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Bills setting legislative districts can be read aloud for hours on end. This would change that.

Chip Brownlee | The Trace

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A robotic voice that reads long bills at length in the Alabama Legislature might have one less job if one lawmaker has anything to say about it.

When lawmakers were working to approve redrawn legislative districts in 2017 after a federal court ruled them unconstitutional, the robotic voice echoed through the halls of the Alabama Statehouse for nearly 16 hours.

The bill to shift about 70 House districts was being read at length at the call of Democratic lawmakers hoping to delay its approval.

The robotic machine chugged along, reading the 580-page bill and its more than 80,000 blocks and tracts until the GOP-held House passed the redistricting measure by a vote of 70-30.


A section from the 580-page 2017 House reapportionment bill, which was read at length for nearly 16 hours.


“The machines are reading in this drone of a voice,” said Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, who is sponsoring a constitutional amendment that would do away with redistricting bills being read at length.

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“You can listen to it, and even if you pay attention to it, you can’t make any sense out of it,” McClendon said. “You have no clue what they’re talking about.”

No other legislation could move while the full bill was read. Things stalled. But no one could go home for a nap. The lawmaker who requested the reading could withdraw their request and a vote would immediately follow.

The process in the House — where debate in 2017 was most contentious — ended up eating almost two legislative days as the 2017 legislative session neared its end.

Republicans were irritated with the Democrats’ tactics, but the minority felt they had no other option after the majority voted to cloture debate.

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“If you were in that situation and did not have a voice, you would use every tool you had to try to get your message out,” Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, said at the time. “We used the tools we had to try to get the message out.”

The bill redrawing Senate districts killed nearly a full legislative day in that chamber, too. It also ended up passing. The courts later upheld the redrawn districts after forcing lawmakers to make new maps following a ruling that the original districts, drawn by GOP lawmakers in 2011, were improperly based upon race.

Three of the districts were Senate districts and nine were in the House.

With less than two years until lawmakers will again be in the position of redrawing Alabama’s legislative and congressional districts after the 2020 census, one lawmaker is already looking ahead.

 McClendon, has introduced a constitutional amendment to end the practice of bills being read at length.

As things stand now, no vote is needed to initiate the reading process. If a lawmaker requests it prior to a vote, the electronic reading machine is turned on.

But the reality is that the process is enumerated in Alabama’s Constitution, and it’s been that way for decades.

“I’m sure it was a practical request in 1901,” McClendon said. “They didn’t have copy machines. They probably computers or laptops. I would imagine there were some legislators who made it to Montgomery who weren’t that accomplished at the written word anyway. But it’s not a good idea now.”

Democrats regularly use the procedural tactic to delay votes on all sorts of bills, but reading at length is most effective — and most time-consuming — with reapportionment bills, which typically run hundreds of pages.

“The only reason in the modern world to have a bill to be read at length would be to extract some kind of punishment on the people who are supporting the bill,” McClendon said. “Because it does not change the outcome at all.”

A reading of a full-length House district reapportionment bill could take upward of 25 hours, McClendon said. A full Senate bill could take between 12 and 14 hours.

“The outcome is not affected by reading the bill at length, and it does not enlighten anyone as to the content of the bill,” McClendon said.

McClendon’s bill would only affect reapportionment legislation.

“I wanted to do a bill that would include all reading at length but I thought I would just focus on this one issue and maybe someone else can come up with another one to get rid of all reading at length,” McClendon said.

Reapportionment, though often considered a boring subject to the public and legislators alike, is one of the most important acts of the Legislature. They not only decide state school board and state legislative districts, but they also decide the alignment of the state’s congressional districts.

The Black Caucus, who challenged the 2011 lines in the lawsuit, successfully argued in Federal court that the GOP packed black voters, who often support Democrats, into a handful of districts to limit the Democrats’ power.

Democrats, who were largely concerned about House districts in Jefferson County, felt they weren’t given enough say in the process of redrawing the 12 legislative districts found to be gerrymandered, so they resorted to reading at length.

“It’s not fun sitting in here reading where you’re not being productive,” Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, said at the time. “We’d rather be productive, but the only thing we were asking for is fairness. You have just a few people from one little area basically tie up this whole Legislature. So you might as well not have representation from across this state.”

McClendon said in an interview with APR that he understands concerns about minority influence, but that reading at length never changes the outcome.

“It’s not much of a tool if it doesn’t fix anything or change anything. It’s just a delay tactic,” McClendon said. “If it were taking away something useful from the minority in expressing their position on something or getting something done, I would feel different about it. I don’t want to do that.”

The reality, though, is that the move does give the minority some leverage, especially at the end of the legislative session when the session has a time limit and other unrelated bills may still need attention.

