The Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday gaveled in for what was supposed to be their first day back from a two-week spring break—well rested and ready to tackle the state’s pressing issues.
Instead, like everything else in American society, it was a somber event overshadowed by concerns about the coronavirus, which has killed approximately two dozen Alabamians in just the last few days.
Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, thanked all the members present for attending under the circumstances.
The House called just enough legislators to have a quorum. A bipartisan group of 53 of the 105 Representatives was present in the House Chamber to gavel in for the short session.
Others were in their cars in the parking lot if needed. The leadership had asked that anybody who felt sick at all not to attend. They also directed more vulnerable members to not attend. Despite this, Reps. Steve McMillan, R-Gulf Shores, age 78; Joe Faust, R-Fairhope, age 79; and Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, age 77, were among other older representatives who braved the risks and were in the chamber anyway.
Members of the legislature all had their temperatures checked as they entered the building to make sure that none of them had a fever. While a cough and a fever are strong indications of COVID-19, about a fifth of people infected with the novel coronavirus are asymptomatic.
They can still spread the virus to others despite feeling fine. At least six members were wearing surgical masks and several were wearing gloves. One Republican member wore a face scarf wrapped around her head covering everything but her eyes.
If there had not been a quorum present for a scheduled legislative day that would have, by rule, ended the 2020 legislative session. Their attendance in Montgomery, despite the clear and present danger of the coronavirus, saved the session.
While there, they passed a Joint Senate Resolution changing the legislative rules so that during a state of emergency, as we have now, if on a scheduled legislative day they are unable to reach a quorum, then the leadership can set a new legislative day without losing one of their thirty legislative days.
The House set its next legislative day for April 28.
They saved the 2020 legislative session, but it may still be a hollow victory.
The Alabama Political Reporter asked McCutcheon if they are able to come back and have legislative meetings, will there still be committee meetings or will that be done by e-meetings online, and if so will there be a way for the press to participate in those online discussions?
“If we come back to conduct legislative business, there will be committee meetings and we would have no reason to keep the press out,” McCutcheon said.
But McCutcheon said that they will not come back if doing so will risk the members or their health and the other people in the building.
McCutcheon himself is in his mid-60s and has suffered from a heart condition. Pre-existing conditions like cardio-vascular disease greatly increases the likelihood of death with COVID-19.
The Alabama Political Reporter asked, given what we think is coming, is there any discussion about passing legislation so that the Alabama Department of Corrections can release its oldest and most vulnerable inmates so they can get healthcare from Medicare or Medicaid rather than from the prisons health system?
“There have been no discussions about that,” McCutcheon said.
State Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, told reporters that the Legislature would pass “two bare-bones budgets.”
McCutcheon agreed with that but cautioned, “We want to see what kind of federal money is coming down.”
McCutcheon said that when the Legislature comes back, they will prioritize supplemental appropriations bills, the budgets, the education budget and members’ local bills. They would also prioritize economic growth bills. Priority will be given to bills that have already passed the House or the Senate.
“We will look at the time we have available,” McCutcheon said.
APR asked: Given what we think is coming we are going to need every nurse that we can get. Is there plans to work with the nursing schools and colleges to ramp up the training of the nursing students we already have in the pipeline to get them trained and out on the front lines?
McCutcheon said that there has been no discussion about changing the curriculum or the course of study for nurses, but “I do know that when we look at workforce development, we have recognized that there is a nursing shortage. They are looking at ways to increase that number.”
Associated Press reporter Kim Chandler asked if the Legislature would look at increasing the length of time that an unemployed person can receive unemployment compensation.
“I am not against looking at that,” McCutcheon said.
McCutcheon said that under the circumstances that, “We may have to look at ways to reassess the timeline,” on building new prisons but warned that the state will have to speak to the Department of Justice.
Passing sentencing reform and efforts to reduce recidivism “will depend on how much time we have left,” he said.
