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3 months ago

Exclusive — Speaker McCutcheon, House Majority Leader Ledbetter discuss priorities for 2019 legislative session

Yellowhammer News sat down with Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) and Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville) to discuss the “red wave” that resulted in the largest Republican supermajority ever in the Alabama House of Representatives, the major issues expected to be the focus of the 2019 legislative session and their respective leadership roles and styles.

In the second of this three-part series, we touch on a few of the legislative issues that the Alabama House Republican Caucus, led by McCutcheon and Ledbetter, will likely have to tackle this coming spring, including the hot-button topics of infrastructure, the lottery and ethics reform.

They also mentioned economic and workforce development, along with education reform and school safety as focuses moving forward.

If you missed it, you can read the first part here. Check Yellowhammer News in the coming days for part three. 

Both McCutcheon and Ledbetter applauded the state of Alabama’s economy and the boom seen under recent Republican leadership in the state. However, they used this as a natural segue into talking about the major issues facing the legislature on Goat Hill come March, saying that with the success comes even more work needed to continue the positive trend and reach greater heights.

This was articulated especially well by McCutcheon’s new chief of staff Mark Tuggle, who decided not to run for re-election to a third term in the State House this election cycle.

“We have a record that we ran on [as a Republican House Caucus]. We had brand new people, good candidates, who ran on our record, our eight-year record. Voters, the constituents, are buying into this record. They have seen the successes. They’re seeing it in their wallet, they’re seeing it with some of their kids and their ability to have some de minimis parental choice in education and that’s a big deal,” Tuggle outlined.

“We’ve made generational changes, decisions that are going to impact this state for generations,” Tuggle added. “And we’re just in the infancy of seeing that [come to fruition]. But people are seeing it. And they’re buying into the narrative, they’re buying into our leadership and the Republican brand. And I say, going forward, we’ve got to govern to protect that brand and not take any of it for granted.”

McCutcheon said, “I tell people all the time – the best days are ahead in Alabama. And I really believe that.”

“I’m excited. As the Speaker said, I think our best days are ahead of us,” Ledbetter remarked.

He continued, “For me, in my lifetime, the growth in the economy going the way it is in Alabama, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it moving this strong. And I think what we’ve got to do as leaders, we’ve got to quit kicking the can down the road and solve problems.”

‘Our biggest issue’

While there will be several key items on the 2019 legislative agenda that cannot be kicked down the road, perhaps the “biggest issue” will be infrastructure.

Ledbetter advised, “The biggest problem we’ve got facing our state right now, for us to continue the economic growth that we’ve seen over the past two years, is we’ve got to fix our infrastructure.”

He continued, “You know, when we’ve got CEOs of companies – Mercedes stands up and says unless we get the infrastructure fixed, it’s going to be harder for us to expand because we can’t move our product from Tuscaloosa to the Port of Mobile – it gets tougher and tougher. So, I think infrastructure is our biggest issue.”

McCutcheon also emphasized the importance of the issue and the gravity of the task ahead for the legislature.

“One of the big issues we’re going to face early on in this next session is infrastructure, transportation. There’s no doubt about that the need is there, we’ve got to continue to educate the public – we’re working through all of the issues that are out there with previous infrastructure bills,” the speaker said.

This is an item that affects every Alabamian, and it hits where it matters most – not only the wallet, but road safety can quite literally be a life or death issue. It also might mean, metaphorically, life or death for the state’s economic surge.

“I think if we don’t step up to the plate and fix it, my fear is that growth that we’re seeing right now in our state’s economy is just going to hit a brick wall and stop, cease to continue. That’s how important it is,” Ledbetter advised.

While important, the infrastructure issue is also perhaps equally as complex, even though some people only equate it to raising revenue, as the last time that was done in the state was 1992.

“Some people want to just stop when you mention ‘gas tax,’ but this thing is bigger than that,” McCutcheon explained.

“It’s about funding formulas, how do you distribute money with counties and cities – we’re talking about road miles in each of our counties versus our cities. Looking at revenues coming in the populated areas, for example I-65, the major route north and south in our state that connects North Alabama to the docks in Mobile. All of these issues are important. And so because of that, the governor has said herself, as well as the Senate [leadership] and myself here in the House, that infrastructure is going to be a priority moving forward,” McCutcheon detailed.

He continued, “We’ve got to have some new revenue, there’s no doubt about that. Gas tax at the pump is going to be a part of the discussion. But also funding formulas, also maybe having some legislative [input] into how the money’s being spent on certain projects to help and assist ALDOT, looking at a growth product so it’s not another 26 years later and we’re sitting here struggling with this issue again, these are all things that are going to be a part of that bill.”

Changing technology is an interesting facet of the discussion, not just with the advances in fuel efficiency.

