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Senate bill would strip some emergency powers from governor, state health officer

Brandon Moseley

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Republican state senators are becoming increasingly anxious that Gov. Kay Ivey is being too cautious in her approach to reopening the Alabama economy and getting the people of Alabama back to work.

This week State Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, filed a bill “to improve the system of checks and balances” in setting, extending and lifting states of emergency.

Under current law, a state of emergency automatically terminates after 60 days unless the governor extends it or it is extended by a joint resolution in the Legislature. Whatley’s Senate Bill 334 would automatically end a state of emergency after just 14 days unless an extension was approved through a joint resolution from the Legislature.

This bill would also require the governor to sign a health order issued by the unelected state health officer during a disease or pandemic outbreak for it to go into effect. Currently, the state health officer is the only person required to sign a state health order.

“This bill simply improves the system of checks and balances in the state when a state of emergency has been declared,” Sen. Whatley said. “This legislation would require the Governor to sign a state of emergency declaration and limit the time that the state can operate in a state of emergency without approval from both chambers of the Legislature.”

“Currently the State Health Officer, who is appointed by a special interest group of doctors and not elected by the people, has the ability to close down all businesses in the state without consent from anybody who has received a single vote from an Alabama citizen,” Whatley explained. “The governor still has emergency powers, but this bill involves more people and creates a better and more inclusive process in the decision-making process especially when the stability of the entire state is at stake.”

Senator Will Barfoot, R-Montgomery, is a co-sponsor of the bill. Barfoot said that he wants to see more elected officials involved with the decision making.

“This is not aimed at any person individually,” Barfoot explained. “The medical community, and the State Health officer, in particular, is doing the best job they could under the circumstances. However, as many moving pieces as there are in managing a state, more voices must be heard. This bill would allow the Legislature to have a process to have a say in any of those orders that affect the daily lives of the citizens of Alabama.”

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State Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, is another co-sponsor of SB334.

McClendon said that the state health officer is selected by the State Committee of Public Heath, an unelected body. Until COVID-19, most Alabamians, and some lawmakers could not name the state health officer. The Alabama Medical Association chooses most members of the committee.

“It’s turned into a very high-profile position,” McClendon told WAFF Channel 48 TV News.

“Right now, the public health officer is hired and fired by (the medical association),” McClendon said. “None of those people are accountable to the public.”

The Alabama Medical Association is simply a group that represents doctors in the state.

“There’s some things that we’ve done, they just do not make sense,” State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, said on an appearance on Capitol Journal. “I have respect for Dr. Harris, but the governor just can’t go off of everything Dr. Harris says because he is Dr. Harris. You do have to look at the total function of our economy, the total function of our state and the role that it plays in this nation, and the role that it plays in individual municipalities and counties.”

“Early on, I praised the governor,” Dismukes continued. “She really did do a good job saying early, let’s just monitor this. She tried to keep the economy going the best she could and leave things open. Then it was like all of a sudden, a switch flipped, and it was like we got more and more and more taken away from us. Then when we should start rolling things back, we’re still staying shut down.”

Dismukes joined protestors in front of the State Capital on Tuesday demanding that the orders closing businesses, sports fields, and Churches be lifted,

“I don’t know why we are continually being oppressed and we have so much governmental overreach,” Dismukes told the protestors. “I fully believe that today is the day that we go back to work.”

On Tuesday, State Sen. Tom Butler, R-Madison, told WVNN radio host Jeff Poor that Senate Republicans had sent a letter to Ivey urging her to open barbershops, salons, restaurants, churches and theaters by Friday.

“Quite frankly, I think the governor will hear from several senators, including leadership this week what we’re thinking,” Butler said. “We had a meeting yesterday of about 25, 26 of our colleagues in the Senate — had a meeting and we have, I think, as a consensus think that barbershops, nail salons, beauty shops, restaurants and other establishments like that — we put the hospitals back to doing elective procedures, which they need for steady income, and the patients need for their procedures. I think the governor will hear this week that the majority of the State Senate, at least, and I think many, many, many in the Statehouse, will be supportive of those kinds of reopenings.”

