The Wire

  • VIDEO: Bill Hightower for Governor airs its first TV ad

    State Sen. Bill Hightower (R-Mobile) will air his first TV ad in his campaign for governor next week. An advance look at the commercial, which focuses on term limits, a flat tax and cutting spending, can be seen here:

  • President Trump threatens to veto federal budget because it doesn’t fully fund border wall

  • Alabama Rep. Roby’s re-election campaign nabs endorsements from pro-business groups

    Excerpt from a campaign news release:

    “Martha Roby continues to do an outstanding job for the hardworking people of Alabama. Her steadfast support has allowed job creation and an environment where people can do better for themselves and their families.”
    Alex Whaley, II, Alabama Associated General Contractors PAC

    “As the voice of small business, NFIB knows good small business policy starts with electing good small business candidates. Therefore, Martha Roby’s reelection is critical to the small businesses in Alabama’s Second District, and we look forward to working with you on the issues most important to them.”
    Sharon Sussin, National Political Director, National Federation of Independent Business Fed PAC

20 hours ago

Alabama House rejects bill to track race in traffic stops


Alabama lawmakers on Thursday refused to debate legislation that would have required police officers to collect data about race and traffic stops.

The bill sought to require police agencies to record data about the race and ethnicity of stopped motorists. The Alabama Senate had unanimously approved the measure, but it hit a roadblock in the Alabama House of Representatives.


Representatives in the GOP-controlled House overwhelmingly voted down a procedural measure needed to bring the bill up for debate. The House vote was largely split along racial and party lines. Only five Republicans voted for the measure.

“After the vote, Democratic Rep. Merika Coleman from Pleasant Grove said lawmakers were sending a message that, “Bama is still backwards.”

Coleman said the bill collects data to determine if there are problems.

“When you vote against a bill that simply collects data, just data on who is being stopped, why they are being stopped and who is stopping them, there is something wrong with that,” Coleman said.

African-American lawmakers had shared stories of being stopped by police during debate on the bill as it moved through the Alabama Legislature.

The bill’s defeat sparked a filibuster by African-American legislators and threatened to cloud the remainder of the session. It eroded warm feelings that had filled the chamber moments earlier when lawmakers broke out in applause after voting to create a state holiday honoring civil rights icon honoring Rosa Parks.

The bill drew opposition from some law enforcement representatives who said departments already have policies against racial profiling and the bill would require additional paperwork.

Rep. Connie Rowe, a former police chief, said she was concerned that officers, assigned to work in mostly minority neighborhoods, could wrongly appear to be targeting minorities if the data was collected.

Rep. Allen Farley, a former assistant Jefferson County sheriff, was one of the Republicans who voted for the bill.

“This to me protects the good guys,” Farley, a Republican from McCalla, said. Farley said bad officers need to be identified.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, who voted against the bill, said he wanted to meet with lawmakers to see if they could work out a compromise plan.

(Associated Press, copyright 2018)

1 day ago

Alabama House approves stiffer fentanyl penalties

(Air Force Medical Service)

The Alabama House of Representatives has voted to stiffen penalties for distributing fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid blamed for a surge of overdoses.

Representatives voted 89-2 on Thursday for the bill.  It now moves to the Alabama Senate where lawmakers will decide whether to go along with House changes.


A person would be convicted of trafficking if they possess more than a gram of fentanyl or 50 packages of a fentanyl mixture. The bill sets minimum mandatory sentences based on the weight.

Republican Rep. April Weaver said fentanyl can kill in tiny amounts.

Rep. Chris England, a former prosecutor, unsuccessfully urged legislators to change state law to allow doctors to be prosecuted for over prescribing.

England said the state should punish all the “bad actors” in the opioid crisis.

(Associated Press, copyright 2018)

1 week ago

Alabama House passes juvenile justice reform bill

Alabama lawmakers are one step closer to overhauling the state’s juvenile justice system after the House passed a bill aimed at keeping low-level offenders out of detention. Thursday’s vote was 69-20 after more than three hours of heated debate and multiple amendments.

The bill proposed by Rep. Jim Hill, a Republican and former juvenile judge, aims to keep low-level offenders at home instead of in lock-up facilities. It would limit the number of offenses that put juveniles into Department of Youth Services (DYS) custody and reduce the punishment for probation violations to briefer detention stays. It would also require a formal risk and needs assessment that allows judges and juvenile probation officers to divert children from detention.


The bill would re-invest $35 million in community-based programs on top of $1 million for juvenile justice reform approved in next year’s general fund budget.

“There is no doubt in my mind that placing children in out-of-home facilities should be your very last option. The only way it can be the last option is if you locally have another one,” Hill said. “The purpose of this bill is to deflect kids from DYS, which is expensive, and to reinvest those dollars in local programs so that juveniles can be provided the service in a local environment.”

The bill is based on recommendations made by the Alabama Juvenile Justice Task Force in December 2017. Nearly two-thirds of the children in DYS custody in 2016 didn’t commit a felony, according to the task force’s report. They were sent there for probation violations and misdemeanor offenses.

Alabama allows children as young as 14 to be tried as adults. Teens 16 and older are currently automatically placed in the adult system if they are charged with capital offenses, class A felonies and other crimes, such as an assault on a teacher or a school principal with a “dangerous instrument.”

The bill would limit which cases automatically get moved to adult court to capital offenses, murder, rape with a deadly weapon and robbery with a deadly weapon.

State prisons in October held one 15-year-old, three 16-year-olds and eleven 17-year-olds, according to statistics from the Department of Corrections.

A stream of lawmakers criticized and questioned the 80-page bill during debate.

Rep. John Knight, a Democrat, said he agreed with the intent of the bill but worried there wasn’t enough money to sustain it.

Rep. Elaine Beech, a Republican, said the legislation is an “unfunded mandate” and would overburden juvenile probation officers in her rural district who are already stretched.

DYS did not response to request for comment about whether the bill would strain officers.

Georgia implemented a similar law in 2013 that put only the most serious and violent young offenders in custody and diverted those with misdemeanors into community-based programs. Since 2013, yearly juvenile commitments to the Department of Juvenile Justice have decreased by 46 percent, according to the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform.

The bill moves for a final vote to the Senate, where similar legislation was introduced this year but hasn’t yet been approved by committee. Sen. Cam Ward, the Republican sponsor and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would push Wednesday’s committee meeting to Tuesday to get the bill on the floor for a vote on Thursday. The legislation faces a tight deadline before the session finishes at the end of March.

(Associated Press, copyright 2018)

5 months ago

Reynolds Announces Run for Alabama State House District 21

Former Huntsville Police Chief Rex Reynolds has declared his candidacy to fill the seat for Alabama House District 21 following the tragic loss of Representative Jim Patterson. Governor Ivey has set a Special Election for January 9, 2018, to fill this vacant House seat.

Reynolds retired from the City of Huntsville in 2013 following 34 years of public service. During his tenure at the city, in addition to serving as Police Chief, Reynolds also had stints as Public Safety Director and City Administrator. In 2015, he became the President of Sharp Communication, and he owns a cattle farm in Hazel Green, Alabama. Rex holds a Master’s Degree from AUM in Justice and Public Safety Administration and the 58-year old Huntsville native grew up in District 21. He’s lived in Northeast Huntsville, where the local baseball park is named after his Father, Royce Reynolds. Royce died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) in 1980.  Rex is a member of Jackson Way Baptist Church, where the former “Ms. Helen” served the church daycare for over 20 years.

Rex is married to the former Mary Fennell and the couple has two sons, Matt and Brett.  Matt is married to the former Rachel Weaver, and they have two sons, Kipton and Kaden.  Rex enjoys being a grandfather, a farmer, and running a small business, but feels the need carry on Rep. Patterson’s legacy in the Alabama Legislature. On his decision to run, Reynolds said: 

 “Our District is unique, covering farms and neighborhoods to the north, though a thriving downtown district, and into Southeast Huntsville. I feel I have the unique skill set to serve all of District 21, given my childhood home place, my schools, my service to the city, running a small business, and farming.”

