12 months ago

Getting to know Alabama State Sen. Bill Hightower — GOP gubernatorial hopeful talks education, infrastructure, social conservatism

MOBILE — As this year’s legislative session winds down, Alabama gubernatorial hopeful State Sen. Bill Hightower (R-Mobile) finds himself juggling the duties of running a statewide campaign and the responsibilities of being an Alabama state senator with the legislature in a rush to adjourn for 2018.

With the June Republican primary around the corner, the father of three and grandfather of three insists he is running as an outsider despite having served as the senator for Alabama State Senate District 35 since 2013.

From a side room at the Whole Foods Market on Airport Boulevard adjacent to his campaign headquarters, Hightower explained to Yellowhammer News his motivations for running, his governing philosophy and how he would change the status quo to make the state of Alabama better.

YHN: Why are you running for governor?

HIGHTOWER: Well, I’ve been a senator for five years – a state senator. And I’ve always been a student of public policy, but when I saw up there the lack of leadership that is occurring in the executive office. And since I work for businesses – I’ve been a businessman, I know when a company that doesn’t have a properly functioning CEO what happens in those companies, and I think that’s the issue that we’ve had. We’ve not had an executive to lead the state. So, I thought I could make a difference in that regard.

YHN: One of the problems with candidates from Mobile is getting the statewide recognition. You’ve always had that with a Huntsville candidate and a Mobile candidate. What are you going to do differently to broaden your presence in the state?

HIGHTOWER: Well, geographic location might be a factor that you look at. You try to correlate on the probabilities. To be honest, there is no magic city in the state, but I am the only southern candidate. So, I’m not fighting – there’s nobody competing for the people down here.

I’ve got a fairly good platform already politically. My dad was a medical doctor here and in Birmingham. And I have a son that lives in Birmingham.

What I like to say that is different is the message that I have. I’m not just talking about what I’m trying to accomplish in the Senate, but what I plan to do as an executive. I have a 12-point plan that I’m calling “Alabama First.” It is on my website at BillHightower.com.

The ideas, the challenge of reform, and also just having a governor that we can point to and say, “That’s a governor,” somebody like a Nikki Haley, or like a Scott Walker. We haven’t had that, and I think we need that in order to recruit businesses and also deal with some of the fundamental issues that we have in Montgomery.

YHN: When it comes to economic development and recruiting of businesses, what ideas do you have that are different that hasn’t been tried yet, or aren’t already in place?

HIGHTOWER: I want to be strategic about our business recruitment. Georgia is not trying to recruit automotive companies because they know the future of the automotive industry is going to be very, very different.

I think we’ve gotten a good automotive base, but with that comes technology now, and we need to focus on that technology. Artificial intelligence is coming at us at a rapid pace. And we have clusters of competence in Huntsville, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and you know here in Mobile, other cities. And I want to leverage that.

The business recruitment – I feel like we’ve done pretty good, but we’ve had a dermatologist doing our business recruitment. He doesn’t know much about big business. We’ve had a lawyer before that. What could we do if we had a business guy?

My background is working for Fortune 500 companies, globally. I’ve lived overseas. I’ve lived throughout the United States. Those companies taught me the fundamentals of business – about supply chain, contract negotiation, personnel, leadership, leadership development, organizational development.

These companies have budgets the size of the state of Alabama. They have as many employees as Alabama has. So, big organization and leadership is something I am familiar with, and I know how to go in and turn situations around.

That is competency we haven’t had in Montgomery, and that’s one I want to lend to the state.

So, my familiarity with that whole business development-recruitment process comes from two sides. One side is I’ve been in the big business making decisions about where we’re going to put a plant or where we’re going to move a production line to. I’ve dealt with the international companies.

But the other is I’ve been inside the government and know how it is we incentivize those companies to come. So, I will be the one that protects the Alabama investment from those companies that just want to take everything they can get.

I have asked for the Secretary of Commerce to do a third-party review of their recruitment model to make sure that we are getting a positive return on investment. Sen. Trip Pittman and myself required that a couple of years ago. It is an issue that is close to me because I’ve seen both sides of the issue.

That would be what I would do different. We can recruit any company we want if we give them everything they want. The question is you don’t want to give them everything they want. They’ll take all you have. So, I want to try and do it differently.

