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Opinion | Gas Tax: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Phil Williams

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The increased gas tax became law this week amid much Goat Hill fanfare, reminding me of a Clint Eastwood line from an epic western: “I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly.”

The Alabama Policy Institute has said for weeks that improved state infrastructure is important, but that conservative principles must guide the increase: taxes should be the last resort, reforms should maximize every tax penny we already have, and offsets should come with any tax increase.

We weren’t alone – recent polling showed a majority of Alabamians agreed, and the Alabama Republican Party passed a resolution to not support the increase unless it came with offsets.

What the state received instead was a mix of good, bad and ugly.

Let’s start with the ugly: a special session on day one that all but ensured that the tax would pass due to the lowered bar of votes required.

The tactic also ensured that a minimum amount of debate would occur and that the one-third of the Legislature who are new would have little time to gather their momentum and deal with the landslide of pressure from tax supporters inside the Montgomery bubble.

The special session undermined true representative government.

Also ugly: the rhetoric and hyperbole used by tax increase advocates. After hearing death and destruction zombie apocalypse claims about Alabama’s infrastructure, it’s a surprise any of us would venture onto the highways and byways of Alabama.

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Everyone agrees that infrastructure can always be improved, but please save the rhetoric next time.

Now for the “bad,” which is a little better than ugly.

API called for some easily attainable reforms, chiefly, that Alabama has to stop sending money from the current Road and Bridge Fund to other state departments. Each year, an average of $63 million dollars in existing road funds are diverted to non-road expenses.

Governor Kay Ivey announced in her State-of-the-State address that, in the budget process, she will ask for $30 million of those funds to stop being drained. Her call is a good first step, but the Legislature carries the power of the purse and API calls upon them to completely end this diversion.

Also bad: The gas tax was set on autopilot because of a never ending indexation. Every two years into perpetuity, the gas tax could go up by another cent without the Legislature ever having to debate this issue again.

An indexed tax with no potential end creates something akin to taxation without representation because no elected official will ever vote on it – and be held responsible for it – again.

Never let it be said that API can’t find a diamond in the rough, so let’s call out the “good.”

The Legislature will provide increased oversight of ALDOT, so now Alabama will have a representative means of holding ALDOT accountable for the use of road and bridge funds.

It was also good that the increased use of electric and hybrid vehicles was included in the debate.

And one amendment did make it onto the tax bill that allows for a more competitive bid process between asphalt and concrete. Too often Alabama has chosen one kind of road surface based only on the up-front construction costs as opposed to the price of long term sustainment. That changes for the better now.

Lastly, it was very good to see the “no” votes, which shows there was at least some debate, and the efforts made toward amending the legislation.

There were senators and representatives who should be applauded for trying to remove the perpetual indexing of the tax, to reform our current budgeting to stop draining the Road and Bridge Fund, and to give the poor and middle class a tax offset to lessen the gas tax blow. All of those attempted amendments can and should be brought forward into the regular session as stand-alone bills and budget appropriations.

API knows well that there are many conservatives in the Alabama Legislature and we see more opportunity ahead to let that show. It is API’s strongest hope that the Legislature will not set this issue aside in the regular session and will show the people of Alabama more good, less bad and ugly.

Phil Williams is director of policy strategy for the Alabama Policy Institute and a former state senator from Rainbow City.

 

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Opinion | Cleaner air during pandemic shows need for alternative fuels, electric vehicles

Mark Bentley and Phillip Wiedmeyer

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Photos of a smogless Los Angeles skyline set against a brilliant blue sky have emerged as an iconic image to showcase the impact of decreased air pollution during America’s COVID-19 quarantine.

Similar photos from around the world, including what are usually smog-filled cities in India, China and Europe, provide a glimpse of a world with improved air quality.

It’s no secret that poor air quality has historically been caused by traffic, but due to tighter regulations by the federal government, industries’ contribution to pollution has decreased significantly. Scientific research is beginning to show how social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders have created an unintended consequence of improving worldwide air quality.

For nearly two decades, the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition has been advocating to improve Alabama’s air quality by increasing the use of cleaner alternative fuels and expanding the market for advanced technology vehicles. Cleaner burning alternative transportation fuel options like biodiesel, ethanol, propane and natural gas also reduce pollution just like electric vehicles.

Air pollution remains a global public health crisis, as the World Health Organization estimates it kills seven million people worldwide annually.

But is the COVID-19 pandemic showing us the wisdom of transitioning to cleaner vehicles, whether electric vehicles with drastically lower emissions or vehicles using cleaner-burning alternative fuels? The answer is an emphatic yes.

