The Wire

  • Black Bear Sightings Continue to Increase in Alabama

    Excerpt from an Outdoor Alabama news release:

    Add Jackson, Limestone, Marshall, Morgan and St. Clair counties to the growing list of black bear sightings in Alabama in 2018. In recent years, bears have also been recorded in Chambers, Elmore, Jefferson, Lee, Macon and Tallapoosa counties. These recent sightings are more evidence of the state’s expanding black bear population.

    Biologists from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources say the increase in sightings may be due to a combination of factors including changes in bear distribution, habitat fragmentation, seasonal movement and the summer mating season. However, most spring and summer bear sightings are of juvenile males being pushed out of their previous ranges by their mothers and other adult males.

    Historically, a small population of black bears have remained rooted in Mobile and Washington counties. Baldwin, Covington and Escambia counties on the Florida border host yet another population of bears. In northeast Alabama, bears migrating from northwest Georgia have established a small but viable population.

    “While seeing a black bear in Alabama is uncommon and exciting, it is no cause for alarm,” said Marianne Hudson, Conservation Outreach Specialist for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF). “There has never been a black bear attack on a human in Alabama.”

    Black bears are typically secretive, shy animals that will avoid human interaction. Occasionally, a curious bear will explore a human-populated area in search of food.

    “If you are lucky enough to see a bear, simply leave it alone,” Hudson said.

  • Rep. Byrne Releases Statement on Russia

    From a Bradley Byrne news release:

    Congressman Bradley Byrne (R-AL) issued the following statement regarding President Donald Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, this morning in Helsinki.

    Congressman Byrne said: “I applaud President Trump’s decision to start a dialogue with President Putin and I’m glad he is making it a priority. However, we must remember that Russia is not an ally – economically or militarily. They are an adversary. The United States should not tolerate actions by the Russians that intervene in our domestic affairs or pose a threat to our national security.”

  • Alabama Recreational Red Snapper Season Closes July 22

    Excerpt from an Outdoor Alabama news release:

    The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Marine Resources Division (MRD) announces the closure of Alabama state waters to the harvest of red snapper by private anglers and state-licensed commercial party boats at 11:59 p.m. Sunday, July 22, 2018. The quota of 984,291 pounds issued under NOAA Fisheries’ Alabama Recreational Red Snapper Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) is expected to be met by the closure date.

    “Alabama anglers fished extremely hard on the good weather days during the season,” said Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon. “That level of effort, coupled with larger average-sized fish harvested this year as compared to last year, resulted in a daily harvest rate two times higher than 2017, which prompted an earlier than anticipated closure.

    “The purpose of the EFP was to demonstrate Alabama’s ability to establish a season and monitor landings within a fixed quota and I think we have shown we can do that,” said Bannon.

    Anglers are reminded of the following:

    — Possession of red snapper in Alabama waters while state waters are closed is prohibited regardless of where the fish were harvested.
    — Alabama anglers may fish in federal waters off the coast of Alabama (outside of 9 nm) and land in a state that is open to the landing of red snapper, but they must adhere to the open state’s rules and not transit in Alabama state waters with red snapper on board.
    — The season for federally-permitted charter for-hire vessels will close at 12:01 a.m. July 22.

2 years ago

FAILURE: Tax hikes lead to Bentley receiving ‘F’ grade from conservative group

File photo of former Gov. Robert Bentley (Photo: Jamie Martin)
Governor Robert Bentley takes questions from reporters. (Photo: Governor's Office, Jamie Martin)
Governor Robert Bentley takes questions from reporters. (Photo: Governor’s Office, Jamie Martin)

Governor Bentley has fallen from grace in a new biannual scorecard released by the CATO Institute, a Washington-based think tank that promotes limited government and free markets. While Bentley had received a “B” in 2014, Alabama’s top leader has now been given an “F”.

CATO says that Bentley received the poor grade due to his aggressive policy switch on taxes.

“Governors receiving an F have put government expansion ahead of the public’s need to keep its hard-earned money,” the CATO scorecard said.

“Governor Robert Bentley dropped from a B in the last report card to an F in this one due to his support of major tax increases,” the report explained. “In his first few years in office, Bentley generally opposed tax increases, but in 2015 he made a U-turn. He proposed a tax increase of more than $500 million a year, including increases on businesses, cigarettes, automobile sales, automobile rentals, and other items.”

Bentley also received low marks for proposing spending raises in the state’s general fund budget.

Of the ten lowest scoring governors, seven are Democrats. Only three who received an F are Republicans, including Bentley. While the average score for a Republican governor fell at 57, Alabama’s governor received a 39.

This is not the first time the Governor has come under fire for his tax proposals. After pledging “No new taxes” in his 2014 campaign for re-election, he announced that he would propose increases only weeks after being sworn back into office.

“We are going to raise taxes,” Gov. Bentley said in a 2015 interview with the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. “After four years of saying we’re not raising taxes, and we have not, I’m telling you, for the next four years we are going to raise taxes.”

The embattled governor is currently facing the possibility of impeachment, as a panel of House lawmakers have begun proceedings that could determine whether or not there are grounds to remove Bentley from office.

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3 years ago

Everything you need to know about Alabama’s new budget and what it means for you

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, Governor Robert Bentley, and House Speaker Mike Hubbard
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, Governor Robert Bentley, and House Speaker Mike Hubbard
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, Governor Robert Bentley, and House Speaker Mike Hubbard

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — After months of contentious debate, the Alabama Legislature on Wednesday passed a budget and sent it across the street for the governor to sign.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. The new General Fund includes some cuts

The final tally on the Fiscal Year 2016 General Fund is $1.75 billion, down from $1.83 billion in FY2015. The roughly $100 million decrease is not as large as it may seem, though. About half of that number is the result of the federal government picking up the tab for a children’s health insurance program that was previously funded by the state.

Medicaid, prisons, Mental Health, Human Resources and the court system were essentially untouched. Most other General Fund agencies will be trimmed by around 5 or 6 percent.