McCutcheon said that there is a possibility that the Governor will have to call a special session over the summer and if they had not met on Tuesday then there would have been a special session.
“The members are concerned about their districts,” McCutcheon said. “The governor is now having weekly conference calls with legislators.”
McCutcheon said that the leadership will be monitoring the situation and, “We may be in a position where we can not” go back into session.
The Alabama Senate had a similar meeting on Tuesday to change the rules and set April 28 as their next meeting day.
The Alabama Legislature must constitutionally pass the two budgets and conclude their legislative business by May 18.
Former State Sen. David Burkette pleads guilty, avoids jail
Former State Sen. David Burkette will avoid jail time and be sentenced to a 30-day suspended sentence as part of a plea deal reached on Monday.
Burkette, who pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Fair Campaign Practices Act, will also have to pay a $3,000 fine and serve 12 months of probation as part of the deal. He was sentenced in Montgomery Circuit Court on Monday after being charged two weeks ago with failing to deposit more than $3,600 in contributions into campaign accounts — a misdemeanor.
He also resigned his seat in the Alabama Senate as part of the plea deal.
“I’m just happy to still be here,” Burkette told the court following his sentencing, according to multiple media reports.
The former senator suffered a stroke in 2018 and has been confined to a wheelchair since. His current health status played a role in his sentence considerations.
The charges against Burkette stem from a series of complaints filed against him with the Alabama Ethics Commission — all of them related to various issues during his time on the Montgomery City Council. The charge for which he pleaded guilty occurred in 2015.
The Ethics Commission referred numerous charges to the Alabama attorney general’s office, according to sources familiar with the investigation of Burkette, but the attorney general’s office elected to charge Burkette with only the misdemeanor as part of the deal that saw him resign.
“Candidates for public office at the state, county and municipal levels must comply with the State’s Fair Campaign Practices Act,” said Attorney General Steve Marshall. “Personally profiting from campaign funds erodes public confidence in the system and will not be tolerated.”
Former state senator arrested on charges of violating campaign finance laws
David Burkette has been officially arrested. The former state senator from Montgomery, who resigned on Tuesday as part of a plea deal with the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, was formally charged on Thursday with a single misdemeanor count of violating the Fair Campaign Practices Act.
According to a press release from the AG’s office, Burkette’s charge stems from him depositing campaign donations into his personal account instead of into his campaign accounts, as required by the FCPA. The alleged crimes occurred in 2015 and 2016 when Burkette was serving on the Montgomery City Council.
“The complaint alleged that, in 2015 and 2016 while running for the Montgomery City Council, Burkette intentionally failed to deposit $3,625.00 in campaign contributions into his campaign checking account, and instead, deposited or cashed those contributions into or against his personal bank account,” the AG’s release stated.
The single misdemeanor charge is surprising given the lengthy list of allegations against Burkette submitted to the Alabama Ethics Commission. APR obtained a copy of the original report, which was submitted in October 2018.
In addition to more than $40,000 in allegedly improperly spent council discretionary funds that were flagged by auditors for the city of Montgomery, Burkette was also accused of inappropriately donating tens of thousands more to suspect charities and two sororities, including his wife’s.
The Ethics Commission referred Burkette’s case to the AG’s Office in October 2019.
Pro-Growth Conference kicks off with Doug Jones, discussions on COVID impact and a living wage
What happens if you just give impoverished citizens $500 per month — no strings attached? Good things, it turns out. The people use that income to buy food, medicine and basic necessities for life. They take a day off work if they’re sick and actually get treatment. They quit a second, hourly-wage job that they are overqualified for and instead work towards obtaining a better, higher-paying primary job.
These are things that the city of Stockton, California, has learned in its year-long living wage program.
The program, while limited in size — only 125 people — has proven to be a larger success than city officials had hoped, and it has opened their eyes to a new, more proactive style of governance, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs told Alabama elected officials.