“Electric vehicles, too,” McCutcheon said. “When you look at the technology and you talk to some of the auto manufacturers, they’re talking about in 5-10 years a huge percentage of all vehicles on the road will be electric. Well, how do we maintain revenue for those vehicles? That’s got to be a part of this discussion and this bill.”

While some of these important details certainly require nuance in an eventual infrastructure proposal in 2019, Ledbetter wanted to remind readers that this comes down to the local level across the state, from rural areas to urban ones.

“My county, just in my county, which Dekalb is a rural county, the [local] superintendent [of education] got me some numbers for our buses, and our buses had to travel over 30,000 miles last year alone just to go around bad bridges. So, it’s also become a safety factor. And it’s been [26] years now since we increased the gasoline tax [in Alabama],” Ledbetter shared.

The legislators will need to hammer out all of the crucial details and a final proposed bill is still a ways off, but the majority leader framed this as not a political consideration, but as a policy necessity.

“I don’t know what the whole package will hold, but we’ll see going forward. I certainly think that infrastructure is a major, major issue for our state. And, you know, the thing about it is if we are truly public servants and not politicians, we need to fix the problems for the next generation and not the next election,” Ledbetter said.

How does Trump fit in?

McCutcheon and Ledbetter also stressed the importance of Alabama having the requisite matching funds if the Trump administration and Congress are able to pass federal infrastructure legislation in the coming year.

McCutcheon advised, “We can’t do all of the necessary things we need to do for our roads without some federal dollars coming in. Because of that, if we can get support from Washington, D.C., it’ll go a long way of helping us [in Alabama].”

While federal support is needed in Alabama, the state also will have to do its part to utilize that support.

“The last thing we want to see is for Washington, D.C. to pass some type of road/transportation funding that requires a match and then here we are in Alabama and we don’t have any money to match with and we lose out,” McCutcheon emphasized.

“That’s [another] problem we have right now,” Ledbetter added. “If the federal government were to pass an infrastructure package, and I do think we’ll see that bill coming, we couldn’t do anything with it right now. Because we don’t have the matching funds for it. There’s not going to be a federal infrastructure package that’s not going to call for matching monies. So, with our state’s situation right now as far as our roads and bridges, we don’t have the money to match. We’d lose billions and billions of dollars [in federal funding] if they were indeed to get that package passed through Congress if we don’t have something in place in Alabama.”

The speaker and the majority leader both think that President Donald Trump’s support for infrastructure funding, including a gasoline tax increase, could help Republican state representatives in Alabama, some of whom may be on the fence ahead of the session, get behind the issue, given the president’s approval ratings in the Yellowhammer State.

“I think certainly with his help and locally, the governor met with our Caucus and that was her primary focus when speaking with us – she said we’ve got to do something with our infrastructure, we’ve got to work on a bill that’s going to be productive for all our counties and cities and for the state,” Ledbetter shared.

He continued, “I certainly think [President Trump] getting behind it and then our governor getting behind it is going to help tremendously. And we’ve got lots of different folks in our state pushing it, too. Truckers, farmers, all these people see a need and they’re on board.”

Ledbetter also noted that the Caucus’ members are included in the large, diverse group of Alabamians who see the need for an infrastructure bill in 2019.

“I think that is the general sentiment [that there is a need] … I think, for the most part, we’ll have wide support for it, if it’s the right bill – we’ve got to get the right bill. And everybody’s got to have input for it. But once that happens, I think we have a really good chance, I really do,” Ledbetter added.

‘We’re just going to try and put a little more common sense into a good ethics bill’

The speaker had a few comments to frame the discussion around an anticipated ethics reform bill in 2019, with the Attorney General’s Office and the Ethics Commission, along with the Alabama Code of Ethics Clarification and Reform Commission, set to play major roles in this debate.

“I think you’re going to see some discussion on possible ethics amendments,” McCutcheon advised. “We’re not trying to [redo] the ethics bill by any means, we have a good ethics bill in place, it’s doing its job – as it should. And I support that, it’s a strong ethics bill. But there are some little things in it that need to be amended and clarified. I like to say that we’re just going to try and put a little more common sense into a good ethics bill. So, you’ll see some discussion on ethics coming in 2019.”

‘They’re constantly calling me about the lottery’

Another interesting discussion will involve whether or not to allow Alabamians to vote on a constitutional amendment that would institute a lottery in the Yellowhammer State.

On this, McCutcheon shared some of his personal perspective.

The speaker said, “When you look at some districts that are on out state lines, on our state borders, every state around us has a lottery.”