Also, we’ve got a new age coming at us. Before we didn’t have jobs and we had people. Now we have jobs, and we don’t have people. I want to focus on certification programs in high schools throughout the state — stop assuming that every student is going to go to college. The certification programs goes beyond shop. It goes into cosmetology and bookkeeping certification, or nurse certification.

We’ve let community college – they used to be trade school. Now they are college prep. And with dual enrollment in high schools, that is college prep. And we don’t really it. There is kind of a redundancy there. I want to cause the junior college system – some are very well run, but when the assets are not well utilized, I want to pull that in and focus it on high school so that when a student graduates, they’ll have a certification that enables them to go get a $35,000-$45,000-a-year job.

That’s going to affect juvenile hall. That’s going to affect truancy. That’s going to affect Medicaid. That’s going to affect prisons. It’s enormous.

In New Mexico, they calculated if they can decrease the dropout rate by 2,500 students in high school, they would save $700 million in their budget. There’s an enormous connectivity in the cost of operating state services when people don’t graduate.

But I think the vocational thing will boost that graduation rate. Some cities are doing it already. But I want to get the visibility throughout the state and try to push it much more.

YHN: When you go to the rural counties around the state, the one complaint they sometimes have is the attention tends to be given to Huntsville and Mobile with economic growth, and they feel left out of the mix. This goes back a little to the skills part of the last question, but how do you make these other places around the state a more viable option for business looking to locate in Alabama?

HIGHTOWER: Infrastructure, and what I mean by that is roads, bridges, waterways and Internet connectivity, and improving that because I have a business that I know of in Alabama right now that wants to locate in a rural county that does not have Internet connectivity, and therefore cannot. I want to do that.

Go back to education – right now at Murphy High School, a midtown school here, the students are taking live University of Alabama courses and interacting with a professor there in Tuscaloosa. That’s incredible because we can take that broadband connectivity and we can take our best teachers and run them in schools in rural areas and change the cost model and availability of coursework.

I think the Columbia [Southern University] over in Baldwin County, it is one of the largest Internet schools in the states. You can take Harvard and Yale courses online right now. Why can’t we do high schools?

You can be remote. Outside of Birmingham, there’s a school system that has a virtual school platform, and they’re making money. A public school is making money by enabling students who can’t access the school, whether they’re handicapped or unable or special needs. They can take high school courses at home online.

So, with that Internet connectivity, you can change the education model in the rural areas. If you change the education model, I think you can have a workforce that is more prepared.

You know, I’m not talking about a three-month program here. I think one of the biggest things that we’ve done is we’ve talked in terms of a year or two. But I’m going to try to put the building blocks in place for the next 40 years. I don’t want to just think about a decade. I want to take it by the century.

That’s where artificial intelligence and, I think the expansion of STEM programs in high schools is so critical. The automotive industry, as for instance – driverless cars, fractional ownership, lighter cars, battery-powered cars.

I mean, I think in some places, I would be selling my dealership right now if I were a car dealer owner because it’s going to shift radically.

That’s some of what I would do, but I also want to leverage the strengths of each of the regions because we need to pick a few, not everything – pick a few industries that are very conducive to certain regions in the state, and then we can focus on those industries.

If everything is your priority, then nothing is your priority. So, we’re going to have to pick.

YHN: When you talk about infrastructure, people of think of roads and bridges. Do you have a punch list of projects in mind?

HIGHTOWER: Well, what I want to do is right now, the governor politicizes roadbuilding and shifts the spin around to get legislators’ votes. I want to develop a road, bridge and waterway commission. Might even make it broadband.

See, we’re thinking about roads and bridges. That is what everybody is thinking. But tomorrow is broadband.

And we have the fourth-most navigable waters in the nation. So, waterway maintenance is huge.

What I want to do is put a commission together like Tennessee, like Georgia – that not only develops a 10-year plan, but sticks to it, and therefore take the politicization of the roadbuilding process out.

So then I do two things – I get a long-term view instead of a short-term view. I think everybody agrees to the benefit of that. But I also benefit my road and bridge builders, and waterway maintenance and broadband because they’ll be able to maintain a workforce, and not be jerked off-and-on, left-and-right and north-and-south, and have more of a steady volume. I want to maintain our road and bridge building capacity here in Alabama. We’ve lost maybe 10 bridge builders since 2008.

