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.

4 days ago

Keep a weather eye on the horizon – A legal storm is brewing

(API/Contributed, Pixabay, YHN)

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the displeasure of being at sea when a major storm develops. It is disconcerting, to say the least. As the deck pitches and rolls, the mental review of the all-hands disaster planning takes place in the mind. Pulling into a safe harbor and putting feet on dry land is a multi-layered relief.

In Alabama, we have a legal storm brewing on the horizon and businesses, churches, hospitals and non-profits are all sailing directly into the maelstrom.

2020 has sucked the life out of businesses across the nation, and Alabama is no different. The effects of having our economy forcefully shut down by the government have left many employers and their employees reeling and some have already called it quits for good. As of July 30th, Business Insider magazine reported that U.S. GDP plunged 33% in the second quarter, all of which was self-imposed.

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As we begin to come to grips with the pandemic and its economic fallout, government leaders are under a literal duty to do all that is possible to rekindle our flagging economy and to ensure that the second and third order effects of coronavirus fallout don’t serve to destroy what’s left. One of those very real side effects is a legal environment that stokes the flames of “jackpot justice” and allows businesses, churches, hospitals and non-profits to be subjected to frivolous coronavirus tort litigation.

Don’t think for a second that it won’t happen. It was in recent memory that Alabama was lampooned in the national media as “tort hell.” Certain communities in this state saw the railroads pull up their tracks, restaurants close down, and factories move elsewhere, because the legal environment was no longer just and impartial. We’ve come a long way since then.

But as we speak, I would lay strong odds that there are lawsuits being pondered that should never be allowed the light of day. Imagine if you will that someone contracts COVID-19 and decides that their barber didn’t have his mask on well enough. Lawsuit. Or that someone went to church and realized that there was someone singing hymns close by who took off their mask. Lawsuit. What if a factory calls its people back to work and despite taking reasonable precautions they have an outbreak in the workforce. Lawsuit.

Suddenly, everyone is filing claims on their liability policy or, worse yet, filing bankruptcy because they cannot sustain the litigation.

Now let’s be clear, I am not saying that aggrieved citizens should not be given their day in court if they have a cognizable claim for damages that is the proximate result of someone’s actions or omissions. I am a lawyer myself. I litigate claims as needed on a regular basis and I affirm that the first rule of civil procedure is to afford every claimant “the just, speedy, and inexpensive” adjudication of their claim.

The question is one of proof. Coronavirus has affected us all, whether physically, economically, or both. To bring someone into court for that damage a plaintiff had better be darn sure that they can meet the requisite standards, or burden of proof.

Enter what State Senator Arthur Orr brought before the legislature in the recent regular session which was known then as Senate Bill 330. SB330 specifically ascribed that a claimant in litigation for a coronavirus related lawsuit must have a burden of proof that met the standard of clear and convincing evidence. For those who don’t practice law that basically means that bare-bones accusations are not enough – you best know what you mean and have the unadulterated means of proving it.

SB330 should already be law. The Alabama State Senate took the matter up and passed it without difficulty. But for reasons known to themselves the Alabama House saw fit to adjourn the Session without giving SB330 any debate.

The Alabama Policy Institute has been on the record now for some time advocating for the governor to call the legislature back into a Special Session solely related to the needs of the State in the wake of the coronavirus. In doing so API has published its 6-point RESTORE Alabama Plan for such a legislative session and the first order of business in the plan is SB330.

Interestingly enough, on the second page of Senator Orr’s original bill, it actually states “providing such a safe harbor to businesses that operate reasonably consistent with applicable public health guidance will help ameliorate the social harms of a closed economy and the resulting unemployment.”

Just such a safe harbor is what we need in the face of an oncoming legal storm.

Phil Williams, API Director of Policy Strategy and General Counsel, is a former State Senator from Gadsden. For updates, follow him on Twitter at @SenPhilWilliams and visit alabamapolicy.org.

2 weeks ago

Don’t be fooled by a self-licking ice cream cone

(API/Contributed, YHN)

What if I told you that the government could tax you, then shut down your ability to pay the taxes, then provide you the funds to keep operating, but then tax you an extra amount on the funds they sent you. Sounds ridiculous, right? Well, we’re on the brink of finding out whether it will be our reality in Alabama.

I heard a relevant term for the first time in a military briefing. Someone briefed the commander on issues that seemed to be self-perpetuating and self-glorifying. The response? “What you just gave me was a self-licking ice cream cone!” No one knew whether to laugh or just start doing pushups. A quick online search shows that “In political jargon, a self-licking ice cream cone is a self-perpetuating system that has no purpose other than to sustain itself.”