Rex also believes his years of community service have exposed him to many of the needs of the district. Since retirement, Rex has continued his role on the boards of Boys and Girls Club, Crime Stoppers, Partnership for a Drug-Free Community, and the Madison County Alternative Sentencing Board.  In 2014, he received the Legislative appointment to the Madison County Judicial Commission, and this year he was appointed as a representative to the Alabama Retired State Employees Association.

Rex looks forward to engaging in the conversation about how to best position our state for continued growth, recruiting jobs, and workforce development.  As his campaign’s press release noted, “With growth comes a continued focus on education, jobs, roads, and infrastructure, and social services to serve those most vulnerable in our communities.  Quality of life is also important to Rex; it starts with having a safe community, and creating a positive environment of work, live and play.”

2 years ago

Alabama House ready to push forward with Bentley impeachment hearings

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley holds a press conference at the State Capitol in Montgomery (Photo: Governor's Office, Daniel Sparkman)

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley holds a press conference at the State Capitol in Montgomery (Photo: Governor's Office, Daniel Sparkman)
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley holds a press conference at the State Capitol in Montgomery (Photo: Governor’s Office, Daniel Sparkman)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday announced plans to hold its first meeting on articles of impeachment against Alabama Governor Bentley (R-Ala.).

The meeting, which will take place next week, will be an organizational session continuing a process that could ultimately culminate with the governor being removed from office.

Articles of impeachment were first filed on April 5 in the wake of revelations that the governor may have misused state resources to facilitate and cover up an affair with his top political advisor, Rebekah Caldwell Mason. But State Rep. Ed Henry (R-Hartselle) — a leading proponent of impeachment — argues Bentley’s “betrayal of the public trust” began with his incessant attempts to raise taxes after running for re-election on a “No New Taxes” pledge.

“If he really loves Alabama, he should put aside his selfishness and step down,” Henry said.

RELATED: Lawmakers begin process to impeach Bentley; Governor calls it ‘grandstanding’

House members levied four articles of impeachment against Bentley: neglect of duty, corruption, incompetency, and offenses of moral terpitude.

The Bentley administration has been mired in scandal since late March when Tellowhammer exposed the existence of audio recordings that captured sexually charged conversations between Bentley and Mrs. Mason. State and federal authorities have also launched criminal investigations into possible wrongdoing that stemmed from their inappropriate relationship.

RELATED: ‘Neglect of duty, corruption, incompetency’ — Here’s what’s in Bentley’s articles of impeachment

Business leaders have warned that the governor’s actions may now be impacting the state’s ability to attract jobs.

“We’ve got all this momentum with aerospace and Airbus suppliers are moving in and Google’s coming to the state and fiber broadband is going in and then boom — just like that the momentum is stopped by a scandal that none of us can do anything about,” one local economic developer told Yellowhammer. “To say it is frustrating would be understating it.”

RELATED: Economic developers frustrated as Bentley scandal chases away companies, jobs

Bentley has insisted that nothing he has done is ground for impeachment and has accused his detractors in the legislature of political grandstanding.

“There are no grounds for impeachment, and I will vigorously defend myself and my administration from this political attack,” he said.

The articles of impeachment, which function as the charges against the accused, must be passed by a simple majority in the Alabama House of Representatives. Once the house impeaches the governor, he stands trial before the Alabama Senate in a trial presided over by the Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court.

If the governor is convicted, he would be removed from office and replaced by the current Lieutenant Governor, Kay Ivey.

2 years ago

Alabama legislature passes ‘Leni’s Law’ to decriminalize cannabis oil

Alabama Senate Chamber (File photo)
Alabama Senate Chamber (File photo)
Alabama Senate Chamber (File photo)

MONTGOMERY – The Alabama legislature passed “Leni’s Law” yesterday, which will allow people with seizure disorders or other debilitating medical conditions to use cannabidiol, a derivative of cannabis.

The bill passed the Senate yesterday with a vote of 29-3, and the House later concurred 95-4. The bill now goes to Governor Bentley to be signed into law.

Leni’s Law is named after Leni Young, a young Alabama girl who suffered a stroke before she was born which caused her to have dozens of seizures a day. Leni’s family moved to Oregon to receive treatment of cannabis oil, which is illegal in Alabama. Leni’s parents, Wayne and Amy, said that once Leni started the treatment, her seizures diminished from 20-30 a day to 5 over the past 10 months.

“I prayed and hoped that it would help. But I had no idea that the changes would be this profound. She’s doing things we were told beyond her realm…ever,” Amy said. “It has given our little girl her life. She is a happy, sweet, opinionated little girl.

“Every moment is just such a gift.”

Leni’s story inspired State Rep. Mike Ball, who first introduced Leni’s Law earlier this year. The original bill allowed patients to use oil with 3 percent THC – the part of marijuana that produces the high. The House amended Ball’s bill to only allow 1 percent THC, but the Senate brought the level back up to 3 percent. Proponents of cannabis oil say that 3 percent THC is necessary for the oil to work, but not nearly enough to give the user a high.

The Senate also expanded Ball’s bill to include anyone with a debilitating medical condition. The version passed by the House only allowed the oil to be used by individuals with seizure disorders.

Leni’s Law is also an expansion of Carly’s Law, which Ball introduced and passed two years ago. Carly’s Law allowed UAB to conduct a study using cannabidiol to treat seizure disorders. Almost half of the patients in the study have seen a 32-45% decline in seizures thanks to cannabidiol.

While Leni’s Law had plenty of opposition, including Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, the success that cannabis oil has had for Leni and others made a convincing argument. Senator Paul Sandford, the Senate sponsor of Leni’s Law, said access to cannabis oil in Alabama would give those suffering from seizures and other conditions and their families much needed hope.

“When you meet one of the families, and you see their children and you see the pain in the eyes of those parents and then put myself in their shoes and realize how blessed I am and how much strength that those families show for the situations that they have, how could I not help them?” he said.

2 years ago

Legislature overrides Governor’s budget veto; Bentley threatens tough Medicaid cuts

Alabama House of Representatives (Photo: Yellowhammer)
Alabama House of Representatives (Photo: Yellowhammer)
Alabama House of Representatives (Photo: Yellowhammer)

MONTGOMERY – This week the Alabama Legislature sent a clear message to Governor Robert Bentley by overturning his veto of the state budget.

The House and Senate both voted to override the Governor’s veto on the General Fund budget on Tuesday. The Senate voted 22-11 and the House concurred 71-24.

Rep. Steve Clouse (R-Ozark), House budget chairman, said the approved budget was “adequate” for most state agencies, but Governor Bentley disagreed. He had asked the Legislature for a $100 million increase in appropriations for Medicaid, which would have brought their budget to $785 million. The Legislature’s budget approved $700 million for Medicaid – $85 million short of what the Governor asked.

Governor Bentley had proposed moving $181 million from education to the General Fund budget to help pay for Medicaid and other agencies, but the Legislature rejected that proposal.

Overall, the General Fund budget will spend $1.85 billion this upcoming fiscal year, which is an increase of 5 percent from this year.

Clouse did say that the House and Senate budget committees would hold joint meetings next week to discuss Medicaid and its rising costs.

“We want to give everybody on the committees and any other members of the Legislature a chance to zero in on Medicaid,” Clouse explained.

On Wednesday, Governor Bentley said that the Alabama Medicaid Agency would look at ways to cut costs and live within this new budget before he considers calling a special session over the state budget.

“If we have to live within our means, then we have to make some very tough decisions,” Bentley said.

The Governor and Medicaid Commissioner Stephanie Azar came up with a number of programs that could be cut or downsized in order to stay within their budget. Eliminating prescription drug coverage for adults could potentially save $50 to $60 million alone.

