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Opinion | Jim Zeigler has reminded everyone how useless the state auditor is

Josh Moon

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Alabama is known for its bad politicians. 

From George Wallace to Mike Hubbard, and all the Guy Hunts and Robert Bentleys in between, we do political crooks better than anyone. And we’ve got more do-nothing, pander-happy, waste-of-space political dolts per capita than any other state. 

But rarely — I’d say maybe even never — has a politician come along who is so annoying, so pander-rific, so unbearable, so attention-starved, so utterly useless to everyone, including his own party, that legislators decided to completely eliminate his entire constitutional office. 

Not until State Auditor Jim Zeigler. 

On Thursday, Sen. Andrew Jones, who’s been in the Senate for about an hour, introduced a bill that would eliminate the state auditor’s office. That decision would have to be approved by voters, since the auditor is a constitutional office, so if the bill is approved by the Legislature it will appear on the November ballot. 

It would eliminate the office in 2022, which is when Zeigler would vacate it. But make no mistake about it, this bill came about because of Jim Zeigler. 

For years now, everyone has quietly wondered to themselves just what in the hell the state auditor does. And all of us secretly suspected that the auditor didn’t really do anything at all, but was instead like Milton from “Office Space” — surviving because someone forgot to fix a glitch in the system and the auditor, long after the invention of the computer and Internet, was somehow still getting a check. 

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Truthfully, the auditor’s position should have been eliminated once purchasing and inventory records landed online and were easily accessible by everyone in the state. 

Because all an auditor ever did was check purchases against inventory lists and ensure that the desk chair bought by the AG’s office wasn’t being used at the AG’s house. 

We don’t need that guy anymore. We haven’t needed that person in about 30 years now. 

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But we were all content, I believe, to go on allowing the position to remain because, honestly, it’s such a pain to eliminate it. You have to pass the bill in one house, then the other, then put it on the ballot and then get the people to vote — it’s a whole thing. And no one wanted to waste time on it. 

Until Jim Zeigler showed up. 

With his ridiculous ties and his shameless attention seeking. Worming his way into every controversial story. Issuing press releases and holding press conferences about things that have absolutely zero to do with auditing. Filing lawsuits against anyone for the simple pleasure of seeing his name in print somewhere. 

Along the way, though, as Zeigler alienated anyone within a 50-foot radius, he also reminded people that the state auditor’s office was still a thing. And when people tried to figure out just why in the world the state auditor was holding press conferences about the governor having an affair, those people had to first consider just what in the ever-loving hell the state auditor was actually supposed to be doing. 

And all of them came to the same conclusion: We have no idea, but we know it’s not much. Because if it was much, we wouldn’t let Zeigler do it. 

And then some people started to take a look at Zeigler — this seemingly harmless guy who has managed to insert himself, as state auditor, into a bridge debate in Mobile, a school tax debate in Athens, a governor’s investigation in Montgomery and a U.S. Senate race. 

Is he actually so harmless? 

This is, after all, the same guy who, by all appearances, misused a client’s funds so badly that the fee dispute committee of the Mobile Bar Association — a group of attorneys not exactly well known for its harsh strictness in punishing other attorneys — ordered him to give back $10,000 of a $12,000 retainer. 

A letter to Zeigler provided details of what he didn’t do after being paid by his elderly, veteran client: He didn’t do anything. 

The “complete estate planning,” for which his client had paid him, was left completely undone. Instead, Zeigler charged her for a number of services that did not require legal assistance, such as filling out a Medicaid nursing home eligibility form and a veterans aid and attendance application. 

Somewhere along the way, Zeigler was forced to give up his law license. 

Oh, he sold this story to everyone that he just didn’t want to pay the attorneys’ fees anymore, but that was nonsense. He could have placed the license on inactive status and not paid a dime. Instead, he agreed to surrender it to the disciplinary committee, and he told that committee that he would not try to get it back for at least two years.

