4 months ago

With 2018 election looming, Alabama lawmakers anticipate low-key legislative session

 

Don’t expect the Legislature to tackle big, long-simmering problems in the legislative session that begins this month.

As is typical during years when members of the state House of Representative and Senate are up for re-election, each lawmaker will have an eye on the looming fall campaign. That means the session that begins Tuesday likely will be a keeping-the-lights-on exercise.

“Of course, this is an election year,” House Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) said in an interview with Yellowhammer News. “And because of it being an election year, we want to try to get in, take care of our constitutional requirements — which the budget is priority for that — and let’s address our budgets and let’s try to make it as quick a session as possible and get out and let members go back and start campaigning for the new quadrennium.”

By law, legislators must pass a budget to fund education on the one hand and a spending plan for the rest of state government on the other.

Making the numbers balance in the general fund budget has become an annual headache for lawmakers, but the task will be easier this year because the state managed to carry over $93 million from the previous fiscal year.

McCutcheon said that “speaks volumes for the fiscal responsibility for the legislative body.”

One major factor of uncertainty, however, is the fact that Congress has yet to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides health coverage to children in lower-income families. Before leaving for the Christmas break, Congress extended the program only through March.

The House passed a long-term funding plan, over the objections of Democrats, who disagreed with how Republicans chose to fund the program; the Senate has not acted.

Without last month’s temporary stop-gap, Alabama would have run out of federal funds for its CHIP program by March, which would have forced the state to spend up to $50 million. That would have eaten into the general fund cushion built up last year.

Many experts believe congressional Republicans and Democrats ultimately will strike a deal, since no lawmaker has suggested killing the popular health care program. But McCutcheon is taking nothing for granted as state lawmakers head to Montgomery.

“I’m not confident in anything the federal government’s doing right now,” he said. “I’m just in a wait-and-see mode.”

Sen. Trip Pittman, a Montrose Republican who chairs the general fund budget committee in the upper chamber, said a $90 million surplus can vanish quickly.

“So, one of the things that’s important is to have fiscal discipline,” he said.

Pittman said there will be continued pressure on the Legislature to raise taxes and expand the Medicaid program, a step Alabama repeatedly has rejected since Congress passed the Affordable Care Act and dangled additional federal funds to cover more people.

“We have to balance our appropriations and revenue. … We’ll have to make choices and hard votes,” Pittman said.

McCutcheon talked about a number of other issues, most of which likely will not be resolved this year:

Education — pay raises and pre-K

McCutcheon said he would like to expand the state’s highly regarded pre-kindergarten program.

“And then, also, as we look at the general fund budget and the education budget, we’re hoping that we may have an opportunity to have a discussion for some pay increases for state employees, to include education and state employees,” he said.

Pay for teachers and other state workers mostly has been stagnant for a decade, although lawmakers did approve a 4 percent hike in 2016. Lawmakers several years ago rebuffed then-Gov. Robert Bentley’s proposed pay hike, opting instead to hold the line on health insurance premiums.

McCutcheon said the Legislature may explore allowing state employees to choose between pay raises or avoiding increases in employee costs for benefits. A fatter paycheck likely would be preferable to employees who could get health coverage through a spouse.

“Indirectly, it’s been talked about, about ways to try to give more flexibility to the employee as to the benefit packages,” he said. “But at this point, it’s nothing that’s been put into legislation.”

The speaker also said lawmakers will discuss ways to unify the education from kindergarten through college.

“We’d like to have the right hand knowing what the left hand is doing and everybody working for the same common goal,” he said.

Prisons — litigation hovers

McCutcheon said legislators also will try to pass legislation to address issues sparked by a lawsuit alleging that the state prison system offers constitutionally inadequate mental health services to inmates.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in June ripped Alabama’s “horrendously inadequate” staffing. The Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which brought the suit, has asked for a tripling of mental health workers in the Department of Corrections.

McCutcheon did not commit to any specific measure but added that legislators would take up the issue.

“I feel like that’s going to be part of the discussion outside of the budgets, and of course, that may have some dollars attached to that,” he said. “There’s going to be some talk of additional staffing for the Department of Corrections, and that could be very costly.”

McCutcheon said he hopes to reach a settlement with the plaintiffs in the prison suit.

“All of these things are part of the discussion,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a one size fits all in this mandate that will come from the court … I think that we can come up with some good things — which will be many things — but we can come up with some good things that will help our corrections system. We’re ready to address it.”

Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform

Alabama has come under scrutiny by interest groups that fault the state for rules that give law enforcement authorities broad power to seize money and property from suspected law-breakers, even when prosecutors do not win criminal convictions.

McCutcheon was noncommittal when asked about the issue.