Other programs being considered (and their potential savings) include:

• Eliminate eyeglasses for adults: $300,000
• Eliminate outpatient dialysis: $3.7 million
• Eliminate prosthetics and orthotics; $500,000
• Eliminate Program of All Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE): $2 million
• Eliminate Health Home and Physician case management fee: $16.6 million
• Eliminate primary care bump (pays doctors at Medicare levels): $14.7 million

In 2014, 1.2 million residents of Alabama – almost 25% of the state’s population – were eligible for Medicaid.

2 years ago

Alabama lawmaker’s bill would force pedophiles to pay to have themselves castrated

"Lady Justice" Flickr user Scott*

"Lady Justice" Flickr user Scott*
“Lady Justice” Flickr user Scott*

MUNFORD, Ala. — State rep. Steve Hurst (R-Munford) believes he has found the appropriate punishment for convicted pedophiles: surgical castration. Legislation filed by Hurst this week would require offenders convicted of sexually assaulting a child under the age of 12 to be surgically castrated before their release from prison. The offender must be 21 or older and must pay for the surgical procedure themselves.

Other states including California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Montana, Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin, allow chemical or surgical castration of repeat sex offenders, but this law would be one of the toughest in the country.

The American Civil Liberties Union and a bevy of other civil rights groups have lobbied against the practice calling it “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

This is Hurst’s third attempt to pass his castration bill. In his previous attempts, 2013 and 2014, the bill failed to make it out of committee.

During the bill’s first introduction in 2013, Hurst explained his position to The New York Daily News. He argued that his plan was not inhumane at all. Instead, he insisted it would be cruel not to implement it. “What is inhumane is to molest a child, especially an infant,” Hurst said. “That’s inhumane.”

The bill will be sent to the Alabama House of Representatives judicial committee.

2 years ago

The 15 events that defined Alabama politics in 2015

2015 Year in Review Alabama Politics

2015 was a wild year in Alabama politics.

A reality television star drew tens of thousands of Alabamians to his presidential campaign rallies.

A sitting governor got divorced. A sitting Speaker’s political career survived an entire year under indictment.

Same-sex weddings took place at courthouses around the state. Taxes were raised. The Confederate Battle Flag was lowered. Refugees were rejected. And a football program was resurrected.

Here are–in no particular order–the 15 events that defined a tumultuous year in Alabama politics.

Governor Bentley’s State of the State address

Gov. Robert Bentley delivers the 2015 State of the State Address, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, in the Old House Chamber of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. (Photo: Governor's Office, Jamie Martin)
Gov. Robert Bentley delivers the 2015 State of the State Address, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, in the Old House Chamber of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. (Photo: Governor’s Office, Jamie Martin)

Whether it was politics or his personal life, 2015 was by far the most turbulent year of Dr. Robert Bentley’s tenure as Alabama governor.

After securing re-election in November of 2014, Bentley tacked left on a variety of issues, from taxes to government healthcare, and ruffled some feathers by ordering the Confederate battle flag removed from the Capitol grounds. In August, his wife announced she was leaving him after 50 years of marriage.

The moment that telegraphed what Alabamians could expect from their chief executive in 2015 came in early March when Bentley delivered his annual State of the State Address.

He demanded companies “pay their fair share” and gave a full throated defense of his plan to raise taxes by $541 million. He also hinted at expanding Medicaid, a move that many on Goat Hill expect to come in 2016.

Same-sex marriage comes to Alabama

Flickr User wenzday01
Flickr User wenzday01

A federal judge in January issued a ruling striking down Alabama’s constitutional ban on gay marriage on the grounds that it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

The ruling was put on hold while the United States Supreme Court debated same-sex marriage. The High Court ultimately struck down same-sex marriage bans across the country, effectively creating a constitutional right to marriage and prompting several Alabama counties to exit the marriage business all together.

The religious liberty implications of the ruling are still a hot-button issue that won’t be resolved for years to come.

Hubbard survives another year on top

Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn)
Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn)

It is a testament to Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s (R-Auburn) sheer tenacity that he remains the Speaker 14 months after being indicted on 23 counts of felony public corruption.

His power, once unrivaled in state government, is somewhat diminished. He is no longer able to bend the legislature to his will. But in spite of being openly challenged for the gavel for the first time, his position appears to be secure for now.

Hubbard’s long-anticipated trial is scheduled to take place next year. The outcome will shape Alabama’s political landscape for years — perhaps decades — to come.


Senator Jeff Sessions dons a "Make America Great Again" hat at Donald Trump's Mobile rally.
Senator Jeff Sessions dons a “Make America Great Again” hat at Donald Trump’s Mobile rally.

In what the Washington Post described as “something between a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert and the Daytona 500,” Alabama became the center of the political universe for one night in August when Donald Trump’s Boeing 757 touched down in Mobile.

Tens of thousands of Trump supporters flocked to Ladd-Peebles Stadium for what many believe was the largest event to that point in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

The event had national significance, signaling that Trump’s unexpected rise in the polls could be buttressed by legitimate support on the ground. It also elevated Senator Jeff Sessions’ national profile. Alabama’s junior senator appeared on stage with Trump, and the billionaire real estate mogul adopted his immigration and trade positions just days later.

But the event was about more than a single night — or even a single candidate. Trumpapalooza established Alabama as a must-visit state for serious presidential contenders, thanks to the SEC Primary.

Since then, Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Ted Cruz, famed neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and others have all made a serious play to compete and win in Alabama.

Syrian refugees refused

Hundreds of Syrian refugees waiting for the next train in Vienna, Austria (Photo: Josh Zakary)
Hundreds of Syrian refugees waiting for the next train in Vienna, Austria (Photo: Josh Zakary)

Governor Bentley in mid-November became the second governor in America to announce his administration would refuse to accept Syrian refugees.

He later signed an executive order directing state agencies to utilize “all lawful means necessary” to prevent the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the state.

The Bentley administration and the White House have been at odds over whether Bentley — or any governor — has the authority to issue such an order. But to this point, no refugees have been sent to Alabama.

Confederate flag toppled

Confederate Battle Flag
Governor Bentley ordered the Confederate Battle Flag removed from the Capitol grounds the morning of June 24th, sparking a backlash among many Alabamians who consider the flag to be a part of the state’s history that should not be erased.

Bentley said his order was partially in response to the Charleston church shooting, but more about doing the “right thing.” It also undoubtedly had a lot to do with Alabama’s economic development efforts, which some state leaders worried could be damaged if they resisted the national push to eradicate the flag in a symbolic gesture after the Charleston tragedy.

Bentley breaths life back into the gambling industry

(Photo: Flickr user Dallas1200am)
(Photo: Flickr user Dallas1200am)

Alabama’s anti-gambling movement, propelled by the state’s large swath of evangelical Christians, considered Governor Bentley an ally until last month when he stripped the Attorney General’s office of the power to enforce gambling laws and paved the way for VictoryLand to reopen.

It had been a rough year for pro-gambling interests prior to that moment. A push to expand casino gambling in the state failed along with the annual push for a lottery, and Senator Del Marsh (R-Anniston), the state’s most powerful lawmaker and a gambling supporter, said he would not reintroduce gaming legislation in 2016.

It is still hard to imagine casino gambling legislation passing, but with another budget crunch on the horizon, the lottery could once again get serious consideration.

The leader of an interdenominational organization that lobbies the Alabama legislature on behalf of the Christian community issued a stern warning earlier this month: “Illegal gambling is taking over this state.”

Gang of Nine emerges in Alabama Senate

TOP (from left): Sens. Rusty Glober, Bill Holtzclaw, Clay Scofield, Paul Bussman and Paul Sanford. BOTTOM (fromt left): Sens. Bill Hightower, Shay Shelnutt, Slade Blackwell and Phil Williams.
TOP (from left): Sens. Rusty Glober, Bill Holtzclaw, Clay Scofield, Paul Bussman and Paul Sanford. BOTTOM (fromt left): Sens. Bill Hightower, Shay Shelnutt, Slade Blackwell and Phil Williams.