The next U.S. Census will be held in 2020. The Legislature will receive data for reapportionment in the early part of 2021, and it will need to redraw the lines by election time in 2022.

The process could be even more contentious in 2021 if Alabama were to lose a congressional seat. If lawmakers have to draw out one of the state’s seven congressional districts, a serious battle could ensue.

If McClendon’s bill makes it out of committee to the floor, it would require approval by both chambers. At that point, it would be put on the 2020 primary ballot. Voters would be able to decide whether or not to end the practice.

 

Chip Brownlee is a former political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. He is now a reporter at The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering guns in America.

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“A tidal wave:” ICU beds scarce as Alabama breaks another hospitalization record

Infectious diseases experts worry if hospitals will have enough staff to handle “what might be a tidal wave of patients in the next month.” 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(APR GRAPHIC/ADPH DATA)

There were no intensive care beds available in Mobile County on Tuesday, the second day in a row Alabama set a record for hospitalized COVID-19 patients, and if models hold up, there could soon be the need to set up temporary medical facilities outside of hospitals, according to a UAB infectious disease expert. 

Dr. Jeanna Marrazzo, director of UAB’s Division of Infectious Diseases, told reporters on Tuesday that looking at some models that forecast what might happen in the three weeks after Thanksgiving “you could conceivably see a true need for setting up ancillary care places in three weeks.” 

“I hope that doesn’t happen. Are we looking at the kind of situation that New York City experienced in March? A lot depends on what happened over Thanksgiving weekend,” Marrazzo said, referring to the use of tent hospitals in New York City during the early spring surge there that overran hospitals. 

UAB had a record high 125 COVID-19 patients hospitalized on Monday and Tuesday, and Huntsville Hospital also set a new record Tuesday, with 317 hospitalized. There was a record high 1,785 COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide on Tuesday, and on Monday there had never been fewer intensive care beds available in the state. 

Marrazzo said the health care workforce continues to work valiantly and are “struggling very hard.” What keeps her up at night, she said, is worrying if hospitals will have enough staff to handle “what might be a tidal wave of patients in the next month.” 

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“It may not look like we can affect what’s going to happen in two to three weeks, post-Thanksgiving, but we can impact what happens around Christmas time and after that,” Marrazzo said. 

The death toll from COVID-19 continues to increase across most of the country, Marrazzo said. On average, the U.S. is seeing between 1,400 and 1,600 people lose their lives to coronavirus each day, she said. In Alabama, at least 3,638 people have died from COVID-19.

Alabama reported an additional 60 deaths on Tuesday and has averaged at least 24 deaths reported each day over the last two weeks.

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Each morning, Marrazzo gets a list of those admitted to UAB for COVID-19, those discharged and those coronavirus patients who have died. Not a day goes by when there isn’t one name on that list of someone who didn’t make it, she said. 

“And I think about that person, and I think about their family,” Marrazzo said. “And unfortunately those numbers, as I mentioned before, are going up, and the balance of people being admitted is higher than the number of people who are being discharged.” 

Alabama added 3,376 cases on Tuesday, which was the largest single-day case increase, excluding when on Oct. 23 ADPH added older backlogged test results. Tuesday’s high number was the product of a delay in reporting to ADPH due to the holiday weekend, the department said in a data note. 

Still, Alabama’s case count continues to increase alarmingly and testing is still down, Marrazzo explained. The state’s 14-day average of new daily cases on Tuesday was at 2,289. That’s a 28 percent increase from just two weeks ago. 

“This is a really, really scary inflection point, “Marrazzo said, “and I don’t think that we are going to be able to turn it around without experiencing some more stress and some more pain.” 

The positivity rate in Alabama over the last week has been an average of 32 percent, more than five times as high as public health experts say it should be to ensure there are enough tests and cases aren’t going undetected. 

“If we would test more we would probably find more, so I think these numbers are an underestimate,” Marrazzo said. 

Asked what has gone wrong, that even with the knowledge of how people can protect themselves — wearing masks, practicing social distancing and staying home as much as possible — we’re still seeing huge spikes, Marrazzo described a complicated set of circumstances. 

“Is it because they don’t believe it’s going to affect them?” she asked. 

At first, COVID-19 was something happening in China, and then it moved closer to home, Marrazzo explained. Next, it became a question of “well, it’s older people who are getting sick,” and there was a sense of invulnerability among the young, who thought they’d be fine and that they wouldn’t infect others, she said. 

“And then I think even for people who have been trying to be good there’s a huge amount of fatigue,” Marrazzo said. Even health care workers become worn down, and may take risks they know they shouldn’t and become infected in their own communities, she said. 

“I think we’ve been hammering it home, but I also think in some ways, we need to do it in a way that’s sympathetic and not angry,” she said. “Because yeah, I’m pretty upset about what’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks, but getting angry with people and shaming them is not the answer at this point, so I think all we can do is to continue to report on the facts.”

