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Governor

Public hearing expected on gas tax increase for infrastructure today

Brandon Moseley

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According to State Auditor Jim Zeigler, the Alabama Senate Transportation and Energy Committee will hold a public hearing and vote on Gov. Kay Ivey’s infrastructure plan today at 1 p.m. The Committee will consider Ivey’s infrastructure plan: HB2 – the Rebuild Alabama Act.

The meeting will be in room 825 of the Alabama Statehouse. There is a special elevator to get from the seventh floor to the eighth floor.

The House passed Ivey’s plan Friday to raise fuel taxes 10 cents a gallon over the next three years to fund road and bridge repairs as well as improvements for the Port of Mobile. HB2 also imposes a $100 per year fee on the owner of hybrid vehicles.

All electric vehicles are charged a $200 fee, though some of those funds will be used to create a grant program to set up charging stations for the plug-in cars. The legislation includes a provision where the tax will go up or down by a penny per gallon every two years based on the National Highway Construction and Cost Index.

State Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, is the sponsor of the legislation. It is being carried in the Senate by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville.

“I support this effort to invest in our future, but I also want to make sure that we put effective accountability measures in place,” Chambliss said.

Ivey said in her state of the state speech: “Each year in Alabama, 69 billion miles are driven on our roadways. We have urban roads in poor condition. Our drivers are experiencing major congestion on our freeways. County governments currently operate on a 56-year resurfacing schedule; when, in fact, we should be operating on a 15-year rate. In Alabama, half of our more than 16,000 bridges are older than their 50-year life span. Bridges should be replaced every 50 years. Yet, county governments are on schedule to replace their bridges every 186 years! Folks, that’s almost as long as Alabama has been a state. From 2015 to 2017, Alabama saw nearly 3,000 traffic fatalities. One-third of those were due to deficiencies in our roadways. Each year, $436 billion dollars in goods are shipped to and from businesses using our state’s roadways. The Port of Mobile, Alabama’s only deep-water port, moves approximately 64 million tons of cargo each year. Deepening and widening the Port will increase Alabama’s economic capability. This will enhance our status as a primary industrial and agricultural hub in the Southeast. Driving on rough roads costs the average Alabamian $507 dollars annually in additional vehicle maintenance – a total of $2 billion dollars statewide, each year!”

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While HB2 is the heart of the infrastructure package; it also includes HB1 which increases legislative oversight over the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) and HB3 which sets up the bonding authority for the Port of Mobile project.

The Port improvements will allow the Port to handle more traffic and newer, bigger container ships. It will cost the state over $11 million a year. The federal government is paying 75 percent of the cost of the project.

The tax increase is expected to bring in an additional $310 million a year, which then can be used to draw down over a billion in federal dollars.  The state gets two thirds of the money and the rest is divided among the 67 counties and over 400 cities and towns.

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The Alabama Republican Party Executive Committee issued a resolution urging the legislature not to pass the bill raising taxes on fuel. The subject is very controversial with Republicans.

State Rep. Ginny Shaver, R-Leesburg, voted yes.

Shaver said in a statement, “After studying the bills implementing Governor a Ivey’s Rebuild Alabama plan, listening to constituents from all areas of my district, and prayerful consideration, I chose to support this legislation. It was not easy decision to make, but I do believe the millions of dollars in revenue that will now come to fix our roads and bridges will benefit everyone by making travel safer. I also believe this will be an asset to our area in terms of economic development.”

State Rep. April Weaver, R-Alabaster, voted no.

Weaver said, “It’s been quite a week. Today the House debated and voted on the Rebuild Alabama Act-the bill to raise the gas tax for infrastructure. I voted no and here’s why….while we can all agree we need to address our infrastructure, after many hours of constituent discussions, meetings, and prayers I decided based on local comments and dynamics it just wasn’t the right decision for me and the area I serve. I respect the decisions of my colleagues and know we will be able to work together on other issues moving forward as we continue to focus on making Alabama a better place.”

Saturday, state Rep. Jim Carns, R-Vestavia Hill, also voted no but urged Republican activists not to beat up on representatives who voted yes and form a “circular firing squad.”