The Alabama Legislature raised taxes by roughly $100 million in 2015, far less than Governor Bentley pushed for, but enough that it sparked contentious debates over three grueling legislative sessions.

The majority of the Legislature ultimately supported a package that combined three tax increases with two measures aimed at reforming the state’s dysfunctional budgeting process. But while the majority of lawmakers viewed combining reforms with tax increases as a palatable compromise, a group of nine staunchly conservative senators refused to bend, consistently voting “no” and sometimes launching into filibusters of tax bills backed by their own party.

The “Gang of Nine,” as they became known, probably did not win a lot of friends on Goat Hill, but they undoubtedly kept the tax burden on Alabamians from increasing much further than it did. If they continue to stick together, they will continue to be a powerful bloc in the Senate.

PSC drops energy rates in spite of increased federal regulations

Public Service Commission Jeremy Oden, Commissioner President Twinkle Cavanaugh and Commissioner Chris "Chip" Beeker
Public Service Commission Jeremy Oden, Commissioner President Twinkle Cavanaugh and Commissioner Chris “Chip” Beeker

The Alabama Public Service Commission led by PSC President Twinkle Cavanaugh in early December secured a rate reduction for Alabama Power and Alagasco customers, in spite of increasing costs the companies continue to incur due to federal environmental mandates.

A drop in the price of coal and natural gas made it possible for Alabama Power to offset some of their regulatory costs this year, compelling the PSC to push for a 2 percent reduction in the retail cost of electricity through 2016. Alabama Power expects to return an estimated $120 million to customers through the end of next year.

The move was a crippling blow the state’s environmentalist movement, which had previously cloaked its anti-coal agenda in pro-consumer rhetoric. The environmentalist’s “favorite Republican” is running for a slot on the PSC again in 2016, nonetheless.

Jeff Sessions endorses Richard Shelby

Sen. Richard Shelby (left) and Jeff Sessions (right)
Sen. Richard Shelby (left) and Jeff Sessions (right)

With the anti-incumbent sentiment at an all-time high, longtime U.S. Senator Richard Shelby drew four primary challengers in his bid for a sixth term.

But as quick as the campaign started, Shelby got a boost from his colleague Jeff Sessions, whose credibility among grassroots conservatives is unmatched.

Sessions’ endorsement effectively chopped the legs off of rival campaigns, who were yet to even have the opportunity to make their case that conservatives should rally behind an alternative. Conservative columnist Quin Hillyer told liberal political blog he believes Sessions is so popular in Alabama that an endorsement from him would mean a six-point bump in the Yellowhammer State for a presidential candidate.

The race will undoubtedly heat up in January as voters start paying attention and ad dollars start to fly, but the state’s most trusted conservative has already weighed in, and there’s no amount of money that could buy that kind of street cred.

AUE quietly enters the scene

University of Alabama System Chancellor Dr. Robert Witt
University of Alabama System Chancellor Dr. Robert Witt

A coalition of education leaders in early December announced the formation of Alabama Unites for Education (AUE), an advocacy group that appears poised to fill the void left by the precipitous decline of the Alabama Education Association (AEA).

The most significant policy debates in the coming years will likely center around what to do about the state’s ever-expanding General Fund Budget, which threatens to devour more and more education funding.

With AUE, the education community will have a powerful voice in the debate, without all of the baggage and nefarious tactics of the AEA.

The photo voter ID battle rages on

A woman prepares to vote in 2006. (Photo: Nathaniel Shepard)
A woman prepares to vote in 2006. (Photo: Nathaniel Shepard)

After the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency announced it would close down 31 rural drivers license offices due to budget cuts, voting rights activists cried foul and accused Alabama of trying to limit minority citizens’ access to photo ID, which is required to vote.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund sued the state, insisting that requiring voters to show photo ID is “discriminatory” and would disenfranchise over 250,000 Alabamians, many of them black and latino, in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Even Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders weighed in on the issue, while Republicans dismissed the claims and noted that all 67 Alabama counties have a Board of Registrars that issues photo voter I.D. cards for free.

UAB football returns

UAB Football Team celebrates early in the 2014 season (Photo: Shanna Lockwood)
UAB Football Team celebrates early in the 2014 season (Photo: Shanna Lockwood)

In December of 2014, the University of Alabama-Birmingham announced it was shuttering its football program, becoming the first Division 1 school to make that decision since Pacific did so in 1995.

Six months later, in a stunning reversal, the school announced the program was coming back. Five months after that, the University of Alabama Board of Trustees announced its support for UAB to build a $12-15 million football operations facility. This month the school released a list of the first 19 players it has committed to play in 2017.

The UAB football revival has been viewed as an enormous positive for the university and the local community, but the political implications are significant as well.

Had the UA Board of Trustees and the UAB football advocates not found common ground, the effects would have rippled throughout the coming year’s legislative session.

BP settlement finalized

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange in October announced the state’s final settlement with BP concerning the damages caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The agreement is set to bring approximately $2 billion dollars to Alabama in reparation for the economic and environmental damages resulting from the spill.

But not everyone was happy with the deal. Some Gulf Coast lawmakers expressed their frustration at how that money will be appropriated.

“The settlement is severely flawed because it puts too much money under control of the federal and state governments,” said Congressman Bradley Byrne (R-AL1). “A better settlement would have directed more money into the RESTORE Act process and allowed our coastal communities to decide how the money should be spent.”

“We need the state Legislature to remember two facts,” added Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson. “One is that there were real economic and environmental consequences from the oil spill which continue to this day. The second is that our region is a tremendous economic engine for the entire state. Returning more of the settlement to coastal Alabama is not only the right thing to do, but it is also good common sense.”

Public pension reform picks up steam

Retirement Systems of Alabama CEO David Bronner (Photo: Wikicommons)
Retirement Systems of Alabama CEO David Bronner (Photo: Wikicommons)

Public pension reforms have received off-and-on interest from the Alabama legislature over the years, but momentum for reform picked up significant speed in 2015.

The renewed interest is thanks in part to math — the pension system is underfunded and taxpayers are sending to it almost $1 billion per year — and partly because Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) CEO David Bronner has infuriated conservatives in the Republican-controlled legislature.

Bronner was caught on camera in October reciting a lengthy list of foul-mouthed grievances with the citizens of Alabama and their elected representatives. His most stinging criticisms were reserved for conservative Alabamians, who he believes are irrationally opposed to higher taxes and expanding government healthcare programs.

Bronner has enjoyed a four-decade run as one of the most powerful men in state politics. But if major RSA reforms are advanced in 2016, 2015 may be remembered as the year his ego finally caught up to him.

3 years ago

Alabama senator explains how ‘surplus’ of state money discredits calls for tax hikes

Alabama Senator Phil Williams (R- Rainbow City)

(Audio above: State Sen. Phil Williams interview by Cliff Sims on Yellowhammer Radio)

During an interview on Yellowhammer Radio Thursday, Alabama State senator Phil Williams (R-Rainbow City) told host Cliff Sims that contrary to what many state government officials have said, there is a “surplus” of money in state government that could be used to meet Alabama’s obligations, rather than raising taxes.

Governor Robert Bentley and House Republican leadership have been pushing various tax plans, ranging from tobacco and soda tax hikes to the elimination of the FICA tax deduction that currently keeps Alabamians from owing state taxes on the amount of federal taxes they’ve already paid. But Senate leadership, along with rank and file Republicans in both chambers, have remained staunchly anti-tax.

“This comes down to the fundamental question,” Sims began. “Do you believe Alabama’s government has enough money to function right now?”

“I do, absolutely,” Williams replied. “It is apparent we have enough money in Montgomery to do all the things the governor says he wants to do. All those executive branch departments and agencies, there’s enough money in Montgomery to bring us back to level funding — where we were last year — without any loss of services. There’s enough money to keep the court systems moving, and the AG’s office doing what it does and state troopers on the road. But the fact that we can’t access existing funds is infuriating.”