In an effort to limit the cuts made to areas lawmakers deemed to be essential services, they passed a 25-cent per pack tax increase on cigarettes, which will bring in an estimated $70 million annually. They also increased taxes on nursing homes by $400 per bed and on pharmacies by adding a new 15-cent tax per prescription. Both taxes were supported by groups representing the impacted industries. The two taxes will each raise $8 million in revenue for Medicaid.

2. Gov. Bentley did not get what he wanted, but appears willing to live with it

The governor’s initial call for $700 million in new revenue was cut by about two-thirds by the time the second Special Session rolled around. But although Bentley did not get anywhere near the amount of tax increases he wanted, he commended legislators who had the “courage” to back the $86 million in new taxes that did go through.

“We have made tremendous progress to fundamentally change the way our state budgets,” he said. “Tonight is an important step forward in that process. I commend House and Senate members, including Speaker Hubbard, Pro Tem Marsh and Budget Chairmen Clouse and Orr, for prioritizing people over politics. I also want to thank members of the House and Senate who courageously voted to increase revenue for the General Fund. I will carefully review the budget once it is received by my office, and I expect to sign it.”

3. Your life pretty much won’t be impacted at all

There does not appear to be any reason for parks to close, driver’s license offices to be shuttered, prisoners to be released, seniors services to be disrupted, or for any other dire prediction to actually come to fruition.

Even the executive branch agencies that will be expected to make relatively small cuts should not have much trouble carrying on business as usual after the trim.

4. The Republican-controlled Legislature may never be the same

The tax battle turned ugly in the last week, as the deadline to pass a budget loomed and legislative leaders battled it out with a bloc of hardline conservatives, particularly in the House. The final budget won passage easily, 23-9 in the Senate and 70-21 in the House, but tempers were flaring right up until adjournment.

A House member who supported the numerous tax increase proposals went to the mic on the House floor to harshly criticize his conservative colleagues for their unwillingness to compromise. Even after the gavel came down to end the session, heated discussions continued among members.

The first four years of Republican control in Montgomery (2010-2014) were largely defined by a close working relationship between House and Senate leadership and by overall consensus among GOP lawmakers. With rare exceptions, Republicans were pretty much singing from the same sheet of music.

That changed in a big way in 2015, and it could have huge implications for the GOP’s ability to govern moving forward. Republican leadership’s biggest challenge will be to keep their caucuses from permanently fracturing into the kind of establishment vs. conservatives in-fighting that dominates Congress. It may be too late.

5. The biggest winners and losers are…

Prison reform won.

The Alabama Legislature earlier this passed sweeping prison reform, culminating several years of work by a broad coalition seeking to ease overcrowding in the system while maintaining public safety. The reforms received praise nationally, including from The Heritage Foundation. After a period of uncertainty during which it was not clear if the reforms would get funded, the Legislature’s final budget included an allocation to implement the plan.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management lost.

ADEM, basically Alabama’s state-level version of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), saw its budget slashed by 83 percent. The agency lost $1 million of its previous $1.2 million allocation. Ouch. They’ll be fine though. They still manage to get $154 million in earmarked funds.

6. Gambling interests are licking their chops

The vast majority of Alabama’s structural budgeting issues remain. Will Republicans use the window of time they’ve bought themselves with tax increases and incremental reforms to build consensus around major structural changes? It’s too early to tell.

What is definitely happening, though, is gambling interests who failed to gain traction this year are preparing for another push in 2016. They will be well funded and already have a group of legislators — albeit a relatively small one — who have bought into the possibility of increasing revenue by expanding gambling, rather than taking on the monumental task of reforms.


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3 years ago

GANG OF NINE: Meet the Alabama senators who voted against every single tax increase

TOP (from left): Sens. Rusty Glober, Bill Holtzclaw, Clay Scofield, Paul Bussman and Paul Sanford. BOTTOM (fromt left): Sens. Bill Hightower, Shay Shelnutt, Slade Blackwell and Phil Williams.
TOP (from left): Sens. Rusty Glober, Bill Holtzclaw, Clay Scofield, Paul Bussman and Paul Sanford. BOTTOM (fromt left): Sens. Bill Hightower, Shay Shelnutt, Slade Blackwell and Phil Williams.
TOP (from left): Sens. Rusty Glober, Bill Holtzclaw, Clay Scofield, Paul Bussman and Paul Sanford. BOTTOM (fromt left): Sens. Bill Hightower, Shay Shelnutt, Slade Blackwell and Phil Williams.

The Alabama Senate on Tuesday approved $86 million in tax increases to go along with two measures aimed at reforming the state’s dysfunctional budgeting process.

The three tax increases passed by the Senate promise to bring in far less revenue than the proposals pushed by Governor Robert Bentley and House leaders. But while the majority of Republican senators viewed combining reforms with tax increases as a palatable compromise, a group of nine staunchly conservative lawmakers refused to bend, consistently voting “no” and sometimes launching into filibusters of tax bills backed by their own party.

Meet those nine senators:

Slade Blackwell (R-Mountain Brook): Blackwell is a second-term senator from Alabama’s most affluent city. He defeated a longtime incumbent to win his seat in 2010, and is frequently mentioned as a potential statewide candidate.

Paul Bussman (R-Cullman): Bussman has been one of the most vocal opponents of tax increases this year, but that’s nothing new for the conservative dentist. Bussman was one of the few GOP legislators who was openly opposed to borrowing money from the Alabama Trust Fund in 2012, a move that many proponents said was meant to head off the kind of tax increases passed this week.

Rusty Glover (R-Semmes): Glover is a retired school teacher in his third term in the senate after serving one term in the House. He is widely expected to run for Lt. Governor in 2018.

Bill Hightower (R-Mobile): Hightower is serving in his first full term in the senate after winning a special election in 2013. He made waves earlier this year by proposing a simplified 2.75 percent flat tax. He has a business background and résumé a mile long, including stints at multiple Fortune 100 companies.

Bill Holtzclaw (R-Madison): The Marine and former NASA employee became the face of the anti-tax movement this year when he put up a massive billboard in his senate district promising he would not let Governor Bentley raise taxes on his constituents. The Bentley administration retaliated by eliminating roughly $100 million in road projects from Holtzclaw’s district. He didn’t back down.