If the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee votes to give a favorable report to the bill it could be before the full Senate as early as Tuesday.

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Governor

Speaker McCutcheon standing with governor on gaming workgroup

Bill Britt

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During her 2020 State of the State address, Gov. Kay Ivey said she would be signing an Executive Order to establish a small working group to gather all the facts on how much money the State could gain if some form of gaming expansion occurred. She also asked the Legislature to give her time for the group to come back with an answer.

Whether lawmakers would grant Ivey’s request for time has been an important question swirling around the halls of the State House.

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon answered that question on Wednesday when APR reached out to his office with a request for clarification.

APR’s email wrote, “Speaker McCutcheon recently made the statements quoted below.”

“I am not a big gambling guy; but if you are going to vote for a lottery, that’s gambling, then don’t be a hypocrite and let’s get the biggest bang for the buck,” McCutcheon said. “Let’s address a lottery, the Poarch Creek Indians, and these counties that want a one-armed gambling. Put them all in a room and hammer out a deal.”

The Speaker warned, though, that if he cannot get a grand deal between all the parties on gambling, then there likely would not be any gambling bill brought forward in 2020.

“Does he still stand by these statements?”

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The following is the response APR received from the Speaker’s office:

“Since the Speaker made the statement, the Governor will be signing an Executive Order to bring people together to evaluate the facts on how much money the State could gain if some form of gaming expansion occurred. The Speaker will be working with the Governor in her efforts.”

Ivey said once the working group had completed its task, she would “bring these facts to the 140 members of the Legislature and the people of Alabama. And we will then, once and for all, be in a position to determine whether or not this is a path we want to pursue.”

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That McCutcheon is in  alignment with the governor should signal to all interested parties that no further movement on gaming legislation will happen until the working group has completed its evaluation.

Some have been slow to hear Gov. Ivey’s entreaty.

Even after Ivey’s call for more time to gather facts, the Poarch Creek Band of Indians continues to flood television, internet and social media with a massive advertising campaign touting their billion-dollar plan in exchange for a tribal-state compact and exclusive right to Vegas-style casino gaming in the State.

PCI lobbyists, including tribal council vice-chair Robbie McGhee, are being very pro-active at the State House.

On Tuesday, Madison County Republican Rep. Rex Reynolds said, “We’re gonna move forward on a lottery. We clearly got that message during our conference meeting yesterday. I think it’s the right thing to do. The people want to vote on a lottery and I think we need to give them an opportunity to,” according to a report by WAFF.

Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, the House budget chairman, recently said that he planned to file legislation that would create an education lottery in Alabama.

Clouse’s bill would create a paper lottery with scratch-offs and PowerBall options only.

Opinion | Prepare for more gambling debates in the 2020 Legislative Session

A day after Ivey issued her State of the State request to the Legislature to stand down on gaming, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh held a meeting with representatives of the Poarch Creeks and two of the State’s dog tracks to discuss moving ahead on a proposed lottery and gaming bill.

Marsh holds meeting with gaming interests day after Ivey calls for the Legislature to stand down on gaming

These various statements and actions have added confusion as to what is happening with gaming this session.

Now that McCutcheon has made his position known, maybe it will put to rest the rumors, activities and behind-the-scenes maneuvering that go against Ivey’s wishes.

 

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Education

Business, community leaders call on lawmakers to support Gov. Ivey’s push for more Pre-K funds

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Governor Ivey’s push for a $25 million statewide expansion of Alabama’s high-quality, voluntary First Class Pre-K program was endorsed today by business and community leaders from across the state. If approved by the state Legislature, the proposed funding increase would add at least 160 new classrooms next year and help enroll at least 2,889 additional four-year-olds.

The Alabama School Readiness Alliance Pre-K Task Force included its support for Governor Ivey’s budget request in its 2020 Legislative Recommendations. The ASRA Pre-K Task Force consists of more than 60 prominent leaders from the business, education, civic, medical, legal, philanthropic, military, and child advocacy communities.