“The jury’s still out, if you will, on that,” he said. “Let’s see what comes up and see what the discussions are.”

Gas tax hike? Unlikely

The Business Council of Alabama has pushed for a gas tax increase in recent years to fund transportation improvements, but McCutcheon said a change in the levy is unlikely in 2018.

The only way that would change, McCutcheon said, is if Congress were to pass a large-scale infrastructure bill that made billions of dollars available to the states.

If that happened, McCutcheon said, Alabama might need a gas tax increase or some other mechanism for attracting increased federal matching dollars for roads, bridges and other needs.

“That would cause some urgency that we would have to address,” he said.

“Last session was a difficult session. We had a lot of issues to deal with. It was a tough session.”

Brendan Kirby is senior political reporter at LifeZette.com and a Yellowhammer contributor. He also is the author of “Wicked Mobile.” Follow him on Twitter.

print
33 mins ago

Trump: Prisoner of the war party?

“Ten days ago, President Trump was saying ‘the United States should withdraw from Syria.’ We convinced him it was necessary to stay.”

Thus boasted French President Emmanuel Macron Saturday, adding, “We convinced him it was necessary to stay for the long term.”

Is the U.S. indeed in the Syrian civil war “for the long term”?

If so, who made that fateful decision for this republic?

U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley confirmed Sunday there would be no drawdown of the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, until three objectives were reached. We must fully defeat ISIS, ensure chemical weapons would not again be used by Bashar Assad and maintain the ability to watch Iran.

717

Translation: Whatever Trump says, America is not coming out of Syria. We are going deeper in. Trump’s commitment to extricate us from these bankrupting and blood-soaked Middle East wars and to seek a new rapprochement with Russia is “inoperative.”

The War Party that Trump routed in the primaries is capturing and crafting his foreign policy. Monday’s Wall Street Journal editorial page fairly blossomed with war plans:

“The better U.S. strategy is to … turn Syria into the Ayatollah’s Vietnam. Only when Russia and Iran began to pay a larger price in Syria will they have any incentive to negotiate an end to the war or even contemplate a peace based on dividing the country into ethnic-based enclaves.”

Apparently, we are to bleed Syria, Russia, Hezbollah and Iran until they cannot stand the pain and submit to subdividing Syria the way we want.

But suppose that, as in our Civil War of 1861-1865, the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, and the Chinese Civil War of 1945-1949, Assad and his Russian, Iranian and Shiite militia allies go all out to win and reunite the nation.

Suppose they choose to fight to consolidate the victory they have won after seven years of civil war. Where do we find the troops to take back the territory our rebels lost? Or do we just bomb mercilessly?

The British and French say they will back us in future attacks if chemical weapons are used, but they are not plunging into Syria.

Defense Secretary James Mattis called the U.S.-British-French attack a “one-shot” deal. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson appears to agree: “The rest of the Syrian war must proceed as it will.”

The Journal’s op-ed page Monday was turned over to former U.S. ambassador to Syria Ryan Crocker and Brookings Institute senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon: “Next time the U.S. could up the ante, going after military command and control, political leadership, and perhaps even Assad himself. The U.S. could also pledge to take out much of his air force. Targets within Iran should not be off limits.”

And when did Congress authorize U.S. acts of war against Syria, its air force or political leadership? When did Congress authorize the killing of the president of Syria whose country has not attacked us?

Can the U.S. also attack Iran and kill the ayatollah without consulting Congress?

Clearly, with the U.S. fighting in six countries, Commander in Chief Trump does not want any new wars, or to widen any existing wars in the Middle East. But he is being pushed into becoming a war president to advance the agenda of foreign policy elites who, almost to a man, opposed his election.

We have a reluctant president being pushed into a war he does not want to fight. This is a formula for a strategic disaster not unlike Vietnam or George W. Bush’s war to strip Iraq of nonexistent WMD.

The assumption of the War Party seems to be that if we launch larger and more lethal strikes in Syria, inflicting casualties on Russians, Iranians, Hezbollah and the Syrian army, they will yield to our demands.

But where is the evidence for this?

What reason is there to believe these forces will surrender what they have paid in blood to win? And if they choose to fight and widen the war to the larger Middle East, are we prepared for that?

As for Trump’s statement Friday, “No amount of American blood and treasure can produce lasting peace in the Middle East,” the Washington Post Sunday dismissed this as “fatalistic” and “misguided.”

We have a vital interest, says the Post, in preventing Iran from establishing a “land corridor” across Syria.

Yet consider how Iran acquired this “land corridor.”

The Shiites in 1979 overthrew a shah our CIA installed in 1953.

