The divide between state government and its people is wide, and there’s no bridge in sight.
In a recent survey conducted by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, more than two-thirds of those surveyed said state government officials don’t care what they think, and slightly less than two-thirds said they feel they have no say in what government does. Read more.
Alabama started Monday morning facing a week of impeachment hearings expected to center on sordid details of the governor’s relationship with an aide and his use of law enforcement to cover it up.
But by the end of the day, the state had a new chief executive who pledged to “steady the ship of state,” and former Gov. Robert Bentley had fingerprints and a mug shot on file at the Montgomery County jail.
Bentley resigned Monday afternoon and took a deal to plead guilty to two misdemeanor charges stemming from information the state Ethics Commission handed over to the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office last week. Read more.
Fifteen members of the House Judiciary Committee are set to begin hearing testimony Monday morning to determine whether to impeach Gov. Robert Bentley.
If the committee votes for impeachment, the issue would go before the full House. If members there voted for impeachment, Bentley would be suspended from his job as governor and face trial by the state Senate. If two-third of senators voted to convict Bentley, he would be removed from office.
It all starts with the Judiciary Committee. Read more.
Gov. Robert Bentley used law enforcement personnel to benefit himself personally and to protect his reputation, according to conclusions of the House Judiciary Committee’s special counsel in a report released Friday.
The 131-page report and about 3,000 pages of exhibits detail multiple incidents in which Bentley is alleged to have used officers to stifle rumors he was having an affair with a staffer. Read more.
While Alabama’s House and Senate make headlines with debates over pistol permits, death sentences and sanctuary campuses, staff members and legislators are working largely unnoticed on a project that could affect the racial and political makeup of the Legislature.
A federal court in January ruled that some of Alabama’s legislative districts amounted to racial gerrymandering, putting too many predominantly black communities with little in common in the same district and diluting their influence. Since then, the Permanent Legislative Committee on Reapportionment has started to look at maps and redraw the boundaries of House and Senate districts. Perhaps 30 of the Alabama Legislature’s 140 districts might be affected.
The chairman of the committee said in a meeting recently that he was hoping for a quick and amicable process. But rarely in Alabama are conversations about race either quick or completely amicable, and this one is beginning against an already politically charged background. Read more.
Jefferson County voters go to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to extend a series of property taxes that fund local schools.
Also on the ballot is the Democratic primary race to fill the state House District 58 seat left vacant by the retirement of former Rep. Oliver Robinson.
School officials and advocates for weeks have been reminding people that there is an election March 7 and asking that they vote to extend the property taxes for schools. The taxes were enacted about 30 years ago but are set to expire in 2021. Voters will decide Tuesday whether to extend them for another 25 years, to 2046.
Jefferson County school Superintendent Craig Pouncy and other superintendents have said the property taxes help schools pay for things not funded through state and federal taxes. They provide a total of $100 million a year for academic programs, facility upgrades, textbooks, buses, computers and other education needs. Read more.
(As a new president takes office, BirminghamWatch is looking at what divides us and connects us close to home. This is the second of the stories.)
Driving 20 minutes west of downtown Birmingham and taking a short jog off the interstate lands you solidly in Trump Country.
It’s a world where trees outnumber people and hardware stores are still locally owned, where people believe in hard work and fair play, where voters believe entitlement programs should be cut back, and maybe taxes a bit, too. It’s a world where some people visit Birmingham, but mostly they try to avoid the crime and traffic they perceive in The City.
This is Sylvan Springs, population about 1,542 in the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 97 percent of it white. At the largest polling place in the area, 94.29 percent of voters cast their ballots for Trump in November. That was one of 11 Jefferson County polling places where more than 90 percent of voters cast ballots for the candidate inaugurated as the nation’s 45th president on Friday. Read more.
(As the nation inaugurates a new president this month, BirminghamWatch will look at what divides us and connects us close to home. This is the first of the stories.)
Hillary Clinton was the clear winner in Jefferson County on election-day, besting Donald Trump in the race for president by more than 7 percentage points.
But that result doesn’t mean the county escaped the polarization of the 2016 presidential election nationwide or the potential for conflict over public policy in the county and the region.