Sen. Williams said the reason the money is not currently accessible is because of Alabama’s dysfunctional budgeting process, which was implemented at the behest of the teachers’ union when the state was under Democratic control.

Alabama is one of only three states in the country that maintains two separate budgets. Roughly $6 billion per year flows into a budget earmarked for education. That leaves only about $1.8 billion flowing into the General Fund earmarked to fund everything else. Alabama “earmarks” over 90 percent of its revenue, mandating certain taxes be spent on certain programs, no matter what. That is by far the highest percentage of any state in the country, leaving legislators very little flexibility to set spending priorities.

The “surplus” Sen. Williams identified is hundreds of millions of dollars currently earmarked to go into a savings account.

“Right now it is predicted that with the budget we just passed for education, which was one of the largest budgets for education ever in the history of Alabama — almost $6 billion — that by the end of next fiscal year, they will have a $350-400 million surplus in the Education Budget,” Williams explained. “Now, I don’t mind government not spending every penny it has, I like having a savings account. But truth be told, on the General Fund side, we are anywhere from $180-265 million short of last year’s spending… So, yes, there’s a surplus in Montgomery. And we have some departments who have what they call ‘rollover accounts’ that at the end of the Fiscal Year they have a surplus and they’re not required to put that back in the General Fund… We’ve fixed some of that, but some of them still have their ‘golden calf’ rollover budget… Everyone’s willing to let someone else shoulder the burden.”

Sims pointed out that the “surplus” is the result of reforms made by Republicans. The “Rolling Reserve Act,” passed in 2011, capped the growth of the Education Budget and sent surplus money into the reserve account to be used in lean years when tax revenue is down. He then asked Williams to respond to critics who say using some of that money to patch the General Fund would roll back one of Republicans’ key reforms.

“My answer to that is, we’re not breaking the reserve. We’re not in any way reopening the Education Budget or diminishing their current spending levels or breaking the reserve program,” said Williams. “What we’re saying is some of the growth revenues that are only allowed to be used for education should to some degree be allowed to be shared with the General Fund because you can give a kid the best education in the world, but if the state they live in does not have good infrastructure, safe streets, mental health programs and court systems that are not clogged up, then they’re going to take that education and move somewhere else… So my argument is you don’t break the reserve program. You still do it. We’re not taking away so much that it would kill the reserve they have now. What we’re asking for is a component of that to get put in… But again, the golden calf. ‘Don’t touch my stuff.’ That’s the argument we constantly hear. ‘Don’t touch my stuff.'”

Williams said he is certain the legislature will come together to pass a budget before the Oct. 1 deadline. And in spite of the differences between the House and Senate, he believes more attention will be paid to the Montgomery “surplus” during the upcoming second Special Session.

3 years ago

Alabama Senate passes General Fund budget relying solely on cuts

Alabama Senate Chamber (File photo)

Alabama Senate Chamber (File photo)
Alabama Senate Chamber (File photo)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama Senate Monday approved a General Fund relying solely on cuts to strike a constitutionally-mandated balanced budget.

The final vote, 19-15, followed several hours of debate on the Senate floor. Seven Republicans joined with every Democrat to vote against the legislation.

General Fund budget committee chairman Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) said the bill cuts nearly every agency, including a 4 percent cut to Medicaid, but appropriates $16 million for the prison reforms passed during the Regular Session.

Sen. Orr voted against his own proposed budget, just as he did during the Regular Session.

The Alabama House will take up the bill when it convenes Monday afternoon. Should it pass through the House without amendment, it will be sent to Governor Bentley’s desk where he is expected to veto it.

Not a single one of the governor’s more than $300 million in tax increases made it through the legislative process, with even the cigarette tax increase failing in committee.

Governor Bentley has maintained throughout the summer that he will not accept a budget that doesn’t raise revenue, calling the cuts necessary to balance without tax increases “unworkable.”

House and Senate leaders have reportedly asked the Governor to quickly call a second Special Session if he indeed decides to veto the trimmed General Fund budget. The state is constitutionally mandated to have a balanced budget in place before the beginning of the new fiscal year, which begins on October 1st.

The current Special Session must end Tuesday, August 11th, according to the rules of Special Sessions laid out in the Alabama Constitution.

This story may be updated as more details emerge.

3 years ago

Alabama House passes bill unearmarking $508 million in beleaguered General Fund budget

Alabama House of Representatives (Photo: Yellowhammer)

Image c/o Flickr user Joel יוֹאֵל
Image c/o Flickr user Joel יוֹאֵל

MONGTOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama House Wednesday passed a bill removing earmarks from 30 state agencies and revenue streams in the General Fund, giving lawmakers more room to prioritize during the budgeting process.

The bill, HB46 passed on a wide bipartisan vote of 83-13, and will go into effect during the 2017 fiscal year, meaning it won’t immediately address the General Fund’s budget shortfall.

Will Ainsworth (R-Guntersville) told Yellowhammer Wednesday that removing the earmarks is a “step in the right direction.”

“This bill will give legislators the ability to prioritize where the money goes,” Ainsworth said, “and moving agencies toward a zero-based budget would require them to show how they’re spending taxpayer money each year.”

Earlier this year Rep. Ainsworth laid out the case for removing many earmarks from the budgeting process in an op-ed published by Yellowhammer News.

To put it simply, we have an allocation problem in Alabama, not a revenue problem.

In years past, whenever a new tax was approved, its proceeds were earmarked for one specific purpose or another. Some of these earmarks are constitutional, which means the voters, in their wisdom, dedicated the taxes to an agency, initiative, or spotlighted need during referendum elections.

Many of Alabama’s statutory earmarks, however, were put in place many years ago through back room bargains between lobbyists and long-retired politicians who no longer roam the State House halls. The only way to avoid new taxes is to remove these earmarks and set priorities based on need, not on decades-old, money-hoarding schemes that lobbyists locked into our budgets.

Alabama is one of only three states that has two separate budgets, but, more to the point, we have the highest percentage of earmarked tax dollars in the nation at 91 percent. The national average is just 24 percent, and the next highest state behind Alabama is Michigan with 63 percent. Rhode Island is the lowest in the United States with only 4 percent of its tax revenues being earmarked.

Before we consider asking for one more dime of taxes, let us first restore a measure of sanity, implement good business practices, and use some everyday common sense in the way we budget.

Below is a detailed list of the areas of the budget that would be unearmarked by the bill.

Agriculture and Industries
Fees $11,500,000

Forest Products Severance $5,500,000

Secretary of State
Corporation Filing Fees $2,000,000

Department of Public Health
Fees $6,500,000
Cigarette Tax $2,500,000

Department of Human Resources
Alcohol Taxes $52,000,000
Sales and Use Tax $71,000,000
Contractors Gross Receipts $6,000,000
Cigarette Tax $2,500,000
Property Tax $21,000,000

Environmental Management
Fees $4,000,000

Licenses $8,000,000

Mental Health
Insurance Premium Tax $4,500,000
Alcohol Taxes $35,500,000
Utility Taxes $140,000,000
Contractors Gross Receipts $36,000,000
Cigarette Tax $5,000,000

Veteran’s Affairs
Property Tax $30,000,000

Sales and Use Tax $6,000,000
Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Fees $44,500,000
Tourism Lodgings Tax $14,000,000

The bill moves next to the Senate.

3 years ago

Alabama Legislature increases transparency, bolsters Open Meetings Law

Alabama Senate Chamber (File photo)
Alabama Senate Chamber (File photo)
Alabama Senate Chamber (File photo)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama House on Wednesday passed SB21, sponsored by Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), ensuring the public has access to government and board meetings. The legislation passed the House 91-4 after it unanimously passed the Senate on March 18, and now awaits Governor Bentley’s signature.

