3/8/2013 Group Watch: Governor Recognizes Companies for Excellence

This week, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley recognized eight Alabama companies that are excelling in international trade. The value of Alabama exports reached a record $19.5 billion last year, a 9.4 percent improvement from 2011. The 2013 Governors Trade Excellence Awards went to the following: Atlas RFID Solutions of Birmingham, Intergraph of Madison, Mack Manufacturing of Theodore, Quincy Compressor of Bay Minette, Induron Coatings LLC of Birmingham, LINE-X LLC of Huntsville, Motion Industries of Birmingham and Von Corporation of Birmingham. Governor Bentley said that the success of these companies shows how Alabama products are reaching a global marketplace.

March 1, 2013 Group Watch: News & Views from the State House

The Alabama Legislature returned to work on Tuesday, the 8th day of the 2013 regular session. The hot topic this week was education.

Tuesday: The House Committee on Transportation, Utilities and Infrastructure favorably reported out a bill that passed the Senate last Thursday. This measure would allow persons who impair utility service work to be charged with criminal tampering. The House and Senate Judiciary Committees approved bills to limit the timeframe for lawsuits against Airbus and its suppliers. The House passed a number of sunset bills to allow certain boards, commissions and agencies to operate. They also approved a “Caylee’s Law”-type bill to make it a Class C felony to fail to report a missing child and a bill that authorizes warrantless arrest for people trespassing on school property. The Senate approved a bill allowing the Mobile County Board of Education to have security personnel or resource officers employed by the county school system carry firearms. They also approved a local bill allowing Franklin County school employees to train as reserve law enforcement officers and possibly carry guns at school as part of a school defense force. They also approved a $25 million bond issue to help some counties obtain matching funds to draw federal money for road and bridge projects.

Wednesday (a committee day): A public hearing was held by the House and Senate committees on Education Policy. The committee heard testimony on a bill designed to wrest control over common core policy decisions from the State Board of Education. The concern over curriculum was described as opening the door for unnecessary federal intrusion into K-12 education under the Obama administration. State Superintendent of Education contradicted claims by supporters of the bills, saying the state voluntarily adopted the current standards and did not cede any control to the federal government by using them. He also stated that the state was involved in the development of the standards and is not sharing student or teacher personal information with the federal government. The committee did not vote on the proposals.  The House Economic Development and Tourism Committee voted 13-2 to approve legislation to let the state partner with a private developer to build a hotel and convention center on prime state-owned beachfront property in Gulf Shores. The Senate Finance and Taxation Committee approved a bill that would call for a $50 million bond issue for public school boards to purchase career and technical education equipment. The same bill has already passed the House. The Senate Health Committee considered, but took no action on, a House-passed bill that would require doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges in the cities where they perform abortions. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that amends current state law that prohibits local governments from imposing a ban on handguns. This measure would add rifles and shotguns.

Thursday: The highlight of the day was the passage of a school flexibility bill by the Senate in mid-afternoon. The hotly debated bill passed on a 26-7 vote. Due to variances between the House and Senate versions, the measure was sent to a conference committee to resolve the differences. Later in the evening, a conference committee reported what is described as a dramatically different bill that was ultimately adopted by both chambers.  The conference committee report included language that would allow parents  of children in failing schools to receive an income tax credit equal to 80 percent of the average annual state cost for attendance of a public K-12 student to offset the cost of private school or a transfer to another public school. A failing school is described as one in the bottom 10 percent of statewide reading and math scores, has earned three consecutive D’s or an F on upcoming school report cards or is  designated by the State Department of Education as failing. After a lengthy debate, the House also voted 67-26 to approve a revamping of public safety functions. The bill would consolidate more than 20 agencies with law enforcement or investigative missions down to nine, with most offices answering to a new secretary of law enforcement. That person will be appointed by the governor. The bill as passed is estimated to save $260 million over 10 years.

