The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather

    Excerpt:

    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower

    Excerpt:

    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships

    Excerpt:

    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

3 weeks ago

State Sen. Orr: Surging demand for wireless data requires small cell legislation

(Senator Arthur Orr/Facebook, YHN)

Alabama residents are using their mobile devices more than ever before to connect to everyone and everything around them. Between 2014 and 2017, wireless data traffic increased by nearly four times nationwide. 5G — the next generation of mobile broadband — will offer Alabama residents a better wireless experience and jumpstart the next wave of unforeseen innovation.

Small cell deployment in Alabama is vital as our state could see $4.02 billion in investments and 7,067 additional jobs per year. This is an economic impact and innovation issue that we must address or run the risk of seeing our state fall further behind the already 28 states that have enacted similar legislation. Our neighbors in Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas have enacted similar small cell legislation and are welcoming wireless investment. After all, capital flows where it is treated best.

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As Alabama businesses and individuals continue to depend on wireless technologies, the need for continued updates to our broadband infrastructure becomes ever more apparent. Small cells provide flexible network solutions by targeting areas where Alabama residents are prone to experience connectivity issues or areas that can’t effectively be served by a traditional cell tower. Small cells can unobtrusively be attached to various structures like streetlights and utility poles in urban and rural communities to alleviate network congestion, support 5G and prepare Alabama for the next generation technologies.

More than half of the states in the U.S. have enacted small cell legislation that standardizes regulations to facilitate the deployment of small cells. To ensure our wireless infrastructure remains competitive with the rest of the country, our state needs statewide legislation that will modernize and improve our wireless infrastructure by creating consistent guidelines to ensure the speedy deployment of small cells while also taking into consideration the unique circumstances of our state and local environments.

In recognizing the key role that local governments play in our Alabama communities, any legislation will contain common-sense provisions that promote the efficient deployment of small cells while retaining local government oversight over the placement of small wireless facilities in the public Rights-Of-Way (ROW). For example, local governments will be able to limit the height for new poles and require wireless providers attempt to first collocate a small cell facility on an existing structure before placing a new pole. Local governments will also be able to deny a small cell application for numerous reasons, including public safety concerns, noncompliance with applicable codes, noncompliance with height restrictions and spacing requirements, noncompliance with historic district requirements and more.

We must ensure our state does not fall further behind the 28 other states that have passed small cell legislation, positioning themselves for increased investment and faster deployment. Additionally, small cell legislation is being considered by a number of other states this year. Small cell legislation is a huge step in the right direction and will pave the way for Alabama to standardize the permitting process for small cell wireless equipment and services.

In order for our economy to continue to flourish and not fall behind the progress being made in other states, it is critical we continue to remove barriers to wireless deployment.

Arthur Orr, a Republican representing Alabama Senate District 3, chairs the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee.

4 years ago

Reforming judicial retirement equals big savings for taxpayers (Opinion)

wooden gavel and books on wooden table,on brown background
Republicans in the state legislature are committed to saving money for Alabama’s taxpayers. Reforms to teacher and state employee retirement plans were made in 2012 that will save the taxpayers billions of dollars over the next thirty years and beyond. This year, the Legislature passed a landmark reform of the retirement programs for district attorneys, judges, and circuit clerks that is supported by David Bronner, head of the Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA), and will save our state hundreds of millions of dollars over the next thirty years.

Currently, district attorneys (DAs) contribute nothing towards their retirement plan but receive a very generous post-retirement salary. If a DA earned $148,936 during his last year of service, the state is obligated to pay the retiring DA, who is subject to being called out of retirement, a salary of $111,952 annually for the rest of his life. Under the new law, DAs will pay 8.5% of their salary to fund their retirement and have a minimum retirement age of 62.

Similar to the DA reform, changes to the retirement packages for circuit clerks and judges will save the state millions of dollars by making needed cost-saving modifications. The amount that circuit clerks contribute to retirement will be raised from 6% to 8.5% of their annual salary, and like DAs, clerks and judges will not be eligible to collect retirement until age 62.

