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Josh Moon

How Alabama’s government stays broken

Josh Moon

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It doesn’t take a rocket scientist — or even any kind of scientist — to figure out that Alabama’s state government is broken. 

I mean, really, just look around. At the poverty, the poor education, the racism, the arrested public officials, the in-your-face public corruption and the complete disregard for the welfare of the majority of the people in the state. 

But, while the overall awfulness of Alabama’s governance might be easy to diagnose, the underlying causes — the daily examples that explain just how it stays so broken — are far harder to put your finger on. Because they are mostly wrapped up in mundane occurrences that take place within the walls of the State House or the capitol or the Supreme Court chambers or some other government building. 

Things like SB117/HB140. 

Those are the official names for a bill in both the senate and house that will “clarify existing law relating to disposal of solid waste.” 

Sounds innocent enough, right? Just gonna get this minor landfill situation straightened out. No biggie. 

Ah, but see, SB117/HB140 is the prime example of Alabama’s broken government. 

It is the prime example of how your lawmakers aren’t working for you. It is the perfect encapsulation of everything that is wrong in this state.

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Basically this landfill bill would make it OK to cover existing landfills with artificial covers, instead of the six inches of earth that is currently required. 

Now, this still doesn’t sound like a big deal. And it won’t be one if you don’t mind third-world diseases, the smell of rotting meat, frequent fires, coyotes and feral dogs roaming your streets and rats. Lots and lots of rats. 

Applying six inches of earth each day to cover the garbage dumped at landfills prevents those things, the EPA figured out long ago. And it set those parameters in the rules it recommends to states. Alabama agreed, and the state adopted that rule, along with others, into law several years ago. 

Regular landfills have to cover with six inches of earth every day. Construction landfills have to do so once per week. 

This is a simple law. 

But if you operate a landfill, it’s an expensive one. And a time consuming one. 

Ah, but luckily, those laws are environmental laws. And in Alabama, we figured out long ago that environmental laws can be cumbersome and expensive, so we set up a bit of a … let’s just call it a workaround. 

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management. 

You’ll find we do this a lot — set up an entity that lies somewhere between the laws and the enforcement of the laws whose only job it seems is to give free passes to the bigwigs and corporations who violate those specific laws. 

We do it with the Ethics Commission. With the Public Service Commission. And with ADEM. 

It’s genius, really. The laws are still on the books and no one has to overtly roll back protections that would lead to rotting garbage attracting disease carrying rodents by the thousands. 

Instead, just get ADEM to quietly stop enforcing the law. 

Which is exactly what ADEM has done in this case. It was allowing landfills all over the state to cover garbage with tarps and various other materials. The tarps and other covers inevitably got holes in them, and a Noah’s Ark-level of animals descended upon the landfills to dine and spread the garbage all over adjoining neighborhoods. 

The neighbors, tired of the smell and the disease and the roaming animals, sued, citing in their legal filing horror stories of living near these maggot farms that smelled like death. 

They sued ADEM for failing to do its job, and for essentially rewriting the law to allow businesses to do whatever they wanted to do. 

And lo and behold, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals agreed with them. In a lengthy, detailed decision entered last October, the five-judge panel noted that ADEM didn’t have the authority to rewrite the law. 

The case is now before the Alabama Supreme Court, but everyone knows that the Appeals Court judges are correct. 

But why bother with trying to win over judges when you can instead just change the laws through the crooks in the Alabama Legislature? 

And so, here we are, with a handful of lawmakers in both chambers of the legislature willing to attach their names to legislation that will allow businesses to ignore the standards imposed by the EPA, ignore the standards that are commonplace in most other states and change Alabama law to benefit a handful of landfill owners at the expense of thousands of Alabama citizens. 

And this, kids, is how Alabama’s government stays broken.

 

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Education

Analysis | There’s a better plan for reopening schools — if Alabama leaders will use it

Josh Moon

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Maybe there will be a plan for reopening schools after all. 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is set to meet with Gov. Kay Ivey’s staff on Tuesday morning to discuss an ambitious and comprehensive plan to reopen Alabama’s public schools that would see every school in the state get a new, stand-alone nurses station, a testing machine, a full-time nurse and tools to test and check students’ temperatures. 

The plan, known as the Safely Opening Schools Program, or SOS, was put together by the Alabama School Nurses Association and has the backing of several doctors and the Alabama Education Association. It was presented to some lawmakers earlier this month. 

State Sens. Jabo Waggoner, Jim McClendon and Bobby Singleton — two top Republicans and the highest-ranking Democrat — have since submitted requests for funding out of Alabama’s portion of CARES Act money to pay for the various components of the plan. 