On Friday, State Senator Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, told WVNN that allowing businesses to reopen, but refusing to allow more than ten people in a church was unconstitutional.

“Now that’s something I think is purely unconstitutional and don’t understand why that’s being done,” Givhan said. “Somebody said businesses are set at 50 percent of their occupancy. Somebody went into Lowe’s the other day and noticed the occupancy was 2,000 people. You can get 1,000 people in Lowe’s, but you can’t get, you know, 50 people in Whitesburg Baptist Church. Something is wrong with that picture.”

The biggest hurdle to passing this and other legislation is Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia. One senior Senator told the Alabama Political Reporter that the Senate is willing to work through Monday, and even Sunday if necessary, but McCutcheon is insisting that the House of Representatives will not consider any legislation other than the budgets and members’ local bills.

On Wednesday, the House rules committee met in House Chambers and passed two special order calendars. The first special order calendar simply had the state education trust fund budget. The second had the state general fund budget.

Chairman Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, said, “This is probably the last meeting of the House Rules Committee.”

The rules committee sets the special order calendars. The Senate can pass legislation, but unless the House puts it on the floor it can not be considered. At this point, House leadership appears unwilling to address any of the issues being brought up by legislators.

At this point, Ivey has not announced a further loosening of restrictions on Friday or even on May 15.

The restrictions on businesses — including bars, gyms, nail salons, barbershops, athletic facilities, restaurant dining rooms, churches, concert halls, nightclubs, hair salons, spas, tattoo parlors, massage parlors and strip clubs — were put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

When the forced economic shutdown began only 36 Americans had died. As of press time 74,799 Americans have died from COVID-19. On Wednesday, 254 more Alabamians were diagnosed with COVID-19. 343 Alabamians have died from the global pandemic.

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Governor

Alabama AG warns against nursing homes taking stimulus checks

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama’s top law enforcement officer on Friday warned against nursing homes intercepting federal stimulus payments to long-term care residents who are Medicaid recipients, but the state’s Nursing Home Association says it’s not aware that is happening, and it hasn’t been contacted by the Alabama Attorney General’s Office over the matter. 

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall in a press release Friday said that federal stimulus checks from the CARES Act cannot be seized by nursing homes to pay for care. 

“We are now beginning to receive a few reports of concern that some Alabama nursing homes may be attempting to take stimulus checks from residents who are Medicaid recipients. If this is happening, it needs to stop now,” Marshall said in a statement. “These stimulus checks are rightfully and legally the property of the residents and must be returned. Confiscation of these checks is unlawful and should be reported to my office.”

Mike Lewis, spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, in a message to APR on Friday said that all concerns reported to the office will be reviewed and investigated.

“There have been four such reports thus far,” Lewis said in the message.

Alabama Nursing Home Association President Brandon Farmer in a separate press release Friday said that since the federal government’s announcement of the stimulus payment, the association advised members that any stimulus payment deposited to the accounts of nursing home residents was not to be used to reimburse the facility “and is the sole property of the residents.”

“We urge Attorney General Steve Marshall to let us know if he has any reports of diversion of residents’ stimulus payments so that we may clarify any misunderstanding that may exist,” Farmer said. “At this time, we are unaware of any facility where such diversion is occurring.

Farmer said the association has encouraged Marshall to contact them any time he has a concern about nursing homes, or has information he wants to pass along to our members.

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“As we have done throughout this pandemic, we stand ready to work with local, state and federal leaders to support Alabama’s nursing home residents and employees,” Farmer said.

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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

Ainsworth applauds Ivey for opening more businesses

Brandon Moseley

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Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth released a statement applauding Thursday’s revised public health order that allows for the reopening of educational institutions, entertainment venues, youth sports, summer camps and other activities with proper enforcement of sanitation and social distancing

“I applaud Gov. Kay Ivey and State Public Health Officer Scott Harris for taking yet another step toward fully reopening businesses and putting Alabama’s economy back on the right track,” Ainsworth said. “After months of patient quarantining and with summertime fast approaching, reopening youth sports, movie theaters, bowling alleys, and other activities will provide both parents and children with much needed entertainment.”