Government should never be allowed to hand its people a self-licking ice cream cone and call it a treat.

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As we pass the half-year-mark of COVID-19 and the mass government-imposed economic shutdowns, people and businesses are still reeling. One of the unfortunate results of a government decision to shut down an economy meant that elected officials chose winners and losers – some thrived as they became the only source available, while others suffered because they were not allowed to earn a living.

Enter the federal government with trillions of dollars in relief funds through the CARES Act. Individuals received stimulus dollars in the form of personal checks. Businesses received payroll protection loans and EIDL grants with the possibility of future forgiveness of the debt. The rub comes in when you consider that the State of Alabama could choose to look at these federal funds as “windfall revenue” that are taxable by the state. That cannot happen.

During the most recent legislative session, State Senator Chris Elliott had a bill that, in his words, is “still teed up and ready.” Formerly known as SB342, the bill would have ensured that there is no loophole by which the state could assume federal relief dollars under the CARES Act as taxable by the Alabama Department of Revenue. Of course, the legislative session ended abruptly and that all-important piece of legislation was left on the Senate floor.

A review of our state economic policies by the staff at the Alabama Policy Institute creates somewhat of a gray area here. Some would argue that we, as a state, are already in conformity with federal policy on this issue and those funds are not taxable. Conversely, there is enough gray that red flags should be waving and every individual and business who received those funds should be screaming that SB342 should be revived just to drive a stake through this issue’s cold dark heart.

In short, if our elected officials really want to ensure that their constituents won’t face the awful penalty of being put out of work, then provided with some form of relief, only to be taxed on the relief by the same government that created the need for it … then SB342 needs to be passed at the first opportunity.

The Alabama Policy Institute has been on the record for some time now urging the Governor to call a special session of the legislature solely for the purpose of post-corona recovery. Within the six-point RESTORE plan promoted by API is this exact measure that would lock in the concept that relief is for relief…not for government to generate its own version of a self-licking ice cream cone.

Phil Williams, API Director of Policy Strategy and General Counsel, is a former State Senator from Gadsden. For updates, follow him on Twitter at @SenPhilWilliams and visit alabamapolicy.org.

2 months ago

The RESTORE Alabama Agenda

(API/Contributed, YHN)

The 2020 regular session of the Alabama state legislature is behind us. Did anyone notice? It was a session marked more by what didn’t happen than by what did. One minute the lobbyists were being paid well to try and get marijuana legalized, state budgets were flush, and gambling bills were once again all that the media could talk about. And then the coronavirus came through like a bullet train on greased rails and Goat Hill became a ghost town.

When the Alabama House and Senate finally returned the only matters given any real attention were social distancing and the quick passage of streamlined budgets. Somewhere in that mix a schism surfaced between the legislature and the governor’s office over the right to sign checks on $1.8 billion in federal relief dollars. In the end, the governor made friends with the House and left the Senate wondering who took their lunch money. It was not a pretty picture, and on that note, the legislature went home.

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But there is work yet to be done. Important work. Work that is timely and necessary and the leaders of our wonderful state have been elected to their positions for such a time as this.

The Alabama Policy Institute believes that the governor and legislature should put aside any differences and work collaboratively toward a special session within the next 30 days. There are matters that must be tended to in the wake of the pandemic and its resultant shutdown of our society and the economic engines of private enterprise. API proposes a six point “call” for the governor to consider for which the House and Senate could take swift bipartisan action. This six-point plan of action calls for legal protections, government accountability, increased broadband access, tax relief, lessened license restrictions, and education reform. API presents this proposed agenda as “the RESTORE Alabama Agenda” with RESTORE standing for “Responsible Efficient Solutions To Open and Revive Economy.”

First and foremost, API believes that Senator Orr’s bill to limit the ability to bring frivolous and costly lawsuits against businesses, churches, and non-profits related to alleged corona infection must be given top priority. Without such legislation, it is to be expected that a host of lawsuits will be filed that will only serve to further ravage Alabamians who are just now putting the pieces of the private sector back together.

