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Bill Britt

Opinion | Prisons, rural healthcare and gaming need Alabama solutions

Bill Britt

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The problems that lay before the Alabama Legislature in the coming 2020 session are complex but not so Byzantine as to be unsolvable.

Of the many tasks before state government is what to do about prisons, how to fix rural health care and how to profit from and regulate gaming.

One of these issues alone would be daunting enough to consume an entire Legislative Session, and yet it appears there is no time left on the clock to punt and hope for a miracle.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., in his book, Miles To Go, warned, “Ideological certainty easily degenerates into an insistence upon ignorance. The great strength of political conservatives at this time (and for a generation) is that they are open to the thought that matters are complex. Liberals have got into a reflexive pattern of denying this.”

Perhaps today, the roles are somewhat reversed.

But Moynihan, in 1993, wasn’t talking about conservatives with a capital letter C but lower case as in an ideology that calls for a slow and reasoned approach to policy based on fact and not feeling leading to evidence-based solutions.

Prisons

Gov. Kay Ivey has made it abundantly clear that her administration is determined to build three new men’s correctional facilities. Ivey’s move is not without controversy, but after decades of half-measures and inaction, her administration is facing the problem head-on.

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The three new facilities will not solve every crisis within the state’s correctional system, but it is an obvious beginning.

Rulings by federal Judge Myron Thompson is forcing the state to act. Further pressure is coming from the DOJ, which found “reasonable cause to believe that conditions at Alabama’s prisons violate the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution,” which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

DOJ is threatening a takeover of the state’s prison system but, for now, is waiting to see if the state will correct the problems on its own.

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Ivey’s administration, along with a handful of lawmakers—who understand the severity of the problems— is working with DOJ to stave off a costly federal intervention.

But here you have a handful of lawmakers who don’t believe the federal government is serious and therefore continue to kick against the idea of building new prisons. This denial by certain legislators fits nicely into Moynihan’s description of “insistence upon ignorance.” “Insistence upon ignorance” is also the hobgoblin that haunts those who insist that the state doesn’t need justice reform.

“Today, Alabama’s incarceration rates stand out internationally,” according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit, non-partisan organization known as a “go-to source for timely, actionable data about our criminal justice system.”

There are only two ways to reduce prison overcrowding, how many people are placed in prison and how many are let out.

The state cannot continue to build more and more prisons, so it must address who goes in and who is let out.

Building new facilities as Ivey plans to do is the right first step.

Rural healthcare

Another Gordian Knot is how to address rural healthcare. There is a sword called expanding Medicaid that could slice through the problem, but that is not a solution currently being considered by Alabama’s political leaders.

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, at a recent gathering of the Alabama County Commissioners Association suggested clinic type care in rural areas to address underserved locations.

Alabama is home to 122 hospitals, with 43 being located in Jefferson, Madison, Morgan, Mobile and Montgomery Counties. Seven rural Alabama counties Cleburne, Coosa, Henry, Lamar, Lowndes, Macon, and Perry, do not have a hospital.

“Rural Hospitals are always on the closure edge,” said State Rep. Tim Wadsworth, who represents a rural portion of the state. Wadsworth, in an Op-Ed published a few weeks ago at APR, suggested some creative solutions, which include rural hospitals exposing new sources of revenue.

“Rural hospitals could increase their revenue by utilizing those beds for nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, dental, eye clinics and rehabilitation clinics,” writes Wadsworth.

A study by Alabama Arise finds that Medicaid expansion would help more than 340,000 Alabamians get health coverage, stabilize our rural hospitals and jump-start our economy – all for a dime on the dollar. It’s a bargain Alabama can’t afford to pass up.

However, there are still Republican lawmakers who contend that the Affordable Care Act is an abomination that should be repealed and replaced.

“Polling during the course of the midterm elections found the ACA to be popular with a majority of Americans,” according to ACA Times. “A Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll conducted the week after the 2018 midterm election, saw the ACA continuing to be viewed favorably by 53 percent of the public. New KFF polling in January saw that favorable view continuing, with 51 percent of the public viewing the ACA favorably.”