“Government should be open, transparent, accountable, and its business done before the people,” said Sen. Ward in a press release after the bill earned final passage.

Ward sponsored the bill to strengthen the original Open Meetings Act passed in 2005, but altered by the Alabama Supreme court in 2013. The court’s revisions included a loophole that permits members of a board to hold secret meetings at which individuals would agree upon a vote behind close doors, then take action without any type of public discourse on the issue.

“Senator Ward has worked tirelessly on this legislation because it will make state and local government more accountable to the people of Alabama,” said Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed (R-Jasper).

Proponents of Ward’s reform say the bill helps to strengthen government accountability by making sure the citizens have a chance to know about and attend meetings with issues they may be concerned about.

Meetings with discussions or negotiations that involve sensitive personnel issues or economic development matters are not included in the bill. In particular, the state’s universities are exempt when making hiring decisions on university presidents, vice presidents, provosts, department heads, or athletic coaches.

“Government entities should not make decisions behind closed doors that affect Alabamians,” remarked Reed, “and now citizens can rest assured that the people’s business will be handled in the light of public oversight.”

3 years ago

Ala. Senate votes to rename Edmund Pettus Bridge, sparking controversy over revising history

Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama Senate on Wednesday approved a resolution to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which was famously crossed by civil rights activists on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965, the “Journey to Freedom Bridge.”

When protesters, including Martin Luther King, Jr. came back despite the violence, crossing the bridge, named for Edmund Pettus, a Confederate general, Grand Dragon of the Alabama KKK, and Democratic Senator, has historically been lauded as one of the most beautifully ironic symbols of the civil rights movement.

Alabama state senator Hank Sanders (D-Selma) sponsored the resolution, which is believed to be binding if it passes both houses.

“There are many things in our society to change that are more significant than the name of a bridge,” the resolution reads, “but removing this vestige of the past will serve as a parallel to the ongoing journey towards equal rights, fair representation and open opportunity.”

Yellowhammer CEO Cliff Sims spoke out against the renaming of the bridge on his radio program Wednesday, calling it an attempt to “whitewash” Alabama’s history.

“How awesome is it that the march for freedom — both literally and figuratively — for so many black Americans went right over a bridge named after a KKK leader?” He asked rhetorically. “Good overcame evil. That’s powerful symbolism. Instead, we’re apparently going to whitewash our history and rename it ‘The Journey to Freedom Bridge.’ Nothing could ever take away from the courage displayed by the people who crossed that bridge — and it truly was a ‘journey to freedom’ — but political correctness annoys me to no end.”

The Alabama Legislature has only two more legislative days in the 2015 Regular Session. The resolution still needs to be passed by the House in that short timeframe and signed by the governor before it can go into effect.

3 years ago

Alabama House passes balanced budget relying on cuts, no tax hikes

Alabama House of Representatives (Photo: Yellowhammer)

AL House slider
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama House of Representatives passed Tuesday a general fund budget that relies on more than $250 million in cuts, and includes none of the Gov. Bentley’s recommended tax increases.

The bill will cut Medicaid, Mental Health, DHR, and Corrections by 5 percent and every other agency funded by the general fund by at least 9 percent.

With a final tally of 66-36 the vote fell almost exclusively along party lines, with only four Republicans voting against the measure.

“It’s hard to put lipstick on this pig today,” said House General Fund budget chairman Steve Clouse (R-Ozark) after the vote.

The bill, should it make it through the Senate without major changes, is expected to be vetoed by Governor Bentley, who called the plan “unworkable” last week.

A simple majority is all that is required to overturn a veto.

House Democratic Caucus Leader Craig Ford said he hopes the Senate makes changes to the bill.

“The budget the House passed today is going to hurt a lot of people if the Senate doesn’t make some major changes,” Ford said after the vote. “The sad part is that all of these cuts, and all the pain that will come with them, could have been avoided. We’ve known for three years that this day was coming. But in all that time, the leadership couldn’t come up with a viable solution to the budget crisis. Now it’s up to the Senators to come up with a better solution. And for the people of Alabama’s sake I hope that they do.”

This story is developing and may be updated.

3 years ago

Alabama Senate unanimously passes Education Budget with slight increase in spending

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama Senate on Tuesday unanimously passed and Education Budget, which will spend $5.9 billion to fund Alabama’s public k-12 schools, pre-schools, and universities, and other educational programs.

Lawmakers are giving partial credit for the budget’s ease of passage and slight bump in spending to the Rolling Reserve Budget Act, passed in 2011, which requires the state to grow the education budget sustainably, and save any excess between receipts and appropriations for leaner years.

“This proposal protects funding for K-12 education and provides full or increased funding for many of the state’s proven education reform programs like the Alabama Reading Initiative and the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative,” said Senate Education budget committee chairman Trip Pittman (R-Montrose). “Thanks largely to conservative and responsible budgeting practices, we have been able to produce a responsible budget which includes increases in the amount of money for a number of student programs such as Pre-K, Advanced Placement classes, higher education, textbooks and transportation.”

The spending bill marks an approximate 1 percent increase from the previous fiscal year.

The budget increases textbook spending by $13 million, transportation by $5 million, Pre-K by $13.5 million to add 145 more classrooms to the state’s nationally acclaimed program, Distance Learning by $2 million, and the state’s Dual Enrollment by $5 million, as well as upping higher education spending by 0.25 percent.

Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh praised the bill’s fiscal responsibility and commitment to education reform.

“Balancing the education budget while being able to make significant increases to essential programs such as Pre-K shows we are committed to providing the best possible education for Alabama students. I appreciate Senator Pittman and members of the education budget committee for their commitment to crafting a sensible, fiscally responsible spending plan,” Marsh said. “We owe it to our children to provide them with the best education possible while not saddling them with long term financial instability, and I believe this budget does just that.

“This year we’ve made significant strides toward reforming education in Alabama, and this fiscally-responsible budget proposal is another step in the right direction.”

“This is a fiscally responsible education budget that will avoid proration, pay back the final debt to the Rainy Day fund, and give us more middle school teachers,” added Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed. “I commend Chairman Pittman and my colleagues for working together to increase funding for textbooks, voluntary Pre- K, and dual enrollment.”

In stark contrast with years past, the bill was approved unanimously 33-0 with very little debate.

While the languishing General Fund budget is facing a $260 million shortfall, the education budget has seen its revenue streams strengthen as the economy has improved.

The Senate bill does not follow the Governor’s plan to transfer some revenues now feeding the education budget over to the general fund, which could cause general fund budget cuts to be even deeper.

The bill will now go to the House for further debate before final passage. If the House changes anything the Senate will either vote to concur or move to hold a joint Senate and House committee to rectify the differences.

3 years ago

Alabama Senate passes Stolen Valor Act, ratchets up penalties on fake soldiers

Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison
Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama Senate on Tuesday passed the Stolen Valor Act by Representative Steve Clouse (R-Ozark) and Senator Bill Holtzclaw (R-Madison), a retired Marine.

The bill imposes a minimum fine of $5,000 and makes it a Class A misdemeanor for a person to falsely represent themselves as a recipient of a military decoration or medal — including, but not limited to the Purple Heart and Silver Star — in order to obtain money, property, or a tangible benefit. A similar offense with the Congressional Medal of Honor would be a Class C felony.

“As a combat veteran and a retired Marine, I find it disheartening that anyone would dishonor the service of our veterans,” said Senator Holtzclaw. “The Stolen Valor Act ensures there is a penalty when people falsely represent themselves as decorated veterans for their own gain.”

The Stolen Valor Act passed the Senate unanimously and is headed back to the House for consideration of the Senate’s revisions.

“I have the honor of being a third-generation Army officer, and my son currently serves as the fourth generation,” said Senator Phil Williams (R-Rainbow City). “It is outrageous that some people would dishonor the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, and I am glad to see the Senate unanimously pass this bill to protect the honor and reputation of our veterans.”