I don’t want to rely on bridge builders outside the state. I want to have that capability inside the state.

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YHN: Tell us about how you would fund infrastructure.

HIGHTOWER: I think also you know, one of the things I wanted to initiate and that is the sell-lease back.

We own a lot of real estate, a lot of buildings in this state. If we don’t have a five-year purpose for that – if we can’t identify a purpose within five years, we have to sell that land. I pushed some legislation this session that said if you didn’t have a strategic purpose, you had to sell it. That money would then come into a central depository. I want to use that in order to build infrastructure projects and leverage for specific capital purchase projects.

That involves privatizing the DOT. Texas has a budget 10 times our size, Alabama’s size — yet they only have 50 percent more people to execute that budget.

So, I want to outsource as much government where it makes sense.

YHN: Privatizing the DOT – that would probably raise a lot of eyebrows. How would you do that?

HIGHTOWER: I know it can be done. Look at the Texas numbers. We can outsource more of the planning. And when you talk to county commissions, they feel like the Alabama DOT raises their costs by making them over-engineer projects.

But we have a lot of lands and buildings we can sell off if we don’t have a specific purpose for. That would definitely be one of the focus areas. We’ll take that savings and redeploy it in our infrastructure projects. That’s the whole idea. […]

YHN: When you talk about waterways – that seems to be sort of an antiquated means of transit. Talk a little about that as a priority.

HIGHTOWER: We’re moving into a new era with the expansion of the Panama Canal. Now we have post-Panamax vessels, and they have deeper drafts and wider berths. And I’ve gone to the Panama Canal and have seen these ships. They’re amazing.

So that brings a whole other realm of cargo and capability into the state, and our waterways go up through the state. So this isn’t just a coastal issue. This is an Alabama-wide issue. We ship automobile steel. We ship copper. We ship coal. We ship scrap – just enormous amounts through our waterways.

It’s not just for tourism that we have waterways. But it is a tremendous industrial boon to our state as well, and it does reach all the way to Huntsville. It is not just a coastal phenomenon, but it is one that FEMA is increasingly unable to fund.

I think one of the things I want to bring to the state is a focus on making the easy-to business and always have continuous improvement in mind. I am from manufacturing. We have the phrase “continuous improvement, best in class.” And I’m always looking for those to implement.

So, making it easy – but also, the element of tax reform. Thirty states around the nation have revised their taxes, and that’s why for three years, I have tried to implement the flat tax in Montgomery.

My first rendition would take the 5 percent tax rate down to 2.6 percent. It would be revenue-neutral and eliminate the need to file the Alabama state return. I think it would unleash a tremendous amount of economic upside for the state.

But what I’ve found is the Montgomery interests put it down. They won’t let change come.

I’ve also focused on trying to eliminate waste and fraud, and also improve educational funding by addressing the fact that we have the most earmarked budget in the nation at 93 percent. We go every year over the decision to spend 7 percent of the state’s budget, and no state is looking at us as a poster child on how to do it.

So, I introduced a bill that would from here on out if ever you earmark something, or you get a credit exemption or deduction, after seven years it would have to fall off. It wasn’t in perpetuity.

The difficult aspect of how earmarking is that it was done in 1940 and our priorities have changed significantly. We can’t change anything. So, I’ve tried to implement budget reform so that we could have … more dollars in education.

Now I think, part of that … immovability of the Montgomery scene has something to do with term limits. And that’s why I introduced and carried to the Senate floor a term limit that would limit everyone’s service to three consecutive terms or 12 years.

Now what was amazing about that is that a month ago, the Senate and the House passed a joint resolution calling on Congress to introduce term limits in Washington, D.C., part of the Article 5 convention.

So I said if they want term limits in D.C., they ought to have them in Montgomery. So, I submitted a bill to do it, and they killed it. I had nine colleagues stand with me on this.

That was an effort to try to change the landscape. If I did that, then I could get people that hadn’t been there, part of the system – going out to dinner every night with the lobbyists and looking to the lobbyists for the funding and everything – I could change that mentality somewhat, not radically.

Once more about the term limit thing, you know it is a constitutional amendment, so people have to vote on it. Our polling shows 84 percent of the public want term limits – just the fact, they won’t even let it come up for a vote for the public.