Suspiciously, that is the exact same process and waiting period for a disbarred attorney. 

The bar keeps all of those records private, even after disciplinary action is taken, so there is no complete record of Zeigler’s possible transgressions. There’s no way to say for certain exactly what it is that Zeigler did, or didn’t do, or how he might have embarrassed us all one more time. 

But it was one more straw on the camel’s back. One more reminder that the state auditor wasn’t doing anything, except being an embarrassment. One more reminder that the state auditor was Jim Zeigler. 

And the response to all of that, from even his own party, is to get rid of the entire office.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Opinion | Ethics are dying and you don’t care

Josh Moon

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Alabamians don’t care about ethics. 

Just admit it. Or, actually, don’t even bother admitting it, because the evidence is quite clear. 

You don’t really care that much. 

Oh, sure, you say you do. Each election, when the pollsters start making calls asking you to rank what’s most important to you, you list ethics right up at the top. In most cases, it’s the No. 1 issue for voters, according to the polls. 

But that’s BS.  

Your supposed love of ethics is a facade. It’s something you say because you think you’re supposed to say it. But deep down, it’s like bottom five on your list. 

And I know this because I see who you vote for. 

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I see how you fail to punish those who abuse ethics laws, who skirt the rules of campaign finance, who seek to constantly roll back the protections put in place to ensure your government operates fairly and plays favorites as little as possible. 

Not a single person who has attacked Alabama ethics laws or who has been accused of violating campaign finance laws or ethics laws has lost an election in this state in recent years. 

Some have gone to jail and been forced to resign, but conservative voters in Alabama have sent exactly zero bad actors packing. And if we’re honest, I think we all know that Mike Hubbard — the face of political corruption in this state — would likely win his old House seat back if he ran in the next election.

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Because you care more about the R beside the name of a candidate than you do about the quality of the candidate. 

Don’t dispute this. 

In 2018, when Republicans in the state legislature carved out massive loopholes in the ethics laws, despite corruption prosecutors raising red flags, not a single person who voted for that monstrosity paid a political price. In fact, Republicans who were thought to be vulnerable won easily, despite their support of a bill that went against what was allegedly voters’ top priority. 

In that same election cycle, Attorney General Steve Marshall, who clearly seemed to have accepted campaign funds that violated Alabama laws, won easily. In the primary, when GOP voters could have chosen another Republican — one with a history of fighting public corruption — they still chose the establishment Republican, and turned a blind eye to sketchy ethical behavior. 

The sketchy ethical behavior of the state’s top law enforcement officer.

If you don’t care about that, there’s not much left. 

And so, here we are now, with one GOP hack after another whittling away at the ethics laws each and every year. 

A couple of years ago, we made broad exceptions for “economic developers.” Even as the most sensible and independent members of the ALGOP screamed bloody murder over the extra large loopholes. 

Last year, Sen. Greg Albritton tried to essentially remove ethics altogether, with a rewrite bill that was so shockingly brazen that even the party leadership had to turn its back on it. 

And this year, there are two more attempts to weaken the laws. 

One is from Rep. Mike Ball, who is one of Hubbard’s oldest and bestest pals, and a guy who has wanted to rewrite the ethics laws ever since his good buddy was sent to rich-white-guy’s prison in Alabama. Which is to say Hubbard is out on bond on appeal forever. 

Ball’s latest bill might just challenge Albritton’s for the most shamefully obvious attempt to undermine ethics laws. Except, instead of rewriting the laws, he just removes the portions that allow district attorneys and the AG’s office to prosecute them. Unless the charges go through the Ethics Commission first. 

So, the commission that is appointed by the legislature would be the only group that could bring ethics charges against the legislature.

A fox appointed by other foxes to guard the hen house. 

But we don’t stop there. 

In addition to Ball’s bill, there’s also one from Sen. Garlan Gudger that would get the revolving door swinging again. 