In addition to increased funding in FY2021, the Task Force’s plan proposes a series of recommendations to fully fund the state’s First Class Pre-K program by the 2022-23 school year while maintaining the program’s benchmarks for quality and accountability. The Pre-K Task Force’s Recommendations are available in their entirety at https://www.alabamaschoolreadiness.org/asra-pre-k-task-force-recommendations/.

“We are not there yet, but the state is moving in the right direction to provide high-quality, voluntary pre-k to all families that want it,” said Mike Luce and Bob Powers, business leaders and co-chairs of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance Pre-K Task Force. “The Alabama School Readiness Alliance’s Pre-K Task Force is pleased that Governor Ivey is once again prioritizing additional funds to add more pre-k classrooms across the state. We stand with Governor Ivey and encourage lawmakers to appropriate the $25 million increase outlined in her proposal.”

For 13 years in a row, the National Institute for Early Education Research has ranked Alabama’s pre-k program as the number one state-funded pre-kindergarten program in the country for quality. Research by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham has found that students who participate in a First Class Pre-K classroom – regardless of demographics, zip code or school – are more likely to be proficient in math and reading than their peers.

The Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education manages the First Class Pre-K program. It allocates funding for the First Class Pre-K program through a competitive application process. Public and private schools, child care centers, faith-based centers, Head Start programs, nonprofits, universities, and other community-based providers are all eligible to apply. Potential providers can apply for three different levels of funding: an excellence classroom (up to $50,400), tiered funding (ranges from $86,904 to $100,008), and a new classroom (up to $120,000). Applications for First Class Pre-K classroom funding are due March 13 on the Department’s website, www.children.alabama.gov.

The ASRA Pre-K Task Force first proposed expanding voluntary pre-k access to all families in 2012. Since then, state leaders have incrementally increased the level of investment in Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program from $19 million to $122.8 million. In 2012, the program enrolled just six percent of Alabama’s four-year-olds. In the 2019-20 school year, nearly 40 percent of Alabama’s four-year-olds attend First Class Pre-K.

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Governor

Marsh holds meeting with gaming interests day after Ivey calls for the Legislature to stand down on gaming

Bill Britt

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Despite Gov. Kay Ivey’s call for the Legislature to give her “time to get the facts,” on a lottery and gaming before proceeding with legislation, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh summoned representatives of the Poarch Creek Band of Indians and two of the state’s dog tracks to sit down and discuss moving ahead on a proposed lottery and gaming bill.

Ivey seizes gaming issue

A day after Ivey’s State of the State, Marsh, along with Senators Bobby Singleton and Steve Livingston, held a conference with Robbie McGhee, PCI’s Vice-chair, Lewis Benefield, who operates VictoryLand and the Birmingham Race Course, and Nat Winn from Greenetrack to try and reach an agreement among the three gaming entities.

Marsh, at the Wednesday meeting, informed those gathered that they needed to come up with a compromise on the gaming issue so that legislation could proceed with a constitutional amendment on a lottery and gaming package this session.

Participants in the closed-door meeting declined to speak with APR about the content of their discussions. However, those who have knowledge of the conversation did relay some of the details to APR.

According to those sources, the group discussed what a compromise might look like, what tax revenue the facilities would be allotted to the state and locations sought by PCI.

Reportedly, the discussions were generally cordial and productive while lawmakers were present, but that the tone changed dramatically once the lawmakers left the room.

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Two sources with an understanding of events said that McGhee turned arrogantly defiant after the legislators left, telling the track owners that PCI didn’t need to compromise because they already have the votes necessary to pass their desired legislation. Benefield, Winn nor PCI would confirm APR‘s sources’ account.

Any lottery or gaming legislation requires an amendment to the state’s 1901 Constitution, which must be approved by a vote of the people. The governor plays no direct part in legislation that involves constitutional amendments.

PCI is demanding Class III Vegas-style gaming, which would require a tribal-state compact that must be negotiated under the authority of the governor.

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There is a way to bypass Ivey, although it is fraught with complications.