Secondly, and likely with some potential for controversy, legislation must be passed that puts the Alabama legislature in as much of a position of responsibility for quarantines and economic shutdowns as the governor. To be sure, the office of the governor must be able to declare a state of emergency if and when needed. But no governor should be required to carry that burden alone. And looking at the mess ongoing in other states we must also be aware that future Alabama governors might be less judicious than Governor Ivey and therefore certain checks and balances should be emplaced. API believes that any quarantine or economic shutdown that extends longer than thirty days should require legislative sanction and an equal share of the responsibility that goes with it. Senator Whatley’s prior attempt to pass such a Bill should be resurrected, amended and passed in short order.

As a third point API begins with the question: “Can anyone ever say again that we don’t need to roll out broadband internet capability on a statewide basis?” Our children have been forced to home school. Businesses have taken to daily telecommuting to survive. Alabama’s court system nearly stalled until online hearings were established. Telemedicine is a real thing now. The legislature must convene with the intent to completely blanket the state with internet access that assures its citizens that they will have equal access to education, business, medicine, and the rule of law. Budget amendments should be considered for both the Education Trust Fund and the General Fund with appropriations to cover this measure. To be clear, API does not advocate incurring debt to accomplish this goal. To the extent possible, state leaders should use one-time federal monies from the CARES Act and supplement that as needed with funds from Alabama’s rainy day trust fund. This is too important and the past three months have only made it more apparent of the outright need.

Fourth, we must open the gates a bit wider. On April 2, Governor Ivey rightfully suspended the licensure and certificate of need (“CON”) requirements for medical practitioners and first responders to enable them to more easily come to Alabama’s assistance during the pandemic. And guess what? The sky did not fall. If licensure is a hurdle that must be removed for emergencies then the legislature should consider removing those barriers to essential personnel and medical facilities for more than just this present day. API has long advocated for the reduction of licensure and CON barriers. But for now, the governor should call upon the legislature to enact her current suspension of licensures and CON requirements for the next 12 months to ensure that we get fully past this current crisis. After a year, the leaders of our state can reassess the implementation of both. API calls upon Alabama’s elected officials to remove the barriers that impede private enterprise and restrict the availability of quality healthcare by suspending licensure and CON requirements now.

Fifth is the regeneration of Alabama’s business climate. Economically speaking there is much that can be done in a post-pandemic Alabama to ensure that our citizens have every opportunity for success. State legislators must return to the debate on the renewal of the Alabama Jobs Act to incentivize the growth of existing business and the recruitment of new employers to the state. As we come out of the coronavirus shutdown, this legislation must by necessity also include incentives to small businesses who have suffered losses to invest in their own infrastructure and to hire/rehire from Alabama’s great labor pool. Additionally, tax relief should be granted so that federal funds received for relief do not become taxable income to the state, and to grant an income tax credit for any federal relief for which repayment to the feds is necessary. The governor, the House and the Senate must show the people of Alabama that they will not attempt to earn revenue for government on the backs of suffering private citizens.

Lastly, any post-pandemic review must include a discussion on education. Alabama ranks dead last in the nation for education quality. In just the past week, an independent review of the State Department of Education called for education leaders in Alabama to embrace and own reforms. For the past two months, our children have been forced to adjust on the run, many seniors lost their graduation ceremonies, and if you think that failing schools got better, you’re dreaming. It is time for the legislature to give firm debate to the concept of education savings accounts for any child who is in a failing school to be allowed to move to a school that better serves their needs. Education tax dollars are for the education of the child, not to feed a failing system. This is a fair and equitable solution to a problem that is not going away without game-changing action.

We are getting through this. Alabamians are resilient and we always rise to the occasion. I am mindful of a quote from Andrew Jackson who said, “I was made for the storm, and a calm does not suit me.” The governor and state legislative leaders must gather around the table, break bread, and make a plan. Alabama’s leaders did not create the coronavirus, but they did create the shutdown. Now they must make sure the impediments to the regeneration of Alabama society are not felt because they did not equally embrace responses such as those just proposed. The RESTORE Alabama Agenda can bring that to reality.

Phil Williams, API Director of Policy Strategy and General Counsel, is a former State Senator from Gadsden. For updates, follow him on Twitter at @SenPhilWilliams and visit alabamapolicy.org.

5 months ago

As I write this I am seeking balance in an unbalanced time

(API/Contributed, YHN)

As I write this it is mid-morning and I’ve already washed my hands multiple times. I’ve got rubber gloves in my car now. I skipped the gym in favor of a good ‘ol driveway workout but I paid my gym dues anyway. My law firm invested in enhanced video conferencing capabilities. My wife checked on our neighbors. This is just stuff that we all do now. But having said that I will also say that this environment of concern and social restriction should not constitute our “new normal” – just our current state of affairs.

