On Monday, the Alabama Department of Transportation launched its own “Mythbusters” campaign to counter the efforts of the tens of thousands of community activists who are opposing the ALDOT plan to fund the bridge through a private, public partnership that would allow the conglomerate to toll interstate 10 bridge users for the next 50 years.
Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose, opposes tolling the new bridge. Byrne released a statement critical of the information shared by ALDOT’s Mythbusters.
“I take issue with ALDOT’s comments regarding federal GOMESA money,” Byrne said. “GOMESA is the money Alabama receives for our offshore oil and gas leases in the Gulf. The law states that the money must be spent in either Mobile or Baldwin counties. First, an outlined acceptable use of the money is for a hurricane evacuation route. I-10 is definitely that, so I find it odd ALDOT left that off. Second, my suggestion was that ALDOT bond the GOMESA money to increase its worth. That way more money would be available to help offset the cost of the bridge.”
The latest ALDOT proposals calls for building a new bridge and replacing the I-10 bayway with a taller structure. ALDOT estimates the costs of this project at $2.1 billion up from ALDOT’s previous $800 million proposal.
“Finally, this document fails to even discuss how the costs ballooned from around $800 million to over $2 billion,” Byrne said. “If ALDOT would scale the project back down, we could avoid this toll.”
Forty-two thousand citizens agree with Byrne and have joined a Facebook group opposing tolling the new Mobile River bridge and the existing Wallace Tunnels.
Many of the toll opponents have accused Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey for being behind the toll proposal.
The governor’s chief of staff, former Congressman Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, said the governor is not advocating for a toll bridge.
“The governor isn’t the one advocating for a toll bridge; she is simply looking at all options to help relieve the congestion along the Bayway that is already bad and going to get worse,” Bonner said in a note to a concerned citizen. “While the $125 million federal grant was a good first step, the truth is we’re going to need a lot more help from the Federal government as this is a Federal Interstate highway, as you well know. I’ll be sure to share your concerns with Gov. Ivey.”
“Governor Ivey knows that it is vital we move the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project forward for the reasons of commerce, efficiency and safety, said Gov. Ivey’s Press Secretary Gina Maiola. “The new Mobile River Bridge will have more than 215 feet of vertical clearance to carry I-10 across the Mobile Channel, permitting all types of maritime traffic in the Port of Mobile.
Maiola continued, “The Federal Highway Administration regulations state that the Bayway needs to be raised above the 100-year storm surge level. Since the existing bridge cannot be raised, it must be replaced with a new structure. Given this change, the cost of the project increased from $850 million to the $2.1 billion total. Some are suggesting GOMESA funds — which are intended for land acquisitions, research and recreation access improvements projects — be used for this infrastructure project. While it is questionable that GOMESA funds can be used in this manner, it is important to realize that even if it was determined they could be used, it’s $24 million of a $2 billion project.”
“The bridge is important to Mobile and the Gulf Coast because it will create jobs and improve the flow of commerce through the Port,” said Mayor Sandy Stimpson on social media. “This project is and should be a national priority. Since Day 1 in office we’ve made multiple trips to DC seeking federal funds for this project. We are grateful to see the results of that effort, and appreciative of the support from Sen Shelby, Rep Byrne, Gov Ivey and the US Department of Transportation for this game-changing project. Now, with this infusion of federal dollars, we encourage the Alabama Department of Transportation to continue to think creatively in identifying a funding solution that works for our citizens.”
Under the plan, the Causeway, Bankhead Tunnel and Cochrane Africatown Bridge would continue to be free. Residents of Spanish Fort have expressed concerns that toll avoidance will lead to heavier traffic through Spanish Fort. The city council has passed a resolution urging that the plan to toll I-10 not be implemented.
Zeigler is urging that the project not be tolled and was critical of the Mythbusters campaign.
“ALDOT did not address the problem of leasing out a portion of an interstate that belongs to the people,” Zeigler said on social media. “ALDOT did not address the problem of giving a 55-year lease to the toll operator.ALDOT did not address the problem of the toll rates being set by the toll company and changeable for 55 years. ALDOT is fixated on charging a toll. They are for the toll, the whole toll and nothing but the toll. ALDOT basically said, ‘It’s my way or no highway.’”