Clinton won the county with 51.07 percent of the vote, or 156,873 votes, according to certified vote results from the Alabama Secretary of State. Trump took 43.87 percent of the vote, or 137,768 votes. Other candidates and write-in votes accounted for 12,550 votes, slightly more than 4 percent of the ballots cast in the county. Read more.
BirminghamWatch is participating in ElectionLand, a nationwide project of the nonprofit news organization ProPublica that will cover access to the ballot and problems that prevent people from voting. To sign up to take part in this effort, text ELECTIONLAND to 69866. Then on election day you will be asked about your voting experience. If you encounter delays or other problems at the polls, you also can notify BirminghamWatch directly by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 205-595-2402. BirminghamWatch will be checking out reports of difficulties at the polls and posting information throughout the day.
The ballots are stacked, pens gathered, poll workers trained and rolls of “I Voted” stickers ready to go.
Election workers this weekend were taking a “deep breath before the plunge,” as Barry Stephenson, chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Registrars, described it. They’ve been working seven days a week since Labor Day to prepare for what could be historic turnout at the polls, he said.
The state has topped 3.3 million registered voters, Secretary of State John Merrill said last week, surpassing the state’s highest registration by 584,252 registered voters.
Likewise, Jefferson County has set a record for registered voters, with 456,000. Before this, the record was 435,000 for the 2012 election, when 302,000 people voted in the county. Stephenson said the county is expecting more than 300,000 voters to show up at the polls Tuesday.
In preparation, the Jefferson County has increased the number of precincts and added an extra 150 poll workers, bringing the total number to 1,900. There will be more voter sign-in books at the polls in an attempt to avoid long lines, but Stephenson warned, “It still may not be a quick process.” Read more.
For months the spotlight has been on the race for president. But voters on November 8 will also find a robust ballot of offices and issues closer to home. To be decided are an Alabama Senate seat and seats in Congress, presidency of the Alabama Public Service Commission and membership on state and local boards of education. County offices and a slate of amendments also will be decided, along with control of the state’s judicial system, from justices on the state’s Supreme Court, to district attorneys, to judges on the bench throughout the state.
BirminghamWatch – in partnership with Weld, WBHM, Starnes Publishing, B Metro, Trussville Tribune and the Birmingham Public Library – gives information on all of that in this Alabama Voter Guide. You’ll find sample ballots for Jefferson and Shelby counties, biographical information about candidates on each of those ballots and a rundown of the amendments you’ll be asked to decide. There is also a package of resources to help you navigate election day, from verifying your polling place and registration to researching the issues and the candidates more deeply.
Voters across Alabama went to the polls Tuesday to select new mayors and council members. In the seven-county Birmingham metro area, 85 cities held elections, potentially changing the face of local government when new officials take office Nov. 7.
The Legislature is going into session Aug. 15 to consider Gov. Robert Bentley’s lottery proposal to raise money for the General Fund, but the plan is not a guaranteed quick fix for either of the state’s biggest budget dilemmas.
Medicaid and prisons together make up more than 60 percent of the state’s General Fund spending, according to budget documents. Both are in need of an infusion of cash, and the Legislature adjourned its regular session without making significant changes to funding for either the Medicaid Agency or the Department of Corrections.
The governor hasn’t released details of his lottery plan. He has said he believed it would raise $225 million a year, and he is proposing to allocate profits to the General Fund, which would let legislators determine each year where the money is most needed. Read more.
Drinking water from 12 Alabama water systems has contained more lead than allowed by federal rules at various times since 2010, according to officials with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.
Tests on drinking water have shown lead levels of up to 72 parts per billion, more than four times the 15 ppb federal limit. But no water system is currently in violation of federal rules for lead.
A study released earlier this week showed 5,300 water systems across the country were in violation of the federal rules for lead and copper in 2015. The study, conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was spurred by the discovery of widespread lead contamination of the drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Read more.
Voters go back to the polls April 12 to determine the nominees in several races that were undecided after the March 1 primary. For races in which no candidate got half of the votes or more, the top two candidates will compete for the nomination. There is no statewide race on the ballot. In Jefferson County, four races – three judgeships and the treasurer’s seat – are on the Democratic ballot and two races – a seat on the state Board of Education and one on the county Board of Education – are on the Republican ballot. In Shelby County, two races – a judgeship and a seat on the County Commission – are on the Republican ballot and there is no Democratic runoff.