As I write this I also just saw on social media that the Alabama Department of Commerce is issuing guidelines for economic relief. One of Alabama’s larger churches just partnered with the State and a hospital to conduct medical testing. Some school systems are finding ways to put food on the table for underprivileged students. But at the same time some government entities here in the Yellowhammer State are forcing the closure of private businesses in something almost akin to martial law.

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As I write this I also take note that the federal government just instituted some very severe mandates on private enterprise. I understand and respect such things as the closure of borders, travel restrictions, cessation of large gatherings and market freezes to prevent sell-offs. I find it difficult to imagine though how small businesses will be able to afford government mandated paid leave to staff when the small business may already be in a crunch due to economic downturns.

As I write this I am seeking balance in an unbalanced time. There is a reason that our founders saw fit to enact the Fifth Amendment which contains certain rights of due process and a prohibition of the taking of private property by the government. They did so because they had already seen it, endured it, and saw fit to prevent it ever happening again.

To be sure, government has a legitimate and necessary purpose to the maintenance of a civil society. James Madison is quoted in the Federalist Papers as saying that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary” but he followed that by adding that we “must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” There is an inexorable strain of gravity versus levity, restriction versus liberty, management versus overreach. Balance in an unbalanced time is vital to the daily walk in this democracy.

At the end of this crisis – and to be clear, I am confident that there will be an end to this crisis – I want both the governing and the governed to look back on this time with confidence and satisfaction that we stood up, owned up, and met the challenge in a manner that future generations will be proud of and draw from. These are strange times. But I am mindful of a contemporary translation of Proverbs 24:10 that says “if you fall to pieces in a crisis, there wasn’t much to you in the first place.” Let’s meet this challenge with a spirit of cooperation, earnest commitment and a stated end goal of not just the preservation of personal health but of the health of our communities and way of life.

As I write this I know we can overcome with balance. As I write this I am looking forward. As I write this I am going to pause and go check on an elderly friend.

Phil Williams, API Director of Policy Strategy and General Counsel, is a former State Senator from Gadsden. For updates, follow him on Twitter at @SenPhilWilliams and visit alabamapolicy.org.

5 months ago

What if you could really vote out some politicians? I mean really?

(ARMY/Contributed, YHN)

Has there ever been a ballot initiative that reduced the number of politicians? I mean, ever?

What if I told you that with the stroke of a pen you could get shed of several ineffective politicians? What if the pot was sweetened just a bit by having that same stroke of a pen do away with common core education policies? Let’s imagine it for just a moment…..let the possibilities sink in. But then, why just imagine it. We can do both in reality this Tuesday with Amendment One on the statewide ballot.

Amendment One is really very simple. It says that Alabamians have the right to tell the ineffective current elected State School Board members that they are out of a job due to their wholesale failure to promote quality education policy in our State. In recent education rankings Alabama dropped to deadlast in all 50 States. That is a direct result of the lack of foresight, planning, policymaking and teamwork at the State School Board.

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For the past decade Alabama’s education budgets have steadily increased without a hint of proration. Funding for education in this state is at record levels. By comparison there are at least eight states that spend less than Alabama per-year-per-child and yet they all rank higher than Alabama in education performance. Money is not the issue. Leadership is the issue.

Yet, with that said, the current members of the Board have complained that the voters should not have such a say. One Board member has gone so far as to threaten litigation to be allowed to keep his job. We are one of the small handful of states that elects our State School Board. We’re also one of the few States consistently at the bottom of the list in rankings.

If the team is losing you fire the coach. If the war is being lost you fire the general. And if you rank last among all 50 states in education you look for transformative change in education leadership.

In a desperate bid to keep old school politicians in office the opponents of the voters’ rights on Amendment One have resorted to mischaracterizing every aspect of it. They’re hoping you aren’t smart enough to read it for yourself. The real whopper they tell is that the Amendment is all a trick to put in common core standards. Never mind the fact that the Act that created Amendment One specifically states that any future standards must be “in lieu of common core”. That’s a direct quote, and I’m no rocket surgeon, but the last I checked the definition of “in lieu of” means to replace, or to supplant.

How about this – on Tuesday let’s say “Yes” on Amendment one so that we can put in a new team “in lieu of” the current State School Board.

Phil Williams, API Director of Policy Strategy, is a former State Senator from Gadsden. For updates, follow him on Twitter at @SenPhilWilliams and visit alabamapolicy.org.