Tubbs was the featured speaker on Tuesday at the first day of the Pro-Growth Policy Conference, a three-day forum for Alabama elected leaders with guest speakers from around the country offering tips and best practices.
The first day of the conference began with an opening talk from Sen. Doug Jones, who pressed the need for Medicaid expansion and how expansion has aided other red states. Jones also highlighted the need for broadband expansion and talked about a bill he has in the Senate that would create a broadband main office and dish out about $20 million in money for affordable access.
“Now (with COVID), we know how needed it really is,” Jones said. “We see the homework gap that we have. We know there’s a need for more telemedicine. My bill would consolidate in one office all of the monies for broadband … and provide affordable access.”
Jones said the current COVID pandemic has highlighted just how badly we need better access to broadband in Alabama, and a major area of concern right now is healthcare.
Highlighting that point, Brandon Garrett, the chief operating officer of the National Minority Quality Forum, and Dr. LaTasha Lee, the vice-president of social and clinical research, demonstrated the many ways in which inequality in health care and health care options is harming impoverished communities.
A number of factors play into that inequality, but a lack of access to updated means of communication and tools is one of the biggest.
“(Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) said that, ‘Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane because it results in physical death,’” Lee said. “That’s what we’re seeing currently with COVID-19 and sickle cell disease. These two diseases are affecting the minority community and causing death, and they make a great argument that such health care disparities really are a social justice issue.”
Correcting such issues was one of the goals of Stockton’s living wage experiment. Now, Tubbs said, a working person can afford to stay home or get tested if they’re feeling symptomatic, whereas before that person — scared of missing a paycheck or losing the job altogether — might come to work with the virus and infect an entire workplace.
That alone, Tubbs said, has restored dignity to a number of residents.
“This is not easy, especially with budgets the way they are,” Tubbs said. “But I don’t know how we continue to live with the status quo as it is.
“I think part of being a leader, as we are, is having the courage to do something about what we’re seeing. We have to be able to do that.”
The Pro-Growth Policy Conference will run both Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Wednesday’s round of conferences will focus on state grants, economic development around the state and what the 2021 legislative session might look like.
On Thursday, the event will wrap up with talks by the Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson and Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell.
Russell Bedsole wins Republican runoff in HD49
As of press time, it appears that Russell Bedsole has won a narrow victory over Mimi Penhale in the special Republican primary runoff election in Alabama House District 49.
At press time, Bedsole had a 166-vote lead in unofficial results on the secretary of state’s website.
“We won,” Bedsole declared on social media.
Bedsole is an Alabaster city councilman and a Shelby County Sheriff’s Department captain.
“Sadly, tonight did not turn out in my favor. Despite the loss, I feel like God truly used this opportunity to help me grow in my walk with Him, and gave me the opportunity to increase my testimony,” Penhale said. “I feel so incredibly blessed by the people I have met on this campaign and the experiences I have had. I am disappointed in the outcome, but what an honor it is to have the confidence of 1,183 people across House District 49! Thank you!!”
Russell Bedsole had 1,249 votes, or 51.36 percent, to Mimi Penhale’s 1,183, or 48.64 percent, to win the House District 49 Republican primary runoff.
There were just 2,432 votes cast in the special primary runoff election. Shelby County was the decisive factor in the election. Bedsole won Shelby County with 762 votes, or 71.42 percent, to Penale’s 305 votes.
Penhale carried Chilton and Bibb Counties, but could not overcome Bedsole’s strong performance in Shelby County.
The provisional ballots will be counted on Sept. 8, 2020, and certification of votes will occur on Sept. 16, 2020.
Bedsole will face Democratic nominee Sheryl Patton in the special general election on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020.
The vacancy in House District 49 was created when State Rep. April Weaver announced her resignation to accept a presidential appointment as a regional director in the Department of Health and Human Services.
In a statement, the Alabama Republican Party thanked “each of the candidates that qualified for offering themselves up for service in the Alabama State House of Representatives.”