YHN: The stranglehold in Montgomery – what else besides term limits would change that culture? It seems like every decade or so, you have some big political shift, and they say, “We’re going to clean up the corruption in Montgomery.” But they have been saying that for a hundred years.

HIGHTOWER: We’ve had some bumps for sure, and I’m not proud of it. I am tired of people outside of Alabama laughing at us. We’ve got a horrible reputation outside of Alabama in some circles.

But we know how Alabama is. We like it here. It’s a great place to live. We got some incredible businesses and incredible people here. I think businesspeople running is a big help. And, I think you’re not going to get any change in Montgomery with people that have worked there for 20 and 30 years are in office. You’re not going to get the reforms that people want.

And that’s what I want — that’s part of my message is I don’t want to maintain. I want to reform. My reforms will be focused on – this may be simple to say, but children. If my focus is on children, I’ll focus on education. I’ll focus on business. And I’ll focus on the future if that is the core issue.

We’ve gotten alternative education possibilities for students now, which I think has helped the low-income tremendously.

Having somebody that has business acumen talk about where you’re going to develop a strategy – when I went to the Senate, I asked the Senate leadership, “What’s the three-year plan here?” They said, “We don’t have a plan for next week. What do you mean a three-year plan?”

So, I want to have a longer-range plan, and I want to work with the legislature on trying to execute that plan. Governor Bentley never came over to the legislature and said, “Guys, let’s pull together, we need to get this done.”

It’s my understanding Bob Riley did. Bentley never did it, and I think that was not the way to operate. You’ve got to lead by example, and you have got to try to serve people.

YHN: The current governor now – what would you do differently from what she has done during her first year or so in office?

HIGHTOWER: I think she took over at a difficult time. And many people are grateful for it. I know Kay Ivey. And I was in the race four months before she ever was. And I determined when she announced after I had been in it four months that Alabama still needs somebody that is a businessperson in order to bring kind of a new level of professionalism and visibility to the state.

I hope it is me, but if it is not me, we need to have a governor that we can be proud of, somebody that can run the right start for four years to really make the changes that we need in Montgomery.

YHN: Social issues – talk about your positions on marriage, abortion, your view of the separation of church and state.

HIGHTOWER: Everybody else can talk about their position on it, but I’m the only one you can actually go and see my record.

Look up my bills. You know, I passed a bill to make it illegal to sell baby body parts. I’ve supported every piece of pro-life legislation, not because it is fashionable. My wife and I have worked in the pro-life movement ever since we were married.

I also want to make adoption easy and at a lower cost for people. We have got to do it right. We have got to make it easy because we have more and more, quote, unquote “orphans” in our society. And the state government can’t take care of that. The community has to help us.

YHN: We’ll wrap it up on this – give me a closing sale’s pitch if you were standing before voters on election eve.

HIGHTOWER: There are four things that I like to point out – my business background. There’s no other candidate – these companies I’ve worked for, they have budgets the size of Alabama. And I’ve had corporate leadership in that. That’s important because they’ve taught me how to turn tough situations around. That is what I want to do in Montgomery.

Two is I am an outsider. People say, “Well wait a minute. You’re a senator.” I am, but when I ran for the Senate, Montgomery spent a million dollars to defeat me. The other candidate was a long-termer, and I spent $100,000, and I beat him. And Montgomery was shocked when somebody they didn’t pick won.

And I’ve remained outside the bubble. I’ve voted against every tax increase that has been proposed – primarily because I want reform before I want revenue. Until we fix our budgetary problem, why add money? It just perpetuates the same problem.

Montgomery has a history of transferring money out of education to other programs. So, we’re already taking from education when education needs more dollars. They need more resources, not less.

[…]

The third is I am conservative. I am not a conservative because it is stylish. I’ve been that way ever since college. I read von Mises, and Hayek, and Friedman – conservative economics. I like that stuff.

But we also know it works. Rudy Giuliani implemented a conservative agenda in New York. He turned New York around. Rick Perry – Texas has been amazing economically.

I’ve been voted consistently in the top three conservatives in the Senate every year I have been there. But look, I don’t want to just be – I tell everybody first I’m a conservative, and second a Republican. I call myself a Bill Hightower Republican because I’m going to vote on what’s right. I’m going to do what’s right.

The Republican Party is something I’ve been a part of. I’m on the county executive committee. I’m on the state executive committee in the Republican Party. But I’m looking for solutions that work, and that’s what I’m going to aim at. So, that’s the conservative, but the record part – the one you can see.