The retirement plan for state judges—whether supreme court, district, circuit or probate- has also been modernized. Previously, if a judge retired at age 65 with 12 years of service and a $135,000 salary, the judge would receive an annual retirement of $101,250 for the rest of his lifespan. The reform legislation adjusts the benefit calculator for retirement salaries to encourage judges to serve longer and thereby save state resources.

These provisions require a vote of the people on the November 2016 ballot. If the ballot measure passes, the new retirement plans will go into effect for newly elected DAs, judges, and clerks starting that month.

Judges have a sacred duty to administer the law to ensure justice for all Alabamians, regardless of income or social position. District attorneys are tasked with prosecuting violent criminals and circuit clerks are an essential conduit between the public and the legal system. Many times these public servants forego higher salaries in the private sector to work as officers of the court. This reform strikes a delicate balance of being fair to such officials, while not excessive when compared to compensation plans found in other states.

Given our current budget challenges, this reform is absolutely essential and will save hundreds of millions of dollars over the next thirty years and beyond. The Republican majority in the legislature is committed to long-term, structural reform of state government. More work needs to be done to put Alabama on a sure fiscal foundation, but this is another good step in the right direction.


Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) is chairman of the Alabama Senate General Fund budget committee.

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5 years ago

Alabama’s new campaign finance law reform makes political process more transparent (Opinion)

House money tax

The old saying is give people an inch and they will take a mile. Unfortunately, this is especially true of politicians. We have all heard candidates make outrageous statements in the heat of the moment during a hard-fought campaign. But what is far worse is when those same politicians, behind the scenes, quietly ignore campaign finance laws that are designed to let the public know where political contributions come from and whether those contributions are being used in an above-board manner.

For example, a legislator died several years ago with a campaign balance of almost $100,000. Years elapsed and the next report showed just a few thousand dollars in the campaign account. Where did the money go? Candidates have also purchased vehicles, computers, and other valuable assets with campaign dollars. What happens to those items when the campaign is over or to the money when these assets are sold? Often credit card purchases are not itemized as required by law. It is hard to tell how campaign money was spent with a $5,000 payment to Visa as an entry line on a report. Large payments to “cash” have also been noted on reports. Where was the money spent?

There are current officeholders who have gone substantial lengths of time without filing their required reports to show how much money their campaign fund has and which businesses or individuals contributed the money. Money is a form of influence and the people deserve to know the origin of a candidate’s contributions and how that money is being spent.

To complicate the matter, at this point no single law enforcement agency has been responsible for overseeing Alabama’s campaign laws. The Secretary of State’s Office has never been structured to enforce campaign finance laws and the Attorney General and local district attorneys are often overwhelmed with a caseload of violent crimes. So if a campaign skirts the law it often goes unpunished and when an honest politician does have a question of how best to follow election laws, authoritative guidance has not been available. Then there is the awkward reality of one elected official (a district attorney, the Attorney General or the Secretary of State) investigating another elected official or candidate, possibly for political advantage.

That is why the Republican led legislature passed a bill in the recent legislative session that will bring transparency to the political process and empower the non-partisan Ethics Commission to ensure that election laws are followed.

For instance, this reform increases transparency by lowering the threshold for filing an electronic campaign report from $10,000 to $5,000 and requires a candidate to file campaign contributions of any amount in a more reasonable time. Previously, candidates would often hold a potentially controversial contribution in reserve, but use the check to pay for media advertisements with a wink and nod to the vendor. The sped-up timeline for reporting campaign contribution means that the public will know where the money is coming from to pay for the political ads they see on TV, hear on the radio, or receive in the mail.

An even more important aspect of the reform is putting the Ethics Commission in charge of overseeing Alabama’s political campaign spending. The Ethics Commission, a non-political entity, is now empowered to supervise the campaign process and if necessary, investigate claims of illegal activity. The Ethics Commission will have the power to subpoena documents and will act as an impartial umpire over campaign financing. If the Commission should discover illegal activity, it will submit the evidence to the local district attorney or to the Attorney General for prosecution.

If a candidate for office has an honest question of how best to follow the law, the candidate may submit his or her question to the Ethics Commission that will then issue an advisory opinion. We need to encourage new people with fresh ideas to run for office and we don’t want these first-time candidates to inadvertently violate the law through inexperience.