As part of the 2010 ethics reform package, lawmakers were prohibited from leaving their elected positions and accepting lobbying work for a period of two years. Gudger’s bill would carve out an extensive exception, allowing for former public employees to return to their old job — or ANY OTHER public position — and immediately start lobbying. 

Because, you know, just the other day, I passed by a group of people talking on the street about the things that really need fixing around this state, and their top issue was how unfair it was that these folks couldn’t work as lobbyists immediately. 

This is pathetic. 

These are people carving out exceptions for themselves and their buddies — working to rig the game so they can keep sucking up public dollars and making sure hefty contracts go to their pals. It’s government handouts for the wealthy and crooked. 

And you’d be outraged about it. If you cared at all.

 

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McCutcheon says public opinion is driving gambling debate

Brandon Moseley

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Thursday, Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, told reporters that public opinion is driving the debate on gambling.

Speaker McCutcheon praised Alabama Governor Kay Ivey’s (R) working group on gambling and said that a lot of good people had been appointed to that group.

At Gov. Ivey’s State of the State address, she told the Legislature to wait on bringing any gaming bills until her working group could be appointed, study the issue, and issue a recommendation on what sort of gambling should be passed by the legislature, if any. Thus far the Legislature has complied with the governor’s request.

The Alabama Political Reporter asked McCutcheon, there are only 24 legislative days left in this session, wouldn’t it make more sense for the legislature to give the Governor’s working group six months or whatever time they need to formulate a recommendation. That would give legislators time to carefully study and understand this proposal and bring it in the 2021 legislative session, rather than trying to pass a bill in the next few weeks without legislators having time to fully understand what it is that they are voting on.

McCutcheon agreed that that would be smart, but that public demand is driving this debate.

“Legislators are hearing from constituents who are asking why all of our neighboring states have lotteries and other gaming and we don’t,” McCutcheon said.

APR asked: this would be a constitutional amendment so if anything is wrong at all in the bill that passes it is not so easy to go in and fix. Doing it in a special session would give legislators more time to analyze the legislation.

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“That’s a good option, but public opinion is driving this train and that is growing,” McCutcheon replied.

Reporters asked what committee would the gambling bill be assigned to. Last year it went to tourism.

McCutcheon said that he needed to see the bill to know what committee it would be assigned to. “It could be an education lottery,” in which case it would go to education. We have to wait and see.

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Last year, the Senate passed a simple paper lottery proposal that would have brought revenue to the state general fund (SGF). Some legislators in the House objected and argued that gambling funds should go to education. Others objected to the lottery bill because it did not have video lottery terminals (VLTs) at the existing dog tracks.

Before this legislative session began, the Poarch Creek band of Indians (PCI) which operate two large video bingo casinos in Wetumpka and Atmore, presented a proposal which would bring the state “a billion dollars” in exchange for a compact with the state. In exchange the state would fully legitimize their existing gaming facilities, allow them to expand those to full Class A gaming with table games, allow the tribe to build new casinos in Birmingham and Huntsville, and a sports book. There would also be a lottery. The existing dog track operators in Shorter, Birmingham, and Greene County object to this proposal because it would give PCI a de facto gaming monopoly.

Gambling opponents argue than any lottery or expansion of gambling proposal would prey on people who don’t understand math and would adversely affect the poorest among us.

 

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Weekly Legislative Session Report: Week Three

Beth Lyons

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The Alabama Legislature met in session for Day 5 of the annual Regular Session on Tuesday, February 18. Twenty-eight committee meetings were held during the week to consider legislation. Both Houses met in session on Thursday, February 20 for Day 6.

535 bills have been introduced so far this Session.

The Legislature will return to Montgomery on Mardi Gras for Day 7 of the Session with the House convening at 1:00 p.m. and the Senate convening at 2:00 p.m..

