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’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.
"Frontier Airlines will begin direct flights from Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport on April 11, the airline announced today. Frontier Airlines will start by offering direct service to Denver, Orlando and Philadelphia from Birmingham. Introductory prices will start at $39."
"At 87, Clint Eastwood is not only trying new things, he’s trying daring new things, and his new film 15:17 to Paris represents one of the most audacious gambits of his career. To dramatize the tale of three Americans who tackled and subdued a heavily armed Islamist terrorist on a train out of Amsterdam in 2015, Eastwood cast the young men, none of whom had professional acting experience, as themselves. It’s a decision with little precedent in the entire history of motion pictures."
Saving taxpayer dollars and creating a path to redemption
(C. Ward/Contributed, PIxabay, YHN)
As multiple recent state and national news stories have illustrated, overcrowded state prisons is one of the key challenges facing Alabama. While the state legislature has made significant strides over the past few years in the area of criminal justice reform, Alabama’s prisons are still at about 166% of capacity. This creates a dangerous environment for prison guards, healthcare providers and the inmates themselves.
There are multiple solutions we need to pursue. We need to build newer, more efficient prisons that require fewer correctional officers, and we must continue to identify ways of punishing non-violent, first-time offenders that don’t involve extended prison stays.
Crucially, we must also find a way to reduce recidivism, or the percentage of prisoners who commit additional crimes after being released from prison for their first offense.
This is a challenge that President Donald Trump has started to address at the federal level: The First Step Act of 2018 is designed to reduce recidivism via education programs, fair sentencing, and smart confinement.
There are obvious fiscal and moral costs for society when someone re-offends and goes back to prison. Taxpayers have to foot the bill for the inmate’s prison stay, and a family somewhere loses a father, a brother, a mother or a sister, to the gray twilight of our correctional system and potentially, a life of crime. Swift and full punishment must be meted out to the guilty; but once a prison sentence is served and justice has been done, the ex-inmate needs to become a contributing member of society.
Currently, Alabama’s recidivism rate is at 31%, which compares favorably to the national average of 34%. But Alabama can do better — and the central figure to keep in mind is that only 7% of inmates with a marketable job skill commit a second crime.
Writing in The American Interest, Emily Mooney reports that a 2018 RAND study showed that educational programs offered in prisons were associated with reducing re-offending rates by as much as 32%. Mooney also points to a 2013 RAND study which showed that every dollar spent on education programs behind bars saved taxpayers up to five dollars in lower recidivism rates.
The research supports what is an intuitive conclusion: a young man who leaves prison with a welding certificate is more likely to find a job, and stay out of trouble, than the one who leaves prison without much more than a contacts list filled with the thieves and drug dealers he met behind bars.
Ingram State Technical College in Elmore County runs six job-training sites across Alabama for state prisoners, who have the opportunity to earn certificates in barbering, HVAC, welding and plumbing, among other skills. I have had the privilege of touring several of these facilities, and the work done is impressive. Alabama should expand these job-training programs, and give more inmates an opportunity to build a new life centered around honest work.
Ultimately, however, giving these men and women in state prison the opportunity learn a skill is about math and budgeting as much as it is about redemption. Overcrowding in our state prisons has led to multiple lawsuits in federal court, and the Department of Justice has opened an investigation into Alabama’s prisons. Expanding Alabama’s existing education programs in state prisons will save taxpayer dollars over the long run, and help get us out of the cross-hairs of the DOJ and the federal courts.
Cam Ward represents District 14 in the Alabama State Senate, which includes all or parts of Shelby, Bibb and Chilton counties. He serves as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Follow him on Twitter: @SenCamWard
Cam Ward: Punishing violence, recognizing the dignity of work and the possibility of redemption
Police officers, sheriffs and district attorneys do heroic work every day to lock up criminals and keep our streets and neighborhoods safe. Yet many parts of our criminal justice system are broken, and layers of bureaucracy and a thicket of self-serving fees and outdated rules create barriers for people who have already paid their debt to society. Thankfully, in Alabama, a consensus of law-and-order conservatives and left-leaning liberals has begun to reform the system to make sure that justice is served swiftly, but fairly.