Voters go back to the polls April 12 to determine the nominees in several races that were undecided after the March 1 primary.
For races in which no candidate got half of the votes or more, the top two candidates will compete for the nomination.
There is no statewide race on the ballot. In Jefferson County, four races – three judgeships and the treasurer’s seat – are on the Democratic ballot and two races – a seat on the state Board of Education and one on the county Board of Education – are on the Republican ballot. In Shelby County, two races – a judgeship and a seat on the County Commission – are on the Republican ballot and there is no Democratic runoff.
Major decisions affecting environmental concerns in Alabama this year will be made in the courts and in the Legislature. Up in the air are questions about environmental regulation in Alabama, construction of the Northern Beltline in Jefferson County, the future of the state parks and the future of coal-fired power production here and across the country, among other issues. Here’s a rundown of some of the stories to keep an eye on in 2016.
Alabama scored a D+ on its report card from the State Integrity Investigation, but the near-failing 67.3 grade was enough to rank the state seventh-best in the country on measures of transparency, accountability and ethics in its government.
The ranking is much higher than might have been expected as Alabama’s powerful speaker of the House, Rep. Mike Hubbard, faces 23 felony ethics charges alleging he used his office to benefit clients of one of his private companies and illegally lobbied the executive branch on their behalf. Not to mention the dozens of Alabama officials, employees, contractors and others convicted in state corruption-related cases in the past decade.
Alabama’s highest score in the Center for Public Integrity Report came in the Internal Auditing category. It scored 87, ranking it fourth-best in the country. The high score comes from the state’s having an office dedicated to auditing government agencies that is largely not dependent on political favor and that releases copies of its audits to the public. The Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts regularly audits every state and county office, board and commission and all accounts that receive or disburse government money. It is overseen by the Legislative Committee on Public Accounts, which appoints the director and can influence the budget.
Alabama received its highest ranking in the Center for Public Integrity study on the category of Executive Accountability. It was ranked second-best in the country, with a score of 81.9. Ironically, Alabama got that high score in part because officials have been tried and convicted for corruption. The prosecutions show the state has laws prohibiting corruption and the political will to take the cases to court. There has been no shortage of prosecutions.
Alabama scored a 78.8 in the Pension Fund Management category of the Center for Public Integrity study, ranking it seventh in the country. The primary driver of the state’s relatively high ranking in this category is that the Retirement Systems of Alabama uses staff analysts to make investment decisions, with oversight from the boards of control for the Teachers’ Retirement System and the State Employees’ Retirement System. The state does not contract with outside firms to manage the investments and does not procure investments through placement agents, a practice that has come under fire recently in several other states. The study did not take into account the return on investments achieved by the RSA or recent criticisms about the systems’ unfunded liabilities. The state did get a less-than-perfect score on the issue of whether politics played into investment decisions.
Alabama scored 75.2 in the Legislative Accountability category of the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation, ranking it fourth-best in the country in that regard. That is not to say Alabama hasn’t faced the prospect of corruption in the ranks of legislators in recent years; it has. Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard is set to go to trial in March on 23 felony ethics charges. Most of the charges allege that Hubbard used or attempted to use his legislative office to benefit clients of one of his private companies or used his position when he was chairman of the state Republican Party to secure business for his private companies. He also faces four charges that he lobbied the governor’s office and the Department of Commerce under the auspices of his private business for two clients.
Alabama was given a 73 score in the Ethics Enforcement Agency category in the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation, ranking it fourth in the country. A series of changes to the Ethics Law beginning in 2010 have heavily influenced that score. Since that time, the Ethics Commission has been given a guaranteed budget, which reduces the effect of political pressure on operations. It also has been given subpoena power, which allowed it to conduct more effective investigations. Some ethics rules have been tightened or more explicitly defined in the law, and public officials now are required to undergo ethics training regularly.