8 months ago

The medical marijuana bill looks more like a Trojan Horse

(API/Contributed, Pixabay, YHN)

There is a great deal of effort going on in Montgomery to legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. So much effort, in fact, that a review of the draft legislation indicates that the Republican majority may well be asked very soon to throw out every conservative principle that each of them ran on in order to “get the bill passed.” I could write for days on the draft Cannabis Commission Bill and not even talk about marijuana. It is that bad. The people of Alabama would do well to take a lesson from Homer about the dangers of dragging a Trojan Horse in the gates.

You all know the story: legend has it that after ten years of war the Trojans believed that they had achieved final victory over their Greek enemies when the dawn light revealed a large wooden horse that had been left outside the gates of Troy. Convinced that it was a wonderful thing, an homage to the Gods left by their defeated foes, the citizens of Troy opened wide their impregnable gates and pulled it into the city. Troy sealed its own fate by bringing in that giant vessel which in actual fact contained Greek commandos who opened the gates from the inside in the dark of night and destroyed the great city from within.

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The Alabama Policy Institute has reviewed two drafts of the legislation being developed by the Cannabis Study Commission. It is understood that there may be a more recent draft, but when we asked for an update we were told that the Commission would no longer allow them to be reviewed by the public. A red flag if ever there was one.

The drafts that were reviewed and are available on the API website are evidence of one of the most prolific forms of trojan horse legislation we’ve seen to date. This trojan horse bill that has been described as purely about palliative care and medicinal relief does everything wrong to allegedly try to do something right.

This Trojan Horse bill carries the dark forces of growing government, raising taxes, denying the right to due process and defeating home rule, to name a few.

The legislation grows government by standing up an entire new public commission whose members will be highly compensated. The new “Cannabis Commission” will then be allowed to hire full-time employees in untold numbers because the bill places no cap on the growth of the Commission.

The Commission will also have full-time investigators who will operate independently of other law enforcement and are specifically given the right to search and seize Alabama citizens and their property “without a warrant.” That’s right, warrantless search and seizure is specifically written into the bill.

It doesn’t stop there. Despite the fact that Alabama does not tax prescription medications, the legislation states that medical marijuana will be taxed at nine percent by the state and up to two percent by the local government. Prescriptions have historically been left alone by taxing authorities in Alabama, but the new Cannabis Commission will tax them at over twice the amount of any other sales tax. And where will the money go? To the Cannabis Commission of course. Along with all other revenues gained from the incredibly large licensing fees and penalties that the Commission is unilaterally allowed to levy.

It just gets worse from there. Parents may have to pay the services of a licensed “Caregiver” to administer the medication to their child. Not the doctor, not the pharmacist, but the newly formed role of “Caregiver” who has been approved by the Commission.

Despite being made legal in the legislation, pharmacists will not be allowed to dispense medical cannabis because it has not been approved by the FDA. Thus communities across the state will see the new phenomenon of “Dispensaries” that will dispense medication without pharmacological oversight.

And what happens if your community doesn’t want a pot farm? The most recent draft of the legislation specifically bans the right of local communities to opt out of the marijuana farming industry. If your local leaders are concerned about the security risks of a marijuana farm they will have no say in the matter if the current version of the bill is passed.

I could keep going, but I will stop there. For now. I just typed over 700 words and never once had to discuss the efficacy of marijuana as a form of medicine. The bill being floated is so bad that legislators don’t even have to debate its ultimate aim.

They can spend all session debating its other content. It’s as if they thought of every non-conservative principle of governance and crammed them all into one bill.

To be sure, if this bill passes it will have major impacts on employers, law enforcement, farmers, insurance companies, and others. Marijuana is not FDA approved and is still considered a controlled substance illegally possessed under federal law.

But the proponents of medical marijuana are not content to go with the usual form of trial, research and approval. They want it now and are determined, according to this bill, to get it at any cost. If they would go through the established processes of amending the law at the federal level, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But of course, that would have a negative impact on their for-profit cannabis industry. Darn.

The legislature has a big job. Their role is key to the functions of our state governance. But if the State House and Senate pass this trojan horse bill, it will truly be said that the legislature went to pot.

Phil Williams, API Director of Policy Strategy, is a former State Senator from Gadsden. For updates, follow him on Twitter at @SenPhilWilliams and visit alabamapolicy.org.