For instance, right now there are 783 places in Alabama’s laws and regulations where, if a person has committed a crime, they are forever barred from receiving various occupational licenses. Frankly, this is part of a larger problem where we have way too many layers of bureaucratic licensure requirements, many of which seemed designed to create barriers to entry for aspiring young workers, rather than actually protecting consumers.
For people who have served their full sentence, once justice has been done, they should be able to get a job to feed their family, contribute to society, and lessen the chance that they fall back into crime. Senate Bill 163, which the State Senate approved this last week by a 34-0 vote, says that once a person has served their full sentence and paid all restitution, they can petition a judge to obtain an order of limited relief — once obtained, an occupational licensing board or commission is prohibited from automatically denying a certification to someone who has such an order. The board or commission must give the case a fair hearing. This is conservative criminal justice reform that recognizes the dignity of work.
On the civil litigation side, if you are wronged or injured, your day in court shouldn’t depend on whether you can pay a court’s processing fees, most of which are designed to cover internal court costs. That is a pay-to-play system where only the wealthy can afford to have their grievances heard. That’s why I am also sponsoring a bill that will allow a judge in civil cases to waive docket fees if a person before the court is in financial hardship. The State Legislature has a duty to adequately fund the courts, while the courts themselves, as much as possible, need to cut down on the number of fees that are assessed. A person of low means shouldn’t have to choose between paying a fee or having their case heard.
Along similar lines, nearly everyone (especially in rural areas) needs a car or truck to get to work and school. Currently, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) can suspend your driver’s license for failure to pay a traffic fine. That’s an especially harsh penalty for single mothers and the many people who are driving between towns to bus tables at lunch and unload freight at warehouses at night to make ends meet. I have filed SB16 to prevent ALEA from suspending drivers’ licenses if a judge has hard evidence that the person in question is indigent. We shouldn’t take away the ability to work from people over a traffic fine.
On the flip side, harsh and complete justice should be meted out to violent criminals. Yet over and over again, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles has made puzzling decisions to commute sentences or allow prison inmates to get out on parole, years before a full sentence has been served. That failure of duty by the Board has had tragic consequences. In July of 2018, Jimmy O’Neal Spencer was charged with the brutal killings of Martha Dell Reliford, 65, Marie Kitchens Martin, 74, and Martin’s 7-year-old great-grandson. Spencer, a man with a violent rap sheet going back to the early 1980s, had been granted parole by the Board in November of 2017 and released from prison in January.
Working with Governor Kay Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall, I have written a bill that will rein in the Board — if SB42 is approved, all Class A felons (these are rapists, murderers, drug kingpins, and human traffickers) will be ineligible for parole until 85% of their sentence or 15 years has been served. The members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles haven’t abided by their own guidelines. This bill, should it become law, will force them to toe the line.
Cam Ward represents District 14 in the Alabama State Senate, which includes all or parts of Shelby, Bibb and Chilton counties. He serves as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Follow him on Twitter: @SenCamWard
The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles will be held accountable
The members of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles aren’t doing their jobs.
In July, Jimmy O’Neal Spencer was charged with the brutal killings of Martha Dell Reliford, 65, Marie Kitchens Martin, 74, and Martin’s seven-year-old great-grandson, Colton Ryan Lee, in Guntersville. Spencer, a man with a violent rap sheet going back to the early 1980s, had been granted parole by the Board in November of 2017 and released from prison in January.
The Spencer case is one among many instances where the Board of Pardons and Paroles has made the wrong call. District attorneys, law enforcement officers and victims of crime are rightfully angry with the Board’s decisions to allow even murderers to go free, including some who have served as little as six years in prison.
In some cases, the Board has paroled violent offenders (some of whom had troubling incarceration records) much earlier than its own rules and regulations recommend. That is frightening, and the lackadaisical response from the Board to critics’ questions about Jimmy O’Neal Spencer and other cases is unacceptable.