Paul Sanford (R-Huntsville): Sanford took to affectionately referring to this group of senators as the “Gang of Nine” on Facebook. The north Alabama senator with a libertarian streak has frequently shown himself to be an independent thinker whose not afraid to buck leaders from both parties. He carried a major budget reform bill during the special session that could have helped avoid tax hikes, but it did not gain enough momentum to pass.

Clay Scofield (R-Arab): Scofield is the youngest member of the Senate and perhaps the most ideologically conservative. “Without serious structural reforms to the way we budget in our state, I couldn’t support taxing our people more,” he told Yellowhammer Tuesday evening. “Even with these increases, I believe we will be back in the same situation as early as 2017. We need real reform.”

Shay Shelnutt (R-Trussville): Shelnutt picked a heckuva session to start his Senate career. After being elected in November of 2014, he has immediately endured one of the most tumultuous periods in the five-year tenure of the Republican supermajority. His willingness to hold the line on taxes in the midst of intense pressure shows his mild-mannered, quiet personality should never be mistaken for weakness.

Phil Williams (R-Rainbow City): Williams is an Army Airborne Ranger and currently holds the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve. He served two combat tours in the Global War on Terror, one each in Afghanistan and Iraq, before being elected to the Senate in 2010. “At a time when the economy is still recovering the people of Alabama sent more than enough of their hard earned dollars to Montgomery to cover all state expenses,” he told Yellowhammer on Tuesday. “I can see no reason to ask them to send more.”


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3 years ago

Dear Alabama Republican legislators: Are you kittens, or lions? We’re about to find out

lions

Dear Alabama Republican legislators,

I, like many conservatives around the state, watched in exasperation Wednesday as a committee dominated by Republican lawmakers approved tax hike after tax hike over the objections of Democrats.

After pushing through $130 million in tax increases, House General Fund Budget Chairman Steve Clouse was clearly pleased. He has one of the toughest jobs in state government trying to navigate Alabama’s dysfunctional budgeting process. And the last several months have been particularly frustrating for him as he and other legislative leaders have pursued tax increases with reckless abandon.

After months of bludgeoning conservatives into submission, they now sense that victory may be within their grasp.

Here is how Rep. Clouse described his efforts in an interview with reporters Wednesday afternoon:

This whole process has been like herding kittens. Every time you think you’ve got them all in the basket, one jumps out. Right now the kittens are all in the basket, but who knows when they might start jumping out later this afternoon.

Of all the commentary I have heard surrounding this week’s action at the State House, Rep. Clouse’s metaphor stuck out to me the most. I believe it is a vivid illustration of what has already taken place, and what is still yet to come.

On Thursday, House leadership’s enormous package of tax increases will come before the full House for a vote. Depending on how that plays out, the bills could ultimately make their way up to the Senate where the process will repeat itself.

In light of Rep. Clouse’s comments, I believe the question each Republican — each conservative — in the Legislature should ask themselves is, “Am I a kitten, or am I a lion?”

Will you be “herded” into the basket of go-along-to-get-along tax raisers? Or will you stand firm and continue being the Lions of reform you have shown yourselves to be in years past?

Some of the Lions are already making plans to roar onto the floor of the House and Senate, providing their constituents with the conservative voice they elected Republicans to be.

And do you know what they call a group of lions? A pride. Could any title be more fitting?

The average pride of lions in the wild consists of about 15 individuals. If that is enough for a pride to fend off attacks in Sub-Saharan Africa, surely that number — and I believe there are many more of you than that — is plenty to beat back unnecessary tax hikes being pushed by defenders of the status quo in the Alabama Legislature.

So, kitten, or Lion? The choice is yours, at least until the next election day.


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3 years ago

Republicans overrule Democrats to pass $129M tax hike in Alabama House committee

YH Alabama Tax

Republicans on the Alabama House General Fund Budget Committee on Wednesday approved a package of tax increases, over the objections of four of the five Democrats on the panel.

In total, House Republicans, led by General Fund Budget Chairman Steve Clouse (R-Ozark), approved $129 million in tax increases targeting a variety of groups and individuals.

The tax increases are as follows, listed in order from largest to smallest:

— Increase cigarette tax to 67.5 cents per pack ($66 million)
— Double the maximum business privilege tax to $30,000 ($22 million)
— Increase car title fee from $15 to $28 ($19 million)
— Increase tax on car rentals from 1.5 percent to 2 percent ($6 million)
— Increase taxes on nursing homes by $400 per bed ($8 million for Medicaid)
— Increase taxes on pharmacies by adding a new 15-cent tax per prescription ($8 million for Medicaid)
— Create “porn tax” on adult magazines, movie rentals and strip clubs (unknown)

Democrats said they were for raising taxes, too, but would prefer a broad based tax increase on property.

Committee passage was a small but important first hurdle the tax package needed to clear. It also signals a change in momentum for tax hike advocates, including Rep. Clouse and House Speaker Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn).

Conservatives narrowly defeated the cigarette tax in committee during the previous session, but have endured intense lobbying from their leadership in recent weeks.

GOP leaders may still need to cobble together the support of at least some Democrats to get the package through the full House, as a group of conservative lawmakers continue to voice their opposition to raising taxes.

House leadership’s budget plan expects $70 million in tax revenue to be moved from the Education Budget to the General Fund, although that has not yet been approved. The Education Budget Committee also agreed to a one-time transfer of $50 million from the Education Budget’s surplus to the General Fund.

Rep. Clouse said all of the revenue measures will allow legislators to level-fund the court system, as well as the departments of Human Resources, Mental Health and Public Health. Other agencies would receive cuts between 1.5 percent and 8 percent.

The General Fund Budget is expected to come before the full House for a vote on Thursday.


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3 years ago

Meet the Montgomery Bubble, the reason Alabama Republicans may ruin their brand

Montgomery Bubble

The Alabama Republican Party may be days away from destroying its brand.

The party consolidated power at an unprecedented rate following the 2010 election cycle, holding every statewide office and supermajorities in both houses of the legislature. Those gains have trickled down to the local level, where Republicans continue to chip away the final vestiges of the once-powerful Democratic stranglehold on the South.