The Shiites control Iraq because President Bush invaded and overthrew Saddam and his Sunni Baath Party, disbanded his Sunni-led army, and let the Shiite majority take control of the country.

The Shiites are dominant in Lebanon because they rose up and ran out the Israelis, who invaded in 1982 to run out the PLO.

How many American dead will it take to reverse this history?

How long will we have to stay in the Middle East to assure the permanent hegemony of Sunni over Shiite?

Patrick J. Buchanan is the author of a new book, “Nixon’s White House Wars: The Battles That Made and Broke a President and Divided America Forever.”

(Creators, copyright 2018)

New organization to promote Mobile-Tensaw River Delta

A new group known as the Alabama Delta Alliance has come together to promote the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta (MTRD) and its many natural resources. The Delta Alliance Alliance will support the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, which is America’s second largest delta and the most bio-diverse body of water in the world.

This alliance is comprised of a diverse group of individuals, organizations and businesses that want to promote and enhance this ecological wonderland.

“The Alabama Delta Alliance is a group that shares a deep appreciation for the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta and the many benefits it offers the people of this state,” said Britton Bonner, chairman of the board of the Coastal Alabama Partnership. “Our goal is to build a robust, diverse coalition and effort focused solely on promoting the MTRD region — now and in the future.”

432

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson called the initiative “an idea whose time has come,” adding, “The delta is a hugely untapped resource for eco-tourism.”

For generations and well over a century, Alabamians and others have enjoyed the way of life and serenity of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. The MTRD is home to more than 600 species of fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds. With habitats that include huge swaths of swamps, marshes and wetlands, it is a veritable maze of tributary creeks, rivers, streams and bayous.

“Our newly created effort will serve as a resource to further educate the public on the biological and ecological diversity of the MTRD, the expansive flora and fauna, as well as the many recreational opportunities available to all regardless of interest or income level,” said state Rep. Randy Davis, whose legislative district abuts the delta. “A major goal of our effort will be to catalog the many access points, boat ramps, trails, local businesses and other important destinations the public will want to have at their fingertips when planning a trip in the MTRD.”

The Alabama Delta Alliance is encouraging people to learn more about the delta in hopes they will be inspired to visit the region. With the goal of promoting ecotourism in the area, the Alliance has created a new website as a tool for both visitors and residents alike, at www.alabamadelta.com. The website offers visitors a history of the delta, places to visit and information about alliance and steering committee members who are committed to the effort.

“Our website will be representative of the diverse people and organizations that are working with us,” said steering committee member Russell Ladd. “The interactive map will serve as a great resource that we can promote through social media and other digital channels, encouraging more visitation and driving ecotourism in the region.”

This steering committee is comprised of long-time delta supporters. Additionally, the organization has the support of more than 40 members from across the state.

Steering committee members believe that state and local management practices are adequately protecting and expanding access to the MTRD region. Federal designations and oversight often come with limitations on access and management of those properties, and it’s important to maintain the quality of life and outdoor recreational heritage by continuing to allow the state to manage this important natural resource.

“Our goal is to protect the many natural resources and the vast biological diversity that the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta enjoys,” Ladd added. “By getting involved in our effort, people are ensuring that we can continue to provide these important lands all throughout the region for future generations to enjoy.”

2 hours ago

Birmingham’s Bill Oliver makes debut as feature film director at Tribeca Film Festival

Years ago, Bill Oliver was a sixth-grader at Highlands Day School in Birmingham when his math teacher started a photography club.

“I signed up for that, and that’s where I fell in love with photography,” says Oliver, who went on to be editor and photographer of the yearbook and to start a movie club while a student at Indian Springs School.

Little did he know where that would lead him.

This week, Oliver is debuting his first feature film as a director. “Jonathan” makes its bow at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York on Saturday.

Oliver, who wrote “Jonathan” with his longtime writing partner Peter Nickowitz, describes it as “a science-fiction drama about two brothers who share a secret and what happens when one of them falls in love and begins to neglect their relationship.”

378

The movie stars Ansel Elgort (“The Fault in Our Stars,” “Baby Driver”), Oscar nominee and Emmy winner Patricia Clarkson (“The Untouchables,” “The Dead Pool,” “Six Feet Under”), Golden Globe winner Matt Bomer (“American Horror Story,” “The Normal Heart”)  and Suki Waterhouse (“Love, Rosie,” “Insurgent”).

Elgort was cast first.

“I knew him from ‘The Fault in Our Stars,’ but I didn’t know any of his other work,” Oliver says. “I saw one side of his character in ‘Fault in Our Stars,’ charming and outgoing, but he was also in ‘Men, Women & Children,’ where he played a very introverted character. We met for lunch and he was just very charming, very smart, very enthusiastic about the project and won me over.”