DURING THE WEEK

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on SB165 by Senator Tim Melson. The bill, named the “Compassion Act,” creates an appointed nine member medical cannabis commission to oversee regulations and licensing for medical cannabis cultivators, processors, and dispensaries, and requires a statewide seed-to-sale tracking system for all medical cannabis in the state. The bill does not allow for the smoking or vaping of marijuana or edible forms of the drug. However, treatment in the form of pills, gelatinous cubes, gels, orals or creams, transdermal patches, and nebulizers will be allowed.

Patients would receive a state issued Medical Cannabis Card and a patient registry would be established. Medical conditions are enumerated in the bill, including Crohn’s Disease, HIV/Aids Related nausea, cancer-related chronic pain, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Proponents and opponents spoke on the bill. After several amendments were adopted by the Committee, the bill was given a favorable report.

The House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee held a public hearing, but did not vote, on HB79 by Representative Tim Wadsworth that would authorize a judge of probate, district judge, or circuit judge to carry a pistol openly or concealed in a courtroom, courthouse, courthouse property, and within his or her office.

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Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) Director Lance LeFleur and staff briefed the Mobile and Baldwin delegations on the structure and timeline of the containment, clean up, and monitoring of the Barry Steam Plant Coal Ash Deposit in Mobile County.

The Senate confirmed nine of the Governor’s board and commission appointments this week including Leslie D. Sanders to the Board of Human Resources, Representative Rod Scott to the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, and Wendall Wilkie Gunn to the University of North Alabama Board of Trustees.

BILLS PASSED BY HOUSE:

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HB46 by Rep. Hollis HB66 by Rep. McClammy
HB84 by Rep. Hill HB140 by Rep. Baker

BILLS PASSED BY SENATE:

SB53 by Sen. Burkette
SB106 by Sen. Barfoot

To prohibit the smoking of tobacco products or vaping in a motor vehicle when a child aged 14 or under is in the vehicle.

To authorize a municipality or county to establish a local redevelopment authority for property that is contiguous to an active US Air Force military installation.

To limit mayoral pardons in relation to convictions for domestic violence.

To provide that landfills covered by substances other than earth are included within the definition of a landfill.

To authorize a municipality or county to establish a local redevelopment authority for property that is contiguous to an active US Air Force military installation.

To authorize the formation of charter schools near military installations with a focus on serving military dependents.

HOUSE:

HB35 by Rep. Pringle
HB69 by Rep. Rich
HB74 by Rep. K. Brown

To prohibit public K-12 schools from participating in, sponsoring, or provide coaching staff for interscholastic athletic events at which athletes are allowed to participate in competition against athletes who are of a different biological gender (House State Government Committee).

To increase the fees for issuing permits in the regulation of of the manufacturing, sale, display of fireworks, and for the use of pyrotechnics before an audience with 5% of the total fee going to the Alabama Firefighters Annuity and Benefit Fund (House Insurance Committee).

To prohibit the operator of a motor vehicle from using a wireless communication device in any manner that would require the operator to physically hold the device (Amended in House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee).

SIGNIFICANT FLOOR ACTION THIS WEEK

NOTEWORTHY BILLS REPORTED FROM COMMITTEE THIS WEEK

HB81 by Rep. C. Brown
HB110 by Rep. C. Brown
HB113 by Rep. C. Brown HB209 by Rep. McMillan
HB233 by Rep. Reynolds
HB272 by Rep. Weaver

SENATE:
HB147 by Rep. Sells
SB59 by Sen. Ward
SB60 by Sen. Ward SB177 by Sen. Gudger
SB183 by Senator Sessions

A proposed Constitutional Amendment to provide that a person charged with a Class A felony, when the proof is evident or the presumption is great, and if no conditions of release can reasonably protect the community from risk of physical harm, be denied bail before conviction (Amended in House Judiciary Committee).

To designate the Dauphin Island Sea Lab’s Alabama Aquarium as the official Aquarium of Alabama (House State Government Committee).

