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Gas tax takes effect Sept. 1.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Sherwood Sparks sure would like to see some of Alabama’s new gas tax increase, set to hit the pumps on Sept. 1,  go toward improving safety on the roads leading to his hometown of Piedmont. 

“Paying the tax doesn’t bother me,” Sparks said. “As long as I can see some results from my taxes for my city.” 

Lawmakers charged with providing oversight for how that money is spent are working to address just how the Alabama Department of Transportation makes those decisions, and that they’re made with transparency. 

The last time Alabama passed a gas tax increase the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had just ended,  and starting Sept. 1 drivers will pay an additional 6 cents a gallon. 

Gov. Kay Ivey in March signed the new 10-cent-a-gallon gas tax into law. The initial increase will be followed by another 2 cents increase in 2020 and 2 cents in 2021. The state currently taxes gas at 18 cents per gallon and diesel at 19 cents. 

The tax is also tied to the National Highway Construction Cost Index, meaning that beginning in 2023 the tax could change by no more than a penny every two years to match possible increases in road construction costs. 

The National Highway Construction Cost Index varies from year to year, but the index grew 4.4 percent from 2003 to 2015, according to U.S. Department of Transportation estimates.  

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According to the bill signed into law, 67 percent of additional funds generated from the tax will go to the state, 25 percent to counties and 8 percent to cities. 

All of the money is to be placed into a separate Rebuild Alabama Fund, and ALDOT is to provide the Joint Transportation Committee with an annual audit report. 

Along with that gas tax increase, lawmakers approved an amendment by Rep. Margie Wilcox, R-Mobile, that strengthened oversight of the Alabama Department of Transportation by requiring ALDOT to submit a report on long-range plans to the state’s Joint Transportation Committee. 

The amendment also allows the Joint Transportation Committee to make changes, with the governor’s approval,  of those ALDOT plans. 

Sarah Stokes, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, told APR on Wednesday that she attended the Joint Transportation Committee’s meeting with ALDOT on July 24 and that lawmakers asked ALDOT how the department prioritizes projects. 

“ALDOT responded that the law sets out these general categories. Safety, maintenance, etcetera,” Stokes said, adding that ADOT told lawmakers that the department prioritizes projects based upon those categories. “And the legislators pushed back and said, no, exactly how do you prioritize?” 

Stokes said many other states rank projects based on objective criteria, grading projects on safety, maintenance, economic development and environmental impact, and that those measurements are quantified and listed to determine which projects need to be tackled first. 

“Virginia does this. North Carolina does this. Georgia does this,” Stokes said. 

Rep. Wilcox told APR by phone on Wednesday that the fact that the amendment that strengthened oversight of ALDOT was approved before the gas tax is a signal of how important the state believes that oversight to be. 

Wilcox is working on a plan to develop ALDOT’s website to make it easier to see what the department is doing with taxpayer money and how those decisions are made. 

“They don’t give us the transparency, and we are the responsible agency to fund DOT,” Wilcox said. “So this committee, if we don’t get the answers and the transparency that we and the voters want, then that is on the table. There’s no law that we have to fund them at the levels they request.” 

Wilcox said ALDOT discussed with the committee much of the department’s funding plans, but members pressed the department on details about the processes used to make those decisions. 

“It’s very important that they spread it around in a manner and with priorities that we can understand,” Wilcox said. 

Tony Harris, a spokesman for ALDOT, told APR on Wednesday that the department will discuss with committee members at the next meeting in October the agency’s views on the criteria used to select projects. Harris said the hope is that ALDOT and committee members will come to a shared view of the definitions of that criteria. 

Stokes said that the danger of not using objective criteria to rank projects is that those decisions can instead be based on “political motivation.” 

“And I think it would be helpful for ALDOT in the end, so that they could show their work,” Stokes said.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Alabama lawmaker pre-files legislation to allow removal of Confederate monuments

If passed, the measure would permit counties and cities to relocate historic monuments currently located on public property.

Brandon Moseley

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A Confederate monument in Birmingham's Linn Park was removed. As have monuments and memorials in Mobile and on the campus of the University of Alabama.