The Mobile River Bridge is in an Opportunity Zone meaning that there are enormous federal and state tax benefits to the investors in the project.
Byrne is running as a candidate for U.S. Senate.
Speaker McCutcheon standing with governor on gaming workgroup
During her 2020 State of the State address, Gov. Kay Ivey said she would be signing an Executive Order to establish a small working group to gather all the facts on how much money the State could gain if some form of gaming expansion occurred. She also asked the Legislature to give her time for the group to come back with an answer.
Whether lawmakers would grant Ivey’s request for time has been an important question swirling around the halls of the State House.
Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon answered that question on Wednesday when APR reached out to his office with a request for clarification.
APR’s email wrote, “Speaker McCutcheon recently made the statements quoted below.”
“I am not a big gambling guy; but if you are going to vote for a lottery, that’s gambling, then don’t be a hypocrite and let’s get the biggest bang for the buck,” McCutcheon said. “Let’s address a lottery, the Poarch Creek Indians, and these counties that want a one-armed gambling. Put them all in a room and hammer out a deal.”
The Speaker warned, though, that if he cannot get a grand deal between all the parties on gambling, then there likely would not be any gambling bill brought forward in 2020.
“Does he still stand by these statements?”
The following is the response APR received from the Speaker’s office:
“Since the Speaker made the statement, the Governor will be signing an Executive Order to bring people together to evaluate the facts on how much money the State could gain if some form of gaming expansion occurred. The Speaker will be working with the Governor in her efforts.”
Ivey said once the working group had completed its task, she would “bring these facts to the 140 members of the Legislature and the people of Alabama. And we will then, once and for all, be in a position to determine whether or not this is a path we want to pursue.”
That McCutcheon is in alignment with the governor should signal to all interested parties that no further movement on gaming legislation will happen until the working group has completed its evaluation.
Some have been slow to hear Gov. Ivey’s entreaty.
Even after Ivey’s call for more time to gather facts, the Poarch Creek Band of Indians continues to flood television, internet and social media with a massive advertising campaign touting their billion-dollar plan in exchange for a tribal-state compact and exclusive right to Vegas-style casino gaming in the State.
PCI lobbyists, including tribal council vice-chair Robbie McGhee, are being very pro-active at the State House.
On Tuesday, Madison County Republican Rep. Rex Reynolds said, “We’re gonna move forward on a lottery. We clearly got that message during our conference meeting yesterday. I think it’s the right thing to do. The people want to vote on a lottery and I think we need to give them an opportunity to,” according to a report by WAFF.
Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, the House budget chairman, recently said that he planned to file legislation that would create an education lottery in Alabama.
Clouse’s bill would create a paper lottery with scratch-offs and PowerBall options only.
A day after Ivey issued her State of the State request to the Legislature to stand down on gaming, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh held a meeting with representatives of the Poarch Creeks and two of the State’s dog tracks to discuss moving ahead on a proposed lottery and gaming bill.
These various statements and actions have added confusion as to what is happening with gaming this session.
Now that McCutcheon has made his position known, maybe it will put to rest the rumors, activities and behind-the-scenes maneuvering that go against Ivey’s wishes.
Business, community leaders call on lawmakers to support Gov. Ivey’s push for more Pre-K funds
Governor Ivey’s push for a $25 million statewide expansion of Alabama’s high-quality, voluntary First Class Pre-K program was endorsed today by business and community leaders from across the state. If approved by the state Legislature, the proposed funding increase would add at least 160 new classrooms next year and help enroll at least 2,889 additional four-year-olds.
The Alabama School Readiness Alliance Pre-K Task Force included its support for Governor Ivey’s budget request in its 2020 Legislative Recommendations. The ASRA Pre-K Task Force consists of more than 60 prominent leaders from the business, education, civic, medical, legal, philanthropic, military, and child advocacy communities.
