The Memorial Day holiday is approaching, and state legislators are saying privately that they are ready for this session to be over, but much work remains to be done.
Only 21 of a possible 30 legislative days have been used, so this session could technically last through mid-June, but this session was sidetracked by a special session to raise the gas tax in March that delayed the start of regular business a couple of weeks.
There also was an organizational session in January, the inauguration and committee days, many of them in January and February on budgets and infrastructure that don’t actually count as a legislative day; but still meant a drive to Montgomery for the legislators.
Serving in the state Legislature is just a part-time job, but this year it is feeling like a full-time job, and there is the specter of a special session to deal with the state’s understaffed, overcrowded, aging, long-neglected prisons coming in August or September. Some legislators would like to shut this session down as early as Thursday evening, but that probably is not possible as many things remain undone.
At the end of the workday on Thursday, the House leadership announced that Wednesday would be the last day that the House of Representatives will consider House bills. From Thursday on, the House will only consider bills that have been passed by the Senate. That is a signal that time is running out on this session, as the leadership is announcing that there is not enough time left for a House bill to be passed and then go through the process to be considered and passed by the Senate.
Wednesday will include a 10-minute calendar. On a 10 minute calendar, the sponsor only has 10 minutes to explain their bill, answer all the legislators’ questions and vote to pass the bill or it gets carried over. No House bills will be considered on Thursday. Any single legislator can kill a bill on the 10-minute calendar simply by going to the floor and talking long enough to burn the 10 minutes up. The only bills that can be passed on a 10-minute calendar are those with no opposition whatsoever.
Multiple legislators have told APR that the first bill on the calendar on Tuesday is going to be the lottery. Senate Bill 220 is sponsored by Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore.
Many conservative Republicans have opposed any expansion of gambling in the state of Alabama throughout their careers, and they are going to fight this bill. The establishment leadership and younger, newer, less conservative, much more moderate Republican legislators favor gambling expansion in the state. The Democrats are in favor of gambling. The leadership, the more moderate freshman Republicans and Democrats formed an alliance against conservative Republicans to pass the fuel tax increase bill in the special session and recently passed the fantasy sports contests bill in the House with a similar bipartisan coalition.
There is not that much money in this lottery proposal. Albritton estimates that it will bring in $167 million a year. Critics say that seems awfully optimistic. The leadership blocked a bill by Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, that would have authorized the four dog tracks to have video lottery terminals and would have allowed lottery players to play the games on computers and handheld devices. The Democrats favored the McClendon lottery, but that bill was frozen in a Senate committee.
The Albritton lottery is a paper lottery only. Scratch-offs in convenience stores and multi-state lottery contests like the Powerball.
State Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, has said she will not support a lottery unless the Legislature also passes a constitutional amendment legalizing electronic bingo at Victoryland in Shorter. Her House bill to do that is awaiting action by the House. Some Republicans have said they will support a paper lottery only; but will not support casinos in Macon and Greene counties. The Senate companion bill to Warren’s legislation only received 19 of the 21 votes it needed to pass the Senate.
Sen. Billy Beasley’s Victoryland legalization bill appears dead in the Senate. State Rep. Artis “A.J” McCampbell, D-Livingston, is sponsoring legislation that would legalize electronic bingo at Greenetrack and Greene County. McCampbell told the Alabama Political Reporter that the Senate version of his bill did pass the Senate, and his bill is facing a public hearing in the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee. That committee is very gambling friendly, having already passed SB220 with little opposition.
The big question for this week is: will most Republicans support electronic bingo legalization constitutional amendments in the Democratic-controlled dog track counties, and if not, will Democrats vote for a lottery bill that they do not like and receive nothing in return for their votes?
Some Republicans have told the APR that they support a lottery because it takes away an issue from Democrats. In 2018, gubernatorial candidate Walt Maddox (D) tried to base his campaign around a lottery proposal, much like Don Siegelman (D) did in 1998, the last time that a Democrat was elected governor. They believe that by passing the lottery, that takes that popular issue away from state Democrats.
The lottery and electronic bingo constitutional amendments would normally dominate the legislative week all by themselves, but the big issue for the state is that the Legislature still has not sent either budget to the governor. The House passed the state general fund budget weeks ago. The Senate delayed passing the SGF out of committee until Wednesday. The education trust fund budget has passed the Senate but is still in committee in the House.