3/1/2013 Group Watch: Legal Experts Agree with AG

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange has maintained for some time that BP was not offering the state all it was entitled to receive during settlement talks in the case. This week, legal experts are saying that the pressure is mounting on BP to settle civil charges brought against the company for its role in the 2010 Gulf oil spill. BP and its partners are being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice, private plaintiffs and the states of Alabama and Louisiana in federal court in New Orleans. Legal experts familiar with the case are surprised that the case went to trial and predict if testimony continues as it has gone so far, BP might well raise its current $16 billion offer to $18 billion by the end of the week. Attorney General Strange was quoted as saying that evidence is mounting that BP deserves the harshest possible punishment under the law. Gross negligence could be potentially catastrophic for the company.

February 22, 2013 Group Watch

The legislature returned to work on Tuesday for the 6th day of the 2013 regular session and bills up for consideration and debate spanned a wide range of topics, from agency consolidation, to gun rights to a long-overdue pardon.

Tuesday: After hours of debate, the House passed a bill to place new regulations on abortion clinics. They will require doctors at the clinics to have admitting privileges at hospitals in the same cities where they perform abortions. They also gave final approval to a bill setting up a plan to repay the Alabama Trust Fund the $437 million that was taken from the fund to bolster the state General Fund over three years. Lastly, the House passed a bill that would allow certain religiously affiliated employers to opt out the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that they cover contraception for their employees. Over in the Senate, after hours of debate, a bill to abolish about a half-dozen boards that control legislative agencies and consolidate their power under a new joint committee of senators and representatives was carried over. The Senate went on to pass a bill to establish a Fair Ballot Commission. This commission would approve statements that summarize statewide ballot measures in plain language for voters. The Senate also passed a bill that would permit municipalities and public utilities to allow contracts between the governing body and approved service providers to build, maintain and repair utility systems.

Wednesday (committee day): The House and Senate budget committees met jointly in budget hearings for the Alabama Medicaid Agency and the departments of Public Health, Mental Health and Human Resources. State Health Officer Don Williams told the panel the Medicaid Agency could manage its programs for fiscal 2014 with a $615 million appropriation from the General Fund, but would need more than $730 million in fiscal 2015 for the 900,00 Alabamians currently served by the agency. The House Education Policy Committee held a public hearing but did not vote on a bill to let some teachers carry guns in schools. The House State Government Committee approved a bill to allow Children’s Advocacy Centers to participate in the state employee’s insurance plan. This bill is at no cost to the taxpayers, but the nonprofit centers will achieve savings by participating in a larger group plan. The House Public Safety Committee approved a Senate-passed bill to consolidate several state law enforcement agencies. During the public hearing on the bill, members were assured that certain granting authority within the ADECA affecting local programs such as Children’s Advocacy Centers and Domestic Violence would remain in that agency. The Senate Education Committee approved the local school flexibility bill, which has already passed the House. The measure could come up for a vote in the Senate next week. Governor Bentley signed into law a bill that sets up a schedule to repay the Alabama Trust Fund the $437.4 million that will be transferred over three years to bolster the ailing General Fund.

Thursday: The House carried over a bill dealing with amending the state’s constitution to allow absolute rights to bear arms and requiring strict legal scrutiny of any measures that attempted to deny those rights. The House approved a bill to authorize a compact with other states to regulate healthcare. This measure would allow the state to partner with other states to bypass federal regulations and let states administer programs like Medicaid through block grants. The House also passed the Medicaid Fraud Reduction Act, which appropriates additional money for prosecutions, extends the statute of limitations and makes other changes designed to ease prosecutions. The Senate passed a bill to clarify the state’s authority to intervene with school systems that failing academically. The bill sets up criteria under which the state superintendent could undertake an educational intervention in a school system. They also approved an appropriation for the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and a bill to posthumously pardon the Scottsboro Boys and others wrongfully convicted of acts prior to 1932.