To date, 36 states and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid, which means some 64 percent of the nation’s population is under ACA.

Alabama politicians say the state simply can’t afford expansion; however, studies have found that the expansion generally pays for itself.

It’s unclear at this time if there are any widely agreed-upon solutions to the rural healthcare situation.

Gaming

The “Bingo wars” initiated and some believe fabricated by then-Gov. Bob Riley has been a bust for the state but a boom for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians who hold an almost complete monopoly on gambling in the state.

PCI has become so rich off its gaming operations that it is offering the state one billion dollars for a complete monopoly.

Some lawmakers seem eager to accept the tribe’s offer, but others are not swayed that PCI’s proposal is in the best interest of the state.

Speaker McCutcheon, while addressing the ACCA, said, “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.”

A few years ago, PCI and the counties that operate bingo and dog tracks came together for just the sort of meeting that McCutcheon says is needed. The track owners were ready for a deal, but PCI was not.

PCI, while still confident they hold the winning position, are now more interested in a compact because they have reason to fear the Trump administration who may follow the law more succinctly than previous presidents. According to the law governing tribal gaming, a tribe cannot offer any games that are not legal in the state. If state law holds that electronic bingo is illegal—which it does—then PCI can’t offer the games they currently have at their three Alabama casinos. While the Bush and Obama administrations ignored this fact of law, President Trump may not.

McCutcheon’s idea of a grand bargain that heavily taxes and regulates gaming is an ideal solution.

PCI has made an opening bid. It is outrageous and wholly self-serving, but it’s a start.

Attorney General Steve Marshall must be commended for showing proper restraint as the Legislature tried to address the bingo issue.

Alabama already has gambling. The question is, how do we best regulate, tax and benefit the state?

Bowing to PCI is not a honest solution but there is a plan that can generate hundreds of millions annually for the state and is fair to all stakeholders.

The vexing questions that face our state are not easily answered, but with rational consideration, wise counsel and a willingness not to be hindered by ideological-emotion, there is a path forward.

Gov. Ivey has shown steady and forward-thinking leadership; her position on prisons is known but her stance on rural healthcare and gaming are not clearly articulated.

For the good of the state, we should hope she offers some “Alabama solutions” to healthcare and gaming, as well.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Deception, subtlety and the wholesale destruction of current ethics laws mark proposed rewrite

Bill Britt

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Legislation proposed by Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, would radically alter the existing State Ethics Act rendering it useless as an effective tool to regulate the behavior of public officials, much less prosecute a rouge lawmaker.

Testifying at a pre-trial hearing in the criminal case against then-Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard in April 2015, Ball said the ethics laws needed amending to avoid prosecutions like Hubbard’s in the future.

If HB179 becomes law, Ball will have fulfilled the words he spoke at the Lee County Court House, where Hubbard was tried and convicted.

As House Ethics Committee Chair, Ball has sought to change the State’s Act since Hubbard was indicted.

Ball’s bill is subtly written from an enforcement and trial perspective to neuter the law.

Words are added, deleted, and meanings changed in ways that might look harmless but actually open the door for the kind of corruption Republicans vowed to change in 2010, when they passed the toughness in the nation’s ethics laws.

Beyond changes that would allow for general corruption to go unpunished, Ball’s legislation would strip the Attorney General and district attorneys of their power to prosecute anyone who violates the ethics laws without first securing approval from the State Ethics Commission.

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All prosecution of any public official would first have to be approved by the Ethics Commission, a group that has repeatedly shown that it bends its decisions according to the prevailing political winds.

HB179 reads in part, “This bill would prohibit the Attorney General or a district attorney from presenting a suspected ethics violation by an individual subject to the code of ethics, other than a member or employee of the commission, to a grand jury without a referral by the commission.”

In other words, Ball would have a politically-appointed commission decide if law-enforcement agencies can seek indictments against wrongdoers.

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Neither the Attorney General or a county district attorney can even impanel a grand jury in an ethics probe without the commission first finding probable cause.