8 months ago

For whom the bridge tolls

(API/Contributed, Fox 10 WALA/YouTube, YHN)

If you’ve followed the news lately you could not have missed the fact that there has been a kerfluffle of the highest order near the Alabama coastline. Like a scene from the old fairy tale, the Three Billy Goats Gruff, the local populace has thrown the “bridge trolls” into the bay and seemingly defeated the infamous toll payments that were at issue. The difference between our coastal brethren and sistren and the goats is that the goats got a bridge out of it.

For the purposes of THIS discussion you can set aside for a minute whether a bridge is necessary. You can also set aside whether or not the original plans for a $2.1 billion bridge were reasonable. No opinion is offered here on those two salient points. What is at issue in the broader scheme is: how can one who claims the mantle of “conservativism” pay for regional infrastructure? There are very few options. To be sure, bridges cost money. There is no free lunch and there is no free concrete. If the existing revenue does not match the existing need then the only options are to raise revenue through taxes on all, or tolls on some. Throughout this whole melee it was interesting to hear public officials and well-meaning citizens rebuke the idea of a toll as somehow being a violation of conservative principles.

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Here’s a news flash: research by the Alabama Policy Institute clearly indicates that one of the most conservative approaches to funding regional infrastructure is what is often referred to as “a user pays system,” or more commonly “a toll.”

Before you start charging the gates with pitchforks and torches consider that this finding is backed by the imminently credible Heritage Foundation. In a July 2019 report on conservative approaches to infrastructure spending, Heritage scholars offered four bad and four good solutions to infrastructure revenue. Among the four “good” solutions: that’s right, tolls.

One has to also consider that the free market will be at play in the advent of a toll road. Basically, if the toll is set too high the market will not sustain it any more than the cost of food at a restaurant being priced out of reach of the general populace. The consideration of market-based pricing also has the effect of engaging the private sector in the construction of transportation infrastructure according to a recent article by Steven Polzin, the director of mobility policy research at the University of South Florida.

But the other factor that often goes unspoken in regional infrastructure debates is that of equity. Should a project that is designed for regional impact be paid for by taxpayers who may never see it? The good people of Limestone County in north Alabama likely have no real interest in being specially assessed so that the good people of Mobile and Baldwin Counties can have a quicker commute. Likewise, the citizens of the coast have no interest in a span over the Coosa River in Etowah County despite its absolute necessity for that community. By considering infrastructure spending from a user-pays standpoint, there is no question that only those who need it and use it will pay for it.

To be sure, there are nuances to every argument. Is the government establishing a toll on what was previously a free route? Would the toll be extinguished once construction costs have been met and debt service is complete? Is the overall scope of the project reasonably justifiable? Good questions all. But the facts remain in the undergirding of the issue: If you want it then you have to pay for it. If you have to pay for it you have to have the revenue. If you have to have the revenue then you face the choices of increasing taxation and growing government, or (wait for it) reasonably establishing a pay-as-you-go system of funding. Any reader who claims to be a fiscal conservative is likely sitting back in their chair smiling wryly now.

By engaging the private sector in a partnership with governance, combined with a user-pays system of financing at levels sustainable in the market, the direct effect would be the lessening of the role of government, equity created for taxpayers, and the improvement of mobility infrastructure that otherwise would be unattainable. It is the most conservative approach. So, in the end, the question is not whether the coast will get a new bridge. The real question is how to pay for it. The answer, if you really dig into the details and call yourself a fiscal conservative, is for whom the bridge tolls … it tolls for those who use it.

Phil Williams, API Director of Policy Strategy, is a former State Senator from Gadsden. For updates, follow him on Twitter at @SenPhilWilliams and visit alabamapolicy.org.

9 months ago

Off with their heads!

(API/Contributed, Pixabay, YHN)

This past week, “IT” finally happened. Mississippi surpassed Alabama in overall rankings for K-12 education.

What absolute fresh hell is this? In truth, it is not that fresh.

Alabama has been limping behind the pack for decades and this year’s “Nation’s Report Card” by the National Center for Education Statistics represented a final bottoming out.

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Give us more money they said! Well, they got it. Ten years of steadily increasing budgets with zero proration culminating in a record $7.1 billion education budget this year. And we went down anyway.

School choice is evil they said! Well, Mississippi has put in new choice measures and other reforms in leadership and approach in education with, obviously, strong effect.

We don’t want superintendents with fancy new ideas they said! Well, we’re on our fourth state superintendent in an eight-year span, not counting two interims who held the post collectively for nearly two of those eight years.

Alabama parents should be asking for their heads right now. In fact, Alabama parents should be shouting from the rooftops: “Off with their heads!”