If the Legislature passed a constitutional amendment that includes a comprehensive gaming solution plus an authorization for the governor to negotiate a compact with PCI, then a potential federal-state showdown could occur.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act requires that tribe request the negotiation of compacts with states in which they intend to conduct Class III gaming. “States, in turn, must negotiate with tribes in good faith to develop such a compact,” according to a report in Indian Gaming Lawyers. “If the state refuses to do so, the federal government may intervene and potentially impose a compact if all other efforts to secure a compact have failed.”

In a report titled The Tribal Trump Card, Patrick Sullivan explores several cases in which tribes have sued various states under IGRA’s good faith clause.

If the tribe has the vote to pass its legislation, that is not publicly known at this time.

Others close to the tribe say McGhee’s remarks to the track operators should be ignored as he is still smarting from the billion-dollar “Winning for Alabama” campaign that is a bust for PCI.

A recent survey conducted for Alabama Republicans found that an overwhelming majority of likely Republican primary voters disapprove of any legislation giving the Poarch Creeks a monopoly. Those numbers skyrocket in the areas where PCI casinos currently exist.

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon has stated publicly that he wants to push for a grand gaming package that puts the issue to rest once and for all and also brings in a lot of money for the state. He has indicated that anything short of a grand plan will not get a hearing.

Do the Legislature and PCI want to challenge Ivey? That’s a daunting question for anyone who has watched her operate the levers of power over the last few years.

Whether Marsh’s meeting was meant to undermine Ivey’s call for time to “get the facts,” or a last attempt at a compromise is unclear. But what is certain is Ivey’s intentions to seize gaming issues and bring a solution to the Legislature in the best interest of the state.

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Governor

Ivey seizes gaming issue

Bill Britt

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Toward the end of her 2020 State of the State address, Gov. Kay Ivey snatched the issue of a state lottery and gaming from the hands of the Legislature.

“I will be signing an Executive Order to establish a small working group of some of Alabama’s most distinguished citizens, to begin working, to gather all the facts on how much money we could really gain if some form of gaming expansion occurred,” said Ivey.

Not only did Ivey take ownership of the gaming debate, she asked the Legislature to stand down.

“My challenge to the Legislature is: give us some time to get the facts and then, together, we will give the people of Alabama the information they need to make the most informed decision possible,” said Ivey. “Once they have done so — I will bring these facts to the 140 members of the Legislature and the people of Alabama. And we will then, once and for all, be in a position to determine whether or not this is a path we want to pursue.”

Not since Gov. Don Siegelman’s failed attempt to bring a lottery to the state in 1999, has any governor dared throw weight behind a lottery bill much less try to untangle the Gordian knot that gaming has become as a result of former Gov. Bob Riley’s bingo wars.

Riley and his compatriots upended years of established law that allowed electronic bingo in Macon, Lowndes and Greene Counties, which resulted in the Poarch Band of Creek Indians gaining a virtual monopoly over gambling in the state. Despite federal rules that prohibit the tribe from operating any games that are illegal in the state, the Poarch Creeks have thrived.

Over the last several months, the Poarch Creeks have engaged in a statewide advertising campaign to promote a billion-dollar payday for the state in exchange for a state-tribal compact and a guaranteed unfettered monopoly over Vegas-style gaming.

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Ivey’s announcement has put an end to any hopes of an immediate compact or other gaming legislation for now.

Lottery legislation requires an amendment to the state’s 1901 constitution, which must be approved by a vote of the people. The governor plays no direct part in legislation that involves constitutional amendments. However, any state-tribal compact must be negotiated under the authority of the governor.

For the last several years, the Poarch Creeks have blocked all attempts to pass a lottery and have resisted calls to negotiate in good faith with owners of the state’s dog tracks.

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Even as there was hope going into the 2020 session that PCI might come to the table for a comprehensive gaming solution recently, those hopes have been waning because there doesn’t seem to be any indication the tribe is backing down from its demands for an advantage over others players in the market.

There is also apparently no leader in the House and Senate strong enough to bring all sides together in a compromise.

Ivey has shown she is powerful enough to bring disparate groups together for a common solution as she did with the 2019 gas tax.

When it comes to the issue of gaming, the Legislature will most likely follow Ivey’s lead as it would be foolish to buck a governor with her approval and influence.

It is doubtful even the Poarch Creek’s money can stop Ivey.

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