The big sticking point for both budgets has been what to do with the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Congress changed CHIP from 100 percent federally funded to an 80-20 split. The program insures almost half of the children in the state of Alabama through ALL Kids, administered by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama. The state is going to have to pick up over $114 million a year in the cost of the program, with approximately $49 million of that hitting the 2020 budget.
Gov. Kay Ivey (R) moved $36 million of that from the SGF to the ETF. The House agreed and sent a general fund budget to the Senate without that money in the SGF. The Senate passed an education budget without that money in the ETF. As not funding CHIP is not an option, the two Houses are going to have to resolve that conundrum in order to pass both budgets.
Limited legislative time are being spent on trying to force gambling bills through the Legislature, bills that the leadership knows are highly controversial. Legislators who are planning Memorial Day week vacations may find themselves back in Montgomery for another week or two.
Warren told reporters that there was a vote count on Thursday for SB220, and it did not have the votes then. The sponsors are still lobbying members to try to get the bill passed. If it does pass the House, SB220 will still have to go back to the Senate because the House Economic Development and Tourism committee amended the bill to require that one quarter or 1 percent of the money go to fund compulsive gambling treatment programs, approximately $420,000, and 25 percent goes to the education trust fund, about $42 million.
APR asked conservative Republican State Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, what he thought about the lottery bill. He said he hopes it dies.
If the lottery passes out of both Houses in the same form, it would still have to be voted on by the people of Alabama on March 3 since it is a constitutional amendment.
The House goes back into session at 1 p.m. on Tuesday with many questions still swirling.
Former State Sen. David Burkette pleads guilty, avoids jail
Former State Sen. David Burkette will avoid jail time and be sentenced to a 30-day suspended sentence as part of a plea deal reached on Monday.
Burkette, who pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Fair Campaign Practices Act, will also have to pay a $3,000 fine and serve 12 months of probation as part of the deal. He was sentenced in Montgomery Circuit Court on Monday after being charged two weeks ago with failing to deposit more than $3,600 in contributions into campaign accounts — a misdemeanor.
He also resigned his seat in the Alabama Senate as part of the plea deal.
“I’m just happy to still be here,” Burkette told the court following his sentencing, according to multiple media reports.
The former senator suffered a stroke in 2018 and has been confined to a wheelchair since. His current health status played a role in his sentence considerations.
The charges against Burkette stem from a series of complaints filed against him with the Alabama Ethics Commission — all of them related to various issues during his time on the Montgomery City Council. The charge for which he pleaded guilty occurred in 2015.
The Ethics Commission referred numerous charges to the Alabama attorney general’s office, according to sources familiar with the investigation of Burkette, but the attorney general’s office elected to charge Burkette with only the misdemeanor as part of the deal that saw him resign.
“Candidates for public office at the state, county and municipal levels must comply with the State’s Fair Campaign Practices Act,” said Attorney General Steve Marshall. “Personally profiting from campaign funds erodes public confidence in the system and will not be tolerated.”
Former state senator arrested on charges of violating campaign finance laws
David Burkette has been officially arrested. The former state senator from Montgomery, who resigned on Tuesday as part of a plea deal with the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, was formally charged on Thursday with a single misdemeanor count of violating the Fair Campaign Practices Act.
According to a press release from the AG’s office, Burkette’s charge stems from him depositing campaign donations into his personal account instead of into his campaign accounts, as required by the FCPA. The alleged crimes occurred in 2015 and 2016 when Burkette was serving on the Montgomery City Council.
“The complaint alleged that, in 2015 and 2016 while running for the Montgomery City Council, Burkette intentionally failed to deposit $3,625.00 in campaign contributions into his campaign checking account, and instead, deposited or cashed those contributions into or against his personal bank account,” the AG’s release stated.
The single misdemeanor charge is surprising given the lengthy list of allegations against Burkette submitted to the Alabama Ethics Commission. APR obtained a copy of the original report, which was submitted in October 2018.
In addition to more than $40,000 in allegedly improperly spent council discretionary funds that were flagged by auditors for the city of Montgomery, Burkette was also accused of inappropriately donating tens of thousands more to suspect charities and two sororities, including his wife’s.
The Ethics Commission referred Burkette’s case to the AG’s Office in October 2019.
