The Senate Transportation and Energy Committee gave a favorable recommendation Monday to a controversial plan to raise fuel taxes by ten cents per gallon to pay for road and bridge construction and for improvements to the Port of Mobile.
The legislation, HB1, is sponsored by state Representative Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa.
Senator Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, is the Chairman of the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee.
“I want to thank you for the work that you have done on this bill,” Allen told Poole. “I know that you have done many, many hours of work on this.”
This is a difficult issue,” Poole said. “This is about our present, and more important our future.”
“This is about my children and your children and all the children of the state of Alabama,” Poole said. “We have to do something as a state. It has been 27 years since Alabama has increased its motor fuels tax. In that 27 years only seven states have not increased their motor fuels taxes.”
“Alabama motor fuels taxes are dead last in the Southeast,” Poole said. “States in the Southeast and beyond realize that the federal government will not come and fix our roads and bridges.”
Poole said that in 2012 the motor fuels tax brought in $615 million. That has declined to $589 million even though there are more cars on the road as vehicles have become more fuel efficient.
“That is unsustainable,” Poole said. “We have over 16,000 bridges in Alabama; of those 7,000 are over 50 years old.”
Poole said that Alabama has the sixth highest traffic mortality rate in the country. “Our citizens are dying on our roads because of our inaction.”
Poole said that Senator Richard Shelby (R) and the Alabama delegation has created an opportunity to improve the Port of Mobile. Not only did they put the funds in place; but they carved out an exception in the law so that we only have to provide 25 percent of the cost of the project instead of 50 percent.
“That will allow us to bring more ships in and out of the Port as well as be able to handle the post-Panimax container ships.”
“There is not plan B,” Poole said. “There is no better return than investing in our infrastructure. That return on investment is monumental.”
“This is the moment, this is the opportunity,” Poole said. “This passed with 84 votes.”
“There will be no do overs,” Poole said. “I assure you that I am not doing this again.”
Poole said that the proposal has a $100 fee on hybrid vehicles and a $200 fee on plug-in electric vehicles, which “Ensures that our electric and hybrid vehicles are also contributing to maintenance of roads and bridges.”
HB2 will raise the price of fuel six cents per gallon on October 1, 2019; go up to eight cents on October 1, 2020; and to ten cents on October 1, 2021.
Poole was asked about the inflation protection in the bill.
Other states have already passed something like this Poole said. “We had the benefit to learn from those models. We needed something that was simple, clean, conservative, and reasonable. First it will look at the National Highway Construction Cost Index. Number two it can only adjust every two years, and number three it can only go up or down one penny.
Poole said that the funds have to go to separate accounts so that they can be audited every year. The state’s portions will go in to te Rebuild Alabama Fund. “We do not want these funds co-mingled with the existing Alabama Road and Bridge Fund.”
“These funds can not be used for salaries,” Poole said. They can not be used for the purchase or maintenance of any equipment, unless they are installed as part of the project. They can not be used for any buildings, unless they are installed as part of the project.
Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said, “I want to thank all of the people behind this effort. It has been well planned, very thorough, I think we have before us a very powerful piece of legislation.”
“We should be proud of what we are doing here today,” Marsh said. “It tells the rest of the country that we are serious about infrastructure.”
State Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said “I want to offer my appreciation to you Chairman Poole. Is there anything in this legislation associated with an increased fee for buying a car tag?”
Poole answered, “No, there is not.”
Poole postulated that critics are misreading a part of the bill that is a restating of an existing code section.
Sen. Marsh motioned that the bill receive a favorable report. Sen. Livingston seconded that and the committee passed the bill.
Several opponents had requested a public hearing on the bill; but that request was denied by Chairman Allen.
The Committee also gave a favorable report to HB1, which is the companion bill to the accountability bill increasing legislative oversight over road projects that passed the Senate on Friday.
Senator Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, is carrying the bill in the Senate for Rep. Poole.
“It is an honor to work alongside him,” Chambliss said of Poole.
HB3 establishes the bonding authority for the Port of Mobile project. It also received a favorable report.
Reporters asked Marsh if the special session would wrap up on Tuesday.
“I sure hope that we wrap it up Tuesday,” Marsh said. Senators are going to offer amendments; but I don’t think any of those amendments have legs.
