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Opinion | A good solution to the two-tier retirement system

Craig Ford

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Unintended consequences are a common problem when it comes to making laws and government policy. A good example of this is the changes lawmakers made in 2012 to the retirement systems for education and state employees.

The economic recession that began in 2008 had severely hurt the Retirement Systems of Alabama’s investments. The slowness of the recovery made things worse, and the state was looking at a situation where, in the long run, the government wouldn’t have the money to pay education and state employee retirees the benefits they had earned.

Lawmakers rushed through a plan to create a new tier of retirement for any employees hired after 2013 (those hired before 2013 are still considered Tier 1 and will be paid the benefits they were promised at the time they were hired). This new retirement tier, called Tier 2, pays fewer benefits, raises the age of retirement and takes a “use it or lose it” approach to sick leave days.

At the time, lawmakers were only thinking about the money and how to reduce the “unfunded liability” of one day not having the money to pay retirees. But the solution they came up with created new problems that must now be addressed.

The first problem is that by reducing the benefits package, lawmakers worsened the teacher shortage in Alabama. More and more teachers are getting their degrees here but then leaving the state to go teach in Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi and Florida where the pay and benefits are better.

Another problem created by this new Tier 2 system is absentee issues caused by the “use it or lose it” approach to sick leave days.

Under the old system, educators and public employees could save up their sick days. This was beneficial to them for two reasons. First, it gave them more days to use if they became seriously ill and needed more time off for treatment, such as with a cancer diagnosis. The other benefit was that if they didn’t use their sick days they could apply them to their retirement and retire sooner.

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Allowing an earlier retirement didn’t just benefit educators; it also benefitted the state and our children because educators were less likely to get burned out and younger teachers were given the chance to move into those classrooms.

But by requiring educators and employees to use their sick days instead of saving them, educators and employees are now being forced to take sick days when they don’t need to.

The result is that substitute teachers are being overused, and kids are either spending days doing busy work or, if a substitute isn’t available, our kids are getting piled into other teachers’ classes where they miss out on the individual attention they would normally get.

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Finally, the Tier 2 system requires employees to work until age 62. That means teachers will be in the classroom for a minimum of 40 years if they graduated college when they were 22 years old. While this could save some money on retirement payouts, it also increases the likelihood of educators getting burned out and makes it harder for younger educators to find a job in the system.

Over the past year, all of the major education groups got together with the Retirement Systems’ leadership and worked out a partial solution. That solution has been introduced in the State Legislature as House Bill 77 by Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton.

Rep. Baker’s bill would create a new retirement tier, called Tier 3. This tier would apply to all new hires and be optional for any Tier 2 employees. The new tier will offer better benefits, allow employees to retire after 30 years instead of 40 years, and once again allow educators and employees to save their sick days and apply them toward their retirement.

This solution not only addresses the problems created by the Tier 2 system, but also continues to address the issue of the unfunded liability. In terms of the cost for the new benefits, the official estimate put it at $9.8 million a year.

Just to compare, a 1 percent pay increase costs the state $42 million a year. So $9.8 million is a small investment to make for recruiting and retaining good educators and state employees.

I applaud Rep. Baker and all the education groups coming together to find a solution to this problem. This is an excellent first step in addressing both the cost problems and the teacher shortage in Alabama.

Craig Ford is the owner of Hodges-Ford Insurance and the Gadsden Messenger. He represented Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives for 18 years.

 

Rep. Craig Ford is an Independent who represents Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives. He served as the House Minority Leader from 2010-2016.

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Opinion | Former Sen. Brewbaker supports Montgomery tax referendum 

If we want Montgomery to change for the better, we are all going to have to start living in our community rather than off of it.

Dick L. Brewbaker

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(STOCK PHOTO)

I am in full support of the property tax referendum on the ballot this November. That may surprise some people because I have been critical of the performance of the Montgomery County Public School System in the past.

Until recently, student performance has generally been poor, financial management has been historically problematic, and there have been real and persistent problems with transparency. New Board leadership has worked hard to address these issues in a real way, but there is still work to be done.

However, whether we are talking about cars or public education, there is such a thing as trying to buy too cheap. Montgomery has been paying the legal minimum in property tax support for decades. It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone that our schools’ quality reflects our financial commitment to them.

Yes, it’s true that more money isn’t always the answer, but it’s also true that money is part of the answer. Sometimes the bare minimum isn’t enough, and this is one of those times.

Most people who vote on this referendum will not have children currently attending MPS. If you are one of those people, vote yes anyway.