2/22/2013 Group Watch: Alabama AG Closes Victoryland

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange embarked on a double-barreled assault on “illegal gambling” Tuesday, seizing electronic bingo machines at the newly reopened Victory Land and filing a lawsuit in hopes of closing the state’s three Indian casino. The two actions were the latest in the long-running legal war over electronic bingo. Attorney Strange said the actions were taken to stop illegal gambling, but lawyers for the casinos say the actions are without merit and leave hundreds out of work. State troopers and investigators with the attorney general’s office arrived at Victory Land shortly before 8 a.m. with a search warrant obtained after the State Supreme Court ordered a local judge to reconsider his denial of the request. Trucks carried away hundreds of machines from the facility, along with an unspecified amount of cash. The attorney general’s office also filed a suit in Elmore County seeking to close the three Alabama casinos operated by the Poarch Band, alleging the tribe is “ operating, advancing, and profiting from the unlawful gambling activity” in its enterprise. The suit further claims the casinos on Native American land are a public nuisance to the surrounding areas and should be shut down.

February 15, 2013 Group Watch

The Alabama Legislature returned to work on Tuesday, Feb. 5, for the start of the 2013 regular session and quickly got down to business working on bills to streamline government and to make the state a better and safer place to live.

  • On Wednesday, Feb. 6: Senate Education Policy Committee conducted a public hearing but took no vote on a bill to permit local school boards greater flexibility on a broad range of education policy issues. Later in the day, the House Education Committee heard testimony on the same bill and after amendment, gave a favorable report to the bill. The bill, after amendment, allows schools to request relief from rules and regulations in exchange for greater accountability. The amended House bill will allow local school districts to apply to the State Department of Education for waivers from state laws. The powerful teachers’ lobby, the Alabama Education Association, opposed the bill.  The Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Accountability Committee amended and gave a favorable report to a bill to consolidate some state law enforcement and public safety agencies and create the cabinet position of Secretary of Public Safety.
  • On Thursday, Feb. 7: The House passed a bill to repay money borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund to bolster the ailing General Fund. The House-passed bill would repay the $450 million over 13 years.
    They also passed a bill to create the Fair Ballot Commission and require the Secretary of State to post certain information on its website to keep voters informed.  The Senate carried over several bills including ones to create the Alabama Technology Authority, create a cabinet level position of Secretary of Information Technology and to create the cabinet position of Secretary of Public Safety and consolidate several state law enforcement agencies under a new Department of Public Safety. They passed a bill to create distinctive license plates for breast cancer research and make them available for motorcycles.
  • On Tuesday, Feb. 12: The House voted 92-0 for the “Red Tape Reduction Act” that requires state agencies to prepare an economic impact statement prior to adopting new regulations. They also voted 93-1 to authorize a $50 million bond issue to buy vocational education equipment for schools. The House debated a gun bill but delayed voting on the measure. The proposed constitutional amendment would write into the state constitution the right to bear arms is “fundamental” and that any restrictions on gun ownership are subject to strict scrutiny and stringent judicial review. The Senate approved a revamp of state law enforcement and information technology operations. The Public Safety bill would merge more than a dozen state law enforcement and investigation groups into a new Alabama State Law Enforcement Agency. The Senate also passed two bills relating to information technology. One of the measures creates the Alabama Technology Authority to coordinate information technology for state agencies, and the other creates the position of Secretary of Information Technology and a legislative oversight committee for IT. IT functions within the state Finance Department would transfer to the new Alabama Technology Authority who could contract with private companies to provide the services.
  •  On Wednesday, Feb. 13 (committee day): The House Boards, Agency and Commission Committee approved a bill aimed at keeping non-profit spay/neuter clinics open in the state. The House County and Municipal Government Committee sent several bills to sub-committees for further study including a bill that would allow utility services to let private contractors sell service and repair contracts to customers. The Senate Education Committee approved a version of the school flexibility bill after adding amendments to protect the current tenure process and to specify that the legislation can’t be used to create charter schools. The Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee and the House Health Committee passed identical bills to authorize the State Employees’ Insurance Board to offer high-deductible plans with health savings accounts. The Senate Confirmations Committee approved the selection of Wayne Smith and Michael DeMaioribus as Auburn University trustees and the reappointment of Randy Owen as a trustee of Jacksonville State University.
  • On Thursday, Feb. 14: the House voted 65-37 to approve a bill that would allow school systems to seek waivers from the state education policies and laws. According to the bill’s sponsor, schools could do things like get permission to shift financial resources or hire a professional musician to teach a music class. Waivers would have to be approved by both the local and state board of education and the state superintendent of education. The bill says an employee could not be forced to give up “privileges acquired by that employee as a result of attaining tenure or non-probationary status.” The House debated a proposed constitutional amendment relating to the right to bear arms, but did not vote on the measure. The Senate passed a House-passed bill to establish a plan to repay the Alabama Trust Fund $437 million taken over three years to help fund Medicaid, prisons and other agencies. Because the measure was amended by the Senate, the House must concur with change before it can go to the governor for his signature.