3 years ago

Anti sex-trafficking law gains wide bipartisan support in Alabama house

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A bill sponsored by Alabama Representative Jack Williams (R-Vestavia) that will add a safe harbor provision to Alabama’s laws for children exploited in sexual slavery has gained wide bipartisan support, garnering 61 co-sponsors in the House.

HB455, titled the Alabama Human Trafficking Safe Harbor Act, will protect exploited minors from being convicted under prostitution laws and ensure they have access to shelter, health care, and mental health counseling through the juvenile court system.

“I introduced HB433 to protect children who are victims of human trafficking,” said Rep. Williams. “This bill will keep minors charged with prostitution under the authority of DHR and out of the courts, ensuring the state treats them as victims not criminals.”

To pay for the health care and counseling provided by the law, an additional fine of $500 will be levied on those convicted of human trafficking in the state.

The Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force, established by Governor Robert Bentley (R-AL) in 2014, has endorsed the legislation. Rep. Williams is the chair of the task force.

According to the task force, 80 percent of the victims of human trafficking victims are female, and the average age of when they are first trafficked is 11-14.

3 years ago

Republicans unlikely to team with Democrats to pass Bentley tax hike

Alabama State House (Photo: Creative Commons/Jay Williams)
Alabama State House (Photo: Creative Commons/Jay Williams)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Montgomery Advertiser over the weekend speculated that if Republicans in the Alabama legislature are unable to find consensus on a budget proposal, a smaller bloc of Republicans could break off and join with Democrats to pass a budget that includes Gov. Robert Bentley’s tax increases.

“Republicans dominate both chambers of the Legislature, but budget proponents would need less than half of the GOP members in either chamber to move budget and revenue proposals if Democrats and independents are on board,” the Montgomery Advertiser article says.

Here are the numbers: In the Alabama House, 30 Republican members would need to join with all 33 of the Democrats. In the Senate that number is 13.

Several Republicans Yellowhammer spoke with Monday said the chances of 43 of them siding with Democrats are slim to none. But as pressure to pass a budget mounts, it is at least worth watching how things unfold behind the scenes.

The Hastert Rule

The Hastert Rule, otherwise known as the “majority of the majority” rule, is an informal rule in the U.S. congress that limits bills being considered to those that have the support of more than half of the majority party.

It has been broadly followed by both Republican and Democratic House Speakers in Congress since the 1990s, but has recently become less often observed by U.S. House Speaker John Boehner.

Speaker Boehner has violated the rule multiple times in the last several years to pass high profile spending bills, including the controversial DHS funding bill in March, which only received 75 GOP votes, and the debt ceiling fight last February in which a measly 28 Republicans joined every Democrat to pass the bill.

Back in the Alabama legislature, such a rule would have seemed out of the question to Democrats leading up to Republicans taking control in 2010. When Former Democratic Speaker of the House (now Bentley chief of staff) Seth Hammett ruled the chamber, the fractious Democratic caucus would occasionally break along racial lines, compelling Hammett to cobble together a coalition of white House Democrats and the Republican minority to get things done.

Since 2010, the Republican supermajorities in both chambers have been so strong that there has never been a need for them to coax Democrats into an uncomfortable alliance.

Neither House Speaker Mike Hubbard nor Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh has signaled a desire to raise taxes, leaving no indication that a Hastert-rule-breaking coalition would ever even be a consideration.

In other words, in spite of the Montgomery Advertiser’s speculation, the idea of Republican legislative leaders abandoning the majority of their caucus to partner with Democrats on a budget is, to say the least, far-fetched.

Are we heading to a special session?

Speaker Hubbard remains adamant that the House will focus first on “right-sizing” Alabama’s state government before any tax increases are considered.

“We’ll have [a budget] done before the end of the 30 legislative days,” Hubbard said Thursday. “Whether the governor signs it, or whether it’s an override, I can’t predict that. It’s way too early to pontificate about it.”

The legislature can override the governor’s veto with a simple majority, one of the Constitutional weaknesses of Alabama’s chief executive. In one notable example, the Legislature overwhelmingly overrode the governor’s veto of the Accountability Act, the GOP’s landmark school choice bill, in 2013.

In the Montgomery Advertiser article, House Minority Leader Craig Ford (D-Gadsden) was quoted as saying he “did not have faith in the [legislative] leadership” to pass a general fund budget before the end of the session in June.

The Governor has said he is willing to call multiple special sessions to pass an “acceptable” budget, and has also signaled that he will veto any budget passed by the legislature that he thinks does not adequately funds the state’s functions, or relies too heavily on cuts instead of tax increases.

Even if the legislature passes a budget—which is mandated to be balanced by Alabama’s constitution—it is not outside the realm of possibility that Gov. Bentley would still call a special session to urge them reconsider tax increases. The Legislative Fiscal Office estimates that each special session would cost the taxpayers roughly $100,000.

Where does the budget stand today?

The eight bills comprising Gov. Bentley’s $541 million have not gained much traction to this point.

Earlier this month the legislature’s general fund budget committees introduced bare-bones budgets that would implement an approximate 11.5 percent across the board cut to the general fund. A second general fund budget with even greater cuts is circulating this week.

“We’ve got so many competing interests right now, with the education budget passing and the different bills the different legislative members have, [the General Fund] just needs to be out there by itself,” House General Fund Budget Chairman Steve Clouse said Thursday. “It’s such a monumental task.”

3 years ago

Alabama House nixes proposed ban on teens riding in pickup truck beds

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama House voted down a bill Thursday that would have prohibited teenagers under the age of 18 from riding in the bed of pickup trucks on a state or federal highway after some members raised concern it would legislate away the decision rights of parents.

§ 32-5-222 of the Code of Alabama already requires drivers on streets and roadways to ensure that all children and teens under 15 years-old are in seat belts and/or approved safety restraints. So while this law does not ban an adult from riding in the back of a pickup truck, it does make it unlawful for a driver to allow children under 15 years of age to ride unrestrained whether inside a motor vehicle or in the back of pickup truck.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Kerry Rich (R-Albertville), would have further prohibited teens between the ages of 16 and 18 from riding in the bed of a pickup truck, whether or not they had their parents’ permission.

Rich first introduced the bill in the 2014 session after a 2013 crash in Guntersville killed four teens, injured five others, and paralyzed one teen from the chest down after the truck whose bed they were riding in flipped on Highway 431 on the way to Lake Guntersville.

Representative Terri Collins (R-Decatur) argued against the bill on the House floor, saying it should be left up to those teens’ parents to ensure their children are behaving safely.

“I believe it is up to the parents to make that decision,” Collins remarked, “I believe that is my decision to make. Legislating that is not something I want to support.”

She asked her fellow members of the House to raise their hands if they had ridden in the back of a pickup truck when they were teens. Every hand in the room went up.

Collins also mentioned that she wasn’t sure if she’d vote to require seat belts, was that an issue before the legislature today.

Last year, Congressman Mike Rogers (R-AL3) sponsored a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would have banned teens from riding in pickup truck beds on public highways across the country. Though that bill failed, it sparked a conversation on whether the government should take the place of parents in making that decision.

When Yellowhammer asked our readers last year whether or not Congress should pass that law, an overwhelming 61 percent said “No, this is another example of the government getting too involved in our lives,” 11.5 percent said “Yes, the Federal government should protect minors by making this illegal in every state,” and 27.5 percent said “No, not at the Federal level, but I do support this legislation at the state level.”

3 years ago

Senate passes bill to incentive Alabama companies to hire vets, create jobs in rural counties

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A bill passed by the Alabama Senate Thursday, The Alabama Veterans and Targeted Counties Act, will incentivize companies to hire veterans, as well as open up operations in Alabama’s rural counties.

The bill, HB57, defines “rural” as any county that has fewer than 25,000 residents. It applies to 23 of Alabama’s 67 counties.