Our public school population is declining because many young couples with children are leaving our city because they know their children can get a better education elsewhere.

This loss of young parents will eventually kill this city. We have got to turn the schools around before Montgomery’s tax base is eroded beyond repair. Whether you have kids in the system or not, if you care about your local tax burden or the value of your property, it’s time to vote ‘yes.’

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Need another reason to vote yes? Ok, here’s one:  Montgomery will eventually lose both our USAF bases if we don’t show the Air Force we are serious about improving our failing schools. Already less than half of the airmen stationed in Montgomery bring their families with them.

Many military families view MPS as so low quality that they won’t subject their children to them. If we don’t fix our schools, sooner or later we will lose Maxwell and Gunter. If you don’t believe that would be an economic nightmare for our city, ask around.

At the end of the day, passing this referendum is not only a vote to help children succeed, but also a vote to save the city in which we all live. It’s ok to be hopeful, it’s ok to be optimistic even about the future of Montgomery and its schools.

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If we want Montgomery to change for the better, we are all going to have to start living in our community rather than off of it.

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Opinion | FEMA’s Hurricane Sally response

So, how has FEMA performed in responding to Hurricane Sally? So far, pretty darn well.

Bradley Byrne

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Gov. Kay Ivey took a tour of the damage from Hurricane Sally on the gulf coast Friday September 18, 2020. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Most people in Alabama have heard of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration. Its name is a little misleading because emergencies by their nature aren’t so much managed as responded to, often after the fact. You can’t manage a tornado or an earthquake, for example, but you can and should respond to it.

Hurricanes are facts of life down here and nearly every part of our state, not just the coast, have been affected in some way by at least one. We can prepare for hurricanes and guard against the worst consequences and that starts with each of us as individuals, family members and citizens doing our part to be prepared to protect and take care of ourselves, family members and neighbors. Alabamians are actually pretty good at doing that.

But, there is also a role for governments at all levels. Local governments actually play the most important public role because they are closest to the people of their areas and have the first responders already employed and trained to take care of the needs of local residents during the period running up to, during, and in the immediate aftermath of the storm. State governments manage the preparations before the storm and provide the support local governments need afterward to do their jobs. The federal government supports the state and local efforts, which typically means providing the lion’s share of the money needed, anywhere from 75 percent to 90 percent of the costs. So there’s not one emergency management agency involved in responding to hurricanes but three, corresponding to each level of government.

The day before Hurricane Sally hit, I was individually briefed by the Director of the National Hurricane Center Ken Graham, FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor and Coast Guard officials. That same day I went to the White House and made sure we had a good line of communication in case we needed help, which looked likely at the time. I have to say, the White House was immediately responsive and has continued to be so.

How has FEMA handled the federal response to Hurricane Sally? When the state of Alabama requested a pre-storm disaster declaration, which triggers federal financial support for preparations and response during the storm, FEMA and the White House gave the okay in just a few hours. On that day before when I spoke with the White House, I asked them to send FEMA Administrator Gaynor to my district as soon as possible once the storm cleared to see the damage and meet with local officials. He came three days after the storm and spent several hours touring the damage with me and meeting with local leaders. When the state of Alabama requested a post-storm declaration, triggering federal financial support for public and individual assistance, FEMA and the White House responded affirmatively in less than 48 hours – record time.

Public assistance is federal financial support for the costs to state and local governments as a result of a storm. This includes water bottles and meals ready to eat for locally requested points of distribution, debris removal and cleanup costs (think of the large tandem trucks picking up debris piled up on the right of way), as well as the costs to repair damage to public buildings and infrastructure like roads and bridges, and in the case of Sally damage to the Port of Mobile.

Individual assistance, as the label states, goes to individuals affected by the storm. Private assistance won’t pay something you have insurance for, but it does pay for a variety of losses, particularly having to do with an individual’s home. So far 60,000 Alabamans have applied for individual assistance and already FEMA has approved $42 million. If you haven’t applied for individual assistance there’s still time for you to do so online at DisasterAssistance.gov, or if you need help in applying call FEMA’s Helpline at 1-800-621-3362. If you have applied for individual assistance and have been denied, appeal the decision because frequently the denial is simply because the applicant didn’t include all the needed information.

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Many people were flooded by Sally and over 3,000 of them have made claims to the National Flood Insurance Program. Over $16 million has already been paid out on those claims. The Small Business Administration has approved over a thousand home loans to people with storm losses, totaling over $40 million, and many more loan applications are still pending.