In a letter sent last week to Ivey, Singleton said he was “excited by the plan,” and believes it will “address, to some degree, the inequity (in his local school districts) and allow my constituents to feel that they are receiving the same support to reopen their schools as the more affluent districts of our state.”

The SOS program contains, essentially, three pieces: Building 500-square-feet nurses stations/isolation rooms at every school, purchasing testing machines and supplies and hiring approximately 300 nurses for the schools around the state that are currently lacking one. (Every school is technically required to have a school nurse, but the systems have circumvented that requirement by allowing a district nurse to cover multiple schools.)

In total, the plan is projected to cost roughly $150 million — almost all of it (around 90 percent) coming from the nearly $2 billion in CARES Act funds provided to Alabama by the federal government. (The remaining portion is projected to be covered by other grants.) Included in those costs are the nurses’ salaries for two years and the construction of more than 1,300 stand-alone nurses stations/isolation rooms — each costing a little less than $50,000. 

In addition, each school would receive its own testing device, which nurses would be trained to use, and testing supplies. If used as the program projects, Alabama schools would turn in more than 500,000 tests in nine months, with blind results being sent to the Centers for Disease Control for data collection purposes. The testing machines can also be modified to test for other ailments, such as the different types of flu.  

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To put the total cost in perspective, the state has already spent at least $150 million — it received $115 million in grants from the CDC and received part of the more than $450 million the federal government sent to Alabama earlier this year — to test less than 10 percent of the state’s population over the last six months. 

The SOS program could potentially test between 12-15 percent in far less time, and in a setting where early detection could prevent massive hotspots. 

It’s a good program, and it would likely be worth the costs if only for the things mentioned. 

But those things are only half of the benefits of this program. Maybe not even half. 

Consider this: Included in the costs, every school in every city in Alabama, regardless of income level or parental involvement or poverty rates, will get a state-of-the-art nurses station and a fulltime school nurse. 

To care for children who rarely see any sort of healthcare professional. To diagnose the early signs of disease or mental health issues. To spot the early warning signs of physical abuse or drug addiction. 

In every school in Alabama. For two full school years. 

“This is extremely important to my communities, as they lack school nurses and other critical health access,” Singleton wrote to Ivey. “The opportunity to have testing/screening on-site and nurses to address students’ health needs would be of tremendous assistance to the residents in my district.”

The same could be said for school districts, and for school children, all over the state. 

The simple fact is there is no better plan offered for reopening Alabama’s schools. The others, including the “roadmap” presented by state superintendent Eric Mackey last week, mostly fail to account for known shortages in teachers, staff and nurses, and they offer no assurances for worried parents. 

The SOS plan would take the burden of monitoring and quarantining sick students off the staff and faculty, would establish a clear protocol for dealing with the virus in our schools and would assist the state and federal government with accurate, real-time data. In addition, it could be a health lifeline for kids in rural and impoverished areas. 

There is no better plan.

 

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Health

Opinion | Alabama leaders’ plan to reopen schools really isn’t a plan at all

Josh Moon

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There is no plan to reopen Alabama’s public schools. 

That much was clear after state superintendent Eric Mackey’s hour-long press conference on Friday — the one in which he presented the state’s plan to reopen schools. 

It was, to put it kindly, underwhelming.

To put it not so kindly: It was the State Department of Education running from a hard decision. 

Because what Mackey presented on Friday was 50 pages of ALSDE, the governor and the Alabama Department of Public Health essentially telling local superintendents and principals: “Y’all figure it out.” 

There was no guidance on testing, quarantining and tracing. 

There was no guidance on how to deal with older employees and faculty who decide, reasonably, that the risk is too high. 

There was no guidance for parents. 

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There wasn’t even a requirement that local districts create a plan by a specific date so parents could determine whether to send their kids to school or to opt for the online system. 

Basically, Mackey spent 30 minutes or so telling all public school employees to wash up real good and try to stay six feet apart if you can. 

Oh, and that there’s no extra money for any of the extra stuff they’re going to have to do. 

Look, I get that this is an insanely difficult situation, and that it’s something we’ve never dealt with before. But damn, you’re about to send Alabama’s children back to enclosed spaces in the middle of a pandemic. Maybe, just maybe, that calls for an idea or two from the state’s top leaders on how we might do that at least a tad bit more safely. 

It sure is strange how the people in Montgomery want in on every decision made at the local level when there’s political pandering or money involved, but they can’t get away fast enough when there are actual hard decisions to be made? 

The vanishing act on Friday wasn’t lost on teachers and principals and local superintendents. A spokesperson with the Alabama Education Association said their office had been flooded with calls from confused and concerned educators following Mackey’s presentation. I spoke with numerous principals and a couple of superintendents, and they were baffled by the “roadmap,” which they said was essentially the same guidance they received last year. 