The last thing I want you to walk away with is the leadership. A lot of people in the race are talking about what they have done. I’m going to talk about what I’m going to do. And I’ve got a 12-point plan that I’ve published and made public for everybody.

My biggest concern in this particular race is that people are not going to have the opportunity to vet all of the candidates properly. We need to have debates. We need to get out, all of us so that everybody in Alabama knows the vast bench strength that is being offered here. When a candidate isn’t there, there is not an appropriate vetting procedure. That’s a big concern of mine in this particular race.

YHN: I asked you early about being the “Mobile” candidate. What have you done making the rounds around the state?

HIGHTOWER: I think we put 20,000 miles in four months on the car. My wife and I have driven all throughout the state visiting everybody that will meet with me. But also strategically, people that I know have the values that I have would see me as a valuable candidate – businesspeople, a lot of businesspeople.

As I’ve worked overseas, I’ve done missions work at the same time. And that’s enabled me to be in touch with many, many faith-based organizations throughout the state. But also, I teach at a Christian camp and things like this.

So you know, those relationships have been there long before I ran for office. I’m with Outback America. Outback America does camps out in West Mobile, Tuscaloosa, Huntsville. I helped carry that camp out to Poland and to Ukraine. There’s a lot of people in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa that are working with me on that.

Now as far as penetrating it more, [Monday] my commercial hits the airwaves and in that commercial, you’ll see that I talk the whole time. I don’t have a narrator. That’s on purpose. And I touch on the points that I’ve worked on ever since I’ve been in the Senate.

You know, I didn’t bring up these issues like term limits, budget reform, tax reform just this year. I’ve been doing this ever since I’ve been up in the Senate. I certainly don’t want it to be perceived as this is just coming out in the last year. I’ve enjoyed working in the Senate, and I was about to go back into private work and bring that to a close because I never felt I wanted it to be a career. I want to serve and get out like the Founding Fathers did.

But when I looked over across the road … the casual observer – they saw it in newspapers and tweets or Yellowhammer – I saw it up close. I said this is just bad, bad leadership. And I thought I could do better. And that’s when I decided I would offer myself up for this. I don’t have a big group behind me. The incumbent is not really incumbent. She wasn’t elected in.

My fear is Alabama is going to accept something average when they can have something exceptional.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and is the editor of Breitbart TV.

[Editor’s note: Some changes were made for clarity. The mention of Columbia Southern University was changed for specificity. The earlier use of “post-Panama” was changed to post-Panamax due to a transcription error.

Also, an earlier version left out a key qualifier on Hightower’s position on the buying and selling of baby body parts. The initial version said I passed a bill to sell baby body parts, that should have included “to make it illegal.”]

1 min ago

Alabama Power, employees continue to support Lee County tornado relief

Alabama Power, the Alabama Power Foundation and the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO)remain committed to helping restore normalcy to Lee County and supporting the victims of the March 3 tornadoes.Company efforts began shortly after the storm hit, when crews throughout the state supported restoration efforts. Within 36 hours, all 26,000 customers affected by storms and who could take service had their power restored.

Once initial restoration and rescue work was completed, the Alabama Power Foundation and APSO volunteers joined other organizations and businesses to support community needs.

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“We have mobilized our resources – through both the Alabama Power Foundation and our employee-led volunteer organization APSO – to serve Lee County and the surrounding communities,” said Myla Calhoun, vice president of Alabama Power Charitable Giving and president of the Alabama Power Foundation. “These activities are core to our mission of supporting the communities we are honored to serve.”

The Alabama Power Foundation provided two $20,000 donations to disaster relief funds at the United Way of Lee County and the East Alabama Community Foundation. Funds will be used to support local recovery efforts.

Other volunteer efforts include:

  • APCO Employees Credit Union disaster relief account: The Alabama Power Employees Credit Union activated a disaster relief account to raise donations that ran through Friday, March 15. The credit union will work with the Red Cross to purchase needed supplies with donated funds.
  • Red Cross stations: APSO volunteers are coordinating with the Red Cross and Providence Baptist Church in Opelika to assist with sorting and preparing donations for distribution.
  • APSO Chapter donation bins: APSO Chapters across the state are accepting donations to support recovery.
  • Hygiene packs: APSO chapters are donating hygiene packs to victims.
  • Eufaula Humane Society donation: Local APSO Chapter donated $500 to the Eufaula Humane Society, which was devastated by the storms.
  • APSO volunteers at Red Cross telethon: APSO volunteers answered phones and took donations at the Red Cross’ telethon March 6.