So, how has FEMA performed in responding to Hurricane Sally? So far, pretty darn well. I want to thank FEMA Administrator Gaynor for coming down here so quickly after the storm and for FEMA’s quick and positive responses to all our requests. And I want to thank President Trump for his concern and quick response to Alabama’s requests for disaster declarations. Hurricane Sally was a brutal experience for us in Alabama, but FEMA’s response shows that government can do good things, helping people and communities when they really need it.

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Opinion | An inspirational pick

Many progressives, it seems, claim to believe in the power of women, but only for women who think and talk like they do.

Govs. Kay Ivey, Kristi Noem and Kim Reynolds

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President Donald Trump, left, and his Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett. (WHITE HOUSE PHOTO)

A century ago, the Suffragettes finally succeeded in winning the right to vote for women. They would be thrilled to see the nomination of a woman so uniquely qualified to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court as Judge Amy Coney Barrett, were they alive today. It’s easy to imagine them storming the streets of America and urging that Judge Barrett be confirmed, and by a wide margin.

After all, the four female justices nominated before her were confirmed with lopsided votes by the U.S. Senate: 99-0 for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, 68-31 for Justice Sonia Sotomayor, 63-37 for Justice Elena Kagan and 96-3 for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Sadly, it speaks to the times in which we are living that Judge Barrett’s vote by the Senate will most likely come down to a tight vote, with nearly every Democrat opposing her nomination.

As governors who are either the first or second females to be elected in our respective states, we are rightfully proud to see diversity expand among the highest levels of government. Notably, however, our support for Judge Barrett hinges not on her being a female, but rather her superior intellect, unflappable composure and impeccable integrity, all which combine to make her eminently qualified in every way. 

Regretfully, we know – as do many others – that the climb for women into the upper echelon of American leadership has always been a bit steeper. After all, when was the last time a man’s haircut, the color of his tie or suit or the number of children in his family were scrutinized as part of the public discourse?

It is bittersweet that Judge Barrett followed her father’s advice that she could do anything her male counterparts could do, only better, and yet, sadly, millions of women appear to oppose her nomination simply because she interprets the law as-written, rather than siding with them on every issue. Is this the new standard for qualification?  

Many progressives, it seems, claim to believe in the power of women, but only for women who think and talk like they do.

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We applaud President Trump for choosing Judge Amy Coney Barrett for service on our nation’s highest court; she may well be one of the most qualified, extraordinary picks during the past century, and we urge the United States Senate to confirm her nomination in short order.

We especially like the direct answers Judge Barrett provided to two of the Senate Judiciary Committee members who questioned her last week. 

When Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, suggested that Judge Barrett would vote in the same manner as the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative for whom she had clerked earlier in her career, she calmly responded, “I assure you I have my own mind.” 

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And when the Committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, asked her whether she believed that Medicare was unconstitutional, she cited the “Ginsburg Rule,” so named for the late justice she will be following, of providing “no hints, no previews, no forecasts.”

Perhaps one of the most powerful witnesses to speak in support of Judge Barrett was her former law student at Notre Dame, Laura Wolk. 

Ms. Wolk is totally blind, but before pursuing the “impossible dream” of becoming the first blind law clerk at the Supreme Court last year, she was struggling with her classwork as a first-year law student, fearful of failing. 

Laura recalled, “Judge Barrett leaned forward and looked at me intently. ‘Laura,’ she said, with the same measured conviction that we have seen displayed throughout her entire nomination process, ‘this is no longer your problem. It’s my problem.’”

Ms. Wolk went on to say that Judge Barrett helped her see a pathway to success.  She said the Judge will “serve this country with distinction not only because of her intellectual prowess, but also because of her compassionate heart and her years of treating others as equals deserving of complete respect.”

When Judge Barrett raises her right hand to take the oath to “administer justice without respect to persons” and to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” it will be a win-win for every female – young and old alike during the past 100 years – who has dreamed of seeing women advance to the top positions of our government. 

Moreover, it will be a signal to every little girl – and boy – that the most qualified individual will get the job.

Governors Kay Ivey of Alabama, Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Kim Reynolds of Iowa authored this column.

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Opinion | Hearings give public opportunity to weigh in on coal ash plans

ADEM will make sure the closure and cleanup of the coal ash sites will be done in a way that will protect the state’s land and water resources now and in the future.

Lance LeFleur

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The mission of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management is to ensure for all Alabamians “a safe, healthful and productive environment.” It’s a mission that ADEM and its nearly 600 employees take very seriously.