But intra-party squabbles have suddenly left the once laser-focused Alabama GOP struggling to find a unified agenda, much less an identity, as the Legislature prepares for one final attempt to pass a balanced budget before the clock runs out at midnight on October 1st.

Many Republicans around the state have watched in horror as the “campaign conservatives” they put in office in 2010 and 2014 have cast aside their promises of limited government and reform in favor of tax hikes and the status quo.

The Republican Party spent decades building its brand as the party that would not raise your taxes. In a matter of months, many GOP leaders in Montgomery have shed their anti-tax orthodoxy, finding it more expedient to get along without the constraints of something so meaningless as a promise to voters.

The explanations for why Republican lawmakers have arrived at this moment are numerous and complex, ranging from clandestine power struggles and legal disputes to genuine differences of opinion and simple ignorance.

But almost all of the reasons Republicans are on the verge of hiking Alabamians’ taxes by hundreds of millions of dollars comes down to the existence of a reality distortion field I like to call The Montgomery Bubble.

This invisible membrane encompasses the state government bureaucracy, including the area surrounding South Union Street, which divides the state’s legislative and executive branches.

It is part reason-blocker, part echo chamber and part shield from the outside world.

The longer an individual stays inside of it, the more its effects are evident to the outside world, but the less the individual realizes it. And it is the only explanation for what is currently taking place in Alabama’s capital city.

REASON-BLOCKER

Residents of The Bubble exhibit an insatiable desire to protect their piece of The Bubble fiefdom, leading them to take irrational steps that reasonable people would otherwise reject offhand.

Executive branch agencies, for instance, protect their budgets by trying to scare people who live outside of The Bubble.

This year, one agency struck fear into senior citizens by telling them their services would disappear if taxes are not raised. Another department promised public parks would be shuttered. Another said they would make it as hard as possible to get a driver’s license.

Some state agency heads and employees have been inside The Bubble so long they shudder to think about an existence outside of it. As a result, their ability to reason — to find ways to be more efficient, streamlined and productive — is suppressed.

Some legislators want to protect their turf inside The Bubble, too. They take ownership of their budget, pet project or line item. It becomes theirs, and human nature compels people to protect what is theirs.

Even though the facts show that Alabama’s state government has grown 21 percent faster than the rate of inflation over the past two decades, The Bubble inhibits some legislators’ basic reasoning, leading them to continue insisting there is “nothing left to cut.”

ECHO CHAMBER

Certain voices inside The Bubble are louder than others.

Republican legislative leaders have a megaphone that makes their demands reverberate. The voices screaming the loudest in the ears of legislators, particularly members of the House, are those of their leadership pressuring them to fall in line.

Because rank and file lawmakers do not have any policy staff, they are often forced to rely on whatever information is made available by their leaders. As a result, there are some genuinely well-meaning politicians in Montgomery who have been made to believe tax hikes are necessary. “We’ve got to govern” has become shorthand for “We’ve got to maintain the status quo.”

Lobbyists and special interest groups add to the noise. This is particularly true for lobbyists who represent state agencies. Yes, your tax dollars are paying lobbyists to lobby for more of your tax dollars.

Unfortunately there are very few people advocating for your wallet, your job and your business.

According to the Alabama Ethics Commission’s list of registered lobbyists, there are four times more lobbyists in Montgomery than there are legislators. While these voices speak on behalf of divergent interests, the one message they tend to amplify in unison is “THINGS MUST STAY THE SAME!”

SHIELD FROM THE OUTSIDE WORLD

Unlike federal politicians, the citizen-legislators in Montgomery spend most of the year in their districts. But unlike in D.C., there are not press and watchdog groups eyeballing every vote, committee meeting and public hearing. And the handful who are watching are generally supportive of growing the size of state government. So once they enter The Bubble, many legislators are more or less shielded from the outside world.

The entire process is meant to minimize external input and maximize internal pressure. This is how supposedly conservative legislators end up making decisions that befuddle their constituents back home.

SAVING THE REPUBLICAN BRAND

If you want some people to love you, you’ve got to accept that others are going to hate you.

Brand strategists often illustrate this by pointing to Nike’s controversial 1996 Olympics ad campaign. “You don’t win silver, you lose gold,” Nike declared, drawing criticism from some people who said they were being unnecessarily brash. But Nike’s brand is about winning, and winners flocked to Nike’s brand in droves.

Alabama’s conservative electorate has been attracted to the Republican Party’s brand of limited government, less regulation, lower taxes and family values. Multiple pillars of the party’s brand are currently being eroded.

But why?

Republicans have it made in Alabama. Simply governing like a conservative doesn’t get you beat in the Yellowhammer State, it gets you applauded, loved — and for the ambitious politicians (redundant, I know), it just might get you promoted.

Republicans are going to have to accept that their anti-tax brand is never going to be popular inside The Montgomery Bubble. But they should also remember that the vast majority of us out here in the real world will love it. And we’re the ones who decide if they get to go back.


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3 years ago

Top Alabama senator says there are not enough votes to hike taxes

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, Governor Robert Bentley, and House Speaker Mike Hubbard

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, Governor Robert Bentley, and House Speaker Mike Hubbard
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, Governor Robert Bentley, and House Speaker Mike Hubbard

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) told Yellowhammer Monday afternoon that Governor Bentley’s (R-AL) more than $300 million in proposed tax increases only have 8 Republican votes in the Senate, rendering them effectively dead-on-arrival.

“I just don’t see the body as warm enough toward any new taxes,” Sen. Marsh said.

The only exception, according to Marsh, is the proposed change to the Business Privilege Tax.

Currently, all businesses in the state must pay a minimum of $100 in “Business Privilege Taxes,” regardless of whether their venture was profitable. Today, businesses must pay .00025 percent of their federal taxable income, up to $15,000.

The governor’s proposal would exempt small businesses with less than $10,000 net worth, and change the taxable amount from federal taxable income to “Alabama taxable net worth,” as well as increases the maximum due from $15,000 to $25,000.

“This would basically take all the small mom and pop businesses off the list,” Marsh said, “it raises the threshold and increases revenue, but it’s off the big guys.”