I understand that the failure of an individual part can shroud an entire system in doubt. But the recent news of poor decision-making by the Board of Pardons and Paroles should not take away from the significant improvements that Alabama has gradually made to its criminal justice system over the past few years.
Beginning in 2013, the State Legislature passed a series of reforms to change the punishment structure for non-violent offenders to ensure more fair and uniform sentencing. The underpinning philosophy behind Alabama’s change in sentencing was to divert non-violent offenders from prison, thereby reserving scarce prison space and resources for more serious and violent offenders. Why was that necessary? Alabama’s prisons were dangerously overcrowded, with the prison population rising to 192 percent of recommended capacity levels. Indeed, by 2015, Alabama faced the worst prison overcrowding-crisis in the country.
Thankfully, the legislative reforms started in 2013 have been effective: Alabama’s prison population has decreased by more than twenty percent since the sentencing changes were implemented, and data from 2017 indicate that violent crime is leveling off, too.
Recent improvements to community supervision programs hold the potential to further improve public safety. I am optimistic that these reforms, paired with the hiring of extra probation and parole officers, will gradually reduce recidivism in Alabama. But the truth is that legislation alone will not solve our criminal justice problems — the policies must be implemented correctly and properly funded to accomplish lasting change.
The Board of Pardons and Paroles has to be a part of a comprehensive solution, rather than a cause of problems, for the state’s criminal justice system. Thankfully, Governor Kay Ivey has directed the Board to produce a corrective action plan, and she has also designated a new chairman of the Board.
As a State Senator, I am closely watching the response to Governor Ivey’s directive.
The Board of Pardons and Paroles must and will be held accountable. The Board has an essential role to play in Alabama’s criminal justice system—but as the case of Jimmy O’Neal Spencer tragically illustrates, errors in judgment by the Board’s members can have catastrophic consequences.
Cam Ward represents District 14 in the Alabama State Senate, which includes all or parts of Shelby, Bibb, and Chilton counties. He serves as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Follow him on Twitter: @SenCamWard
Let’s unlock second chances in Alabama for former prisoners
No one makes it through life without regrets. The split-second decision we wish we could take back, the risk we never should have taken, the people we failed to prioritize—these are the moments that open our eyes to our need for a fresh start. Unfortunately, not everyone gets a second chance.
Right now, there are 22,401 adults in Alabama’s prison system. Ninety percent or more of these men and women will be released after paying their debt to society. When they are, they will find second chances hard to come by. This is not only an issue in Alabama. It is estimated that 65 million Americans—or one in four adults—have a criminal record.
Everyone makes mistakes in life, so each of us deserves a second chance. That’s why our legislature resolved that April would be Second Chance Month in Alabama. This resolution is another step in the effort to reform our prison system. It’s time for our state to begin removing unnecessary barriers for people who have paid for their crimes.
The Council of State Governments has found that returning citizens face more than 48,000 legal barriers to housing, education, employment, and more. Shouldn’t we want people to get a job and become law abiding taxpaying citizens? Preventing former inmates from getting a job just doesn’t make sense.
Then there’s the long shadow of a criminal record. Men and women who have a criminal record face social stigma from others in their communities, and the shame associated with spending time in prison. They have a difficult time finding a place to live, getting a driver’s license, or insuring a vehicle. Many businesses write off an applicant with criminal background regardless of whether they have paid their debt and done everything that has been asked of them.
Christians believe in loving their neighbors by treating them the way we would wish to be treated ourselves. If you faced rebuilding a life, including your career and relationships, you would want someone to offer you a second chance—not because they pity you, but because they value you as a fellow person. Jesus didn’t turn anyone away, no matter what bad decisions they had made in the past. We can learn from that lesson. It’s harder to extend love and chances to people when they have fallen, but the reality is we have all fallen in different ways.
