The news business is tough, especially these days. There are a lot of stories and a steadily decreasing number of reporters to cover them.
That math means stories sometimes fall through the cracks or simply don’t receive the attention they deserve. Here are five stories from this past year that maybe you missed, or were so important that they really deserved more coverage and more interest.
Those bad laws cost money
Alabama lawmakers have quite a reputation for passing constitutionally-questionable laws to attract attention and get in on the latest conservative outrage. From “the nation’s toughest immigration law” to a ban on gay marriage, we’ve grown accustomed to the federal courts ripping our lawmakers’ work to shreds.
And being left with a big legal bill.
This year alone, as APR reported a couple of times in 2023, the Alabama Attorney General’s Office has spent at least $3 million on just expert witnesses to testify in cases challenging Alabama laws. One of those is a law banning gender affirming care for transgender children. Another was the cost of defending our unconstitutional voting maps. And then there are the never-ending costs of defending the Alabama Department of Corrections.
From just the figures made public, through APR’s reporting and the reporting of other outlets, we know taxpayers were put on the hook for at least $20 million in 2023 for various contracts (some of them multi-year) to defend bad laws, bad acts and bad actors.
Those costs do not include the millions also spent on attorneys and other legal fees wrapped up in the state’s redistricting fight. It doesn’t account for the travel reimbursements and other costs of devoting state employees to the defense of our bad laws.
This is not money well spent, mind you. It is money that we knew from the outset was almost certainly going towards a lost cause. And it’s money that in a state like Alabama could be better used in a number of different areas.
The Dems keep fighting
The fact that Alabama Democrats are fighting amongst themselves isn’t exactly major news at this point. They’ve been doing it pretty much constantly since 2018 or so. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important news.
The political dominance of Republicans in this state since 2010 has made what happens within the Alabama Democratic Party mostly irrelevant – at least from a newsworthiness standpoint. But if this state is ever going to achieve anything resembling a functional government that focuses on the needs of the majority, it will need a viable second party. That will never happen if we continue to ignore the actions of one major political party.
The fact that the leadership of the ADP basically tried to implement a poll tax to prevent certain people from voting in an effort to pass new, discriminatory bylaws should have been a major news story that spent weeks in the news cycle. As it was, while most outlets covered it, it barely registered. And the stories disappeared fairly quickly.
Even today, after the Democratic National Committee has forced the ADP leadership to rewrite its bylaws, there is little belief that the new bylaws will substantially correct the discriminatory changes ushered in last May. In fact, a draft version of the new bylaws showed that they still didn’t include a caucus for disabled members – a caucus which was eliminated during the May meeting.
But that’s what happens when sunshine isn’t around to clean things up. Things stay messy, and serious donors don’t give money to messy organizations. Which means the state will continue to suffer from one-party rule for the foreseeable future.
That weird AG-ADOC fight
Last April, in one of the strangest moves in Alabama political history, AG Steve Marshall stripped an entire agency’s lawyers of the credentials required to represent the state in legal matters. In one fail swoop, every ADOC attorney was no longer able to represent the department in any legal matter.
And no one would say why.
Making the whole thing even weirder, though, was the fact that while neither side would publicly disclose why that action was taken, they were both perfectly fine taking obvious shots at one another in public settings. That was the case at a Contract Review Committee hearing in July, where attorneys for both agencies refused to explain why Marshall had stripped the ADOC attorneys of their deputy AG/assistant AG status but didn’t exactly hide their disdain for one another.
Sources told APR that the move was made because Marshall had growing concerns about a number of ADOC legal contracts, including millions in fees for attorney Bill Lunsford. However, a separate source said that Marshall was using the move as political cover to avoid blame for the ADOC contracts, which he ultimately signed off on.
No matter the real reason for the move, the fact is that even now, the general public has no idea why an entire agency’s attorneys can’t practice law. But we’re still paying for them. And we’re paying for the AG’s office to handle extra work, which almost certainly requires additional contracts and costs. That would all seem to warrant an explanation. And the entire situation should have received more attention.
AG vs. Ethics Commission
It wasn’t enough that Marshall was apparently in a fight with ADOC. He also continued what has been quite the public spat with the Alabama Ethics Commission.
In 2022, Marshall made headlines when he stripped an Ethics Commission investigator and attorney of their DAG status and accused them of violating professional standards. The allegations originated from a case involving former Montgomery Police Chief Ernest Finley, who was referred by the Ethics Commission to Marshall’s office for prosecution for ethics violations.
The AG’s office conducted its own review and determined that Finley had not committed any crimes and that the investigation was mishandled and that “material misrepresentation of facts” had been made by general counsel Cynthia Raulston and investigator Byron Butler.
Later in the year, Marshall filed suit against the Ethics Commission – a rare state agency v. state agency lawsuit – claiming that the Commission had violated state policies when it published an opinion stating it had no duty to disclose exculpatory evidence to the subjects of investigations.
The Ethics Commission has argued that it essentially functions as a grand jury and sends its recommendations on to other prosecutors – either the AG or county district attorneys – to handle. However, Marshall has argued that the Ethics Commission carries more weight and should be required to disclose information that clears an individual of wrongdoing.
As the months have rolled along, the fighting between the two agencies has not stopped. And neither has the bad blood, mostly through various court filings in the lawsuit. But Marshall upped the ante late this year, backing a proposed change to state ethics laws that would eliminate the Ethics Commission and instead have his office handle those issues.
Fortunately, it is a proposal with little chance of passing, because it would send an awful message to voters. But the fact that so much bickering is happening between two of the state’s most important agencies, and it receives so little attention, is troubling enough.
A few weeks ago, there was a story making the rounds about an incarcerated person who died while in the custody of the state and was returned to his family with his heart missing. And no one could seemingly answer why.
While that was, obviously, terrible, it was the reaction to the story that should have troubled us the most. There was very little reaction. A handful of news stories and that was that.
Because that’s how awful things are in Alabama’s prisons, and with ADOC’s management. We have become so immune to the awfulness that a person missing a heart barely registers.
Maybe it’s because it’s just another in a long line of awful stories involving Alabama’s prisons this year – and every year. From the weekly death tolls that would make Turkish prisons blush to the indecent treatment of incarcerated humans by employees of the state, the terrible cruelty of Alabama’s prisons is constant. And that consistency has managed to prevent much of what we witness now in those prisons from truly shocking us into action.
In the meantime, though, as our prison system continues to fail those inside its walls, it’s not saving us a dime outside of it. In 2023 alone, the state entered into a billion-dollar prison healthcare contract and a billion-dollar prison construction contract. Neither will be the final bill, and both will likely cost taxpayers more than double what they’re projected to cost now.
Which means Alabama is paying as much – or maybe more – as any other state to house prisoners, but we’re just doing a much, much worse job of it. There’s no real incentive to change that, however, since the general public pays so little attention and this crisis continues to be Alabama’s most underreported story.