“I just don’t see any support for the cigarette [tax increase proposal], I don’t see any support for [removing the] FICA [deduction], nothing with soft drinks. The business privilege is the only one I’ve seen any support for.”

Assuming all eight Democratic Senators vote in favor of the governor’s plan, that still leaves the Alabama Senate a few votes shy of the majority needed to pass the tax hikes.

Marsh’s vote count will undoubtedly raise concerns among rank and file House Republicans, whose leadership has been pushing hard for tax increases in caucus meetings.

Many are already reluctant to vote for tax increases of any kind, but the likelihood that the bills would die in the Senate anyway will make it even more difficult for House leaders to wrangle their members.

Republican legislators warned when Governor Bentley called the surprise Special Session that there had not been any significant movement toward the favorability of increasing taxes. Legislators had initially thought they would reconvene later in the summer once a cohesive plan was in place, but Bentley was concerned well-financed gambling interests would be able to mount a campaign in favor of expanding gaming, so he accelerated the timeline.

The previous standoff between pro-tax Republicans, gambling expansion advocates, and conservatives led to the legislature passing a balanced budget relying on cuts, which the governor vetoed. Some additional reform measures have picked up support since then, but if there isn’t an increase in momentum in that direction, Governor Bentley may find himself in a position to decide whether or not his threat to call multiple special sessions is worth it or not.

The Alabama Legislature is constitutionally obligated to pass a budget for the next year before the current fiscal year ends on September 30th.


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3 years ago

EXCLUSIVE: Poll shows Alabamians staunchly oppose tax hikes, prefer spending cuts and reforms

YH Alabama Tax

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A survey by nationally-known public opinion research firm McLaughlin & Associates shows widespread disdain for taxes among the Alabama electorate, making support for a potential tax increase a politically untenable position for state lawmakers.

The scientific poll of 500 likely primary voters, which was shared exclusively with Yellowhammer News, showed in a series of questions that Alabamians maintain a deep aversion to tax increases and also believe there is more room in the state’s budgets to make cuts.

When asked about the current level of taxation in Alabama, voters responded as follows: (particularly notable numbers are in bold.)

Believe they are too high: 33.2 percent
Believe they are too low: 9.8 percent
Believe they are about right: 54.6 percent
Don’t know: 2.4 percent

When asked about the current level of Alabama state government spending, voters responded as follows:

Believe it is too high: 62 percent
Believe it is too low: 5 percent
Believe it is about right 24.4 percent
Don’t know: 8.6 percent

When presented with the statement, “It is possible to balance Alabama’s state budget without raising taxes,”

72.2 percent agreed
22.8 percent disagreed
2 percent were unsure

When asked, “Governor Bentley has proposed a plan to balance Alabama’s state budget by raising state taxes by more than $500 million. Knowing this, would you say you favor or oppose Governor Bentley’s plan to raise Alabama state taxes?” Voters responded as follows:

Favor: 21.4 percent
Oppose: 71.8 percent
Don’t know: 6.8 percent

58 percent of survey respondents also said the tax increase plan gave them a less favorable opinion of Gov. Bentley, while 8.2 percent said more favorable and 30.8 percent said it did not impact their view of the governor one way or the other.

When asked if support for a plan like the governor’s would make them more or less likely to support a legislative candidate, 66.2 percent said “less likely,” while only 14.8 said “more likely” and 11.8 percent said it would not make a difference to them either way.

The survey’s stinging numbers come at a time when the governor and legislature have found themselves at odds over a solution to a $200-plus million shortfall in the state’s General Fund budget. The governor and some lawmakers have pushed for tax hikes, but a growing bloc of conservatives have expressed concerns that they would be abandoning their principles to patch the budget hole, rather than making further cuts and reforms.

According the McLaughlin & Associates president Jim McLaughlin, the apprehensions of conservative legislators are largely in line with the electorate they represent.

“Primary voters in Alabama understand the state has a budget problem, but they have a lot of faith in Republicans to solve it,” he said. “They want them to do it without raising taxes because they believe that hurts the economy and kills jobs. They want reforms, but definitely don’t want tax increases and don’t think they’re necessary.”

Roughly two-thirds (64 percent) of survey respondents said they approve of the job the Republican legislative majority is doing, compared with 19 percent disapproving. Those are particularly strong numbers for any legislative body, especially when compared to the U.S. Congress, whose approval numbers frequently threaten to dip into the single digits.

“The Republican majority has built up a lot of equity, faith and trust with Alabama voters,” concluded McLaughlin. “They have come in and been the true conservative reformers. Voters want them to stay on the right path and, to them, the right path is right-sizing government, holding the line on taxes and continuing their fight to bring conservative reform to Alabama.”


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3 years ago

Are Washington’s big government habits rubbing off on Alabama? (Opinion)

Money

In what has become a Groundhog Day scenario, federal legislators will likely grant approval to raise the federal debt limit — again. This will be the 79th time that Congress will raise the debt limit. With an $18.2 trillion national debt, amounting to nearly $57,000 per citizen, every American should find this fiscal irresponsibility disconcerting.

Our substantial national debt as well as our government officials’ continued predisposition towards unfettered spending at the federal, state, and local levels drags down our economy, reduces our economic freedom, and makes us vulnerable when it comes to national defense.

Our nation’s fiscal profligacy is even worse than our elected officials care to admit. In testimony before the Senate Budget Committee, Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff declared our country broke. The aforementioned $18.2 trillion official national debt is, in fact, substantially misleading. A proper accounting of all of our country’s debt service, transfer payments, and spending puts our fiscal gap at a staggering $210 trillion — if we stacked this up in $1 bills, it would wrap around the earth over 570 times!

To put this in a different — and perhaps even more troubling — perspective, John D. Rockefeller, the world’s first billionaire, could have easily paid off the national debt in 1916 with his own personal fortune. Today, however, Rockefeller would only be able to pay the interest on our national debt for a little over a year. The $80 billion fortune of Bill Gates, the richest person in the world today, won’t even cover the interest on our national debt for a half year! Even adding up the entire $2.29 trillion net worth of the 2014 Forbes 400 list amounts to only a fraction of our debt. And that doesn’t include additional trillions of dollars of debt racked up by state and local governments.