Their biggest question: How are they going to meet even the basic, simple goals laid out in the “roadmap” without extra funding or resources? 

For example, Mackey mentioned “school nurses” on a couple of occasions in his presentation, and the roadmap also mentions them, saying they’ll be dealing with symptomatic students. 

That’s great. Except approximately 300 schools don’t have a nurse. 

Oh, they have a district nurse that covers all the schools in the district, but not one on their campus every day. Not one that can be there within 45 minutes or so. 

So, who’s going to deal with that symptomatic child? Who’s going to make sure he or she stays quarantined? Who’s going to discuss with the students’ parents the requirements, or provide options for testing? 

All of these things, including the extra cleaning that emphasized throughout the roadmap, are new responsibilities that will have to fall on employees and faculty, and be absorbed by the budgets of cash-strapped local districts. 

I can’t, for the life of me, understand what happened here. 

Because there were good plans offered up to ALSDE and the committee that compiled the roadmap. There were comprehensive and innovative ideas for dealing with this virus and best protecting students. There were bipartisan plans that would have diverted millions to Alabama’s schools and made the state a model for others to follow, while at the same time drastically improving Alabama’s testing and data reporting. 

Instead of those plans, ALSDE punted. 

If I had to guess, the reason for that is likely money. Mackey, in his plan, asks for a miniscule amount of it — only enough to equip buses with WiFi and purchase tablets and hotspots — and hopes for grants and other federal dollars to possibly cover other expenses. 

The only possible reason for that is that he was told there would be no additional money — not even from the $1.8 billion in CARES Act funds the state is doling out. Which, honestly, seems impossible. 

This state’s children are about to return to school. In some counties, Mackey noted, 97 percent of the students plan to be in those buildings. Statewide, roughly 80 percent of kids will be back in the buildings. 

The state has a duty to provide the safest environment possible for those kids, and to do everything it can to keep those kids from spreading the coronavirus to family members and at-risk people outside of the schools. 

The roadmap presented on Friday does none of that.  

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Alabama’s government has failed in this crisis

Josh Moon

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Alabama has failed at crisis management. 

If you doubt this, take a drive by Alabama State University or simply look at the photos taken by al.com of the parking lot outside of the university’s Acadome. Look at the massive line of people, many of them elderly, baking in the Alabama summer sun in the middle of June, waiting to get simple answers to simple questions about their unemployment compensation. 

So they can eat. So they can buy medicine. So they can live. 

It is infuriating what’s happening. And why it’s happening. And who it’s happening to. 

But it is not surprising. 

Because this is the government that we should expect by now, because it’s the government the majority of people in this state keep voting for. One built on social pandering and religious fear mongering at the expense of actual planning and competency. 

That ASU parking lot is the result. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the situation, it is this: thousands of Alabamians have been denied unemployment benefits for one reason or another, and the only place in the entire state for these people to get help with their claims is at ASU, where Alabama Department of Labor workers are set up to help.

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They serve only 300 people per day, and many of the people who need help have been told that they must see an ADOL worker face-to-face to solve their issue. People start lining up the night before. 

In a lengthy, infuriating story by al.com’s Connor Sheets, one elderly man said he drove from Tuskegee at 2 a.m. He was too late by then. The first person in line, a 62-year-old woman, arrived at ASU at 7 p.m. the night before. 

Inside the Acadome, just six to 10 trained employees will meet with people and solve the mostly routine problems. 

This has been going on for seven weeks. 

Through heat and rain. For hours upon hours. 

Workers at ASU have been taking water and snacks to those in line. ASU opened its student center so they would have a cool place to get out of the sun, but few took advantage, worried they’d lose their spot in line. ASU police patrol the parking lots at night, ensuring the safety of those camped out. 

Leave it to a historically Black college to understand how to treat people with decency and respect.  

And make no mistake about it, these are not freeloaders looking for a handout. They’re people who were gainfully employed just a few weeks ago. They’d happily go back. 

Now they’re suffering this indignity. 

Left in a steaming hot parking lot for hours. Because the people we’ve put in charge in this state could not care less about the working people of Alabama. 

Trying to get answers as to how this awful scene is still playing out every day, Sheets instead got excuses from state leaders. A spokeswoman for Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and a spokeswoman for the Department of Labor both blamed the “unprecedented” COVID-19 crisis for the problem. 

They said that phone lines are jammed with more than 200,000 calls per day. (There’s no real online option.) And because of staffing shortages and budget cuts, the only staffers they have are working as hard as they can to meet these needs. 

And those are all fine answers … for April. Maybe even early May.