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National

Last Conversations: Dr. Frank Lockwood

At the time of those texts, I had no clue that I’d never speak with my brother again.

Robert Lockwood

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Photos of Dr. Frank Lockwood (CONTRIBUTED/APR GRAPHIC)

My brother, Frank Lockwood, was a family practice doctor with an office in McDonough, Georgia. Frank was a great doctor, who used his intelligence, compassion and humor to improve the lives of his patients. And, even though he was great at his job, the practice of medicine, in many ways, just paid the bills.

Above all else, Frank wanted to be an entertainer. He submitted video applications to participate on “Survivor” and even got a call-back for “The Mole.” The highlight of his 15 minutes of fame was his disastrous appearance on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” (Google: Worst. Audience. Ever. On. Millionaire.)

Locally, Frank was a founding member of Atlanta’s Village Theatre, an improv comedy group.

In short, Frank was highly intelligent and wickedly funny. So, I was dismayed when he called me in early July, and I couldn’t recognize his voice. Frank told me that he’d contracted coronavirus from one of his patients and had been sick for several days. The cadence and rhythm of his voice were clearly Frank, but the pitch was all wrong. I assume the coughing had wreaked havoc on his vocal cords.

I am an employment lawyer. I defend employers who are getting sued by their employees. In my younger days, I defended plenty of employers who were sued for workers’ compensation benefits — monetary and medical benefits provided to employees who are injured on-the-job.

Thus, in my role as the Lockwood Family Consigliere, Frank wanted to know if he could receive workers’ compensation benefits from his employer because he caught coronavirus at work. We discussed the intricacies of a workers’ compensation claim, and Frank hung-up, promising to think about the issue further.

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My next communications with my brother were my last. On July 3, 2020, at 5:36 a.m., I received this text from him: Wanna work comp these folks to death. I’m in micu now.

MICU is the intensive care unit.  I was asleep at 5:36 a.m., but I texted back at 7:40: Glad to see the ‘rona has not dampened your spirit. Want me to get you a lawyer?

His response: Yep.

At the time of those texts, I had no clue that I’d never speak with my brother again. He was 52 and in good physical shape with no co-morbidities. He was a patient in a hospital where he knew all of the physicians treating him. I knew a few people who contracted the disease and recovered. Everything I read led me to believe that my brother would have a fight but would recover.

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It didn’t work out that way. Frank was sedated, placed on a ventilator and temporarily rallied. The greatest tragedy is that he was removed from the ventilator and briefly conscious on July 13, but his husband, Bernie, did not get a chance to speak with him.

Frank’s immune system turned on him with a “cytokine storm.” He was returned to the ventilator and struggled for the next three weeks. I am thankful that I was able to be present, along with Bernie and our brother, Chris, when he passed away on Aug. 5.

As we walked out of the hospital that day, an announcement was made over the facility intercom that a patient was leaving for home. And then they played Pharrell’s “Happy.” In hindsight, I’m pretty sure that song was for somebody else. But at that moment Bernie, Chris and I simultaneously bawled and laughed. To us, it was like Frank Lockwood, the entertainer, had chosen his own exit music.

I’ve got a lot of regrets about my relationship with my brother and my last words with him. But, I promise you this: We have retained counsel in Georgia, and we are gonna work comp those folks to death.

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Elections

Kirk Hatcher’s (potential) problem with the Hatch Act

Hatcher is set to face former Rep. John Knight in a special election runoff on Dec. 15.

Josh Moon

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Is Kirk Hatcher eligible to run for public office? That might seem like an easy question to answer, given that Hatcher has represented Alabama’s 78th House District since 2018 and is currently the overwhelming favorite to win a special election for the District 26 state Senate seat.

But on Monday, a question about Hatcher’s eligibility — specifically, whether the Hatch Act would prohibit him from holding public office because of his employment as director of Head Start in Montgomery — sent Hatcher’s staff scrambling.

While assuring APR that Hatcher is “absolutely eligible” to run, his spokesperson, Ashley Roseboro, forwarded a redacted opinion that Roseboro said the campaign requested and received from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.

Roseboro said the opinion stated that “Rep. Hatcher is in full compliance with the Hatch Act.”

However, that opinion, after the redactions were removed by APR, turned out to be from 2014 and for a nonprofit named Opportunities for Otsego, located in upstate New York. It did not address Hatcher’s specific situation, and it obviously did not find him in “full compliance.”

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The Hatch Act is a federal law in place to prevent federally funded programs from engaging in political activities and to restrict the political activities of federal employees and employees whose salaries are funded by federal grants. In Hatch Act guidance issued by various agencies online, Head Start programs and their employees are specifically mentioned as examples of workers who cannot participate in political activities during working hours or run for or hold partisan public office.