While Americans have more or less come to accept unrestrained spending at the federal level, it is concerning that those bad behaviors are being picked up by state and local government officials. Even our state and local politicians can’t curb their spending appetites, with 22 states – Alabama included – facing fiscal gaps this year. If we can’t reign in spending in our own backyard, how can we expect to hold our federal officials accountable?

For instance, here in Alabama we face a budget gap of $290 million. Despite being one of only two states in the nation with both out-of-control, public sector compensation and oversized public employment, our state officials are struggling to find ways to fill the gap without resorting to economically harmful taxes (if they are trying at all).

These trends are clearly unsustainable. Yet these bad habits are hard for politicians to break without the political support of the people. My former professor, economist Walter Williams, stresses that renewed respect and appreciation for the Constitution is required to reverse these troubling trends.

As we approach Independence Day, perhaps it is time to dust off our founding documents and show a concerted effort to appreciate and enforce the limitations they put on government. Their project served us well, resulting in unprecedented economic growth and prosperity. However, in the spirit of Benjamin Franklin’s famous warning he issued upon emerging from the Constitutional Convention, it is up to us to keep it. Each day, on our watch, our federal fiscal gap grows larger, compromising our American legacy of freedom. Instead of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, will we be passing on life, deficits, and debt to future generations?


Daniel J. Smith is an assistant professor of economics at the Johnson Center at Troy University. Follow him on Twitter: @smithdanj1

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3 years ago

The Alabama legislature just approved a backdoor tax increase

YH Alabama Tax
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama Legislature, including a majority of Republicans, on Thursday gave final passage to a bill that will allow state agencies to increase their own fees without a vote of the legislature. The Senate concurred with House changes first thing Thursday morning, and the bill will now head to the Governor’s desk.

Alabama House Minority Leader Craig Ford (D-Gadsden) issued a statement after the House vote Wednesday lashing out at Republicans for their tactics.

“It’s amazing that Republicans are trying to pass the buck and hide behind a bill that will raise your fees!” Ford wrote. “A fee is just another word for tax, and Senate Bill 216 would allow for unlimited fee increases. Instead of doing the job they were elected to do, the Republicans are trying to shirk their responsibilities by shifting the burden, and avoid raising taxes by making government agencies raise fees. That’s not just bad policy; it’s plain gutless and cowardly!”

The bill allows agencies to increase their own fees by as much as 2 percent a year, but can be retroactive for the last 10 years. In other words, if the consumer price index shows a 2 percent per year increase over the last decade, agencies can immediately bump up their fees by 20 percent.

Everything from driving and hunting licenses, to marriage licenses and anything else the state charges a fee to use will be eligible for these fee increases.


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3 years ago

Another Alabama county destroys a tax increase proposal at the ballot box

YH Taxes
COLBERT COUNTY, Ala. — 88 percent of voters in Colbert County, Alabama, rejected a proposed tax increase Tuesday, in an astounding outcome some are calling more evidence of the state’s strong distaste for tax increases.

The 3-mill property tax increase was slated to be spent on the Colbert County school system. Historically, taxes for education have a much easier time being passed in Alabama, where property taxes are one of the primary funding mechanisms for public schools.

Only two years ago a vote on a tax increase of the same size, and for the same purpose, was overwhelmingly accepted by 70 percent of Colbert County voters.

Generating approximately $960,000 for the school district, the increase would have meant a $30 per year increase in taxes for residents with homes appraised at $100,000, according to the Times Daily.

An unusually high percentage of voters, around 19 percent, turned out for the special election, according to Colbert County Probate Judge Daniel Rosser.

The doomed proposal was characterized as a “Farm Tax” by opponents, who argued that it would be detrimental to the many owners of agricultural and rural properties in the County.

“Last night was a mandate,” Stop the Farm Tax PAC campaign manager Trey Edwards told Yellowhammer Wednesday morning. “Not just to Colbert County, not just to every school board in the state, but to the legislature and the Governor – No. New. Taxes.”

Edwards intimated that the large turnout and crushing defeat were an indication of how the state as a whole feels about the prospect of a tax increase.

Baldwin lost with 68 percent of the vote, Lawrence lost with 79 percent of the vote and last night, Colbert County, one of the few remaining Democrat counties in the state, rejected a tax increase by 88 percent,” Edwards said. “The people have spoken. Tax increases on any level will not be tolerated by the voters, and anyone that votes to take more money out of the pockets of Alabamians will see the consequences of their decision come election time. Every legislator and the governor needs to pay attention to what happened last night.”


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3 years ago

Sims: Alabama budget battle a ‘true test of conservatives in the Legislature’

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Commenting on the various budget plans recently proposed by state legislative leaders and Governor Bentley, Yellowhammer Radio host Cliff Sims issued a challenge Wednesday to Republican lawmakers.

Alabama House GOP leadership on Tuesday introduced a General Fund budget compromise that would make targeted cuts, but also acquiesce to the Governor’s call for higher taxes. The proposal includes an approximately $100 million tax hike, as well as measures to consolidate a few agencies and cut costs.

Sims opined that the litany of options before legislators right now has created an opportunity for conservatives to take a stand in the face of growing pressure to abandon their limited-government principles.

“This is the true test of conservatives in the Legislature,” he said. “We’re going to find out what they’re made of. It’s one thing to buck the Governor; there’s natural tension between the legislative branch and the executive branch… It’s going to be a lot more difficult now when rank and file Republican legislators have their Leadership saying, ‘We want to raise taxes to the tune of $100+ million on the people of Alabama,’ and they’re going to have to look Leadership in the eye and say, ‘We can’t do that. We were elected to reform state government. We were elected to apply conservative principles to solve these [problems] and raising taxes is not a part of that.’ Looking Leadership in the eye and saying that is a lot tougher deal [than bucking the Governor]…”

Sims said people around the state are waiting for a “conservative hero” to step up and take on the challenge of bringing true reform to Alabama’s budgeting process.