To learn more about the charitable initiatives of the Alabama Power Foundation and how APSO members are helping build a better Alabama, visit https://powerofgood.com/.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 hours ago

Ivey: Space and Alabama go hand-in-hand

I am so pleased that Vice President Mike Pence has chosen Huntsville to host the National Space Council on Tuesday.

The purpose of this gathering – in the shadow of the Saturn V rocket, which was developed right here in Alabama – is to discuss the future of American human spaceflight that is so appropriate as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The past, present and future of American space leadership flows through Alabama.

The great minds at Marshall Space Flight Center also helped bring about the marvel of the Space Shuttle, which was essential to building and servicing the International Space Station, launching and servicing the Hubble Space Telescope, enabling crucial national defense missions and many more accomplishments.

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Even as we remember triumphs like these with immense national and state pride, we recognize that any nation that rests solely on its laurels will quickly find itself looking from the rear. We also understand that America’s preeminence in space is not a foregone conclusion and that much of the world looks to America to lead in space.

I laud President Trump’s active engagement by ensuring American leadership in space. Moreover, I know this is essential to not only inspire young people but, also to advance the American economy while always looking out for our national security. Reviving the National Space Council and the Space Policy Directives that have been signed, to date, signals that these are not just empty promises.

Alabama’s proud tradition of leading the way in America’s space program continues today with the Space Launch System, America’s next great ship, which has been designed, engineered and tested in Alabama and has a significant supplier base and workforce throughout our great state and around the country.

SLS isn’t about a single rocket or launch. Instead, it is a transformational national capability which will serve as the backbone of our deep space exploration efforts, enabling the return of American astronauts to the Moon and taking them further into space than ever before. In doing so, we will create new markets for the burgeoning space industry and enable greater international cooperation than ever before.

From a national security standpoint, China continues to develop their own deep space capabilities, landing the first spacecraft on the far-side of the Moon, which should serve as a clarion call that we risk losing our footing.

America’s Defense Intelligence Agency recently noted in their report, 2019 Challenges to Security in Space, that China and Russia are developing their own SLS-class rockets because they understand the importance of this super-heavy-lift capability for national exploration, defense and other purposes.

Despite challenges in developing the first super-heavy-rocket in over 50 years, SLS is coming together now and is being done carefully with safety as a top priority, especially since it will be carrying crews to deep space beginning with its second flight.

We have learned much over the last several years and it’s all coming together now – the supplier base is reinvigorated, we’ve implemented new technologies in designing and building and we’re seeing significant improvements in schedule with each new rocket under construction.

To date, the test articles for SLS have been produced and most are in test stands at Marshall right now; the first flight rocket is in final integration at Michoud Assembly Facility and three of the five segments have already been joined together. Eventually, the enormous liquid hydrogen tank and engine section will be added to the rocket. The second SLS launch vehicle, is already well underway in production to launch crew in 2022.

Additionally, the Exploration Upper Stage that is being developed at Marshall will provide a critical increase in capability when it launches in 2024, boosting SLS performance from 27 metric tons to the vicinity of the moon to 45 metric tons. We respectfully disagree with the FY’20 budget request about deferring this work – it’s an essential part of our capability and Congress has repeatedly directed that this work continue to be ready by 2024.

Some have proposed that NASA consider alternative launch vehicles for the first Orion flight, given the challenges with launching a brand-new rocket of this unparalleled capability by a date certain in mid-2020. But with all due respect to the critics, we have seen that even two heavy lift rockets are incapable of accomplishing what SLS can do in a single launch. For that reason – and in our collective view – we must stay the course, accelerate the SLS schedule and keep the integrated Exploration Mission 1 to test SLS and Orion together. Doing so will provide crucial data to mitigate the substantial risks posed by deep space missions.

Time is of the essence, not only to ensure that American taxpayer’s investments are well spent, but because we must seize the initiative and solidify American leadership in space once again.