As the director of Montgomery’s Head Start program within the Montgomery Community Action Partnership, Hatcher would seem to fall under that limitation. However, there are a few exceptions to that general rule, mostly based on how federal funds are distributed and controlled at the state and local level.

According to the Otsego opinion, which outlines the general funding setup for Otsego County’s Head Start programs, it seems likely that the Head Start program in Montgomery also operates on federal grant dollars and has local control of how that money is spent.

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In that case, according to the Office of Special Counsel in the Otsego opinion, Hatcher, as the Head Start director, would be ineligible to hold partisan public office if his salary was fully funded by federal money.

APR asked Roseboro if Hatcher’s salary was partially funded by sources other than federal funds. He declined to answer, saying only that “Rep. Hatcher is eligible to hold public office.”

Late Monday night, Roseboro sent a final email acknowledging that the initial opinion he sent APR was not prepared for the Hatcher campaign, as he previously stated. Instead, he said the campaign was directed to that opinion by the Office of Special Counsel when it called seeking guidance regarding Hatcher and the Hatch Act. Roseboro said the campaign also spoke with attorneys at the Special Counsel’s office, but specifics about those conversations or when they took place were not provided.

The email also contained a statement from Hatcher: “My candidacy for State Senate is not in violation of the Hatch Act and I am in compliance with all state and federal election laws. I am excited about finishing this race as people have shown that they are ready to move forward with new leadership and continue to maximize Montgomery’s opportunities and potential.”

The email did not offer an explanation of how Hatcher is in compliance with the Hatch Act or what specific exception he is relying on.

Hatcher is set to face former Rep. John Knight in a special election runoff on Dec. 15. The winner of that runoff is almost certain to become the District 26 state senator.

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Environment

Alabama Political Reporter partners with Covering Climate Now

We’re making a commitment to inform you, our readers, about the parts of climate change that are within your spheres of influence.

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Covering Climate Now logo

Climate change is a complex and evolving subject. It is often difficult to comprehend on a personal and community level, yet its effects are already being felt on those levels, whether we realize it or not. Climate science researchers project catastrophic consequences for every place and organism on Earth if current trends continue, and most say that humanity is somewhere inside a critical window for action that may prevent the worst.

At Alabama Political Reporter, we believe that within this context, journalism’s role is to make sense of this topic as it relates to our state. Every person on the planet is doing something about climate change for better or for worse, intentionally or not. We’re making a commitment to inform you, our readers, about the parts of it that are within your spheres of influence. APR is excited to announce a partnership with Covering Climate Now (CCN), a global journalism initiative co-founded in 2019, by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation, in association with The Guardian. In partnering with CCN, we join more than 400 news outlets globally with a combined audience approaching 2 billion people.

CCN will work with APR as we craft climate coverage stories that will show the real impact those changes are having on communities, as we hold businesses and politicians accountable for how they are addressing climate change — or aren’t — and how poor people and people of color are disproportionately impacted.

Through this partnership, APR‘s stories will be available to a wider audience, and APR will occasionally publish articles from other outlets that are relevant to our readers. Our focus will be projections for our region and prevention.

APR began a more concerted effort to cover climate change during the summer of 2019. Throughout the year, we talked with state experts, such as James McClintock, a professor of polar and marine biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who has spent decades researching climate change. APR looked at how people communicate about climate change, how climate-change-induced heatwaves and stagnation are affecting air quality and how Auburn University planned to use a $3 million grant to fund climate change education.

With a new administration entering the White House in January will come changes in how the federal government addresses the threat of climate change. President-elect Joe Biden’s appointment of former U.S. secretary of state and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry as special envoy on the climate crisis is a sign that a Biden administration plans to tackle climate change head-on.

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Kerry was instrumental in the international effort to craft the Paris climate agreement, and he will likely approach climate change as a foreign policy issue.

“America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is,” Kerry tweeted on Nov. 23.

Biden also recently appointed numerous climate advocates to senior economic leadership positions, including climate change advocate Neera Tanden, as White House budget director. Tandem is president and CEO of the Center for American Progress and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

“President-elect Joe Biden has committed to a government-wide strategy to combat the climate crisis — a plan that must start with investing in clean, renewable energy so we can put people back to work,” said Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power 2020, a partnership of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club. “This team of outspoken advocates for climate innovation and leadership will be meaningful allies for Biden’s vision of immediate and bold climate action on day one of the new administration.”

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With the incoming administration refocusing on the climate crisis, APR believes that it is critical to refocus coverage on a topic that will continue to impact Alabamians for decades, and generations, to come.

We hope that through factual reporting, with a focus on the human impact, APR will give our readers and state leaders better information with which to make decisions that can affect lives and our environment for the better.

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