“You can’t abandon your principles on something like this,” he explained. “I’m looking for a conservative hero. I’m looking for multiple conservative heroes in the Alabama Legislature who stand up and say, ‘I ran on reforming state government, and if that costs me my seat, I’m willing to do it because I came here to do the right thing.’ And that’s going to be tough to look Leadership in the eye and do that, but I’m telling you, there is a political opportunity for somebody out there right now. A conservative Republican senator who stands up and says, ‘There will not be a tax hike on my watch, I will not allow this to happen,’ that individual will be rewarded by the voters of Alabama. Somebody right now who has aspirations to be governor has an opportunity right now to make a name for themselves for being the guy who stood up in the Legislature and said, ‘I’m not going to stand for this.'”

In addition to the budget proposed Tuesday by House leadership, legislators also have before them plans to institute a lottery and expand gambling, increase taxes by $541 million, or none of the above, triggering deeper budget cuts.

Listen to the entire audio clip above.

Yellowhammer Radio airs every weekday from 12-1 p.m. and can be streamed live on the show’s flagship station, Superstation 101.1, WYDE.


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3 years ago

Heritage Economist: Bentley should abolish state income tax, not push tax hikes


(Video Above: Heritage Foundation Chief Economist Steve Moore discusses Gov. Bentley tax hike proposal)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — In video for the Alabama Policy Institute (API), Heritage Foundation Chief Economist Steve Moore says Governor Bentley’s proposed tax increases are the wrong way to increase revenue for the state, and in fact will only serve to drive businesses and workers—the real sources of growth—away from the state.

“When states raise their taxes, especially when they raise their tax rates, that it actually leads to jobs leaving the state, it leads to higher unemployment, it leads to income decline in the state,” Moore said. “The problem with the Alabama budget right now is that the state is not growing fast enough, not enough jobs are being created. If you raise taxes on the business creators and on the workers, and on the investors, you’re going to get less businesses and you’re going to get less workers, and less investors. Under that kind of circumstance, you’re actually going to have higher unemployment, so I don’t get the logic behind raising taxes to try to balance the budget.”

Instead Moore recommends a structurally lower tax system, including making Alabama the 10th state to abolish the state income tax.

“The goal of Alabama should be to be more like Texas, not to be more like New York, where taxes keep going up year after year, and jobs and businesses keep leaving,” Moore quipped.

API Vice President Katherine Robertson also expressed concerns on Tuesday that the Governor’s proposed tax increases are not “dead on arrival” in the legislature, as was previously hoped.

“As the Alabama Legislature considers various proposals for closing the budget gap in our state General Fund, API continues to push for reforms to the very programs that are causing repeated budget shortfalls as an alternative to raising taxes,” Robertson said.

API is publishing two new research papers in the coming weeks, focusing on cost-saving reforms the legislature can consider in place of the Governor’s tax increases.

“Advertising higher taxes as the only option for closing the budget gap without cutting government services presents a false choice,” said API’s press release accompanying the video. “Rather, the current budget crisis should serve as an impetus for substantive reforms that tackle the real drivers behind the shortfall and will provide the state financial stability for the long-term. Alabama’s lawmakers should continue on in this worthy pursuit and stay true to their campaign promises.”

Pieces of Governor Bentley’s proposed $541 million tax increase have Republican sponsors in the legislature, but none of the tax hikes have been brought before a committee to this point. The legislature is expected to begin working on the budget next week, when they return from Spring Break.


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3 years ago

‘Semper Fi!’ Wait ’til you see what Alabama’s Marine Senator did to fight Bentley tax hike

Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison
Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison

MADISON, Ala. — State Senator Bill Holtzclaw (R-Madison), a retired Marine, unleashed his battle cry against Governor Bentley’s proposed tax hike Monday, and he wants to make sure his whole district knows where he stands.

Holtzclaw rented space on a billboard in Madison saying, “Governor Bentley wants to raise your taxes. I will not let that happen. Semper Fi – Senator Bill Holtzclaw.”

Talk show host Dale Jackson tweeted this picture of the billboard Monday afternoon.

Here’s a closer look:

rsz_holtzclaw_billboard

“110 days ago Governor Bentley and I were re-elected on the same ticket to serve our constituents” Sen. Holtzclaw told Yellowhammer Monday. “After months of campaigning I don’t recall either of us discussing tax increases – in fact we were saying just the opposite, no tax increases.

“Since early January the message has rapidly gone from – we might need to look at raising taxes, to – we really should raise taxes, to – we are raising taxes $700M.”

Holtzclaw began hearing from his constituents after the Governor’s announcement last week, the Senator told Yellowhammer, and the billboard offers a large-scale platform to announce his position.

“This isn’t about a fight with the governor,” Sen. Hotzclaw said, “this is about opposing ideologies on how to address the perennial budget crisis. I’m not ready to throw in the towel and surrender to the option of raising taxes. I believe the answer to our continued budget woes is two-fold; funding essential functions of government and un-earmarking the 80-plus percent of the revenue that is locked up through the actions of previous legislatures.”

Alabama Democrats are proposing a state lottery to fund the state government’s two budgets—education and general fund—and GOP lawmakers are offering up more cuts and reforms to shore up the estimated $200-plus million hole.

The Alabama State Legislature will convene for the 2015 session on March 3rd. They will have 30 legislative days to come to an agreement on how to reach a constitutionally-mandated balanced budget.


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3 years ago

Gov. Bentley: ‘For the next four years we are going to raise taxes’

Gov. Robert Bentley addresses more than 1,200 farmers at the opening session of the Alabama Farmers Federation's 93rd annual meeting Dec. 7 at the Montgomery Performing Arts Centre. (Photo: Contributed)
Gov. Robert Bentley addresses more than 1,200 farmers at the opening session of the Alabama Farmers Federation’s 93rd annual meeting Dec. 7 at the Montgomery Performing Arts Centre. (Photo: Contributed)

BIRMINGHAM — “We are going to raise taxes,” Governor Robert Bentley told the audience at the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) conference Friday.

After months of floating hints of his plan to raise taxes to patch the $700 million hole in the state’s general fund budget, Gov. Bentley quit dancing around the issue and told PARCA conference attendees what “raising revenue” really means.

“After four years of saying we’re not raising taxes, and we have not, I’m telling you, for the next four years we are going to raise taxes,” Gov. Bentley said.