The Alabama Political Reporter asked: You have expressed interest in running for U.S. Senate next year, do you think that your support for raising the gas tax will be used against you if you decide to run?
“I would be surprised if it weren’t; but I can’t worry about that,” Marsh answered. “This is critical for the future of the state. I am all for it.”
“We are still the lowest cumulative taxed state in the country even after this passes,” Marsh added.
Sonny Brasfield with the Alabama County Commission Association told reporters that if the plan passes there will be road work happening in all 67 counties by this time next year.
The Senate will take up the bills on Tuesday. If they pass, it will be a major win for Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) who has made improving Alabama’s infrastructure a priority.
“The Senate has to go through the process,” Poole said. “We will see how the process goes.”
Madison County mask order goes into effect Tuesday
Madison County’s health officer issued a face mask order to slow the spread of COVID-19, which goes into effect Tuesday at 5 p.m.
Madison County Health Officer Dr. Karen Landers, who also serves as the assistant state health officer, issued the order, which requires those over the age of 2 to wear masks in businesses or venues open to the public, while on public transportation, in outdoor areas open to the public where 10 or more people are gathered and where maintaining 6 feet of distance from others is not possible.
“We need to do all we can to limit the spread of COVID-19,” State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said in a statement. “Until we have a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, wearing a face covering in public is a key measure we have available to prevent transmission of the virus.”
Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle in a statement expressed support for the mask order. Madison County now joins Jefferson County, Montgomery, Mobile and Selma in requiring masks while in public.
“This is a simple math problem. Since June 16, the number of positive cases in Madison County has tripled, and the number of hospitalizations has increased 660 percent,” Battle said in the statement. “We need to take precautionary measures, such as wearing face covers, distancing 6 feet, and handwashing to provide a safe environment for our citizens.”
Madison Mayor Paul Finley also noted the surging cases and said he supports the order.
“Since day one, we as elected officials have said we would work to find the balance of personal versus economic health. While personal responsibility is still paramount, our dramatic rising numbers dictate this step be taken to continue to support all citizens’ safety,” Finley said in a statement.
Medical experts believe COVID-19 is most often spread when an infected person, with or without symptoms, talks, coughs or sneezes. Studies have shown that wearing masks reduces transmission of coronavirus.
Other exceptions to Madison County’s mask order include:
- Persons while eating or drinking.
- Patients in examination rooms of medical offices, dental offices, clinics or hospitals where their examination of the mouth or nasal area is necessary.
- Customers receiving haircare services, temporary removal of face coverings when needed to provide haircare.
- Occasions when wearing a face covering poses a significant mental or physical health, safety or security risk. These include worksite risks.
- Indoor athletic facilities. Patrons are not required to wear face coverings while actively participating in permitted athletic activities, but employees in regular interaction with patrons are required to wear face coverings or masks.
- Private clubs and gatherings not open to the public and where a consistent 6-foot distance between persons from different households is maintained.
“Although not mandated, face coverings are strongly recommended for congregants at worship services and for situations where people from different households are unable to or unlikely to maintain a distance of 6 feet from each other,” the department said in a statement on the order.
This is a simple math problem. Since June 16, the number of positive cases in Madison County has tripled, and the number of hospitalizations has increased 660 percent."
Parents must ensure children over 2 years old wear masks in public, and childcare establishments and schools are to develop their face covering policies and procedures, according to the department.
The order also mandates that businesses and venues open to the public provide a notice stating that face coverings are required inside, and signage is required at all public entrances.
“Wearing a face covering can help keep family, co-workers, and community safe,” Harris said. “This is the simplest act of kindness you can take for yourself, your family and your community, especially for those who are at high risk of contracting the virus.”
The Alabama Department of Public Health advises these actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19:
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for 20 seconds
- Social distance by staying 6 feet away from others
- Avoid people who are sick
- Stay home if you can; work remotely if possible
- Cover your mouth and nose with a face covering when around others
- Cover coughs and sneezes
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces
- Monitor your health
Push to rename Edmund Pettus Bridge gains steam, but Selma activists want their say
The latest effort to rename the bridge is gaining momentum, with a petition surpassing 300,000 signatures, but residents of Selma are saying not so fast.