To provide for additional offenses that would require mandatory denial of bail (Amended in House Judiciary Committee).

To permit a pet dog in an outdoor dining area of a food service establishment under certain conditions (House County and Municipal Government).

To allow a municipality to use electronic records and signatures in the conduct of its affairs (House County and Municipal Government Committee).

To revise deadlines for candidates to qualify for the November 3, 2020 general election to accommodate the dates of the 2020 Republican National Convention (House Constitution, Campaigns and Elections Committee).

To prohibit a municipality that does not already have an occupational tax from imposing an occupational tax unless authorized by local law (Senate Governmental Affairs).

A proposed Constitutional Amendment to provide that all individuals are entitled to reasonable bail prior to conviction, except for offenses enumerated by the Legislature by general law (Substituted by Senate Judiciary Committee).

To provide for additional offenses that would require mandatory denial of bail (Substituted by Senate Judiciary).

To provide that former public employees may resume employment with their former employer or with another public employer during the 2 year prohibition against lobbying or otherwise representing clients before the government body for which he or she had worked (Amended in Senate Fiscal Responsibility ond Economic Development Committee).

To authorize any county to issue bonds to refund certain bonds previously issued by the county, and to ratify and confirm the validity of any refunding bonds originally issued prior to January 1, 2011 (Amended in Senate Banking and Insurance Committee).

SB196 by Sen. Williams

To provide the Department of Agriculture and Industries with exclusive jurisdiction over the regulation of working animals; to provide a reporting and investigation process for alleged violations of animal cruelty (Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee).

SIGNIFICANT INTRODUCTIONS THIS WEEK

A proposed Constitutional Amendment that would authorize municipalities to levy and collect ad valorem tax for the purpose of paying debt service on bonds, and the costs of public capital improvements (House County and Municipal Government Committee).
To specify that the definition of gross receipts, for the purposes of municipal business license taxes, does not include any excise tax imposed by the federal, state, and local governments (House County and Municipal Government Committee).

To exempt slot machines manufactured prior to 1960 from the crime of possession of a gambling device under certain circumstances (House Judiciary Committee).

To create the Alabama Church Protection Act to provide for the justification for a person to use deadly phycial force in self-defense or in the defense of another on the premises of a church in certain circumstances (House Judiciary Committee).

To require each public school senior to legibly print and sign his or her name in cursive writing as a requirement for graduation from high school (House Education Policy Committee).

To provide that if a person is convicted of boating under the influence, the person’s boating license and driver’s license will be suspended (House Judiciary Committee).
To authorize the adoption of local legislation authorizing wagering on professional, collegiate, and amateur sports contests and athletic events (House Judiciary Committee).
To prohibit a medical procedure on or medication to a minor child that is intended to alter the minor child’s gender or delay puberty (House Health Committee).

HOUSE:

HB253 by Rep. Ball
HB258 by Rep. Crawford
HB260 by Rep. C. Brown
HB263 by Rep. Greer
HB270 by Rep. Sells
HB284 by Rep. Shaver
HB301 by Rep. Rogers
HB303 by Rep. Allen
Page 4 of 6

SENATE:

MSB194 by Senator Waggoner
SB217 by Sen. Whatley
SB219 by Sen. Shelnutt
SB110 by Sen. Figures

To revise deadlines for candidates to qualify for the November 3, 2020 general election to accommodate the dates of the 2020 Republican National Convention (Senate Governmental Affairs Committee).

To require a municipality or county that levies a motor fuel tax to use the proceeds for road and bridge construction and maintenance with certain exceptions (Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee).

To prohibit a medical procedure on or medication to a minor child that is intended to alter the minor child’s gender or delay puberty (Senate Healthcare Committee).

To repeal Act 2019-189 making abortion or attempted abortion a felony (Senate Judiciary Committee).

 

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House passes landfill bill allowing alternative materials as temporary cover

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday to change the statutory definition so that temporary “cover” in landfills can be a material other than “earth.”