Again, I welcome Vice President Pence and the National Space Council to Alabama, and I appreciate President Trump’s strategic focus on space. Alabamians have been crucial to building America’s great space heritage and, once again, we are actively engaged in leading the new era of deep space exploration.

Kay Ivey is the 54th governor of Alabama.

4 hours ago

Marine Resources Division considering changes to flounder, trout limits

Alabama’s inshore anglers are aware that fishing for two of the most popular species – southern flounder and spotted seatrout – has not been up to normal Gulf Coast standards in the past few years.

The Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) is seeking public input on how to mitigate this downturn in the abundance of the two species. MRD recently held public meetings with commercial and recreational anglers to discuss what management measures would be supported.

“I was very appreciative of the number of people who came to the discussions about the possible changes, and that’s important,” MRD Director Scott Bannon said. “It’s important to us, and it’s important to them.”

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Anglers who came to the public meetings at 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center last week heard Bannon and MRD Chief Biologist Kevin Anson present the current status of flounder and trout. MRD is considering options to help the fish stocks recover, including a reduction in bag limits, increased size limits and possible closed seasons.

“I’m kind of surprised by how many people are supportive of a reduced bag limit as a management tool,” Bannon said. “I’m very pleased with the feedback from people about what they see when they’re out fishing and what they think might help. Coupling that with what our science says, I think we’re going to be able to make some decisions that are going to be helpful for the resource but also still work with what our fishermen want in Alabama. Believe it not, one of the comments that I’ve received several times is that, even though people understand there is going to be some change, they appreciated the state’s effort to get the public’s opinion. As one person said, it shows we really do care.”

Of the two fish species, flounder is MRD’s biggest concern because of reduced harvest by both commercial and recreational anglers in recent years. The estimated harvest during the past 15 years shows a harvest of about 350,000 flounder in 2002 to about 150,000 in 2017. A significant spike in harvest occurred during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill because of a shift in angler effort from offshore waters to inshore waters.

“I think it’s going to take a multi-pronged approach both to recreational and commercial fishing to assure the stability of that fishery,” Bannon said. “These are hard decisions. On the commercial side, this affects income, but we want to sustain their income long-term.”

Bannon said about 30 commercial fishermen are targeting flounder with gillnets, while a small percentage are reporting harvests using gigs. Bannon is concerned that some giggers are skirting the reporting law.

“There is only a small number of people with commercial licenses who are reporting harvests using a gig,” he said. “All commercial harvests are required to be reported. But we think a number of people are recreationally fishing under a commercial license, and those fish aren’t getting reported. They purchase a commercial license to exceed the 10-fish bag limit.”

Bannon said the only management tool that would restrict this practice is a daily bag limit for those who hold a commercial license. Recreational anglers currently have a 10-flounder bag limit with a minimum size of 12 inches total length.

“Some people are truly commercially fishing,” he said. “They are using it to make a living. Others are just exceeding a bag limit. Gigging is a very effective fishery. The technology is helping them with better lights and better boats, like with most fisheries. We are going to work with the industry to see what’s a realistic bag limit, looking at the landing numbers. We could be looking at a combination of bag limits, size limits or a seasonal closure.”

MRD data shows that November is a month with a high commercial harvest number because flounder migrate to the Gulf of Mexico to spawn.

“Any time you have fish that have a specific spawning run, it’s beneficial to allow them to make that run, and with flounder, the females do come back inshore,” Bannon said.

Anson said Alabama is not alone in terms of a foundering flounder fishery.

“This isn’t just an Alabama problem,” Anson said. “Other states have seen reductions in flounder landings as well, both commercial and recreational. It just seems that we are ground zero as far as seeing the largest drop in landings.”

Fisheries managers use spawning potential ratio (SPR) to determine the health of a fish stock. For flounder, the target SPR to maintain the population is between 25 and 30 percent.

At the current harvest rate, if the minimum size for flounder remains at 12 inches, the population will not be able to sustain the target SPR. An increase in size also increases the number of eggs the females release during the spawn.

According to MRD data, an increase in the minimum size to 13 inches would allow 20 percent more fish to remain in the water. An increase to a minimum size of 14 inches would allow 38 percent more fish to remain in the water.

MRD’s Claude Peteet Mariculture Center in Gulf Shores is also gearing up to spawn flounder in recently purchased tanks and equipment. Bannon said they hope to eventually release between 50,000 and 60,000 flounder fingerlings annually.