Casting Elgort helped land Clarkson, a veteran of stage and screen.

“She responded to the script and also had met Ansel at the Toronto Film Festival and fell in love with him, too,” Oliver says. “She was excited to work with him.”

Waterhouse, a British model-turned-actress, worked with Elgort in the upcoming “Billionaire Boys Club.”

Cast and crew gathered for 22 days in fall 2016 to shoot the movie.

It wasn’t Oliver’s first time behind the camera – he’s shot several short films since graduating from Princeton University and going on to directing school at the American Film Institute – but “Jonathan” is his first feature-length project.

“It was definitely scary, but I felt prepared and made sure I was prepared,” he says. “You do all your homework. You have to understand everyone’s job and be prepared to talk to all of them about it. I did my research, did my homework, did my analysis of the script.”

The Tribeca Film Festival is a big step, and “Jonathan” is already getting noticed. More than 100 feature films are being screened, and the show business publication Variety picked “Jonathan” as one of the nine with the most buzz.

“Jonathan” will screen four times between Saturday and April 28. Oliver is hoping to find a distributor to put “Jonathan” out in theaters, and other film festivals might be in its future.

But for now, the director just wants people to see his movie.

“I’m very happy with it and very proud of it,” says Oliver, who lives in New York. “I’m excited to show it to an audience.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 hours ago

Students walked out of school on Columbine shooting’s 19th anniversary

Students walked out of school to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., Friday.

Students across the country staged a walkout to protest gun violence 19 years after the Columbine shooting in 1999, The Washington Post reported. Connecticut’s Ridgefield High School student Lane Murdock, 16, organized the walkouts in order to pay respects to the Columbine High School massacre, where seniors Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris opened fired and killed 13 students and one teacher before killing themselves. Students from 2,500 different schools around the United States are expected to walk out of their high schools at 10 a.m. in their time zone to commemorate the tragedy, according to the HuffPost.

However, Columbine officials are less enthusiastic about the walkouts. Current principal Scott Christy and Frank DeAngelis, the principal during the 1999 shooting, wrote a letter, asking students to instead do a day of community service.

207

“April has long been a time to respectfully remember our loss and also support efforts to make our communities a better place,” the letter read. “Please consider planning service projects, an activity that will somehow build up your school … as opposed to a walkout.” Columbine high school does not hold classes on the anniversary in a practice started in 2000 in order to pay respects to the victims. Many students instead volunteer at soup kitchens, read to preschoolers, and help clean up parks.

“We feel like doing anything on that day is disrespectful for the families of people who died,” Columbine high school sophomore Rachel Hill said. “There’s a time for protest, but it’s not that day.” Hill didn’t think high school’s respected or listened to Columbine’s opinions, in regards to the walkout, the sophomore added.

The walkouts follow the March For Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., March 24. The rally was held to advocate for gun reform following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting spree in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 14.

Content created by The Daily Caller News Foundation is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a large audience. For licensing opportunities of our original content, please contact licensing@dailycallernewsfoundation.org.

17 hours ago

Conservatives should stop using the phrase ‘fake news’

Liberals have overused the word “racist” so much that the adjective now lacks any commonly agreed upon definition, and that’s a shame because we need words — especially that word — to mean something.

Conservatives have now done the same thing with the phrase “fake news.”

And we need to stop.

261

Are there racists? Of course, and where they are found, the label should indeed apply. The Alt-Right’s Richard Spencer is a racist. So is Jared Taylor.

But you’re not a racist if you believe our country should have borders. Or if you support law enforcement. Or if you believe in school choice.

Calling you a racist for supporting those things is the left’s attempt at shutting off debate and banishing those who advocate for such ideas.

Is there fake news? Of course, and just like the word “racist,” when it’s found, the label should apply. Dan Rather’s infamous story about George W. Bush’s record in the Air National Guard is a perfect example. It wasn’t true.

But news isn’t fake if it’s simply something you don’t like or would rather not hear. Or if it challenges your perspectives. Or if it, heaven forbid, says something unflattering about the president.

A racist is someone who actually hates people of another color and wishes them ill. Most people called ‘racist’ today are nothing of the sort.

Fake news means the story is a total fabrication. A lie. Complete fiction. Most stories called ‘fake news’ are also nothing of the sort.

In both cases, people making the charge simply want to delegitimize their opponent’s argument rather than make the mental and emotional effort to challenge their ideas.

The casualty of such total weakness is not just words, but thought itself.

As our fellow Alabamian Helen Keller wrote in her memoir, she wasn’t able to really think until words entered her mind that day at the water pump.

Words opened Helen Keller’s mind.

Don’t allow words to close yours.