Alabama State Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, introduced legislation this week in advance of the 2021 legislative session that, if passed, would permit counties and cities to relocate historic monuments currently located on public property. Givan’s bill, HB8, would also provide for the relocation of historic memorials to sites appropriate for public display.

“Across the state of Alabama, citizens are calling for the removal of prominently placed statues and monuments that are insensitive or offensive to the communities that surround them,” Givan said. “City and county governments must be able to address the demands of their citizens. This legislation provides a tool for local governments to safely remove these artifacts so that they can be moved to a site more appropriate for preserving or displaying the historical monument.”

Removing the monuments and historical markers is currently illegal under Alabama’s Memorial Preservation Act, which the state Legislature passed in 2017. Givan has been an outspoken opponent of that Republican-sponsored legislation. In 2018, Givan introduced a measure to repeal the bill that barred the removal of monuments.

“I believe HB8 can achieve bipartisan support,” Givan said. “My bill seeks to balance the wishes of the people. It respects the will of communities that want the monuments removed. It also respects those who wish to preserve history. With this legislation, Confederate monuments could be relocated to a public site, like Confederate Memorial Park, whose purpose and mission is to interpret and tell these stories. When the Legislature convenes, I hope to have the support of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.”

If enacted, HB8 would permit county and municipal governments to remove memorial monuments, including permanent statues, portraits and markers, located on public property in their jurisdictions. It would require a transfer of ownership of the removed monuments to the Alabama Department of Archives and History or the Alabama Historical Commission. Finally, the bill would instruct Archives and History or the Historical Commission to maintain and display monuments removed by local authorities in a location accessible for public display.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps track of Confederate monuments and memorials across the country, released an update to its Whose Heritage report, which tracks symbols of the Confederacy on public land across the United States. They report at least 30 Confederate symbols have been removed or relocated since George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020.

These include 24 monuments removed, 5 monuments relocated and the Mississippi state flag replaced. Since the Charleston church shooting in 2015, 115 total symbols have been removed from public spaces. These include 87 monuments that have been removed or relocated from public spaces. At least 78 monuments were removed and nine were relocated.

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SPLC says there are still nearly 1,800 Confederate symbols on public land, and 739 of those symbols are monuments. The SPLC has prepared an “action guide” to help community activists target Confederate historical markers and memorials for removal.

President Donald Trump has denounced what he calls “cancel culture” that seeks to remove historical monuments and statutes.

“There is a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for, struggled, they bled to secure,” Trump said. “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.”

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Governor

Marsh’s budget hearing compared to revenge porn

Bill Britt

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Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, has scheduled a general fund budget hearing for early July — purportedly to prepare for the 2021 Legislative Session that begins in February.

But that is not the real reason for the budget hearing, according to Senate insiders who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid provoking Marsh. The actual purpose of public hearings, according to multiple sources, is to try to find a way to embarrass Gov. Kay Ivey.

In a press release from his office, Marsh says the budget meetings will focus on funding prison reform and rural broadband.

However, an agenda circulated for a July 9 budget committee meeting obtained by APR makes no mention of broadband and focuses entirely on the Ivey administration’s spending.

In the press release, Marsh said that the budget hearing is needed to address “a potential $2 billion-dollar prison reform proposal.”

But according to the Governor’s Office and published reports about Ivey’s prison reform plan, there is no mention of a $2 billion proposal as Marsh claims.

He also states that the other reason for the hearings is to address “a stunning lack of rural broadband investment.” However, broadband is not an item on the agenda.

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Marsh’s enmity toward Ivey was on full display in the days after the governor revealed his “Wish list” in May, to spend federal relief money on a variety of projects only vaguely related to the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to those who regularly interact with the Senate, he is still angry that Ivey exposed his plan to appropriate nearly $1.9 billion in federal relief money to finance pet projects, which included spending $200 million on a new State House.

The money the state received under the CARES Act was to be allocated to shore up business, citizens’ interests and institutions ravage by the shutdown due to the spread of COVID-19.

First, Marsh denied the existence of a “wish list,” then he said Ivey asked for it, and finally, he took ownership of the list and said he thought $200 million for a new State House is a “good idea.”

For weeks after the debacle, Marsh aided by some Senate Republicans tried to spin what happened without success.