Alabama is ready to start unlocking second chances for people with a criminal record, because our state’s citizens understand the costs of a high recidivism rate. If we truly want to lower our recidivism and crime rates, let’s give people a fair opportunity to get back on their feet. It’s much cheaper to help someone find a job than to reincarcerate them.
Remember, the vast majority of incarcerated men and women in our state will be released.
Unlocking second chances saves taxpayers money and reduces the recidivism rate by keeping men and women out of prison, stimulates the economy by getting former prisoners back to work, and develops safer, flourishing communities. Let’s build a culture of second chances in Alabama that reflects the God-given dignity and potential of all individuals.
State Sen. Cam Ward is a Republican from Alabaster.
How to shine a light on autism awareness this April
April is National Autism Awareness Month and as the father of a child on the autism spectrum, I know firsthand the importance of raising awareness for the 50,000 Alabamians impacted by autism.
Affecting one in every 68 people, autism has become the country’s fastest growing developmental disability. I have spent the past decade advocating to raise awareness so that families like mine have access to the best resources for their loved ones with autism spectrum disorders.
My daughter Riley was a non-verbal three-year-old when we learned that she was on the autism spectrum. At the time, we knew very little about autism and were unsure how her life, and our family, would be impacted with this new reality. After enrolling Riley in an early intervention program and therapy participation, her social skills improved remarkably.
In the twelve years since we first received the diagnosis, I have been continually amazed at the progress Riley has made. One of my proudest moments as a father was listening to my now 15-year-old daughter share her story with the Senate Judiciary committee meeting last year. With all eyes and ears on her, Riley revealed how support services from the Autism Society of Alabama (ASA), in addition to therapy, helped her overcome many of the struggles that children with autism face.
Through advocacy efforts, my family and I have become heavily involved with the Autism Society of Alabama, the state’s leading source of education and resources for autism. The ASA seeks to improve services for families of those on the autism spectrum because every individual has inherent worth and dignity, and deserves accessible, individualized, comprehensive services.
This April, Alabamians have the opportunity to support individuals and families affected by autism through many programs available through the ASA.
The ASA will host several Funky Fun Run events in cities across the state during National Autism Awareness Month, bringing runners and walkers together for an enjoyable event sporting their favorite retro wear and wigs. With more than 50,000 children and adults affected by autism in Alabama alone, fundraisers like the Funky Fun Run help provide educational resources, parent networking groups, collaborative agency efforts and so much more.
Those who are unable to participate in the run, can make a monetary donation to support an Angel for Autism. These loving tributes honor and remember those affected by autism spectrum disorder to help provide family camps, regional conferences and personal assistance in accessing autism resources.
By supporting a walk, volunteering or donating this April, there are countless ways to support the ASA’s mission. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of Alabamians affected by autism and help contribute to the incredible work of the Autism Society of Alabama.
State Sen. Cam Ward is a Republican from Alabaster.
We’ve heard and seen it all over the past several months since the Legislature first came to order in early March. Since that time, there has been a regular session and two special sessions. Throughout each, a lot of ideas were bounced off the wall – some stuck, some got shot down, and some still have legs.
State senators and representatives came forward with ways they thought the $200 million hole in the General Fund budget should be filled. On one side you had those who believed government services should be unilaterally slashed without regard to the impact on our citizens. On the other side was Governor Bentley with a $541 million tax increase that also gave equal disregard to the impact on Alabamians.
Most legislators, including myself, believed a more responsible solution was a mix of targeted cuts to state agencies, small revenue increases, and continued reform of high cost state services, like Medicaid and prisons. This was the budget solution ultimately passed the Legislature and was signed by Governor Bentley in September.
Most state agencies were asked to make cuts ranging from 1% to 5%. A $0.25 increase in the cigarette tax was passed to fund the exploding cost of Medicaid, while reforms to our state prison system and Medicaid will save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars over the coming years.
Yet, there are still grave fiscal challenges ahead for Alabama. The growing number of senior citizens in our state means the cost of the Medicaid program will continue to rise over the coming decade. Even now, Medicaid consumes 37% of the state’s General Fund budget, which funds all non-education expenses.