“I’ll just use my district as an example, up there in north Alabama – constituents in my district, they’re constantly calling me about the lottery and talking about all the Alabama tags they see going across the Tennessee line to buy a lottery ticket. And they’ve said, ‘Representative McCutcheon, when are y’all going to address this issue in Alabama?’ So, I think the people are just slowly but surely educating themselves and they’re talking about it, so I think you should maybe see some good debate on a lottery bill this time,” McCutcheon added.

Both ethics reform and the lottery segued well into Ledbetter’s concluding sentiment.

“There’s a lot of talk about ethics reform. And there’s been a lot of talk about the lottery. And then there’s talk about the prison system and other issues. So we’ve had a lot of success, we really have and we’ve been blessed to see Alabama take the strides it has over the last few years. But, with that being said, we’ve got a lot to do,” Ledbetter remarked.

He concluded, “I think there’s tremendous opportunity for us to do good. There’s a lot of work to be done, but I know that with the group that we’ve got and the leadership that we’ve got, we’re willing to do it. And I think that’s good for our state.”

In Yellowhammer News’ third part of this interview series, we will provide insight into the respective leadership style and perspective of both McCutcheon and Ledbetter, explaining how they will lead the Caucus and see some of these issues solved through legislation.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

5 hours ago

Byrne first to officially declare run vs. Doug Jones – ‘Future is too important to sit on the sidelines’

Just down the street from where he grew up, Congressman Bradley Byrne (R-AL) announced Wednesday evening his candidacy for the United States Senate while surrounded by family, friends and supporters gathered at Wintzell’s Oyster House in beautiful downtown Mobile.

Byrne became the first candidate to officially announce a run against the incumbent from Mountain Brook, Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL). In doing so, Byrne made clear his campaign will focus on his record as a fighter for Alabama’s values, drawing a clear and direct contrast between his traditional Yellowhammer State roots and the “radical policies” being pushed by Jones’ Democratic Party.

In his announcement speech, Byrne emphasized, “The fight for America’s future is too important to sit on the sidelines. I am running for the United States Senate to defend the values important to Alabama.”

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The congressman spoke about the “disconnect” between hardworking, everyday Alabamians and people stuck in the bubble of Washington, D.C.

Byrne urged attendees, “Look in Washington and tell me you don’t see people that have a vision that’s fundamentally at odds with what America is.”

“We need a Senator who will fight with President Trump to defend the Constitution, build the wall, stand up for the unborn, push for lower taxes, make health care more affordable and protect the Second Amendment,” he outlined. “I will fight every day to bring Alabama’s conservative values to Washington.”

Answering questions from reporters following the announcement, Byrne decried the Democratic Party’s embrace of socialism and “[killing] babies as they’re delivered.”

He also warned voters that Democrats should be expected to try and interfere in the Republican primary through “fake news” and  manipulative social media efforts. This comes in the wake of revelations that “Project Birmingham” was orchestrated to aid Jones’ general election candidacy in 2017.

Byrne, a labor-employment attorney by trade, is the former chancellor of the state’s community college system and one-term member of the state senate. He has served southwest Alabama in Congress since January 2014.

The Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in Alabama will be held March 3, 2020, with the general election to follow in November.

You can watch Byrne’s announcement speech and hear him answer questions from reporters afterwards here.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

6 hours ago

Watch live: Bradley Byrne announces U.S. Senate run against Doug Jones

Congressman Bradley Byrne (R-AL) is set to announce his candidacy for the United States Senate seat held by Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) live at the Wintzell’s Oyster House in downtown Mobile.

Watch live below:

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

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7 hours ago

Heavy rains swamping Deep South

Heavy rains are causing problems in parts of the Deep South.

Police in Huntsville, Alabama, say a half-dozen roads are blocked by downed trees or utility poles plus water from flash floods.

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Flood watches and warnings cover the northern parts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia and nearly all of Tennessee is at risk for floods.

Several school systems are delaying classes or closing.

The weather service is predicting as much as eight inches of rain in spots through Saturday, and freezing rain and sleet are possible in western South Carolina.

Forecasters say moisture from the Gulf is mixing with weather systems moving eastward in the Mississippi and Ohio valleys.

As much as one inch of rain an hour is possible, and the weather service says some areas could get more.
(Associated Press, copyright 2018)

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7 hours ago

Ivey announces plan to turn old Jefferson County mine into technology park with $85 million economic impact

Alabama is working again — including in places that have been dormant for decades.

Governor Kay Ivey, the Alabama Department of Labor’s (ADOL) Abandoned Mine Land Program (AML) and United States Steel Corporation (U.S. Steel) announced Wednesday that long-abandoned mine land in Jefferson County will be reclaimed, making way for the new Grand River Technology Park project and relocation of the Southern Museum of Flight.