Marsh had also wanted to use $800 million in CARES Act funds to build out rural broadband and had reportedly hoped to use the budget meeting to push his broadband plan forward.

Ivey blocked his plan to use CARES Act funds for pork projects and convinced the Legislature to reject Marsh’s preferred budget in favor of Ivey’s executive amendment.

“First Ivey made him look greedy and foolish and then she turned most of the Legislature against him,” said one of APR‘s sources.

Recently, Ivey was once again a step ahead of Marsh when just days after he announced his July budget hearings to consider broadband expansion, Ivey released her plan to spend $300 million on rural broadband, stealing his thunder.

According to APR‘s Senate sources, Ivey’s latest move was another blow to Marsh’s ego.

“Del, [Marsh] has power, but he’s never had to deal with a governor who knows how to counter him,” said another Senate insider.

Another regular observer of Marsh said, his latest move to hold budget hearings is akin to “revenge porn.”

“She dumped him, and now he wants to get even, sounds a lot like revenge porn to me,” the source said.

At the July hearing, Ivey Administration officials will be questioned on CARES Act spending, budgets for the department of corrections and pardons and parole.

Finance Director, Kelly Butler, will testify to what CARES funds have been spent and what remains.

ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn will be queried on several issues, including hiring, overtime pay, prison construction, and Holman prison’s status and personnel.

Pardons and Paroles Commissioner, Charles Graddick, will face the committee to discuss personnel costs, equipment purchases with an “emphasis upon computers, software, vehicles, office furniture and other substantial expenditures,” according to the document.

Lastly, the committee will question Personnel Department Director, Jackie Graham, to give an account for DOC and ABP&P personnel growth plans.

While it is wholly within the Legislature’s purview to approve and exercise oversight of government spending, this is not what the budget hearings are about according to APR’s sources.

According to several Senate insiders and others with knowledge of Marsh’s thinking, this is a move to paint Ivey’s administration as “out of control on spending.”

“This is a trap Marsh hopes to use for PR, but what if there’s nothing to see, how does he spin it,” asked an individual with close ties to the administration. “She’s kicked his tail before; she’ll likely do it again,” the source said.

 

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House

Senate pro tem requests general fund committee begin hearings in July

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Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, R-Anniston, announced today that he has asked Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee Chairman Greg Albritton, R-Range, to begin holding General Fund Committee meetings in preparation for the next session.

In an effort to be better prepared because of uncertainty in state revenue as a result of COVID-19 pandemic Senator Albritton has agreed with Senator Marsh and has invited Legislative Services, the Department of Finance, Pardons and Paroles, Corrections and the Personnel Department to provide updates to the committee.

“Typically, we begin this process closer to sessions however because of uncertainty about state income and possibility of special sessions, we felt like it was important to get started much earlier than usual in this process,” Senator Albritton said. “The Legislature has done an excellent job managing our budgets over the past few years. So much so that Alabama was able to weather the storm of the COVID-19 shutdown this year with little impact to our vital state services. We understand that we will not have final revenue projections until after July 15th, but we must continue to do our due diligence and ensure that we use taxpayer money sensibly.”

“We want to make sure that all public money is being used wisely, now and in the future,” Senator Marsh said. “We have many pressing issues facing the state such as a potential $2 billion-dollar prison reform proposal and a stunning lack of rural broadband investment which need to be addressed whenever the Legislature is back in session and it is our duty to make sure we are prepared and kept up to speed on these matters. Furthermore, the taxpayers deserve a clear and transparent view of how their money is being used.”

The hearings are scheduled to begin July 9 in the Alabama State House.

 

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Governor

Part-time employee in lieutenant governor’s office tests positive for COVID-19

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A part-time employee in Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth’s office, who the office said works only a handful of hours each week, tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday, according to a press statement.

The employee, whose work area is separated from the rest of the staff, last worked in the office on the morning of Thursday, June 18.

All members of the office staff have been tested or are in the process of being tested for COVID-19 in response, and, thus far, no additional positive results have been reported.

In addition, the State House suite has been thoroughly cleaned and will remain closed until all employees’ test results have been returned.

Employees are working remotely from home, and phones are being answered in order to continue providing services to the citizens who need them.

 

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