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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. 

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. 

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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. 

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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Congress

Brooks, Palmer join lawsuit against House’s proxy voting rule change

Brandon Moseley

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U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Hoover, and Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, have joined constituents and members of the House Republican Conference as plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a recently passed resolution that allows representatives to cast votes for themselves and others on the House floor, known as proxy voting.

The rule change was supported largely by Democrats along party lines who said it was needed during the pandemic to protect the health and safety of members of Congress.

“This rule change is not a mere procedure change, but a direct assault on the Constitution and over 200 years of precedent,” Palmer said. “The Constitution requires that Congress assembles. There is no emergency so great that Congress cannot meet to do its job of representing the people.”

Brooks said the proxy voting scheme is not only “unprecedented and antithetical” to the job of a House member, but it is also “blatantly unconstitutional.”

“Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution requires that a ‘a Majority of each (House of Congress) shall constitute a Quorum to do Business; . . . and (each House) may be authorized to compel the Attendance of absent Members,'” Brooks said. “The Constitution requires that the House assemble a majority of its Members to conduct business, and there is no more serious House business than voting.”

Palmer said members of Congress should rise to the challenge of the pandemic and meet in person.

“Our history is littered with wars, pandemics, and attacks on American soil, but none of that has ever prevented Congress from meeting to do the people’s business,” Palmer said. “The current public health crisis should not change that precedent. Precautions can be taken, but Congress must show up to work like everyone else.”

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of California is the leader of the proxy vote lawsuit. Alabama Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose, is already one of the plaintiffs.

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Byrne sues Speaker Pelosi to stop House rule changes

“The Constitution is clear that a majority must be present for the House to conduct business,” Byrne said. “Speaker Pelosi’s attempt to allow Democrats to cast multiple ‘proxy’ votes for their colleagues is a blatant violation of the Constitution. Under rules adopted last week, as few as 22 Democrats could claim a quorum and win a vote against all 197 Republicans. This scheme gives Pelosi and her lieutenants complete and dangerous unconstitutional powers. If Democrats won’t show up to vote, they should turn the speaker’s gavel over to Leader McCarthy and the Republicans who are actually willing to show up and work for the people they represent.”

“This week, House Democrats will break over 230 years of precedent and allow Members of Congress to vote by proxy on the House floor,” Leader McCarthy said. “This is not simply arcane parliamentary procedure. It is a brazen violation of the Constitution, a dereliction of our duty as elected officials, and would silence the American people’s voice during a crisis. Although I wish this matter could have been solved on a bipartisan basis, the stakes are too high to let this injustice go unaddressed. That is why, along with other members of the House and our constituents, I have filed a lawsuit in federal court to overturn Speaker Pelosi’s unconstitutional power grab.”

The Republican plaintiffs point out that in the last 231 years, the House of Representatives has never permitted a member to vote by proxy from the floor of the chamber. This includes during the Yellow Fever of 1793, the Civil War, the burning of the Capitol during the War of 1812, the Spanish Flu of 1918 and 9/11.

The GOP plaintiffs claim that voting by proxy is flatly prohibited by the Constitution.

Article I, Section 4, Clause 2 states: “The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall . . . .” o Article I, Section 5, Clause 1 states: “Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections . . . and a Majority of each shall constitute a Quorum to do Business; . . . and may be authorized to compel the Attendance of absent Members.” o Article I, Section 6, Clause 1 states: “The Senators and Representatives . . . shall . . . be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses” • The constitution clearly contemplates the physical gathering together of representatives as a deliberative body. As the Supreme Court has held, to constitute a “quorum” necessary to “do business,” the Constitution requires “the presence of a majority, and when that majority are present the power of the house arises.” United States v. Ballin, 144 U.S. 1, 6 (1892)

The plaintiffs have filed a constitutional challenge in the D.C federal district court seeking to enjoin the use of proxy voting in the United States House of Representatives.