In addition to increased funding in FY2021, the Task Force’s plan proposes a series of recommendations to fully fund the state’s First Class Pre-K program by the 2022-23 school year while maintaining the program’s benchmarks for quality and accountability. The Pre-K Task Force’s Recommendations are available in their entirety at https://www.alabamaschoolreadiness.org/asra-pre-k-task-force-recommendations/.
“We are not there yet, but the state is moving in the right direction to provide high-quality, voluntary pre-k to all families that want it,” said Mike Luce and Bob Powers, business leaders and co-chairs of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance Pre-K Task Force. “The Alabama School Readiness Alliance’s Pre-K Task Force is pleased that Governor Ivey is once again prioritizing additional funds to add more pre-k classrooms across the state. We stand with Governor Ivey and encourage lawmakers to appropriate the $25 million increase outlined in her proposal.”
For 13 years in a row, the National Institute for Early Education Research has ranked Alabama’s pre-k program as the number one state-funded pre-kindergarten program in the country for quality. Research by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham has found that students who participate in a First Class Pre-K classroom – regardless of demographics, zip code or school – are more likely to be proficient in math and reading than their peers.
The Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education manages the First Class Pre-K program. It allocates funding for the First Class Pre-K program through a competitive application process. Public and private schools, child care centers, faith-based centers, Head Start programs, nonprofits, universities, and other community-based providers are all eligible to apply. Potential providers can apply for three different levels of funding: an excellence classroom (up to $50,400), tiered funding (ranges from $86,904 to $100,008), and a new classroom (up to $120,000). Applications for First Class Pre-K classroom funding are due March 13 on the Department’s website, www.children.alabama.gov.
The ASRA Pre-K Task Force first proposed expanding voluntary pre-k access to all families in 2012. Since then, state leaders have incrementally increased the level of investment in Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program from $19 million to $122.8 million. In 2012, the program enrolled just six percent of Alabama’s four-year-olds. In the 2019-20 school year, nearly 40 percent of Alabama’s four-year-olds attend First Class Pre-K.
Marsh holds meeting with gaming interests day after Ivey calls for the Legislature to stand down on gaming
Despite Gov. Kay Ivey’s call for the Legislature to give her “time to get the facts,” on a lottery and gaming before proceeding with legislation, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh summoned representatives of the Poarch Creek Band of Indians and two of the state’s dog tracks to sit down and discuss moving ahead on a proposed lottery and gaming bill.
A day after Ivey’s State of the State, Marsh, along with Senators Bobby Singleton and Steve Livingston, held a conference with Robbie McGhee, PCI’s Vice-chair, Lewis Benefield, who operates VictoryLand and the Birmingham Race Course, and Nat Winn from Greenetrack to try and reach an agreement among the three gaming entities.
Marsh, at the Wednesday meeting, informed those gathered that they needed to come up with a compromise on the gaming issue so that legislation could proceed with a constitutional amendment on a lottery and gaming package this session.
Participants in the closed-door meeting declined to speak with APR about the content of their discussions. However, those who have knowledge of the conversation did relay some of the details to APR.
According to those sources, the group discussed what a compromise might look like, what tax revenue the facilities would be allotted to the state and locations sought by PCI.
Reportedly, the discussions were generally cordial and productive while lawmakers were present, but that the tone changed dramatically once the lawmakers left the room.
Two sources with an understanding of events said that McGhee turned arrogantly defiant after the legislators left, telling the track owners that PCI didn’t need to compromise because they already have the votes necessary to pass their desired legislation. Benefield, Winn nor PCI would confirm APR‘s sources’ account.
Any lottery or gaming legislation requires an amendment to the state’s 1901 Constitution, which must be approved by a vote of the people. The governor plays no direct part in legislation that involves constitutional amendments.
PCI is demanding Class III Vegas-style gaming, which would require a tribal-state compact that must be negotiated under the authority of the governor.
There is a way to bypass Ivey, although it is fraught with complications.