You may be asking: Who is “they?” Glad you asked. Let’s name names.

First of all, the much-vaunted Alabama Education Association has been at the helm resisting change for decades. Ever stalwart in their ability to put children last they have insisted that dollars are less for educating Alabama’s children and more for feeding the beast of a system that now ranks last in the nation. They say nothing when the best teachers are let go to ensure entrenched seniority stays in the classroom. Creative choices such as charter schools and the equitable solution of simply allowing kids to leave a failing school are decried as enemy actions and are challenged by the AEA on a regular basis. We are now last in the nation; thank you AEA.

Names number two: the current, elected, State School Board, which has been a dysfunctional mess with no ability to project policy. Fractious at best, blindingly arrogant at worst, the Board preserves itself while getting nothing done that promotes a 21st-century education? None. What incentives are offered to retain the best among our teachers? None. Would you run a company like this? Honest readers are thinking “no.” Then why do we continue to support a feckless body of individuals who fail us constantly? We are now last in the nation; thank you elected State School Board.

Lastly, those in higher education who train those teachers who enter our classrooms have to bear some measure of responsibility. What are they teaching our teachers? Who are they sending out to teach our kids? Is there any measure of innovation, choice, or passion being taught? Higher education must take some stock of itself and look to its own curriculum and instruction to determine how best to put more meaning into their diplomas. We are now last in the nation; thank you higher ed.

Solutions are not easy, but they are mandatory.

In fixing Alabama education there should not be a single call for more money. Not. One. Call. The money is there, and it is there for the child not for the system.

Alabama’s per capita spending on each child is greater than that of Mississippi and has been for many years and now we in Alabama are last in the nation, not Mississippi.

In fact, Governing Magazine reports that 22% of the 50 states spend less than Alabama per student; yet, all of those low-spending states rank higher than Alabama in results. This year’s NAEP results show four low-spending states finished multiple times in the top 10 of the categories and grade levels ranked in the recent NAEP findings.

The solution isn’t more cash. The real solution lies in setting policies that break the status quo.

Yes, break it!

Innovations in the school choice arena have to be put into effect and given the ability to operate fully. The State School Board needs to be appointed as opposed to elected so that the likelihood of dysfunction is mitigated and a team approach to setting policy can be emplaced. Incentives should be implemented such as scholarships for teachers to achieve National Board Certification and rewards for classroom innovation.

And yes, even the third rail of education politics, we must reimagine tenure as we know it and create retention standards for educators based on meritorious service and achievement so that the best among our educators stay in the classroom.

These really aren’t overly hard things to do. But they are different and require a political will that is too often lacking in Montgomery. “New and better” should be the mantra for education policy in 2020 because “old and last” is nothing to be proud of.

Until we are no longer last in the nation, off with their heads!

Phil Williams is a former Alabama State Senator and is the Director of Policy Strategy for the Alabama Policy Institute, www.AlabamaPolicy.org.

11 months ago

Less outrage, more leadership

(I. Omar/Facebook, APT/YouTube, YHN)

Time and again over the past few years, we have witnessed a disturbing trend among liberals, namely that if you don’t agree with their positions that you are to be silenced, boycotted, or removed. This past weekend, the Executive Committee of the Alabama Republican Party jumped into the liberal playbook feet first when it passed a resolution calling for Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) to be ousted from Congress.

As I write this, I imagine that some of my GOP brethren around the State are slack jawed that I would say such a thing. So, before you espouse my demise as a conservative, let’s be clear: I am an individual with unquestioned credentials as a conservative, a Christian and a Republican. I find Congresswoman Omar to be generally reprehensible, a fomenter of chaos, and a person with whom I have yet to find agreement. I also find her opinions to be protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution……and that, my conservative friends, is what really matters.

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Winston Churchill, never one to mince words, said “Everyone is in favor of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage.” What we need is less outrage, and more leadership with willingness to debate.

It wasn’t so long ago that In-and-Out Burger was threatened with a boycott for supporting Republicans. Chick-Fil-A has often faced criticism and threats for standing for their corporate Christian culture. Entire States, including the great State of Alabama, have been the subject of proposed travel bans and business exodus for daring to stand for the rights of the unborn. All of these examples, and more, exist in current lexicon and were rebuffed by conservatives, including the ALGOP. And then, in a fit of hypocrisy, members of the same party, who withstood those similar attacks, cast aside any notion of constitutional protection and called for a duly elected representative from Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District to be thrown out of Congress altogether for her liberal views.