Congressman Mo Brooks represents Alabama’s Fifth Congressional District. Congressman Gary Palmer represents Alabama’s Sixth Congressional District. Alabama Democrats were unable to find candidates willing to challenge either of the two popular incumbents. Brooks did defeat a Republican challenger in March.

 

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Governor

Legislators briefed on coronavirus crisis

Brandon Moseley and Nicole Jones

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and her team on Thursday briefed state legislators on the latest developments on the coronavirus crisis that has gripped the state for the last ten weeks.

State Public Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris told legislators that the state has 13,058 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection. 528 Alabamians have died from COVID-19 COVID-19 related. More than 250 of those deaths have occurred in nursing homes.

Harris said, “So far, we have been able to fulfill all requests for medication in hospitals.”

Kelly Butler is the Alabama State Finance Director.

“The department is working diligently with each entity to provide aid/reimbursement throughout the state to responsibly use the CARES Act funding,” Butler said.

Butler said that new guidelines that the federal government issued regarding the funding are extremely detailed. Legislators will be given a special form to provide input as to what category or entity they see has the greatest need. Counties and cities will be issued guidelines to know what they can and cannot apply for regarding reimbursements.

Butler said that a website is being worked on to provide updates regarding applying for funds. For now, this information can be found on the governor’s website.

Department of Senior Services Commissioner Jean Brown also addressed legislators. Brown said that GA Foods has placed a successful bid with the Farmers to Families program. The Farmers to Families foods will be sending free foods to Alabama. The delivery of meals will begin after Memorial Day and end on June 30.

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Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn told legislators that 100,000 masks and 2,500 gowns have been produced by ADOC textile factory workers. The staff and inmates have been provided at least 4 masks for their protection. Inmates have also received individual bottles of soap and hand sanitizer provided thanks to community support.

Dunn said that as of May 20, 138 inmates have been tested for the coronavirus, with nine testing positive. One of those inmates has died due to a pre-existing health condition. The other eight have recovered. Each person that has tested positive has been properly quarantined.

Alabama Department of Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington briefed the group as well.

Washington said that more than $1 billion has been paid out in unemployment claims and that the department has processed 88 percent of COVID-19 related claims. Washington said that ADOL has paid out more in total benefits in the last three months than in the previous six years combined.

Washington said that unpaid claims are being looked at daily. Over 500,000 claims were filed in the last two months, more than the last two years combined.

Washington said that guidelines relating to issues such as “employees refusing to return to work when applicable” or “employee quits job instead of returning to work” may be addressed on the DOL website.

Washington warned that fraud claims and online scammers acting as ADOL online are happening and that citizens should be aware of such and report any fraudulent activity to ADOL immediately.

State Superintendent Dr. Erick Mackey addressed the group on the plans for the Alabama State Department of Education.

Mackey said that immediate guidance for reopening schools in June will soon be distributed. This would be for students in 7th grade and above. Students 6th grade and below will be able to attend school beginning in July.

Mackey said that the CDC guidelines that were released on Tuesday have not been adopted by ALSDE. Mackey said that some of these guidelines are not reasonable or doable in our state.

CDC issues new guidelines for schools reopening

“There are many moving parts to creating new procedures, etc., so please understand we are taking into consideration that not one size fits all,” Mackey said. “Our local schools will be making the final decisions as to what procedures are put in place for reopening.”

“We hope to issue recommendations to our schools by 19 June regarding reopening for the 2020-2021 school year,” Mackey told legislators. “We will be asking parents and students to implement new safety procedures, but these will be practical and easy to do.”

“We will leave the start date entirely up to each local superintendent,” Mackey continued. “We have asked that they assure they have time to prepare and adjust to the new procedures prior to opening.”

Mackey said that as of now, all school systems will be starting at some point in August. Distance learning for at-risk children is being looked at and there will be some sort of options for those needing this. Special Needs students needing therapies, etc. are also being looked at heavily.

“There are many moving parts to reopening, so we are working diligently to keep every student and every situation in mind,” Mackey said.