Ensuring a safe, healthful and productive environment means more than simply being the environmental cop, though that certainly is part of ADEM’s job. When the Alabama Legislature passed legislation in 1982 that led to the creation of ADEM, lawmakers’ intent was for the agency to promote public health and well-being.

The term “healthful” in ADEM’s mission statement speaks directly to that. ADEM’s work is to contribute to the health of Alabama’s environment and the health of all Alabamians.

An example of that work is managing the process that will determine how coal combustion residuals (CCR) – or coal ash – are dealt with in a safe and effective manner. Managing CCR promotes a healthful environment by protecting our land and water.

On Oct. 20, ADEM will hold the first of a series of public hearings on permits drafted by ADEM to require electric utilities to safely close unlined coal ash ponds at their power plants and remediate any contaminated groundwater. The hearings, and the comment periods leading up to them, give the public the chance to provide ADEM input on the requirements in the draft permits.

To understand how we got to this point today, let’s go back to Dec. 22, 2008, in Kingston, Tenn. On that frigid night, the containment dike surrounding massive ponds holding decades worth of CCR produced by the coal-burning TVA power plant collapsed, spilling more than a billion gallons of coal ash sludge into the Emory River and onto 300 acres of land.

That spill drew the attention of regulators and the nation to the issue of coal ash storage, for which there was little regulation at the time. It also started the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the road to adopting a federal CCR rule, which took effect in 2015. The Alabama Environmental Management Commission approved a state CCR rule in 2018, patterned after the EPA rule.

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The rules address two primary issues: closing coal ash ponds to avoid threats of spills into waterways or onto land, and preventing and cleaning up groundwater contamination from arsenic, mercury, lead and other hazardous elements that may leach from the coal ash.

Both the EPA and state rules give the electric utility operators two options in closing the ash ponds. One allowable method is to excavate the millions of tons of coal ash and either move the coal ash to a lined landfill or find an approved beneficial use for the ash. The other is to cap in place, where an impervious cover, or cap, is placed over the ash impoundment. Both methods have been used successfully for decades to close some of the most contaminated sites in the nation.

It must be emphasized that the closure method selection is made by the utilities, as allowed by both federal and state rules. Alabama Power, TVA and PowerSouth all elected to utilize the cap-in-place option.

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The permits will also set out the steps to be taken to clean up contaminated groundwater caused by the coal ash ponds. ADEM’s job, in its environmental oversight role, is to ensure the closure and groundwater remediation plans proposed by the utilities and included in the permits meet federal and state standards and protect both waterways and groundwater. The permits provide for regular monitoring to confirm the closure and cleanup plans are being implemented as required. If necessary, the plans will be adjusted to ensure the intended results are being achieved.

Currently, ADEM has scheduled public hearings on the permits for three Alabama Power plants. The first is Oct. 20 for Plant Miller in Jefferson County, followed by Oct. 22 for Plant Greene County and Oct. 29 for Plant Gadsden in Etowah County. Permits for the other five sites in Alabama are in development, and hearings will be scheduled when they are complete.

The purpose of these hearings is to allow the public, including nearby residents, environmental groups and others, opportunities to weigh in on the proposed permits. This past summer, Alabama Power, TVA and PowerSouth held informational meetings in the communities where their affected plants are located to explain their proposed groundwater cleanup plans(including the CCR unit closure component) and answer residents’ questions.

The draft permits, the hearings’ dates, locations and times and other information are available on ADEM’s website, www.adem.alabama.gov. The public can also mail or email comments related to the permits, including the closure plans and groundwater remediation plans, directly to ADEM during the proposed permits’ 35-day minimum comment periods, which will run one week past the date of the public hearings. Those comments will be considered in the decisions to issue the permits, and ADEM will provide a response to each issue raised.

For maximum protection of the environment, ADEM encouraged the power companies to go beyond the minimum requirements of the state and federal CCR rules. ADEM’s scientists and engineers who analyzed the plans through an exhaustive review and revision process determined the final plans provide the environmental protections Alabamians expect and deserve. But we want to hear from the public.

Certainly, there are pros and cons of each option in closing the coal ash ponds. The daunting task of cleaning up contaminated groundwater will be undertaken regardless of which closure method is utilized. As one opinion writer recently said, there is no easy answer to the coal ash problem. But this is a matter we cannot duck. We must deal with our coal combustion residuals – by EPA requirement and for the sake of our environment.

Here’s what you can count on from your state agency charged with protecting your environment. ADEM will make sure the closure and cleanup of the coal ash sites will be done in a way that will protect the state’s land and water resources now and in the future.

Ensuring that is our mission.

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