For Alabama to thrive in the coming decade, the Legislature must have flexibility to allocate state tax dollars in the most efficient manner possible. Currently, 91% of Alabama’s tax dollars are earmarked for specific departments or programs. Alabama has the highest percentage of earmarked revenue in the nation, and the next highest is Michigan with only 63%. The national average is just 24%. That means Alabama has nearly four-times the earmarks of the average state.
Earmarking leads to apathy in state government since state agencies are assured specific sources of funding, and there isn’t incentive to show they are using current funds efficiently. Bureaucrats can rest easy in the knowledge that a stream of taxpayer dollars is earmarked just for their programs.
I believe government can and does provide essential functions for our citizens. But there should pressure on the agencies each year to become as efficient as possible, in order that you, the taxpayer, can keep more of your hard-earned income.
That is why I have authored a bill that will significantly reduce the number of earmarks in the state budget. Under this legislation, more than $450 million in state revenue will be un-earmarked. It represents about 15 percent of the total earmarked state General Fund dollars, leaving protected the funds that draw down federal matches or fund critical services.
Just as a business or family must have some flexibility in yearly budgeting to respond to changing priorities, the Legislature needs the ability to move resources to meet changing needs for our state.
Both excessive debt and high levels of taxation will mire an economy in sluggish growth. Republicans in the Legislature have stood firm against the Governor’s calls for massive, broad-based tax hikes. Yet, the challenge of fully funding essential programs like Pre-K for our children and Medicaid for the elderly can only be met if the Legislature has the flexibility to move funds on an as-needed basis.
Un-earmarking state revenue to create more flexibility is the crucial next step to ensure we deliver a sound financial future to our children and grandchildren. We have seen the dire consequences of debt and high tax rates in countries like Greece, states like Illinois, and cities like Detroit.
For Alabama to continue to afford the low tax rates we enjoy, the Legislature needs additional flexibility to more smartly allocate existing resources. That’s exactly why we need this un-earmarking bill to pass in the 2016 legislative session.
Republican Senator Cam Ward represents District 14 in the Alabama State Senate, which includes all or parts of Shelby, Bibb, Chilton, Hale, and Jefferson Counties. He serves as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Follow him on Twitter: @SenCamWard
The Alabama Legislature should pass a budget that fully funds Prison Reform (Opinion)
The biggest threat to public safety looms over our great state of Alabama like a storm cloud. Our prison system is grossly over capacity, doesn’t rehabilitate those who need it the most, and places a burden on our parole officers and other officials who can’t handle the unnecessarily high-intake volume.
The good news is that the Legislature has already taken steps to address those problems, and we have the opportunity to ensure proper funding in the current special legislative session to make sure these reforms begin to take hold.
Last year, Governor Bentley appointed a task force to identify the most egregious problems and their underlying causes in our prison system. The task force recommended immediate sentencing reform, information sharing systems, and finding a more effective means of punishment that emphasizes community protection and rehabilitation. These findings reflect an endemic problem in our misguided incarceration policies: one that locks people up with little care, then lets them go free, completely missing the mark on providing our fellow community members with the care they actually need to get better.
Most significant is the mental health treatment many need in the community. It is a problem that impacts everyone. The safety of our communities, the cost to taxpayers of locking people up, and the well being of Corrections employees are all challenged by a system that was not designed to effectively provide mental health treatment.
In an unprecedented move by the Legislature in the regular session that ended in June, both sides of the aisle joined together to pass significant prison reform (Senate Bill 67). The legislation’s bipartisan support and its merits have earned Alabama praise from prison reform advocates all over the country. Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on much, but prison reform is definitely an area we all agree needs our focused attention.
Senate Bill 67 offers substantial and meaningful reform that will redefine our criminal justice system. Most importantly, it will work to identify those who need help and set them on the right path, rather than putting them behind bars and then back on our streets as repeat offenders.
The cost savings for taxpayers are significant and the implications for a more just society are priceless.