Recent research shows global carbon dioxide emission had fallen by 17 percent by early April when compared to mean 2019 levels. In some areas, including the United States and the United Kingdom, emissions have fallen by a third, thanks largely to people driving less, according to research published in Nature Climate Change.

Numerous organizations, including NASA, continue to study the environmental, societal and economic impacts of the pandemic, and researchers view recent air quality gains as promising evidence that the use of alternative vehicles could have long-term positive impacts.

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“If I could wave my magic wand and we all had electric cars tomorrow, I think this is what the air would look like,” Ronald Cohen, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at UC Berkeley who studies the effects of the stay-at-home orders on air quality, told the Los Angeles Times.

Wider use of electric vehicles and the other domestically produced alternative fuels would lessen America’s dependence on foreign oil while also helping our environment. Poor air quality already causes negative consequences for millions of Americans.

Alabama could also see economic benefits from increased production of electric vehicles, with Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz operating plants in the state and working hard to produce the next wave of electric vehicles. As part of a $1 billion investment in Alabama, Mercedes began construction of a high-voltage battery plant in Bibb County in 2018 for its all-electric EQ brand of vehicles, as well as batteries for its hybrid plug-ins.

“This is a teaching moment,” Viney Aneja, an air quality professor in the Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at North Carolina State University told the Raleigh News and Observer. “We should learn from it. We should promote behavior that will allow air quality to be as good as it is outside right now.”

This is a prime opportunity for America to embrace alternative and cleaner-burning transportation fuels, as well as electric vehicles, while also decreasing reliance on foreign oil and creating jobs here at home.

It could also make those picturesque photos of the big-city skylines become commonplace instead of a rarity.

Mark Bentley has served as the executive director of the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition since August 2006.

Phillip Wiedmeyer serves as the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition’s chairman of the board of directors and president and is one of the ACFC’s original founders. He also serves as the executive director of the Applied Research Center of Alabama, a non-profit dedicated to public policy issues impacting Alabama’s growth, economic development and business climate.

About the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition

Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition serves as the principal coordinating point for clean, alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicle activities in Alabama. ACFC was incorporated in 2002 as an Alabama 501c3 non-profit, received designation U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities program in 2009 and was re-designated in 2014. A national network of nearly 100 Clean Cities coalitions brings together stakeholders in the public and private sectors to deploy alternative and renewable fuels, idle-reduction measures, fuel economy improvements and emerging transportation technologies. To learn more, visit www.alabamacleanfuels.com.

 

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Opinion | Electric vehicles next wave to drive Alabama’s continued auto-manufacturing success

Gerald Allen

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Alabama has long been a leader in the automotive manufacturing sector in the United States and, now, we have the opportunity to sustain that momentum for years to come through significant investments in the electric vehicle (EV) industry.

Dating back to 1993 when Mercedes-Benz announced their opening of their only U.S.-based assembly plant in Tuscaloosa County, our state has continued to provide a favorable business climate that has helped recruit Hyundai, Honda, Toyota and Mazda. The substantial investments of these companies have only furthered economic activity through the numerous tier 1 and tier 2 automotive suppliers that have also located to our state.

Combined, these Alabama-based automakers and suppliers produced nearly 1.6 million engines in 2018 and created over 40,000 automotive manufacturing jobs. Alabama currentlyranks as the number three autoexporting state in the country, andexports of Alabama-made vehicles and parts totaled $7.5 billion in 2018.

Now, as we continue toward a 21stcentury transportation system and economy, we must acknowledge – and prepare for – the electric vehicle wave that is coming.

Significant research shows that consumer interest in electric vehicles is exponentially on the rise and so is theproduction of EVs by manufacturers. Globally, total EV sales surpassed 1 million vehicles in 2017, then quickly doubled to cruise past 2 million in 2018 and that number is expected to double again in 2020 to reach 4 million total sales. According to a Deloitte report, it is expected that global EV sales will top 21 million by 2031.

In recognition of the growth in EV sales, Mercedes-Benz broke ground in the fall of 2018 in Bibb County to build a plant producing high-voltage batteries for the all-electric EQ brand of Mercedes vehicles, as well as batteries for Mercedes hybrid plug-ins. This project alone is well over a billion-dollar investment in Bibb County and, with it, Mercedes has now invested more than $6 billion in its operations here in the state.

We know that expanding EV sales andproduction in Alabama will require anumber of investments from the industry, the legislature and eventually theconsumers of this state. To cement our reputation as a forward-leaning automotive leader, we must prepare for the future of electric vehicles, production of electric vehicles parts and ensure the necessary EV infrastructure is in place to be competitive for generations. Doing so will show that our state supports this burgeoning sector of automotive manufacturing and help recruit even more of these projects that will provide numerous high-paying jobs and produce significant economic benefits.