2/15/2013 Group Watch: Alabama’s Preschool Program Praised

The state’s much heralded pre-kindergarten program is getting a lot of attention in recent days. The latest comes from the New York Times. In a national story about President Obama’s call in his State of the Union address to make high quality preschool available to every child in the nation, the Times story details the Alabama effort, including Governor Bentley’s push to better fund the program. In the governor’s state of the state address last week, he praised the program and told legislators he wants them to increase funding for it to the tune of an additional $12.5 million next fiscal year. The proposed increase would amount to a 60-percent increase in the program, which is nationally recognized for its quality. Read the full article here.

2/15/2013 Group Watch: State of the State

Governor Robert Bentley delivered the State of the State address on Tuesday evening. Governor Bentley outlined his agenda, vowing to repay money borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund, defend gun rights and push for legislation to give local school boards flexibility in dealing with state laws. The governor also called for additional funding for the state’s pre-kindergarten program and a 2.5 percent pay raise for teachers and support workers. The 2.5 percent pay raise for teachers and support workers will cost an estimated $92.5 million, and Republican legislators held out hopes that money would be available to fund a 1-2 percent raise for education employees after they repay money to the Rainy Day Account and the Alabama Trust Fund. The governor also touted bills to consolidate state law enforcement agencies and information technology functions within state government to achieve efficiencies. Read the full address here.

January 2013 Group Watch: News & Views from the State House

Things are getting busy in downtown Montgomery as the 2013 Legislative Session draws near.

  • “Guns in Schools” Summit at Capitol. Children’s safety at school was at the center of discussion recently in the auditorium of the state capitol. Lawmakers, educators and law enforcement came together to look at ways to prevent a school shooting in Alabama. The summit was in response to the school shooting in Connecticut that left 26 dead, including 20 young children. There was no discussion of new gun restrictions, like banning assault weapons or high capacity magazines. Most of the discussion centered on the role of teachers, law enforcement and mental health professionals. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley has asked his Homeland Security Director to lay out a strategic plan for preventing and responding to active shooting situations. One lawmaker proposed to arm at least some school personnel to respond in such situations.
  • House Speaker Names Leaders. Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard recently made some leadership appointments prior to the start of the 2013 regular session of the Legislature. He appointed Representative Lynn Greer of Rogersville to chair the committee on Transportation, Utilities and Infrastructure; Representative Mac McCutcheon of Capshaw to chair the powerful Rules Committee; Representative Allen Farley of McCalla as vice chair of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee; and Representative Barry Moore of Enterprise was named vice chair of the Commerce and Small Business Committee. Speaker Hubbard also named Representative Bill Roberts of Jasper vice chair of the Committee on Boards, Agencies and Commissions.
  • Governor Bentley Backs Off Proposal for 2013 Session. Governor Robert Bentley has backed off one of his proposals for the 2013 legislative session starting February 5. The governor talked in September about passing financial incentives to get veteran state employees to retire and reduce the state payroll. During the holidays, he announced was putting the proposal on hold because the state was achieving savings without the incentives. His decisions came after only a few hundred state workers expressed interest in such incentives and after the state pension system warned that the short-term savings on payroll might not be worth the long-term effect on pension and health insurance costs. Bentley said in a recent interview, “If we have the right number retire, we will not have to provide incentives, and it will save the state money”.

January 2013 Group Watch: Tweet of the Month

 from @SenTomWhatley
Aubie riding to the farm to begin “supervising” Tyler and Bo this morning. He is tough but fair.

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