Later that afternoon, Ivey held a press conference to unveil the amended Safer At Home Order, which goes into effect at 5 p.m. today. The new orders, which opens many more businesses, will be in effect through 3 July.

 

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Governor

Governor signs both state budgets

Brandon Moseley

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Monday, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) signed the General Fund budget (SGF), the Education Trust Fund (ETF), and the PSCA bond bill.

“I appreciate the hard work of the Legislature during an unprecedented Regular Session,” Gov. Ivey said in a statement. “While we have yet to know the full impact of COVID-19 on our state, these budgets will ensure continuity of government, while being fiscally responsible. There is more work to be done, and I look forward to working with the Legislature in the days ahead.”

Despite the growing economic collapse as a result of the coronavirus crisis; both budgets were record amounts.

“This has been a unprecedented session due to the COVID-19 epidemic which imposed multiple obstacles for our elected officials to overcome,” said Alabama Republican Party Chairman Terry Lathan. “Our Republican leadership and governor managed to forge through passing both the General Fund and Education budgets to see our state through the next year.”

“While there was more belt tightening required than anticipated before the Coronavirus outbreak, Alabama’s economic situation is much better than many other states in the nation – in large part due to the fiscally responsible practices of our Republican supermajority since we gained control of the legislature in 2010,” Lathan continued. “We also are proud to highlight that no proration has occurred since the Alabama GOP takeover along with record breaking education budgets.”

“In fact, the 2021 General Fund Budget is $169 million larger than the previous year and includes funding increases for the Alabama Department of Public Health ($35 million), Alabama Medicaid Agency ($94 million), Alabama Department of Mental Health ($25 million), ALEA ($3 million, specifically for the hiring of additional State Troopers) and the Department of Corrections ($23 million),” Lathan explained. “Additionally, the Education Trust Fund is $91 million more than fiscal year 2020, and includes funding increases for our award winning early childhood education program and Alabama’s public institutions of higher learning (colleges, universities, and community colleges).”

Both Houses of the legislature voted to concur with the Governor’s executive amendment to SB161 a 2020 supplemental appropriations bill directing how $1.9 billion in federal CARES Act money can be spent.

I commend the Alabama Legislature for their cooperation by supporting my Executive Amendment to SB161. This friendly amendment ensures the CARES Act money will be immediately available to the people of Alabama and put to use under the intent of the U.S. Congress and President Trump. Our cities, counties and state, as well as places like our nursing homes, hospitals, schools and colleges have incurred many legitimate expenses because of COVID-19. I thank the members of the Alabama Legislature for supporting this amendment and for ensuring this money helps the people of Alabama who have been harmed by this disease. While no one could have predicted COVID-19, it is easy to conclude this pandemic has touched every aspect of our daily lives. I assure the people of Alabama that we will be with them at every step moving forward. Together, we will recover, and we will get Alabama back on her feet.”

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The coronavirus global pandemic hangs over everything moving forward. Will there be federal aid to make up for lost state revenues? How much will that aid be? When can schools reopen? Will this winter see a resurgence in COVID-19 cases?

“We are confident Alabama will continue to grow its economy – even beyond what we experienced prior to the pandemic,” Lathan said. “Thanks to hard working, determined Alabamians combined with the sound conservative principles our Republican officials use to guide our state. In the end, we are grateful the Republican legislative body and Governor Ivey came together as a team to get the record breaking budgets up and out to Alabama, even with heavy burdens and concerns lingering due to COVID-19 in these unparalleled times.”

Monday was the last day of the 2020 Legislative Session.

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Alabama House Members answer the call to duty

Mac McCutcheon

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When the Legislature convened its 2020 regular session in February, Alabama enjoyed record-low unemployment and record-high revenues in our state budgets.

Pay raises for educators and state employees were foregone conclusions, unprecedented improvements in mental health services offered to Alabamians were being passed, and new and expanded education programs were on the table.

