the people of Alabama that I would work to see that it is easy to vote and hard to cheat in this state. Since then, we have worked to make the electoral process more fair and transparent through requiring the honest reporting of all PACs and PCCs,” stated Secretary of State John H. Merrill.

Anyone who suspects an individual may be in violation of the Alabama Election Fairness Project is encouraged to report suspicious activity to StopVoterFraudNow.com.

 

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Economy

Daniels: We have to get help to those who need it most

Josh Moon

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There is not enough help coming fast enough to the people struggling the most. 

That was the message from Alabama House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, who was asked on the “Alabama Politics This Week” podcast about the efforts of Alabama’s state government to address the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“If you’ve never been poor, you don’t fully comprehend how things like this affect the poor and the unique problems the poor people face,” Daniels said. “I commend Gov. (Kay) Ivey and her staff for working to try and address this crisis the best they can, but I just think there’s a lack of understanding among all of us in some cases of how people need help.” 

To address those issues, at least in part, Daniels is writing a series of letters to different entities, including Ivey, to explain how they can best help the state’s most vulnerable. 

Daniels plans to ask the Alabama Supreme Court to order lower courts to halt foreclosure proceedings and evictions for those affected by coronavirus job losses and illnesses. He also will ask Ivey to intervene with banks on behalf of customers who are falling hopelessly behind on mortgage, car loans and other installment loans. And he will seek additional assistance from the state for borrowers with overwhelming student loan debt. 

“I want people to understand that I’m not criticizing what’s being done or trying to take control, I just hear from these folks on a daily basis and believe there are some better ways to help people,” Daniels said. “President Trump has addressed student loan debt by knocking the interest of those loans, but what does that really do for a person who just lost a job? Or someone who’s had hours and pay cut? We need to pause those payments and give people substantial forgiveness. 

“Otherwise, it’s going to be ugly.”

Democrats in the House also have been putting together potential legislation that could be passed to help the state’s poorest citizens and those who have been laid off from jobs. The specifics of those pieces of legislation weren’t available, but Daniels said they would have the same focus — providing real help for those who need it most. 

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If those bills are anything like the measures taken during the last economic downturn, you can expect a relaxing of rules on social programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and unemployment assistance programs. 

One of the first moves could be overturning a measure passed during the last legislative session that cut the number of weeks of unemployment pay in the state from 26 to 14. State Sen. Arthur Orr sponsored that legislation, and critics argued at the time that a downturn, such as the one that occurred in 2008, could suddenly leave thousands in the state without jobs and job prospects. It passed anyway.

 

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