Bentley openly advocating for tax hikes is a relatively new development—he was elected twice on a platform of unreservedly opposing tax increases.

During a 2010 gubernatorial campaign debate, then-State Rep. Bentley unequivocally said “I am not for raising taxes,” citing tax hikes’ negative impact on businesses. “When you hurt businesses and you tax businesses, you’re going to lose jobs and we need to be creating jobs,” he said. He went a step further and signed Americans for Tax Reform’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” committing himself in writing to opposing all tax increases. During his most recent campaign, Gov. Bentley’s re-election ads also prominently displayed the words “No New Taxes.”

In December, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), the country’s leading anti-tax group, criticized Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley for proposing the elimination of certain state income tax deductions as a solution for the state’s budget woes.

“Enacting legislation that burdens taxpayers with higher taxes and fees to fuel exorbitant state spending, goes against his written promise to the people of Alabama to ‘oppose and veto any and all efforts to increase taxes,’” the group wrote on its website.

Bentley also told PARCA conference attendees Friday he was considering “all options,” including closing loopholes and even creating entirely new taxes.

In a plan that sounds eerily like one from President Obama’s recently proposed—and almost certainly doomed—budget, Bentley spoke of taxing corporations outside the state.

“I want taxes to be fair,” he said. “I don’t want to raise them on people if there are giant corporations outside the state not paying them.”

“We’re not in the same boat, but we’re going down the same stream,” Bentley said of the lawmakers with whom he will have to deal and compromise to pass a budget during the upcoming legislative session.

Convincing the Alabama State Legislature, the body tasked with passing and implementing the state’s appropriations is going to be a tough sell. Many legislators, including those in leadership in both houses, ran on a “no new taxes” pledge.

State Sen. Del Marsh (R-Anniston), the leader of the Alabama Senate, has been adamant in his opposition to tax increases.

“I’m not going to support any tax increase,” he said. “I look at this as a further opportunity to right-size government.”

“There’s a lot that needs to be done before you talk about raising taxes on working families,” State Senator and chairman of the General Fund Budget Committee Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) added to the Decatur Daily.

The Governor said specifics of his proposal might be ready next week.

The Alabama State Legislature will convene for the 2015 session on March 3rd, and will have 30 legislative days, spread out over about three months, to pass a budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

(H/T The Decatur Daily)


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3 years ago

Bentley still weighing tax proposal, hopes legislators remember whose coattails they rode into power

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — After securing a landslide re-election victory, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley went from running on a “no new tax” campaign platform to declaring that “everything is one the table” — including higher taxes — when it comes to patching the $260+ million hole in Alabama’s General Fund Budget.

“We’re going to be raising revenue,” he said recently. “Our goal is to raise revenue. We have to raise some revenue.”

But now, on the eve of his second inauguration, Bentley is prepared to take at least one of his tax increase options off the table. He told Fox 10’s Bob Grip on Sunday that he “doubts” he will push to revoke Alabamians’ ability to deduct the amount they pay in federal income taxes from their state income taxes.

“We have talked about that in the past.” he said. “(T)hat would cost a lot of people a lot of money. It really would be a fairly sizable tax increase and I doubt that I will add that one.”

Bentley had previously floated that idea along with the possibility of eliminating the deduction for FICA payments — the 7.65 percent from employees’ paychecks that goes toward Social Security and Medicare.

According to Legislative Fiscal Office calculations cited by the Birmingham News, eliminating those two deductions could bring in an additional $694 million annually, but the concept was met with a firm “no” from House Speaker Mike Hubbard, who said that eliminating the federal income tax deduction “would basically require individuals to pay state taxes on their federal taxes, which is money they never even received.”

The tension between the Legislature and the Governor’s office over the possibility of raising taxes — or “revenue” as the administration has often referred to it — began with a speech Bentley delivered during the Legislature’s new member orientation.

Bentley urged legislators to follow his lead, noting that he would not have to face re-election again. “Don’t cower away from the difficult things we’ve got to face,” he said.

Lawmakers expressed optimism that the moment to find a longterm solution to the state’s budget woes may have finally come, but were dismayed at the prospect of raising taxes because they, unlike Bentley, will have to face the voters again in four years.

They were particular concerned about being asked to raise taxes in 2015 after having just declared 2014 the “Year of Taxpayer Relief.”

With bills such as the Small Business Tax Relief Act, the Business Tax Streamlining Act, the Tax Elimination Act and the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, 67 percent of the bills on the 2014 Alabama House agenda were either a tax credit, a tax cut or an attempt to otherwise ease the tax burden on individuals and small businesses.

Realizing that some of the proposals he’s been floating recently will be a tough sell to an increasingly conservative Legislature, Bentley told the Birmingham News he’s got his sales pitch ready. He said that he doesn’t expect them to vote against their districts, but hopes they’ll remember whose coattails they road into power.

“I (helped) some of our Republicans win and I am counting on them to remember that and help me do those things we need to do to address the problems we need to address,” he said.

AL.com has mentioned several times (most recently in the article linked directly above) that “Bentley donated $500,000 of his own money to the state Republican Party in the closing weeks of the campaign to help elect Republicans who he now hopes will remember his role in their wins.”

But Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead said the Governor opted instead to spend the money through his own campaign, rather than donating it to the Party.

“The financial disclosure statements filed by the Governor and the Alabama Republican Party will show that the Governor didn’t give $500,000 to the Alabama Republican Party,” he said. “Early in the election cycle, I did discuss with the Governor the Party’s need to raise money for our GOTV (Get Out The Vote) effort and he told me that he planned to spend $500,000 from his own campaign funds to turn out the vote. He said the expenditure would be to purchase TV commercials for his re-election campaign which he believed would turn out the Republican vote.”

The argument could be made that Bentley’s presence at the top of the ticket swung some of the closest races, especially as he stood in contrast to Democrat Parker Griffith, whose campaign was marred by missteps.

But even if some members find his argument compelling, the governor will likely have a difficult time winning support for his proposals as he moves to the left while Republican victories in November resulted in the most conservative Legislature in the state’s history.


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