The Rebuild Alabama Infrastructure Plan, approved legislatively in 2019, provided a foundational first step as it included a provision that helps propel Alabama toward the cutting-edge of EV infrastructure. The landmark legislation established a grant program that proactively facilitates the installation of new EV charging stations across the state. These stations will supplement the Electrify America charging stations currently being installed in the state and add to Alabama’s EV infrastructure.

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Additionally, the full body of the state Senate and our colleagues in the House have shown a commitment to the expansion of EV production in Alabama with a $2 million investment in this year’s budgets to educate and promote the use of electric vehicles to the public. We believe this will further Alabama’s reputation as a premier automotive manufacturing state as these funds will go toward developing an EV industry educational website with mapping of charging stations and other useful resources, as well as funding to further build out  Alabama’s EV charging infrastructure.

Mercedes-Benz has been a game changer for our state. With their initial investment in 1993 to their significant investments in EV batteries, it’s clear the electric vehicle wave is coming and, with it, significant opportunities for automotive manufacturing growth in Alabama. Now is the time for us to show our state’s ongoing ingenuity by supporting this sector’s transformation to electric vehicle production with these significant investments and overall support of the growing EV industry.

Gerald Allen is a member of the Alabama State Senate, R-Tuscaloosa, representing District 21. Senator Allen can be reached at [email protected].

 

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Opinion | Mueller anniversary a sad reminder of the day Sessions ran away when needed most

Tommy Tuberville

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Three years ago this week, one of the biggest hoaxes in American history began as Robert Mueller was appointed to lead the Democrats’ Russia witch hunt, and the man most responsible for birthing that national nightmare was U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is now running to reclaim his former Senate seat.

Throughout this campaign, Sessions has claimed that nameless, faceless Justice Department bureaucrats demanded that recuse himself from the investigation, and he had no other choice than stepping down.

So, without even a courtesy call to the man who appointed him, Sessions abandoned his president and fed him to the wolves, and he almost bought down the entire Trump presidency in the process.

The truth is that Sessions did, in fact, have several other options, but he lacked the courage and selflessness to seriously consider any of them.

If Sessions was unsure he could remain loyal to the president, perhaps the easiest option would have been to decline the cabinet post when it was first offered, but, instead, he went in the other direction.

Just two weeks ago, President Trump appeared on the Fox and Friends morning show and said that Sessions literally begged him to be appointed attorney general on four separate occasions, so he made the appointment despite severe misgivings.

“(Sessions) wasn’t, to me, equipped to be attorney general, but he just wanted it, wanted it, want- ed it,” Trump said. “Jeff was just very weak and very sad, and when ‘Russia’ was mentioned, just the word ‘Russia,’ he immediately, instead of being a man and saying, ‘This is a hoax,’ he recused himself.”

In response to the nationally-televised comments, Session released a harshly-worded statement that accused President Trump of lying.

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Another option available to Sessions would have been to ignore the urgings of the Deep State bureaucrats at the Justice Department who supposedly told him that he must recuse himself ac- cording to “regulations.”

On-going revelations about inappropriate actions by entrenched liberals at the Justice Department and the FBI indicate that many of those who advised Sessions were likely working against President Trump and pushing for him to fail from the first day he took office.

But even if Sessions felt so strongly that insulating himself from the investigation was the proper path, he should have first marched into the Oval Office with his recusal in one hand and his resignation in the other and said, “Mr. President, which one of these do you want me to sign?”.

That way, it would have been Donald Trump’s choice, not Sessions’, but he was too fearful of the answer, so he recused first and boxed-in the president.

Yet another option available to Sessions was to quit his job and walk away as soon as President Trump’s loss of confidence in him became obvious, which happened quickly. But like a bad houseguest who will not leave when the party is over, Sessions overstayed his welcome for months on end and forced the president to fire him.

Sessions was likely reluctant to resign because he felt he had given up his U.S. Senate seat in or- der to become attorney general, but when you work for the president, what you gave up, what you sacrificed, and what you think you deserve must simply be set aside and forgotten.

Selflessly doing what is best to protect the president and the nation you serve should be your one and only focus.

As a retired football coach, I know a good bit about teamwork and winning.

In order to win, each player has to be willing to put the team ahead of themselves. They have to set their own interests aside so the team can succeed, and they have to take incredible risks in order to score a win. Jeff Sessions proved too selfish and unwilling to do any of those things for the Trump team to win.

Finally, Sessions had at least one other option, and it is the one I would have taken.