For spotted seatrout (speckled trout), a recent MRD assessment indicated recruitment of juvenile trout back into the fishery has been below traditional levels.

Bannon said a seismic shift in fishing effort has played a role in the fishing pressure on speckled trout. High fuel costs and restrictive bag limits on reef fish species caused many offshore anglers to start fishing inshore waters.

“We went from 50,000 inshore fishing trips annually in the early 90s to more than 500,000 in 2011,” he said. “That’s a ten-fold increase in fishing effort. That’s a concern. All of our habitat is accessible to fishermen. It’s a popular fish, so there’s a lot of effort focused on them, partly due to the short federal fisheries seasons.”

The annual harvest during that time increased 600 percent, and a downturn of landings in 2014 suggests the fishery is unstainable under that intense fishing pressure.

Bannon said anglers who target speckled trout, which has no commercial harvest because of its game-fish status, have indicated support for a reduction in the current 10-fish bag limit. Anglers have also indicated support for a slot limit and/or an increase in the current minimum size, which is 14 inches total length. The red drum (redfish) fishery has a slot limit of 16-26 inches with an allowance of one oversized fish.

“If we do go to a slot limit on trout, there will be an allowance for one oversized fish,” he said. “Most anglers who target these fish understand there are some concerns and agree that if we act responsibly now we will be in better shape. The goal is for anglers to catch larger fish more consistently.”

Anson said increases in size limits that MRD is considering include a bump in the minimum length to 15 inches, which would allow more than 227,000 trout to be returned to the water annually. An increase to a 16-inch minimum size would mean more than 400,000 could be returned to the water each year.

MRD will hold a meeting with the charter-for-hire operators on March 27. Bannon said, depending on feedback from the public, MRD may decide to hold another meeting before finalizing its management proposals.

Bannon said MRD welcomes comments on the proposed changes to the regulations on flounder and trout. Send comments to scott.bannon@dcnr.alabama.gov or kevin.anson@dcnr.alabama.gov by April 13 to ensure the input will be considered before the next Conservation Advisory Board meeting, scheduled May 4 at The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel.

“After we complete the meetings and compile the public input, the staff will have discussions, followed by discussions with the Commissioner (Chris Blankenship),” Bannon said. “Then we will develop a proposal for the Conservation Advisory Board on May 4.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

18 hours ago

Blountsville substitute teacher jailed after gun accidentally goes off in classroom

Tragedy almost struck in Blount County on Friday afternoon when substitute teacher Henry Rex Weaver’s gun was accidentally discharged in a first-grade classroom.

WBRC is reporting that Weaver, 72, has been taken into custody and held in jail after his gun went off at Blountsville Elementary.

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Officials initially advised that no one was injured, however, WBRC later reported that one “student had ‘very minor’ injuries” and was treated at the scene. Students were in the classroom at the time Weaver’s gun, which was in his pocket, discharged.

Weaver faces charges of possession of a deadly weapon, aggravated assault and reckless endangerment.

The debate on whether qualified, trained teachers should or should not be able to have a gun in his or her classroom was a major topic in the 2018 state legislative session.

Update 4:35 p.m.:

According to Alabama Media Group, Blount County District Attorney Pamela Casey elaborated that the student with a “very minor” injury was struck by a fragment and attended to by the school nurse.

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

18 hours ago

Watch: Doug Jones commits to supporting whoever the 2020 Dem presidential nominee is

Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL), while claiming to be a member of the “radical middle,” declared he will vote for the Democrats’ nominee against President Donald Trump, regardless of who that individual ends up being.

In a video clip from his Thursday book tour event in Huntsville, Jones was asked if he would “throw his weight behind somebody” for the party’s nomination.

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“It may depend on how things go,” the incumbent junior senator replied. “Everybody knows that Joe Biden and I have been friends for 40 years. And so, I have talked about Joe a lot. And I have always wanted him to be president – not just to run for president, but to be president. Outside of Joe, we’ll see how that goes.”

That is when he declared no matter who wins the primary, he will proudly support a Democrat against Trump.

“But whatever we do, I’ll end up supporting the nominee. We’re not going to run away from that. And I hope to have some of my colleagues come down here at some point. We’ll see how that goes.”

Watch:

RELATED: Watch: Doug Jones refuses to answer question on Trump impeachment

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