Pro-Growth Conference kicks off with Doug Jones, discussions on COVID impact and a living wage
What happens if you just give impoverished citizens $500 per month — no strings attached? Good things, it turns out. The people use that income to buy food, medicine and basic necessities for life. They take a day off work if they’re sick and actually get treatment. They quit a second, hourly-wage job that they are overqualified for and instead work towards obtaining a better, higher-paying primary job.
These are things that the city of Stockton, California, has learned in its year-long living wage program.
The program, while limited in size — only 125 people — has proven to be a larger success than city officials had hoped, and it has opened their eyes to a new, more proactive style of governance, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs told Alabama elected officials.
Tubbs was the featured speaker on Tuesday at the first day of the Pro-Growth Policy Conference, a three-day forum for Alabama elected leaders with guest speakers from around the country offering tips and best practices.
The first day of the conference began with an opening talk from Sen. Doug Jones, who pressed the need for Medicaid expansion and how expansion has aided other red states. Jones also highlighted the need for broadband expansion and talked about a bill he has in the Senate that would create a broadband main office and dish out about $20 million in money for affordable access.
“Now (with COVID), we know how needed it really is,” Jones said. “We see the homework gap that we have. We know there’s a need for more telemedicine. My bill would consolidate in one office all of the monies for broadband … and provide affordable access.”
Jones said the current COVID pandemic has highlighted just how badly we need better access to broadband in Alabama, and a major area of concern right now is healthcare.
Highlighting that point, Brandon Garrett, the chief operating officer of the National Minority Quality Forum, and Dr. LaTasha Lee, the vice-president of social and clinical research, demonstrated the many ways in which inequality in health care and health care options is harming impoverished communities.
A number of factors play into that inequality, but a lack of access to updated means of communication and tools is one of the biggest.
“(Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) said that, ‘Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane because it results in physical death,’” Lee said. “That’s what we’re seeing currently with COVID-19 and sickle cell disease. These two diseases are affecting the minority community and causing death, and they make a great argument that such health care disparities really are a social justice issue.”
Correcting such issues was one of the goals of Stockton’s living wage experiment. Now, Tubbs said, a working person can afford to stay home or get tested if they’re feeling symptomatic, whereas before that person — scared of missing a paycheck or losing the job altogether — might come to work with the virus and infect an entire workplace.
That alone, Tubbs said, has restored dignity to a number of residents.
“This is not easy, especially with budgets the way they are,” Tubbs said. “But I don’t know how we continue to live with the status quo as it is.
“I think part of being a leader, as we are, is having the courage to do something about what we’re seeing. We have to be able to do that.”
The Pro-Growth Policy Conference will run both Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Wednesday’s round of conferences will focus on state grants, economic development around the state and what the 2021 legislative session might look like.
On Thursday, the event will wrap up with talks by the Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson and Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell.
Russell Bedsole wins Republican runoff in HD49
As of press time, it appears that Russell Bedsole has won a narrow victory over Mimi Penhale in the special Republican primary runoff election in Alabama House District 49.
At press time, Bedsole had a 166-vote lead in unofficial results on the secretary of state’s website.
“We won,” Bedsole declared on social media.
Bedsole is an Alabaster city councilman and a Shelby County Sheriff’s Department captain.
“Sadly, tonight did not turn out in my favor. Despite the loss, I feel like God truly used this opportunity to help me grow in my walk with Him, and gave me the opportunity to increase my testimony,” Penhale said. “I feel so incredibly blessed by the people I have met on this campaign and the experiences I have had. I am disappointed in the outcome, but what an honor it is to have the confidence of 1,183 people across House District 49! Thank you!!”
Russell Bedsole had 1,249 votes, or 51.36 percent, to Mimi Penhale’s 1,183, or 48.64 percent, to win the House District 49 Republican primary runoff.
There were just 2,432 votes cast in the special primary runoff election. Shelby County was the decisive factor in the election. Bedsole won Shelby County with 762 votes, or 71.42 percent, to Penale’s 305 votes.
Penhale carried Chilton and Bibb Counties, but could not overcome Bedsole’s strong performance in Shelby County.
The provisional ballots will be counted on Sept. 8, 2020, and certification of votes will occur on Sept. 16, 2020.
Bedsole will face Democratic nominee Sheryl Patton in the special general election on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020.
The vacancy in House District 49 was created when State Rep. April Weaver announced her resignation to accept a presidential appointment as a regional director in the Department of Health and Human Services.
In a statement, the Alabama Republican Party thanked “each of the candidates that qualified for offering themselves up for service in the Alabama State House of Representatives.”