He could have remained loyal to the president, watched his back against the Democrats’ fake news sneak attacks, and helped him fulfill the promise of making American great again.

President Donald Trump knows that he can depend upon Tommy Tuberville to remain loyal to him come Hell or high water, and that is why my campaign proudly carries his full endorsement and support.

 

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Opinion | Alabama House Members answer the call to duty

Mac McCutcheon

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When the Legislature convened its 2020 regular session in February, Alabama enjoyed record-low unemployment and record-high revenues in our state budgets.

Pay raises for educators and state employees were foregone conclusions, unprecedented improvements in mental health services offered to Alabamians were being passed, and new and expanded education programs were on the table.

But as legislators returned to Montgomery from the mandatory COVID-19 shutdown period — a little less than three months removed from the session’s start — an entirely new landscape greeted us.

Our record-high employment numbers have turned into record-high applications for unemployment benefits, and our state revenues have been negatively impacted by an economy gone sour.

But Alabamians have always risen to meet a challenge, and I am confident that the historic economy that our state once enjoyed can be rebuilt and made even stronger.

All of us who serve in the House of Representatives have publicly offered ourselves as leaders in our communities and our state, and as Alabama continues its journey on the path back to normalcy, it is important us to lead the way. We cannot expect average Alabamians to feel safe and confident in returning to work and resuming their jobs if the men and women they elect to represent them in Montgomery are not willing to do the same.

So on May 4, we convened at the Alabama State House to resume the regular session and complete the tasks that remained before us.

Our members came from the Tennessee Valley, the Gulf Coast region, and dozens of cities, towns, and crossroads in between, and we took important steps to safeguard their health in a cramped and aged State House where proper social distancing is difficult at best.

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House members were required to wear face masks in all public areas, and once they entered the building, they proceeded directly to their personal offices to await the gavel to fall each meeting day.

In order to accommodate the House members at safe distances, only a handful were able to sit at their desks in the House Chamber while the others were spread across the spectators’ gallery and an adjacent overflow room and cast voice votes by microphone.

With one exception House Democrats boycotted the session and cited on-going concerns over the potential spread of COVID-19 as their reason, which was certainly their right.

I do want to commend State Rep. Rod Scott, D – Fairfield, the ranking minority member of the education budget-writing committee, for being the lone member of his party to attend the remainder of the session. His input was valuable, and his participation was much appreciated.

In addition, social distancing and health concerns prompted us to take the unusual step of closing access to the State House to the public, lobbyists, and other visitors, but video streaming of every public meeting was made available on the Internet..

Drafting responsible and prudent General Fund and Education Trust Fund budgets that accurately reflect the current economic climate is the Legislature’s only constitutional obligation and became our highest priority.

By approving Alabama’s spending plans now, rather than waiting until later in the year, many local systems avoided unnecessarily pink-slipping their non-tenured teachers, plans for the coming school year could take shape, and state agencies could begin implementing the adjustments in services that COVID-19 will likely demand.

We were also able to craft balanced budgets because budgeting and spending reforms enacted over the past decade have ensued that several hundred million dollars remain accessible and available in times of crisis, so Alabama is better prepared than many other states to weather this economy.

General Fund Chairman Steve Clouse, R – Ozark, and Education Trust Fund Chairman Bill Poole, R – Tuscaloosa, worked hard to assemble budgets that are fiscally-responsible, conservative, and disciplined.

Because of federal mandates and rulings in on-going lawsuits over state prison conditions, General Fund spending increased by 7.5% under the budget that was signed by the governor, but the increase was dramatically less than originally expected when the Legislature first convened in February.

The $7.2 billion Education Trust Fund budget that was approved included new funding for our award-winning “First Class” Pre-Kindergarten program and the reading and literacy initiatives. Additional dollars were also appropriated to help school systems absorb the loss of local revenues due to the Coronavirus.

Lawmakers also approved a $1.25 billion bond issue for school construction, which is the state’s largest capital improvement investment in history and the first in more than a decade. The bond issue will provide money to every city and county K-12 school system and to two- and four-year colleges and was made possible by retiring old debts and taking advantage of today’s historically-low interest rates.

Public officials at all levels of government are often subject to criticism, and I will admit it is often well-deserved, but they should also be recognized for jobs well done.

The men and women who participated in the unusual, extraordinary, and unforgettable final week of the 2020 regular session put their responsibilities ahead of their own health concerns and answered the call to duty. They stood tall when Alabama needed them most.

The members of the House of Representatives are some of the finest people I have ever known, and serving with them reinforces my confidence that Alabama’s best days still remain ahead of us.

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