House Bill 140 is sponsored by State Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton.

The bill allows landfills to use alternative daily covers in place of earth to cover landfills until the next business day. “The EPA has allowed this since 1979,” Baker said. It would save landfills the cost of using earth for daily cover.

“This does not change anything in the operating rules for landfills,” Baker said.

A number of members from both parties expressed concerns about this bill on Tuesday, so the bill was carried over until Thursday.

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon told reporters, “Sometimes in a debate you can see that the debate is not a filibuster or anti-debate; but rather is an honest effort by members to understand a bill.”

“There was a lot of misinformation out there,” McCutcheon said. The Environmental Services Agency and ADEM were brought in to explain the members and address their concerns.

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McCutcheon said that human biosolids is a separate issue and that Rep. Tommy Hanes has introduced legislation dealing with that issue.

Alternative daily cover is often described as cover material other than earthen material placed on the surface of the active face of a municipal solid waste landfill at the end of each operating day. It is utilized to control vectors, fires, odors, blowing litter, and scavenging. Federal and various state regulations require landfill operators to use such earthen material unless other materials are allowed as alternatives (Mitchell Williams writing on Oct 31 in JDSUPRA).

Soil cover can use valuable air space. Further, it can generate the need to excavate and haul soil to the facility. Alternative daily covers are often advocated to be a more efficient and cost-effective means of cover (Williams).

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Baker said that it would be up to ADEM (the Alabama Department of Environmental Management) in the permit whether to allow a proposed alternative cover or not.

Baker said, “This bill does not change any of the materials used as cover.” “This would keep us from having to use that good earth in landfills when other materials are available. If it becomes a nuisance ADEM can revoke a cover on the permit. Daily cover has to be approved at the discretion of ADEM.”

Baker said that only materials not constituted as a risk to health or are not a hazard can be used.

An environmental attorney shared the list of ADEM alternative covers with the Alabama Political Reporter. The list includes: auto fluff, excavated waste, synthetic tarps, coal ash, petroleum contaminated soil, automotive shredder residue, shredder fluff, wiring insulation, contaminated soils, paper mill (including wood debris, ash shaker grit, clarifier sludge, dregs, lime), 50 percent on-site soil and 50 percent tire chips, spray-on polymer-based materials, reusable geosynthetic cover, automobile shredder fluff, tarps, foundry sand, clay emulsion known as USA Cover Top clay emulsion, non-hazardous contaminated soil, non-hazardous solid waste clarifier sludge, steckle dust all generated from Nucor Steel Tuscaloosa Inc., non-coal ash from Kimberly Clark operations, lagoon sludge from Armstrong World Industries operations, meltshop refractory material from Outokumpu Stainless USA operations, paper mill waste (non-coal ash, slaker grits, dregs, and lime), biodegradable synthetic film, fly ash, residue from wood chipper or paper, slurry with a fire retardant and tactifierl, Posi Shell Cover System, waste Cover, foundry waste, 50 percent soil and 50 percent automobile shredder fluff, incinerator ash, green waste to soil. Sure Clay Emulsion Coating, alternative cover materials (manufactured), compost produced by IREP Montgomery-MRF, LLC, 50 percent saw dust mixed with 50 percent soil, and waste soils considered to be special waste.

McCutcheon said that members did not understand that these were just temporary covers. That was explained to them.

Alabama landfills have used alternative covers for years; but three people sued saying that this was not allowed under Alabama law and that ADEM had exceeded its mandate by permitting alternate covers. On October 11, 2019 the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals found in favor of the plaintiffs.

HB140, if passed, would address this oversight in the Alabama legal code so that ADEM and the landfills can legally continue to use alternate covers and not have the added expense of quarrying dirt for daily cover.

A Senate version of the same bill received a favorable report last week from the Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development Committee.

HB140 now goes to the Alabama Senate.

 

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