Some of Ball’s alterations come in the form of removing whole sections of the law under the guise of redefining words, like “a thing of value” or “widely attended event.”

An example of how Ball’s legislation plays with the law is under the section of code, which defines a family member of a public official. Currently, a family member is “[t]he spouse, a dependent, an adult child and his or her spouse, a parent, a spouse’s parents, a sibling and his or her spouse, of the public official.” Ball changes it so it only includes a spouse and a dependent. That means that a public official may act to enrich his adult children, a parent, an in-law a brother, or a sister. These small but destructive alterations to the law are at the heart of Ball’s legislation.

Some loopholes are so extensive that a sitting legislator could be paid by a city or county governmental economic development entity and still seat in the Legislature voting on bills that might directly affect his consulting client.

Out-of-state junkets make a comeback as do several other goodies lawmakers have been desiring.

It seems Republicans want to cash in on the rewards of office like Democrats did once upon a time.

One thing is clear, Ball didn’t write the bill, but whoever did knew precisely what they were doing and were probably paid handsomely for their efforts.

There are so many cunningly deceptive changes to the ethics laws in Ball’s bill as to make it impossible to catch them all without days of intense study—and perhaps a team of lawyers.

Ball, one of Hubbard’s most an ardent defenders has said Hubbard’s indictment and conviction was a political witch hunt. He has said he wants to rewrite the ethics laws to save future Hubbards; it now looks as if he has.

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | PCI’s billion dollar plan raises questions

Bill Britt

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Over the last few months, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians has flooded the state with an advertising campaign touting a billion-dollar package labeled “Winning for Alabama.”

How the plan benefits Alabama is a fuzzy moving target, but there are many advantages for the tribe.

Beyond giving PCI a monopoly over Las Vegas-style gaming, it also cements PCI’s tribal status.

Since 2009, PCI and other tribes federally recognized after 1934, have lobbied Congress for a “Carcieri fix,” to guarantee they are safe from losing federal recognition and with it the right to operate tribal gaming.

In Carcieri v. Salazar, 555 U.S. 379 (2009), the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the phrase of tribes “now under Federal jurisdiction” in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, referred only to those tribes that were federally recognized when the act was passed. PCI wasn’t recognized until 1984.

A compact with the state would end the threat  that hangs over PCI and its billion-dollar casino empire in Alabama.

Over the past several years, U.S. Congressman Bradley Byrne—who is now running for Senate—has pushed legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to protect the tribe from any challenges under the Carcieri ruling. Byrne’s efforts have been unsuccessful due to resistance from Alabama’s senior U.S. Senator Richard Shelby.

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Poarch Band of Creek Indians face uncertainty

Byrne saw his 2018 legislation falter when Shelby made it known the bill would not get a hearing in the Senate.

At the time, APR contacted Shelby’s office for comment, “Senator Shelby does not support the bill and has no plans to do so in the future,” wrote Shelby’s communications director, Blair Taylor. Likewise, APR reached out to Gov. Kay Ivey’s office where then-spokesperson, Daniel Sparkman, told APR, “Governor Ivey has no plans to write such a letter,” encouraging Senator Shelby to support a Land Reaffirmation Act.

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A compact with the state would likely end any further concerns over a Carcieri fix.

While PCI is courting voters and lawmakers, ultimately, it is Gov. Ivey, who has the authority to negotiate a compact with the tribe. At this juncture, Ivey’s thinking isn’t known, but given her history, she will look hard and long at any gaming plan that requires her signature to enter into a compact with PCI.

PCI’s proposal raises several questions, not the least of which are “can the state give the tribe a monopoly over table gaming, and how much money will the state actually receive from PCI’s plan?”

The proposal is vague in specifics and the math is hazy  at best, but according to PCI’s website and promotional materials, the plan includes: “$725 Million in combined license and compact fees from existing properties and two new locations, PLUS $350 Million in projected tax revenue and revenue share from gaming, including sportsbook and table games, PLUS.”

For the one-time payment and projected future tax revenue, PCI wants the state to enter into a compact with the tribe and also give them exclusive rights over table gaming throughout the state. That is giving a lot for little return when in fact a state lottery with all the bells and whistles could produce around $400 million in tax revenue for the state without giving anyone a monopoly.