Part of the Senate GOP’s “Paving a Path Ahead” agenda, HB57 is also a complementary bill to the Alabama Jobs Act.

“Our state economy is recovering, but we must do more to create the right business environment to attract new jobs, especially in the rural areas,” said Senator Majority Leader Greg Reed (R-Jasper), HB57’s sponsor in the Senate. “The Alabama Veterans and Targeted Counties Act helps us achieve this goal by providing specific economic incentives for companies that create new jobs in our state’s more rural counties.”

Representative Elaine Beech (D-Chatom) carried the bill in the House.

The bill increases the Alabama Jobs Act’s 3 percent tax credit to new businesses to 4 percent if the new jobs are created in rural counties, and the threshold of 50 new jobs to be eligible for the incentive is lowered to 25. New businesses who hire veterans for at least 12 percent of their workforce will receive a tax incentive equal to 3.5 percent of payroll.

“We owe a debt to our military veterans, because these men and women offered their lives to protect our people. They often have served multiple tours of duty abroad away from their families and loved ones for months at a time,” Sen. Reed remarked. “Veterans also are some of the mostly highly skilled and professional leaders our society has. I’m proud to sponsor this legislation that encourages companies to hire our veterans.”

Governor Bentley signed the Alabama Jobs Act Friday morning, and will receive the The Alabama Veterans and Targeted Counties Act if changes implemented by the Senate are accepted by the House.

4 years ago

Democrats continue to go the way of the Dodo in North Alabama

Dodo Bird

North Alabama, a Democrat stronghold up until recent years, is fast becoming one of the most reliably Republican areas of the state.

Sen. Tammy Irons, D-Florence, was one of the last remaining North Alabama Senators after the Republican surge in 2010. However, redistricting left her in a much more conservative district, leading her to announce Wednesday that she will not seek re-election in 2014.

“It is with a heavy heart, but after much thought and prayer, I have decided not to seek reelection to the Alabama State Senate,” Irons said in a statement. “I have been honored and humbled by the people of The Shoals who have shown great faith and confidence in me, having elected me twice to the Alabama House of Representatives, and then to the Alabama Senate.”

Irons cited her newly drawn senate district as the primary reason for her decision.

“The new Senate District 1, which takes effect in November 2014, stretches all the way from West Lauderdale County to Memorial Parkway in Huntsville and is geographically more like a Congressional District,” Irons said. “I am concerned that covering such a large territory would take even more time away from my law practice at a time when I have many commitments this year. I am also looking forward to spending more quality time with my family.”

Irons said she was most proud of the legislative work she did to prevent elder abuse, reform the juvenile justice system, protect the Tennessee River and preserve jobs in The Shoals area.

Although former Democrat legislator Mike Curtis, who was defeated in 2010 by Republican Lynn Greer, is rumored to be considering running as a Democrat, the Senate District 1 seat looks like another prime pickup opportunity for the GOP.

Three Republicans have already qualified for the seat, including small businessman Jonathan Berryhill, Dr. Tim Melson, and early favorite Chris Seibert, an Athens City Councilman and former Univ. of Alabama football player.

A broader look at North Alabama’s political landscape reveals an area that is quickly becoming a real power center for the state GOP.

Reps. Marcell Black (Tuscumbia), Greg Burdine (Florence), Johnny Mack Marrow (Red Bay), Laura Hall (Huntsville) and John Robertson (Scottsboro) are just about the only remaining North Alabama Democrats in the Alabama House. Longtime Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, is the the last North Alabama Democrat holding on to his seat in the Senate. Redistricting appears to have been much kinder to him than it was to Irons.

But on the Republican side of the aisle, North Alabama is home to some of the top power players in state government, as well as numerous up-and-comers.

Sen. Arthur Orr of Decatur holds one of the most powerful positions in state government as Chairman of the Senate General Fund Budget Committee. House Majority Leader Micky Hammon is also from Decatur. Mac McCutcheon of Huntsville is the House Rules Chairman. Rep. Mike Ball of Madison Chairs the House Ethics and Campaign Finance Committee. Reps. Terri Collins of Decatur and Ed Henry of Hartselle, along with Sen. Clay Scofield of Guntersville, are all considered to be among the next generation of legislative leaders.

In short, it’s a good time to be a Republican in North Alabama.

Follow Cliff on Twitter @Cliff_Sims

5 years ago

Best & Worst Week in Montgomery

Representative Chad Fincher

Rep. Fincher, a Mobile-area Republican, was the eye of the School Flex storm this week. “Leadership relied on him to stay steady throughout the process,” one House insider told Yellowhammer Friday morning. “He really delivered.”

“I’m very excited about it,” Fincher told the Montgomery Advertiser. “I really feel like we broke the status quo of education in Alabama.”

The final vote was 65-37 — a resounding defeat for the AEA which had their lobbyists insisting to members that they had the votes to block Republicans from getting the BIR. Democrats Patricia Todd and Charles Newton join Republicans in voting for the bill. “Republicans” Steve Hurst, Todd Greeson and Mike Millican voted with the Democrats.

For successfully shepherding one of the sessions’ most contentious bills, Rep. Chad Fincher had the best week in Montgomery.

Teachers’ Union Boss Henry Mabry

As we mentioned in this week’s Rumors & Rumblings, a fierce battle has been raging for a couple of months between Mabry and RSA head David Bronner over control of the Teachers’ Retirement System board. Sources inside AEA told Yellowhammer this morning that it looks like Mabry has lost the battle. It’s yet to break publicly, but both of his candidates appear to have lost. For getting trounced in the House on School Flex, and for his failure to execute the hostile takeover of the TRS board, Henry Mabry had the worst week in Montgomery.

5 years ago

Speaker's Commission Meets in Shelby County

[Speaker’s Commission members from left: (not pictured – Lynn Robinson), Rep. Ed Henry, Rep. April Weaver, Cliff Sims, Rep. Micky Hammon, John Killian, Rep. Kurt Wallace, Rep. Barry Moore]

Speaker Hubbard’s Commission on Alabama Values and States’ Rights held it’s second forum last night in Shelby County [See notes from the Decatur meeting HERE]. Leaders from numerous conservative organizations came out to talk about issues that are important to them and their members. A few of the organizations represented were the Alabama Federation of Republican Women, Rainy Day Patriots, Alabama Eagle Forum, Alabama Citizens For Life, Shelby County Republican Party, and the Alabama Policy Institute — among others.

House Majority Leader Micky Hammon chaired the meeting and facilitated the discussion that lasted well over two hours and covered a broad range of policy issues. Some of the topics put forth for discussion by the citizen leaders in attendance included:

Predatory lending practices of pay day loan companies
Common Core Standards
Forever Wild
Budget reform
Public pension reform
Various pro-life issues
School choice
Medicaid reform
Prison reform
Requiring disclosures by state agency lobbyists
Taxpayer bill or rights
Healthcare exchanges and the healthcare compact

The Commission is planning to hold a few more meetings around the state, compile the input, and present some recommendations to Speaker Hubbard and the House Republican Caucus as they formulate their legislative agenda for the 2013 session. I believe the agenda will ultimately be made stronger by the feedback the Commission is getting directly from people all across Alabama.

We’re also pleased to be accepting online input from people across the state.

The Commission launched a website that allows you to send your ideas directly to us online — so you can participate even if the Commission doesn’t make it to your city. If you have a few minutes, visit and leave your thoughts. The website also allows you to select from a list the three conservative policy areas that are most important to you. That way you can contribute even if you don’t want to get too into the weeds on specific legislative ideas.

Below is a chart that gives a snapshot of the general feedback we’ve received online so far from thousands of Alabamians. I hope you will add your voice to the debate. Together we can continue bringing conservative reforms to our state.

Lynn Robinson

On a quick side note, last night was Speaker’s Commission member Lynn Robinson’s birthday. She drove a couple of hours down from Addison to spend the evening serving on the Commission. Thank you, Lynn, for your sacrifice!