This landmark reform sheds the light of transparency on political campaign activity and appoints an objective, non-partisan enforcement agent in the Ethics Commission to monitor the process and ensure everyone plays by the same rules. Voters give legislators enormous responsibilities in sending us to Montgomery and we owe it to the citizens of Alabama to give them the most open and fair government possible.


Senator Arthur Orr represents Limestone, Madison and Morgan Counties in the Alabama Senate and sponsored the reform of the campaign finance law. Senator Orr is Chairman of the General Fund budget committee.

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5 years ago

Shrink Alabama’s Government: End state-owned liquor stores (opinion)

Alcohol

Alabama is facing a budget crisis. The state’s General Fund budget – which funds nearly every non-education item – has a projected deficit of roughly $250 million for fiscal year 2016, which starts on October 1.

How did we get in this fiscal mess? Unfortunately, over the decades many politicians chose to kick the fiscal can down the road instead of doing the hard work of cutting government spending. But budgets, whether for a family or a state, are not that complicated: expenses have to be lower than income to be fiscally sound.

In 2010 and again in 2014, the people of Alabama elected solid Republican majorities to the state legislature. Their message to us was clear: get Alabama’s fiscal house in order. Since 2010, the legislature has cut a total of $1.2 billion in annual state spending. But a dramatic increase in Medicaid and prison expenses, coupled with an antiquated budget system that earmarks roughly 91% of state taxes, has led to the $250 million deficit we now face.

As part of the process to solve our state’s deficit, the state should privatize its ABC retail liquor stores. Government shouldn’t fund competition to the private sector. That is why I have proposed legislation that requires the state to exit the retail liquor business by October 2018, and creates a study commission to provide recommendations on the state’s exit strategy from the retail liquor market.

This is a responsible, incremental approach. The ABC board will still exist and regulate the wholesale distribution of liquor. It will still be in charge of licensing private retail stores to sell alcohol to the public. But the state will no longer compete with private businesses in the retail sale of liquor.

The non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Office, the agency tasked with providing the state legislature advice on fiscal matters, has stated that privatizing the ABC retail stores will result in annual savings ranging from $16 to $19 million. Hundreds of millions of dollars will continue to flow to state agencies like Mental Health, Department of Human Resources, and to education. This proposal does not completely solve the deficit, but the legislature has a duty to pursue every avenue possible to cut spending and right-size government.

Some object that privatizing the ABC stores could lead to an increase in alcohol consumption. But study after study shows there is no statistically significant difference in alcohol-related deaths, binge drinking, or drunk-driving fatalities between “control” states like Alabama and license states with lighter regulations on retail sells. In fact, a 2009 study by the Commonwealth Foundation examined data from 48 states, and argues that states with the highest degree of liquor control laws experience higher DUI-related fatality rates than states with less regulation. In 1987 and 1990 respectively, Iowa and West Virginia deregulated their liquor markets, and a 2007 study by the Reason Foundation found no evidence of increased alcohol consumption in either state. In 2011, Washington state passed a privatization law and DUI collisions and arrests were lower the year after privatization than the year before, according to a study by the Washington Policy Center.

As with many debates in the Alabama legislature, the message delivered to sway lawmakers is not the actual problem a group has with the bill. Consider it window dressing under the guise of “safer streets” or “protecting children” to more nicely protect the status quo.

No, those who object to our state saving money by privatizing the ABC retail stores are the usual suspects: special interest groups lobbying hard to protect their cash cow. Did you know the state does not own the property on which a single ABC store sits? Instead, a group of well-connected businessmen (some of whom live out-of-state) make over $10 million each year from the incredibly long-term leases they charge to the state of Alabama. This special interest group is spending tens of thousands of dollars on lobbyists and public relations consultants in an attempt to preserve their lucrative contracts.

Now is the time for Alabama to privatize its ABC stores. We cannot afford for the state to continue to own and operate stores that compete with private small businesses. Privatizing the ABC stores will save up to $19 million a year: that may not solve the entire deficit our state faces, but it is a step in the right direction.


Senator Arthur Orr is Chairman of the Senate General Fund Budget Committee.

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