Opinion | There’s a better gambling deal to be made

All tribal gaming falls under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, which lists the different categories of gambling permitted by tribal entities.

Currently, PCI operates class II gaming in Alabama.

Class II gaming, according to IGRA, are:

“Bingo, pull-tabs and other similar games, including non-banking card games not prohibited by state law.”

IGRA states that PCI can only offer games that are “not prohibited by state law.”

The Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that electronic bingo machines are illegal. However, PCI offers electronic bingo at its facilities in Atmore, Montgomery and Wetumpka.

IGRA also states, “Expressly excluded from Class II gaming are banking card games, such as blackjack or slot machines of any kind.”

To offer blackjack, roulette, or other table games, PCI would need a compact with the state, which must be negotiated by the state’s governor, which presently is Ivey.

Class III games are according to IGRA: “All forms of gaming that are not included under Class I or Class II, such as blackjack and slot machines.”

Other provisions of Class III conclude that “the games are located in a state that permits gaming for any purpose by any person.”

This section of IGRA would seem to prevent the state from granting PCI exclusivity over Class III Las Vegas-style gaming, but this is a question that will be answered by attorneys.

PCI has done very well since it became a de facto gaming monopoly in the state as a result of then-Gov. Bob Riley’s bingo wars.

Year after year, PCI and its Republican allies in the state Legislature have killed any lottery or gaming plans that threatened the tribe’s monopoly.

The billion-dollar plan is seen as tempting to some lawmakers, but its success or failure rests with Gov. Ivey, who is responsible if a compact with the tribe is to be negotiated.

Many unanswered questions must be considered before the state should entertain PCI’s billion-dollar plan; perhaps most importantly, how does Carcieri v. Salazar affect the tribe’s federal standing and what are the benefits for the state?

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Bill Britt

Opinion | PCI supported President Trump’s rivals but want state Republican to do their bidding

Bill Britt

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In 2016, Alabamians overwhelmingly supported Donald J. Trump for president. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians, however, put the majority of their money behind his rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

PCI gave Clinton $150,000 in 2016, but only $25,000 to Trump. Likewise, in 2012, PCI contributed $135,000 to Barack Obama. In both elections, the Poarch Creeks sided with Trump’s nemeses.

Even after Clinton’s loss, PCI donated $203,400 to the DNC Services Corp./Dem. National Committee.

In fact, of the 13 most substantial contributions made by the tribe in federal elections over the last several years, eleven donations went to Democrat candidates or organizations while only two went to Republican causes.

If money is the mother’s milk of politics, then PCI’s top donations are nourishing Democrats nationally and starving Republicans.

In a pro-Trump state, the Poarch Creeks —who backed Hillary for president—are asking Republican lawmakers to give them a state-sanctioned monopoly over gaming.

Principled Republicans might see a problem with giving so much power to a group whose money goes to candidates with values so diametrically opposed to their own.

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Currently, PCI gives generously to Alabama Republicans, but once those conservative lawmakers turn over gambling in the state to the tribe, is it not possible that they will then switch back to their political roots and support Clinton-type Democrats for state offices?

PCI stokes Alabama Republicans for now, but what happens when they no longer need them to do their bidding?

Just last year, PCI contributed to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

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Money from PCI to the DSCC will go to giving Chuck Schumer control over the U.S. Senate while their support for DCCC will increase Democrats in the House.

“DCCC is the only political committee in the country whose principal mission is to support Democratic House candidates every step of the way,” according to the group’s website.

Do Alabama Republicans not realize that PCI is supporting the very group that elected candidates they claim to despise like AOC and the squad?

In 2018, DCCC’s campaign contributions flipped the U.S. House of Representatives, giving control of the chamber to Nancy Pelosi. In return, Pelosi led House Democrats to impeach President Trump.

Isn’t it hypocritical to loathe Democrats on the one hand while accepting donations from their patrons with the other?