But as legislators returned to Montgomery from the mandatory COVID-19 shutdown period — a little less than three months removed from the session’s start — an entirely new landscape greeted us.

Our record-high employment numbers have turned into record-high applications for unemployment benefits, and our state revenues have been negatively impacted by an economy gone sour.

But Alabamians have always risen to meet a challenge, and I am confident that the historic economy that our state once enjoyed can be rebuilt and made even stronger.

All of us who serve in the House of Representatives have publicly offered ourselves as leaders in our communities and our state, and as Alabama continues its journey on the path back to normalcy, it is important us to lead the way. We cannot expect average Alabamians to feel safe and confident in returning to work and resuming their jobs if the men and women they elect to represent them in Montgomery are not willing to do the same.

So on May 4, we convened at the Alabama State House to resume the regular session and complete the tasks that remained before us.

Our members came from the Tennessee Valley, the Gulf Coast region, and dozens of cities, towns, and crossroads in between, and we took important steps to safeguard their health in a cramped and aged State House where proper social distancing is difficult at best.

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House members were required to wear face masks in all public areas, and once they entered the building, they proceeded directly to their personal offices to await the gavel to fall each meeting day.

In order to accommodate the House members at safe distances, only a handful were able to sit at their desks in the House Chamber while the others were spread across the spectators’ gallery and an adjacent overflow room and cast voice votes by microphone.

With one exception House Democrats boycotted the session and cited on-going concerns over the potential spread of COVID-19 as their reason, which was certainly their right.

I do want to commend State Rep. Rod Scott, D – Fairfield, the ranking minority member of the education budget-writing committee, for being the lone member of his party to attend the remainder of the session. His input was valuable, and his participation was much appreciated.

In addition, social distancing and health concerns prompted us to take the unusual step of closing access to the State House to the public, lobbyists, and other visitors, but video streaming of every public meeting was made available on the Internet..

Drafting responsible and prudent General Fund and Education Trust Fund budgets that accurately reflect the current economic climate is the Legislature’s only constitutional obligation and became our highest priority.

By approving Alabama’s spending plans now, rather than waiting until later in the year, many local systems avoided unnecessarily pink-slipping their non-tenured teachers, plans for the coming school year could take shape, and state agencies could begin implementing the adjustments in services that COVID-19 will likely demand.

We were also able to craft balanced budgets because budgeting and spending reforms enacted over the past decade have ensued that several hundred million dollars remain accessible and available in times of crisis, so Alabama is better prepared than many other states to weather this economy.

General Fund Chairman Steve Clouse, R – Ozark, and Education Trust Fund Chairman Bill Poole, R – Tuscaloosa, worked hard to assemble budgets that are fiscally-responsible, conservative, and disciplined.

Because of federal mandates and rulings in on-going lawsuits over state prison conditions, General Fund spending increased by 7.5% under the budget that was signed by the governor, but the increase was dramatically less than originally expected when the Legislature first convened in February.

The $7.2 billion Education Trust Fund budget that was approved included new funding for our award-winning “First Class” Pre-Kindergarten program and the reading and literacy initiatives. Additional dollars were also appropriated to help school systems absorb the loss of local revenues due to the Coronavirus.

Lawmakers also approved a $1.25 billion bond issue for school construction, which is the state’s largest capital improvement investment in history and the first in more than a decade. The bond issue will provide money to every city and county K-12 school system and to two- and four-year colleges and was made possible by retiring old debts and taking advantage of today’s historically-low interest rates.

Public officials at all levels of government are often subject to criticism, and I will admit it is often well-deserved, but they should also be recognized for jobs well done.

The men and women who participated in the unusual, extraordinary, and unforgettable final week of the 2020 regular session put their responsibilities ahead of their own health concerns and answered the call to duty. They stood tall when Alabama needed them most.

The members of the House of Representatives are some of the finest people I have ever known, and serving with them reinforces my confidence that Alabama’s best days still remain ahead of us.

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