“Allowing campuses to operate gives students of all ages the opportunity to resume their education and continue job training, which is especially important in this economic climate,” Ainsworth continued. “But all of this must be done with proper sanitation, social distancing, and safety measures firmly in place.”

“Now that the worst threat of COVID-19 is behind us, Alabama can more fully focus on restoring old jobs and creating new ones, helping small businesses thrive once again, and rebuilding history’s greatest economy even better than it was before,” Ainsworth concluded.

Trump national campaign committee member former State Representative Perry O. Hooper Jr. similarly praised Ivey for her leadership and her decision to reopen more of the Alabama economy particularly athletic facilities on high school and junior high campuses for offseason football conditioning programs.

“We are very fortunate to have Donald J Trump as our Commander in Chief during this unprecedented time of crisis and Kay Ivey at the helm in Alabama,” Hooper said in a statement. “She showed true leadership once again today at her press conference. She is listening to her task force on re-opening Alabama and the states medical experts. She is developing a plan tailored to the unique needs of Alabama.”

“President Trump and Governor Ivey have worked hard to create the most dynamic economy in Alabama History,” Hooper continued. “We must have it up and running again as soon as possible in a safe responsible manner. I trust, and the President trusts, Kay Ivey to do just that.”

Hooper quoted President Calvin Coolidge: “After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world.” “This is as true today as it ever was,” Hooper said. “This is what makes the United States the greatest country in the World.”

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Ivey continues to caution Alabamians that it is safer for them to shelter in their homes whenever possible, especially for Alabamians who are susceptible to a bad outcome from the virus: older Americans, the obese, diabetics, those with asthma, those with heart conditions, and those who are immune-compromised. Protecting ourselves and others requires adherence to the social distancing protocols.

“It takes all of us being vigilant and adhering to the social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus,” Ivey said in her press conference. “This disease is deadly and is not something to taken lightly. Things aren’t back to normal and frankly we do not know what the new normal looks like.”

“As we go back to work don’t forget we must continue to practice social distancing, refrain from hoarding food and other supplies, and continue to lend our fellow Alabamians a helping hand,” Hooper said. “Together we will make Alabama businesses and American made companies great again.”

96,363 Americans have perished since Feb. 27 due to COVID-19.

 

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Education

Governor announces Secretary Jeana Ross to retire

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday announced that Jeana Ross is retiring as secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education. She has served in this position since 2012.

“I am extremely grateful for Secretary Ross’ tireless efforts and dedication to our children,” Ivey said. “On behalf of our state, she deserves a ‘job well done’ for her work in expanding voluntary, high-quality pre-K to all 67 counties. She is leaving the Department of Early Childhood Education with a great legacy, and we thank her for her service.”

Under Ross’s leadership, the department has received national recognition for their work. For the 14th consecutive year, Alabama leads the nation in providing the highest quality early learning experiences for four-year-old children.

Ross and her team have grown the nation’s highest quality pre-K program by more than 470 percent: from 217 classrooms in 2012 to 1,250 classrooms located in all 67 counties of the state in 2020.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as Alabama’s secretary of Early Childhood Education for the past eight years,” Ross said. “I appreciate Governor Ivey’s leadership and commitment to our efforts in ensuring as many children possible have access to a strong education foundation. For 14 years, Alabama’s program has ranked No.1 and serves as a model of excellence in early learning, and I am grateful to be a part of this achievement.”

In retirement, Ross will remain in Alabama and plans to consult for the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation as part of their efforts to promote the importance of early learning throughout the United States.

Ivey is appointing Dr. Trellis Smith to serve as acting secretary until Ross’ replacement is named. Smith has been employed with ADECE for 19 years, currently serving as the Alabama Head Start collaboration director.

She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Family and Child Development from Auburn University and a doctorate in Child and Family Development from the University of Georgia.

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Her appointment is effective June 1, 2020.

 

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