Of PCI’s largest contributions, only two went to Republicans, one was in 2014, to the Congressional Leadership Fund and the other was to John Boehner for Speaker in 2015.

State Republicans howl against Anti-Trump and Pro Socialist Democrats but line-up to support PCI which has given maximum donations to Nancy Pelosi.

Perhaps PCI gave Trump chump change because, as a businessman casino owner, he dared point out the unfair advantages tribal gaming has over private operators. But maybe they are afraid the Trump administration will enforce the law which says PCI can’t operate any games that are illegal in the state.

Obama didn’t enforce the law and Clinton surely would not have. Maybe Trump will.

PCI, for now, is cozy with state Republicans, but their national support for Democrats should serve as a warning that things can change.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | MLK Day: A time for change

Bill Britt

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Today, as the nation celebrates MLK Day, Alabama still tacks Robert E. Lee onto its observances. But it’s time to end that practice as a new generation deserves to see a better Alabama.

Alabama Code, Title 1. General Provisions § 1-3-8 enumerates the state’s legal public holidays, which lists the third Monday in January as an observance for Martin Luther King Jr., and also Robert E. Lee.

How long will our state’s leaders cling to the past? Isn’t it time to put away the false equivalency between King and Lee?

Both men were flawed, but while Lee’s reputation has diminished with time, King’s has grown.

Lee may have once represented a proud South, but today he is seen as a symbol of bloody slavery.

Over time, King’s legacy has flourished and now stands as a beacon of hope to millions, not just in the United States, but around the world.

In her 2019 Inaugural Address, Gov. Kay Ivey acknowledged, “Thankfully, the Alabama we live in today – the Alabama we love – has changed with the times and, in most instances, this change has been for the better.

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But we would be less than honest with each other if we did not acknowledge that change has not always come easily. Standing here on Dexter Avenue, we are reminded of two different chapters in Alabama history: a time when the Civil War raged and 90 years later when the Civil Rights movement was inspired.

It is important for all of us to acknowledge our past; after all, it was at a pulpit just down the street that Doctor Martin Luther King Junior so powerfully taught us how to confront struggles with honesty, courage, and love.

Having learned from the past, let’s now turn our focus to the future, which is filled with so much hope and opportunity.”

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Sadly, some in our state can’t admit Alabama’s  past, much less let go of the legacies that still haunt the state.

That Lee shares the day with King is a relic from our not so honorable history.

Almost immediately after King’s assassination in 1968, there were calls for a holiday commemorating his January 15 birthday, a struggle that would be fraught with conflict for 15 years.

President Ronald Reagan signed the bill making MLK Day a national holiday on November 2, 1983, but even he wasn’t convinced that it was best for the nation as he said a King holiday was “based on an image, not reality,” according to a letter he wrote to former Gov. Meldrim Thomson Jr. of New Hampshire.

After Reagan’s remarks were made public, he called King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, to apologize for any misunderstanding about his comment, according to a 1983 report by the New York Times.

Up until the passage of MLK Day legislation, North Carolina U.S. Senator Jesse Helms railed against the measure, accusing King of being a Communist sympathizer. Helms threatened to filibuster, tried to open King’s sealed FBI files and estimated that the cost of a new national holiday would be $12 billion in lost productivity.

Still, today, even in the halls of the Alabama State House, Helms’ argument is still being made.

Efforts to erect a monument to King on Dexter avenue are fought with the same rhetoric and passion that fueled Helms, except today, they are mostly in whispers-tones and code-speaks.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and a host of the founding generation’s notables were slave owners and men with questionable private lives. Still, nevertheless, they are celebrated for their accomplishments, not chased for their failings.

Turbulent water running under the bridge that divides our nation along racial lines is stirred by those who would convince us that they are deep, but they are not deep only muddy making us fear to cross.

King’s legacy is the embodiment of nonviolent activism for civil rights, which has been replicated on nearly every continent around the globe.

After the King Holiday Bill was signed, Coretta Scott King said, “This is not a black holiday; it is a people’s holiday.”

It is time to change because MLK Day cannot be a people’s holiday in Alabama, as long as it’s a Lee holiday, too.

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