Alabama scored a 71.2 in the State Budget Process, a number that ranked it 33rd in the country in the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation. The state got high marks for having a relatively open budgeting process while the budget is being debated. The governor’s recommended budget is posted on the Executive Budget Office website, along with information about the state’s debts and projected revenues. Budget bills being debated by the Legislature are publicly available, and information about changes to those bills is posted to the Legislative Fiscal Office’s website during the process. The budgets also are discussed in open committee meetings.
Alabama got a 66.3 score in the Lobbying Disclosure category of the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation, ranking it 20th in the country on that measure. Alabama got high scores for requiring people who are paid to lobby any branch of government, including the executive branch, to register with the Ethics Commission. Those who are classified as lobbyists must file registration forms within 10 days of beginning lobbying activities. Otherwise the state got a lot of grades in the middle of the spectrum. For instance, all lobbyists are required to file with the Ethics Commission quarterly reports declaring any money spent on public officials, employees or their families over the amounts set in law, or any other business associations they have with public officials, candidates or their families.
Alabama scored a 66 on the Civil Service Management category of the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation, ranking it 11th in the country. Alabama got high marks for having a structured Merit System with set requirements for state positions and a State Personnel Board that, among other responsibilities, can investigate allegations of inequities. The state has a whistleblower law that protects employees from retaliation after they report corruption, abuse of power or other misdeeds by supervisors. Whistleblowers who feel they have been wronged may appeal to the Personnel Board or file suit in civil court. However, the state does not require employees to report corruption, nor does it have a separate, defined office for receiving employee complaints of such a nature.
Alabama scored a 66 in the Electoral Oversight category of the State Integrity Investigation, ranking it 27th in the country on that measure. The state scored well on having an agency, the Elections Division of the Secretary of State’s Office, tasked with monitoring the state election process and for having good public access to election data. However, the Secretary of State’s Office does not have legal authority to formally investigate allegations of fraud or voting irregularities, and it has no authority to impose sanctions against violators. The office does operate a Voter Fraud Unit that solicits complaints from residents, assesses them and forwards any thought to have merit to the Attorney General’s Office, which does have authority to investigate. The office also on occasion has investigated allegations at the request of county officials or sent personnel to be at the polls on election day if concerns had been raised ahead of time.
Alabama was scored 65.4 in the Procurement category, ranking it 35th in the country in the State Integrity Investigation. Alabama got high marks for having a competitive bid law, which requires most contracts involving $15,000 or more be awarded through a competitive bid process. This includes contracts for labor, services, work, or purchase or lease of materials, equipment supplies or other personal property. But there are exceptions, including professional services contracts and contracts issued in cases of emergency involving public health, safety or convenience. The public can get information about contracts awarded in the past 60 days on the Purchasing Division website.
Alabama scored a 61.8 on the Judicial Accountability category in the State Integrity Investigation, but that was enough to rank it 12th-best among states across the country. The state’s low overall score is based in large part on the state having elected judges, an issue of frequent debate in Alabama. The only professional standard candidates must meet is being a lawyer, and there is no group legally charged with evaluating the qualifications of candidates or the performance of judges. Additionally, Alabama does not have a law requiring judges to explain their decisions in writing. Judges usually do give reasons for their decisions, especially for on bigger issues and especially appellate court justice.
Alabama scored 41.5 in the Political Financing category on the State Integrity Investigation, ranking it 42nd among states. The biggest reason for Alabama’s dismal showing in this category is that the state does not cap political contributions to political candidates from any source. The state had capped contributions from corporations, but it lifted that cap beginning in 2013. The only significant restriction the state places on political financing is a ban on PAC-to-PAC transfers, which when approved in 2010 ended what had become an extensive shell game of moving money through multiple PACs so the source was obscured by the time it reached the candidate. People and corporations can – and do – still deflect attention from their donations by giving to multiple PACs, however.
Alabama chalked up its lowest score in the State Integrity Investigation in the category Access to Public Information. The state scored a 40.6 in that category, ranking it 33th in the country. The state’s low score in this category is almost entirely because it has no central office or defined mechanism for people to complain if they are denied access to public records or meetings, other than filing suit in court. Alabama does have laws that give the public access to most government records and meetings. The state’s open records law defines public records broadly as any written materials made or received by a public officer as part of the transaction of public business, and it applies to any subdivision of government, including cities, counties and boards.