“This reclamation project has the potential to bring millions of dollars in economic impact, and hundreds of jobs to the Greater Birmingham area,” Ivey said in a press release. “The new Grand River Technology Park will be a regional nexus for research and development, tourism, and light manufacturing. This project will bring positive improvements to the citizens who call this community home.”

This project, which is expected to generate an economic impact of more than $85 million, has been made possible through funds appropriated from the U.S. Treasury through the AML Pilot Program Grant. The funding was secured by the stalwart leadership of Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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In a statement to Yellowhammer News, Shelby said he is looking “forward to witnessing the impact it will have on the state.”

The senator said, “The Grand River Technology Park project will attract new businesses and promote economic development throughout the Birmingham area. I am proud that the AML Pilot grant funds I worked to secure have helped make this effort possible and look forward to witnessing the impact it will have on the state.”

The project is possible through a collaborative public-private effort and includes participation by ADOL’s AML Program, U. S. Steel, the City of Birmingham, the Southern Museum of Flight, Jefferson County and the City of Leeds.

In 2018, U. S. Steel and its community partners were given approval for a $6 million grant by the ADOL AML Pilot Program toward the development of its Grand River Technology Park.

“We are pleased to see the redevelopment of this land. We are grateful for the partnership of Governor Ivey, [ADOL] Secretary Washington, and the AML staff during this process and thank Senator Shelby for securing AML Pilot grant funds. We look forward to providing quality economic and community development projects that will benefit the Birmingham community,” U. S. Steel President and CEO David B. Burritt commented.

The technology park represents a multiphase opportunity to reclaim and transform approximately 105 acres of undeveloped land surrounding and including several pre-1977 abandoned coal mine lands in east Jefferson County. An initial assessment conservatively estimated that 1,200 new employment opportunities will be created by this project.

Plans for the Grand River Technology Park (Contributed)

Dangerous abandoned mine land features previously reclaimed on the property included many portals (openings to old underground coal mines) and vertical openings (former air shafts associated with underground coal mines) connected with Red Diamond Mines #2 – #5, #7, #9, #11 and #12, as well as the former Tennessee Coal and Iron (TCI) Mine #6, all of which ceased operations in 1948.

After the closure of these underground mines, a major portion of proposed development was strip-mined for coal prior to August 3, 1977, leaving extensive spoil piles (waste rock and soil overburden removed to access the coal seam) on the property and a highwall cut (a hazardous vertical bluff left where mining of the coal seam ceased) adjacent to the current location of the Barber Motor Sports Park. Evidence of the highwall cut and spoil piles still remain on the property today. As part of the redevelopment of the property, extensive reclamation will be performed on these remaining spoil piles.

“Our Abandoned Mine Land Program does a wonderful job in helping to ensure that old, dangerous mines are properly reclaimed, which eliminates safety hazards and allows the land to be redeveloped,” ADOL Secretary Fitzgerald Washington advised. “In addition to cleaning up this site and making it safer, this project will help to improve the lives of many.”

To date, the ADOL AML Program has reclaimed 81.6 miles of dangerous highwalls, eliminated 1,613 dangerous mine openings and completed approximately 661 reclamation projects in the coalfields of Alabama.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

9 hours ago

Alabama law requires the state and local governments fund The Democrat-Reporter’s racist rants — It is time to stop

Almost every politician in Alabama wanted to get in on condemning, and in some cases calling for the resignation of the editor, publisher and owner of a rag out of Linden, Alabama, with roughly 3,000 subscribers.

The governor, both United States senators, multiple congressmen and congresswomen, the State Senate pro tem, the lieutenant governor and surely countless others went on the record to say this is unacceptable.

It is obviously unacceptable, but now what? You can’t really force a guy who owns a newspaper to quit. Especially when he seems to think he has done nothing wrong.

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All of this is a minor problem. The Democrat-Reporter is a small-town nothing newspaper. If the Auburn Plainsman hadn’t posted the editorial in the form of a photo, no one would have ever known.

This raises another issue. The state of Alabama is providing revenue to this newspaper and other newspapers around the state of Alabama. And it is actually worse than that: Current state law requires government entities in Alabama to advertise legal notices, legislation, constitutional amendments, voter rolls and other public matters in the local print media outlets, which is not cheap.

So, how much does The Democrat-Reporter get from the governments?

Well, the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) alone spends thousands every year.

Maybe these aren’t all required expenditures, but for what other reason would ALDOT be spending this money here?

What have the local governments been required to pay this newspaper? What about average citizens and businesses that have to post foreclosures, abandoned property and other matters in a local newspaper by state law?

Even without the racist overtones of this story, this matter should offend you. There is currently a state law that requires we do business with a series of private entities.

This may have been a necessity decades ago, but it is time for the state legislature to readdress this issue for the 21st century.

@TheDaleJackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 am weekdays on WVNN