If the Legislature passed a constitutional amendment that includes a comprehensive gaming solution plus an authorization for the governor to negotiate a compact with PCI, then a potential federal-state showdown could occur.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act requires that tribe request the negotiation of compacts with states in which they intend to conduct Class III gaming. “States, in turn, must negotiate with tribes in good faith to develop such a compact,” according to a report in Indian Gaming Lawyers. “If the state refuses to do so, the federal government may intervene and potentially impose a compact if all other efforts to secure a compact have failed.”
In a report titled The Tribal Trump Card, Patrick Sullivan explores several cases in which tribes have sued various states under IGRA’s good faith clause.
If the tribe has the vote to pass its legislation, that is not publicly known at this time.
Others close to the tribe say McGhee’s remarks to the track operators should be ignored as he is still smarting from the billion-dollar “Winning for Alabama” campaign that is a bust for PCI.
A recent survey conducted for Alabama Republicans found that an overwhelming majority of likely Republican primary voters disapprove of any legislation giving the Poarch Creeks a monopoly. Those numbers skyrocket in the areas where PCI casinos currently exist.
Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon has stated publicly that he wants to push for a grand gaming package that puts the issue to rest once and for all and also brings in a lot of money for the state. He has indicated that anything short of a grand plan will not get a hearing.
Do the Legislature and PCI want to challenge Ivey? That’s a daunting question for anyone who has watched her operate the levers of power over the last few years.
Whether Marsh’s meeting was meant to undermine Ivey’s call for time to “get the facts,” or a last attempt at a compromise is unclear. But what is certain is Ivey’s intentions to seize gaming issues and bring a solution to the Legislature in the best interest of the state.
Ivey seizes gaming issue
Toward the end of her 2020 State of the State address, Gov. Kay Ivey snatched the issue of a state lottery and gaming from the hands of the Legislature.
“I will be signing an Executive Order to establish a small working group of some of Alabama’s most distinguished citizens, to begin working, to gather all the facts on how much money we could really gain if some form of gaming expansion occurred,” said Ivey.
Not only did Ivey take ownership of the gaming debate, she asked the Legislature to stand down.
“My challenge to the Legislature is: give us some time to get the facts and then, together, we will give the people of Alabama the information they need to make the most informed decision possible,” said Ivey. “Once they have done so — I will bring these facts to the 140 members of the Legislature and the people of Alabama. And we will then, once and for all, be in a position to determine whether or not this is a path we want to pursue.”
Not since Gov. Don Siegelman’s failed attempt to bring a lottery to the state in 1999, has any governor dared throw weight behind a lottery bill much less try to untangle the Gordian knot that gaming has become as a result of former Gov. Bob Riley’s bingo wars.
Riley and his compatriots upended years of established law that allowed electronic bingo in Macon, Lowndes and Greene Counties, which resulted in the Poarch Band of Creek Indians gaining a virtual monopoly over gambling in the state. Despite federal rules that prohibit the tribe from operating any games that are illegal in the state, the Poarch Creeks have thrived.
Over the last several months, the Poarch Creeks have engaged in a statewide advertising campaign to promote a billion-dollar payday for the state in exchange for a state-tribal compact and a guaranteed unfettered monopoly over Vegas-style gaming.
Ivey’s announcement has put an end to any hopes of an immediate compact or other gaming legislation for now.
Lottery legislation requires an amendment to the state’s 1901 constitution, which must be approved by a vote of the people. The governor plays no direct part in legislation that involves constitutional amendments. However, any state-tribal compact must be negotiated under the authority of the governor.
For the last several years, the Poarch Creeks have blocked all attempts to pass a lottery and have resisted calls to negotiate in good faith with owners of the state’s dog tracks.
Even as there was hope going into the 2020 session that PCI might come to the table for a comprehensive gaming solution recently, those hopes have been waning because there doesn’t seem to be any indication the tribe is backing down from its demands for an advantage over others players in the market.
There is also apparently no leader in the House and Senate strong enough to bring all sides together in a compromise.
Ivey has shown she is powerful enough to bring disparate groups together for a common solution as she did with the 2019 gas tax.
When it comes to the issue of gaming, the Legislature will most likely follow Ivey’s lead as it would be foolish to buck a governor with her approval and influence.
It is doubtful even the Poarch Creek’s money can stop Ivey.
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