Because that’s when other states realized the coming onslaught and started doing things to offset it. Contracting with call centers. Hiring extra personnel. Training additional personnel to handle in-person issues. Creating workable plans to address this unprecedented problem. 

Hell, the federal government has given us billions of dollars, through the CARES Act, to pay for whatever we need. 

And yet, it’s nearly July and our working people are sitting in a parking lot because there are, at times, only six — SIX! — people, and at most 10 people, in the ENTIRE STATE trained and paid to handle unemployment claims questions. 

When I asked why, on Thursday, that CARES Act money hasn’t been used to address this issue, I was told by ADOL’s Tara Hutchinson that some money has been spent on two call centers, and just that day the personnel board had approved overtime for ADOL workers. 

That’s good to hear. But, again, it’s freakin’ July.  

The fact is the true problem here isn’t hard to figure out. 

The management of this crisis by Alabama’s elected and appointed leaders has been an abysmal failure. 

ADOL is woefully understaffed to handle it, and everyone with semi-knowledge of that department knew it after the first two weeks. There has been little effort to change that. 

On March 21, we got the first glimpse of the coming storm, when unemployment claims jumped from 1,200 or so to more than 10,000. The next week, they were over 80,000. 

That was 12 weeks ago. 

With hundreds of thousands of people looking for work, this state couldn’t find and train maybe six to 10 more people to handle claims?

Of course, they could. Or they could have done one of about a thousand other things to help the state’s working class and make this awful, scary time a tad easier for them. 

Instead, we’ve received a lesson in incompetency.

 

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Josh Moon

Opinion | This is who we are

Josh Moon

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That noose in the garage — that’s us. 

The Confederate statues all over the place and the ignorant law protecting them — that’s us. 

The racist state constitution that openly discusses its intention to deprive Black citizens — that’s us. 

The overwhelming support for a president who has built his campaign and his presidency on hate, racism and the mistreatment of all minorities — that’s us too. 

All of this is who we are, Alabama. 

Stop saying otherwise. 

Ever since that noose found its way into Bubba Wallace’s garage stall at Talladega on Sunday, there has been a never-ending stream of people who can’t wait to tell you that such an act is “not who we are in Alabama.” 

Oh, hell yes it is. 

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I mean, what are you even talking about? Do y’all walk around with your eyes and ears closed? Do you think words and actions don’t matter? 

On the way into that track on Sunday, dozens of people lined Speedway Boulevard to fly rebel flags. Outside the track, pretty much every vendor sold rebel flag t-shirts. There was an airplane flying a giant banner, emblazoned with the flag, over the track. 

None of those people could get into the track because of the COVID-19 limitations. They went there for the sole purpose of driving around with their traitor flags because NASCAR had banned them. 

And why had NASCAR banned them? Because the sport’s only Black driver said the flags make Black racing fans feel uncomfortable — so uncomfortable that they rarely attend NASCAR events — and that “no one should feel uncomfortable at a race.”

Of course those flags make Black fans uncomfortable. Those flags — red with a blue X — have been flown by every hate group, including the KKK, since the 1940s. That flag was never the official flag of the Confederate states — a fact that really upends that whole “heritage not hate” line — but rose to prominence among white people after its use to promote racism. 

Outside of the swastika, there is no more obvious symbol of hate, bigotry, awfulness and ignorance than the rebel flag. 

But our people don’t care. And they don’t care if flying it or displaying it — or holding onto the statues of the men who fought to enslave, murder, rape, torture, kidnap and sell other humans — hurts you. 

At this point, I don’t think they even hear the ignorant things they say or the hypocrisy of their words. Such as this state’s politicians, including Gov. Kay Ivey, condemning all racism while at the same time coddling the racists and their ignorant views through bills that protect confederate monuments. 

For the love of God, imagine for a moment that a man enslaved your ancestors, beat them regularly, sold off their children, murdered a few of them and generally treated them terribly. Now, imagine your feelings while strolling by a statue of that man — even if he did war good. 

But then, there I go pretending that logic and decency and compassion matter at all. When they most clearly do not. Not if the alternative is losing cheap votes or giving up a flag that quite literally means nothing or tearing down a statue of a man who you wouldn’t bother giving decent health care to if he were just a United States military veteran. 

The people of Alabama have, time and again, chosen hatefulness and divisiveness and meanness over simple decency to other humans. Even when those other humans have stared our people in the face, with sincerity and honesty and bravery, and explained their very real pain, we have still found bogus reasons to ignore it. 

Maybe it’s not as bad as it once was, or maybe it’s just not as blatant. But stop trying to paint this image of Alabama as a place where racism is resisted by our state lawmakers and shunned by those in power — where pandering to it doesn’t get you more votes than not.

Because that, after all that’s happened, is still who we are.

 

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