But this clearing in the storm will become the eye of a hurricane if the Legislature doesn’t act swiftly to pass a General Fund budget that fully funds prison reform and mental health services.
I reluctantly voted for the Senate budget in the August special session because I believed it was the best we could get under the circumstances. But I knew it both under-funded the prison reforms that SB67 called for and Mental Health. The latter shortfall would put enormous strain on county jails and the Department of Corrections, since experience shows that neither is properly equipped to provide inmates effective mental health services.
But the current special legislative session gives us another chance to make things right. If the elected officials of this self-proclaimed “10th Amendment state” don’t solve our own problems the federal Department of Justice will swoop in and take over, at deep cost to Alabama’s taxpayers.
So, let us shine as an example of model reform for the rest of the country and follow through on the promise we made when we passed SB67. It’s time for legislators to stand up and accept the responsibility the people of Alabama gave us when they sent us to the Capitol. The Legislature should pass a budget that fully funds prison reform and provides adequate mental health care and treatment for those who need it most.
We have the power to create a better Alabama, and the time is now.
State Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) is Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Chairman of the Prison Reform Task Force.
5 things you need to know about Alabama prison reform
Right now, Alabama is on track to solve one of the biggest threats to its budget and autonomy: our state criminal justice system.
You may not know its full significance. We have spent the last decade unable to deal with increasing burdens on our state prisons. Our facilities hold almost twice the number of inmates they were designed to hold. The level of overcrowding in our prisons is a sign that criminal offenders have overwhelmed our capacity to manage their sentences and effectively punish them. Further, it is a sure sign we are unable to keep tabs on them all post-release. The problem is giving Alabama national attention of the worst kind.
This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider legislation that reflects a nuanced set of proposed policy changes. Here are the reasons why the changes are critical to our future:
We take action, or face a federal takeover of our corrections system.
That is no idle fear. When California’s prisons reached massive over-capacity, a federal judge stepped in and forced the state to release thousands of inmates because of crowded conditions. Hitting that point would mean loss
of control over spending, over sentencing and even over release dates of prisoners. In short, the federal government will decide who walks free and when.
Our current system means our communities are simply not safe enough.
None of us takes public safety lightly. Yet Alabama’s crowded prisons are not a sign of successfully punishing law-breakers. Instead, they are proof of a flawed system and a compromised fight on crime. The idea behind much of the prison reform package is to invest greatly in supervision of people coming out of prison — an approach that has drastically reduced reoffending in other states. Fewer re-offenses mean fewer victims and lower crime rates in our communities. That’s a public-safety commitment that works on all fronts.
The proposed reform is a product of a long and careful process.
This legislation is built on a bedrock of research led by Alabama’s stakeholders in our system of criminal justice and corrections. Months of thorough research and contemplation by the Prison Reform Task Force revealed that Alabama can actually reduce its crowding without resorting to drastic measures. This legislation is the first, necessary step.
Every stakeholder, from branches of law enforcement to victims’ groups, helped to shape the legislation.
Local representatives’ concerns that these new rules would require mandates on cash-strapped counties have been alleviated. Prosecutors and law enforcement have vetted the policy objectives, helped develop workable solutions and played a key role in drafting the bill; victims’ advocates know lawmakers are committed to effectively strengthening our victim notification system and the proposed legislation reflects that commitment. Every one of these groups helped
make the legislation stronger.
Our new path is built on accountability.
Anyone sentenced to prison in Alabama would be supervised, with speedy and unavoidable sanctions that would dissuade people from reoffending. Using supervision with more meaningful resources aims to hold offenders themselves accountable for their behavior. The concepts underlying the legislation have proven successful in other states and Alabama stakeholders – the state and local officials who will be tasked with carrying out the new policies – have used their practical expertise to formulate proposals to effectuate the necessary reform.
In closing, I want to reiterate that the flaws in our current system are fundamental and comprehensive, not attributable to any one person or policy. The problem we are facing is not our fault. However, as leaders of this state, we must be honest about the increasing financial threat to our state budget, as well as the risk to our ability to fight crime our way. If we fail to begin addressing these issues now while we have the chance, the crisis ahead of us will indeed be our responsibility.