The latest effort to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge is gaining momentum, with its online petition surpassing 300,000 signatures and attracting some high-profile supporters, but residents of Selma are saying not so fast.
“We don’t agree that one person’s name should go on the bridge because it was a collective of people that made that happen,” said Alan Reese, of Selma, whose grandfather F.D. Reese was one of the “Courageous Eight” who invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to join their push for voting rights.
The bridge became a landmark of the civil rights movement in 1965, when state troopers and a white posse attacked the roughly 600 marchers who crossed it as they attempted to march to Montgomery to register to vote.
The event became known as Bloody Sunday and galvanized support for civil rights for Black Americans. Among the beaten was Georgia Rep. John Lewis, then a member of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
His role as a leader of that march, and the injuries he suffered from a trooper’s baton, made him the focus of The John Lewis Bridge Project, a nonprofit formed last month by Michael Starr Hopkins, who has worked as a political strategist for several Democratic campaigns.
Hopkins had just watched the 2014 film “Selma” and looked up who Edmund Pettus was. When he learned that Pettus had been a Confederate general and reputed grand wizard in the Ku Klux Klan, Hopkins decided he wanted to do something to change the bridge’s name. He created the petition, and within 24 hours, it had more than 10,000 signatures.
Its goal is half a million signatures, Hopkins said. He’s also raising money to start an outreach program in Alabama and nationally to build a pressure campaign to change the name.
Lewis responded to a previous petition to rename the bridge in his honor with a statement that it was not his desire. His office has not addressed the current effort. Lewis is undergoing treatment after he was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer in December.
Hopkins said he understands Selma residents’ concerns.
“If someone was coming into my back yard and wasn’t from where I was from, telling me that I needed to change something, you know, I’d be a little ticked off too,” Hopkins said.
After speaking with Reese, he agreed that the citizens of Selma need to be central to the conversation about what will happen to the bridge’s name.
Alternatives to Lewis’s name have been suggested, including bestowing the honor on the “foot soldiers” who marched there, or on the eight activists who led the Dallas County Voters League, which laid the groundwork for the march that made the bridge a global icon of nonviolent struggle.
The very thing that my forefathers and mothers were walking on the bridge to secure was agency."
“Yes his name was on the bridge on Bloody Sunday, but if he had had it his way, none of the people crossing that bridge would have been let out of shackles, and we would still be slaves,” Hopkins said. “So I think that by continuing to keep his name on the bridge, you bestow a sense of honor that he is undeserving of.”
Reese said he plans to speak to Hopkins later this week to figure out how to proceed. This isn’t the first push to rename the bridge, and Reese said that Selma’s residents are tired of outsiders making decisions about what happens to what may be the most famous landmark in their community.
Monuments have faces, he said. The bridge is not a monument, and its history changed the meaning of Pettus’s name, he said, although he understands the urge to change it. If that happens, he wants the name to prompt people to learn about what the people of Selma did before and after Bloody Sunday. If it honored the Couragious Eight, for instance, that might encourage future generations to learn about who they were.
Reese’s grandfather was not featured in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film, he noted. DuVernay tweeted recently in support of renaming the bridge.
Lydia Chatmon, who works to promote tourism in Selma and is a program manager for the Selma Center for Nonviolence, said that most surviving foot soldiers she has talked to aren’t keen on changing the name. It could also have implications for tourism, she said, noting that the bridge is under review for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The bridge’s renaming is an opportunity to have a valuable conversation at a critical time, Chatmon added. The brutality captured by cameras on the bridge sent shock waves through American society, as did the brutality of George Floyd’s death captured by cell phone cameras, she said. Part of the process of building a better nation is having an open dialogue about issues like the bridge and how its name and legacy are owned and handled.
She looks forward to setting a date for an open town hall where the discussion can take place, likely in early August, she said.
Above all, it is a matter of agency, Chatmon said. King’s model for social change required the consent and participation of the people his work purported to help.
“The very thing that my forefathers and mothers were walking on the bridge to secure was agency,” Chatmon said.
For the first time, more than 1,000 hospitalized with COVID-19 in Alabama
The new highs of 919 patients in hospitals being treated for COVID-19 on Sunday and of 1,016 on Monday were 40 percent higher than the number of patients a week ago.