Justice Antonin Scalia, arguably one of the most conservative jurists of our time, considered the notion of content discrimination a matter of strict scrutiny on the question of freedom of speech. Referring to this principle as the “first axiom” of First Amendment law, Scalia stated, “The point of the First Amendment is that majority preferences must be expressed in some fashion other than silencing speech on the basis of its content.”

Let’s be real here….conservatives don’t generally like Representative Omar. I get it. The answer to that is to debate on the merits of our own position. Say what you want on your social media, or around the water cooler. Heck, we can even travel to Minnesota and campaign for her opposition. I suspect her public image is actually going to implode on its own. But, the idea that a group of Alabama hecklers are going to have her thrown out of office is not only ludicrous, and beneath what we stand for, it is antithetical to the foundations of this great experiment we call a representative democracy.

I’m not afraid of Ilhan Omar. I’d be proud to debate rings around her in a public forum. But, like many others, I swore an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. And that same Constitution affords a voice to all, not just to some.

Phil Williams is director of policy strategy at the Alabama Policy Institute and a former state senator from Gadsden. Follow him on Twitter at @SenPhilWilliams and visit alabamapolicy.org.

1 year ago

Gas tax: The good, the bad and the ugly

(Pixabay, YHN)

The increased gas tax became law this week amid much Goat Hill fanfare, reminding me of a Clint Eastwood line from an epic western: “I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly.”

The Alabama Policy Institute has said for weeks that improved state infrastructure is important, but that conservative principles must guide the increase: taxes should be the last resort, reforms should maximize every tax penny we already have and offsets should come with any tax increase.

We weren’t alone – recent polling showed a majority of Alabamians agreed, and the Alabama Republican Party passed a resolution to not support the increase unless it came with offsets.

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What the state received instead was a mix of good, bad and ugly.

Let’s start with the ugly: a special session on day one that all but ensured that the tax would pass due to the lowered bar of votes required.

The tactic also ensured that a minimum amount of debate would occur and that the one-third of the legislature who are new would have little time to gather their momentum and deal with the landslide of pressure from tax supporters inside the Montgomery bubble.

The special session undermined true representative government.

Also ugly: the rhetoric and hyperbole used by tax increase advocates. After hearing death and destruction zombie apocalypse claims about Alabama’s infrastructure, it’s a surprise any of us would venture onto the highways and byways of Alabama.

Everyone agrees that infrastructure can always be improved, but please save the rhetoric next time.

Now for the “bad,” which is a little better than ugly.

API called for some easily attainable reforms, chiefly, that Alabama has to stop sending money from the current Road and Bridge Fund to other state departments. Each year, an average of $63 million dollars in existing road funds are diverted to non-road expenses.

Governor Kay Ivey announced in her State of the State address that, in the budget process, she will ask for $30 million of those funds to stop being drained. Her call is a good first step, but the legislature carries the power of the purse and API calls upon them to completely end this diversion.

Also bad: The gas tax was set on autopilot because of a never-ending indexation. Every two years into perpetuity, the gas tax could go up by another cent without the Legislature ever having to debate this issue again.

An indexed tax with no potential end creates something akin to taxation without representation because no elected official will ever vote on it – and be held responsible for it – again.

Never let it be said that API can’t find a diamond in the rough, so let’s call out the “good.”

The legislature will provide increased oversight of ALDOT, so now Alabama will have a representative means of holding ALDOT accountable for the use of road and bridge funds.

It was also good that the increased use of electric and hybrid vehicles was included in the debate.

And one amendment did make it onto the tax bill that allows for a more competitive bid process between asphalt and concrete. Too often Alabama has chosen one kind of road surface based only on the up-front construction costs as opposed to the price of long term sustainment. That changes for the better now.

Lastly, it was very good to see the “no” votes, which shows there was at least some debate, and the efforts made toward amending the legislation.

There were senators and representatives who should be applauded for trying to remove the perpetual indexing of the tax, to reform our current budgeting to stop draining the Road and Bridge Fund and to give the poor and middle class a tax offset to lessen the gas tax blow. All of those attempted amendments can and should be brought forward into the regular session as stand-alone bills and budget appropriations.

API knows well that there are many conservatives in the Alabama legislature and we see more opportunity ahead to let that show. It is API’s strongest hope that the legislature will not set this issue aside in the regular session and will show the people of Alabama more good, less bad and ugly.

Phil Williams is director of policy strategy for the Alabama Policy Institute and a former state senator from Rainbow City.