Senator Cam Ward Represents Alabama’s 14th Senate District
Guest op-ed: Energy supply next big issue for state officials
I have the pleasure of serving as Vice Chairman of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that states are The Laboratories of Democracy – the good ideas of governance come from the state level, and then are often adopted nationwide if proven to work. My experience with the NCSL Energy Task Force certainly bares this out.
This week as the Chairman of the Alabama Senate Energy Committee, I was in Washington, DC with colleagues from across the nation, working on a document regarding management and usage of America’s energy supply. While sometimes these types of things tend to get off in the weeds of minutiae, there is much good news for our state and country when it comes to energy.
Alabama ranks 13th in Energy production, and has the highest percentage of “mix” in base load production of any southeastern state. That’s a fancy way of saying we’re in the top 25% of energy producing states, and we get our energy from a diverse set of fuels: hydro-electric, nuclear, coal and renewables. Each one of the industries creates jobs for our state, and each receives industry-specific tax incentives to ensure lower consumer costs, and higher worker retention rates.
What we do in Alabama has an effect on the national energy situation, just as what is done in North Dakota, Wyoming, Texas, Oklahoma and even California has an effect on the national energy production picture. North Dakota has the Bakken Oil Fields, which has transformed their economy, and is altering the worldwide balance in oil production. Wyoming and other western states are producing more and cheaper coal and natural gas through a variety of new technologies. Oklahoma and North Texas are taking advantage of their wide-open spaces, and are at the forefront of wind turbine production. Even “Governor Moonbeam” out in California has approved of legislation establishing a permitting system for hydraulic fracturing oil exploration.
Every bit of this is a boon not only to the United States’ economic outlook, but also our foreign policy. In 5 years we will be a net energy producer, and exporter – something that has not happened in over 40 years. I am proud to represent our state on such a vital and cutting edge taskforce that will have long-term policy indications for our country in the years to come.
Energy production will be the next big issues to confront state governments and Alabama needs to be a leader in this area.
Cam Ward represents Alabama’s 14th district in the State Senate, where he is co-chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He can be reached through his website, CamWard.com.
Before this session, my fellow legislators and I understood that our state faced a financial reckoning – especially in terms of the General Fund Budget – which funds all non-Education spending in our state. Vital programs instrumental to the daily lives of Alabama’s citizens are being cut to the bone – and then filleted even further because of the financial realities of state budgeting during the continuing and interminable Great Recession.
As Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, I began thinking about ways to apply a conservative, pro-business and small government philosophy to our courts and our entire judicial system. Alabama cannot continue funding agencies like the Administrative Office of Courts, Department of Corrections, Department of Public Safety and the symbiotic agencies that maintain law and order in our states at the same rates that we did during boom times. Nor can we afford to allow court cases to languish, prisoners to be released and police officers and highway patrolmen to be laid off.
Faced with this Gordian Knot of adequate funding or endangering our citizenry, we came up with a series of legislation that allowed us to cut the costs of these agencies while maintaining the level of services our citizens expect and deserve, and not putting our citizens in harm’s way.
Not all of these bills are perfect, nor are they all original. I feel that it is always better to try to do something and achieve part of it then stand on ceremony and achieve nothing. I also believe that many of my colleagues around the country have had a chance to implement and study best practices-type legislation that provided us a road map to work from.
Chief among the legislation that I have proposed, sponsored and are in various stages of being passed by the legislature and forwarded to Governor Bentley for his signature are Sentencing Reform, Private Judges, Expedited Litigation for cases under $100,000 and Cyber Crimes Legislation – all of which seek to modernize our laws and streamline the processes of our judicial system while allowing our state and our citizens access to justice and due process under the law.