The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Alabama hit record highs Sunday and Monday, jumping over 900 on Sunday for the first time since the pandemic began, and then surging past 1,000 for the first time on Monday.*This story has been updated throughout at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, July 6 to include the latest figures.
The new highs of 919 patients in hospitals being treated for COVID-19 on Sunday and of 1,016 on Monday were 40 percent higher than the number of patients a week ago on June 28 and more than 50 percent higher than two weeks ago. The seven-day average of that number was also at a new record high Monday.
Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association and a former state health officer, told APR on Monday that 893, or 57 percent of the state’s supply of ventilators, were available Monday morning, while 309 of 1,669 ICU beds, or 18.5 percent, were available.
Williamson said while those two indicators are encouraging, it may take several weeks to learn whether many of those hospitalized will worsen and require ICUs and ventilators, and possibly lead to a rise in deaths. He said another possibility is that younger people are being admitted for COVID-19 but may not become sick enough to require more of the hospitals’ resources, and doctors are getting better at caring for coronavirus patients.
“We just don’t know yet. We don’t know which way we’re going to go,” Williamson said. “We just know we got a whole lot more cases than we had a month ago, and we’ve got a lot more hospitalizations than we had a month ago.”
Williamson said that from the week beginning June 29 to the week starting July 5, the average number of daily COVID-19 hospitalizations increased by 140, rising from 658 hospitalizations to 798 hospitalizations on average during that time. He believes the number of confirmed cases will continue to spike after Fourth of July celebrations.
For six straight days, Alabama has added more than 900 new COVID-19 cases daily, and on Monday the state recorded 925 new cases, and the 14-day average of new cases was also higher than it’s been since the pandemic began, at 1,025.
While testing has increased in Alabama, so too has the percent of tests that are positive, a marker public health experts say shows that there still isn’t enough testing and many cases are going undetected.
We just know we got a whole lot more cases than we had a month ago, and we've got a lot more hospitalizations than we had a month ago.”
The 14-day average of percent positivity was 13.5 percent on Monday, and taking into account incomplete data on negative tests in April, which inflated the positivity percentage, the data Monday was at a record high. Public health experts say the number should be at or below five percent.
The seven-day and 14-day average of daily COVID-19 deaths both were at 11 on Monday, and the numbers have remained largely steady for most of May, June and July.
In the last week, there have been 79 COVID-19 deaths in the state. Since the pandemic began, there have been 984 deaths in Alabama attributed to the virus, and the Alabama Department of Public Health estimates that 23 more deaths are likely due to COVID-19.
Governor awards $48 million to Department of Education, up to $50 million for higher education
Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday awarded $48 million of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEERF) to the Alabama State Department of Education in response to challenges related to COVID-19. This allocation will enable schools to enact policies established in the Alabama State Department of Education’s Roadmap to Reopening Schools.
As schools across Alabama are navigating increased challenges related to COVID-19, this initial investment will assist by providing budget stability, enable distance learning for any student that seeks it, and get additional resources to students most in need.
The allocation will be used as follows:
- $10 million to equip all school buses with WiFi capabilities to increase internet connectivity and help bridge the digital divide
- $4 million to improve remote learning opportunities by providing digital textbook and library resources for all students
- $26 million to provide additional academic support to bridge learning and achievement gaps
- $9 million to support intensive before and after school tutoring resources for learning and remediation in schools
Additionally, Alabama institutions of higher education will be able to submit requests for a combined reimbursement of up to $50 million of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). Alabama received approximately $1.9 billion of CARES Act funding to respond to and mitigate the coronavirus pandemic. Alabama Act 2020-199 designated up to $118.3 million of the Coronavirus Relief Fund for any lawful purpose as provided by the United States Congress, the United States Treasury Department, or any other federal entity of competent jurisdiction.
“I am pleased to invest in our state’s greatest asset – our students,” Governor Ivey said. “As we respond and adapt to COVID-19, we must ensure that our local school districts and institutions of higher education receive necessary support and provide our students full access to their educational opportunities. Closing school during the pandemic disproportionately impacts students who are already struggling, and it is our obligation to provide as much stability and access possible in these uncertain times.”