The Sentencing Reform bill has passed the senate and is expected to move through the house before Sine Die. It comes after numerous attempts over the past several years to tackle this issue. They overcomplicated the issue and it was killed because it tried to be all things to all people. We took the examples of Virginia and Texas and our reforms will result in truth in sentencing for violent offenders, while allowing judges several options in how to punish non-violent offenders while pushing them to stay employed and be productive citizens. It will also avoid the widespread release of dangerous criminals back into Alabama’s communities like California did – which is something no state can afford, no matter what their budget problems.
The Private Judges Bill, sponsored in the Senate by myself, Senator Tom Whatley and Senator Jerry Fielding – two lawyers and a former judge – and in the House by Rep. Mike Jones has passed both houses of the Legislature and is awaiting Governor Bentley’s signature. It would allow two parties involved in a lawsuit to agree to pay for a judge to hear their case immediately at no expense to the state. There are, of course, guidelines for the judges appointed in these disputes: they must have 6 years on the bench and be in good standing with the bar and all continuing legal education requirements up to date.
Another example of outside the box thinking that will allow citizens and companies involved in a civil suit where damages are less than $100,000 to have a shortened litigation process. The lynch pin to this process was requiring that the discovery process in these cases was required to be cut in half. When this legislation was enacted in Texas it greatly shortened the period of time it took to have case decided in court. This has the dual effect of shortening court dockets for our already overburdened court systems, and brings money into state coffers.
The Cyber Crime legislation, sponsored by myself and Rep. Paul DeMarco, will bring Alabama’s code dealing with computer and internet-based crimes into the twenty first century. Modernizing these laws will protect Alabama’s citizens and companies from internet predators and sophisticated thieves while providing our law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to prosecute these criminals.
The main emphasis with each of these bills is not solely to save money for the state, or to try to privatize functions or emphasize a conservative governing philosophy – it is to do all three. These are all good pieces of legislation that are right for our state no matter the time – but as we all know sometimes it takes a crisis to get truly creative and come together to solve problems. I believe my colleagues in the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches have done this – and I commend them for their help and leadership on these issues.
Updating Cyber Crime Laws Protects Our Families and Businesses
When most state laws dealing with computers were first written, the average Alabama family did not have a home computer. These laws focused on protecting the physical components of computers, and not the valuable personal information families and businesses use on a daily basis to access their bank accounts and other platforms that have become ingrained in the fabric of our lives in the new digital world where we all now live.
When I was first elected to the state house, we did not have computers in every office, and many of our bills were still being manually inputted in a typing pool. Now, when I have changes necessary to legislation, I can send an email from my iPad with the changes highlighted – provided my daughter isn’t using it to play Angry Birds or Temple Run.
Senate Bill 356 is an important piece of legislation that will provide added protection for our families and businesses who are being put at risk by cyber criminals, internet bullies, and all manner of bad actors – both in our state and around the world.
This bill will put Alabama on the leading edge with remedies allowing law enforcement to obtain subpoenas and search warrants for information held by out-of-state providers such as Facebook and Twitter and network providers like AT&T and Verizon. The bill also allows for Alabama Judges and Prosecutors to issue warrants for information held by these specialized companies, and for Alabama companies to honor the same warrants coming from out of state law enforcement. As you know, many crimes are committed where the vital evidence in solving the crime involves information from computers – this law will aid our law enforcement in tracking down criminals throughout the country.
Many of the worst “cyber” crimes are actually committed over the computer – by people seeking to take advantage of Alabama citizens. These crimes include industry terms such as “phishing” and “skimming” – but let’s call it what it is: criminals stealing your personal or business information, to steal your money, your identity, or get credit cards issued on your accounts in their names. Many of the programs and devices used to commit these crimes have no legal use. I’ll say that again: these devices were designed for criminal activity, and this bill let’s our police and investigators seize and destroy this equipment.
The world we live in is enhanced by technology. It makes our businesses more efficient, it allows us to stay in touch with friends and relatives more easily; it can also be a disaster. The reason I sponsored Senate Bill 356 is to make sure that while Alabama is becoming more and more ingrained in our wired world, that all of our citizens are protected against those who wish to do us harm.