Category: BirminghamWatch

Gas Tax Is a Top Priority in 2019 Legislative Session

A gasoline tax increase to fund road improvements is expected to be a major topic of the 2019 Alabama legislative session.

“I’ve heard the governor say that’s her No. 1 priority,” Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said recently. “That means it will be a priority for the Legislature.”

Gov. Kay Ivey hasn’t yet announced all of her legislative goals for the session that begins March 5, but prison reform and funding, General Fund demands and education initiatives are expected to have lawmakers’ attention during the 15-week session. A proposal for a statewide lottery also will return in 2019.

Proponents aren’t referring to it as a gas tax, but a road infrastructure improvement plan.

“We’ve not done anything related to infrastructure in 26 years,” Reed said about the last statewide gas tax increase. “We’ve got bridges and highways that are in disrepair across our state.”
Read more.

Reading Birmingham: True Believer Tells Christmas Stories of Joy and Peace and Lots of Presents

“Christmas in Birmingham” by Tim Hollis (History Press, 2015)

I was six or seven years old. After visiting my grandparents’ house on Pearson Avenue one December afternoon in the late 1960s, I persuaded my parents to stop by McDonald’s so I could talk to Santa Claus. Our usual Santa was at Eastwood Mall, but the McDonald’s Santa was giving away Ronald McDonald hand puppets. And I wanted one. Read more.

The Best of BirminghamWatch in 2018

Air pollution in low-income areas, the economic rebirth of the western area, the last white Democrats in the state’s Legislature, these are just some of the stories BirminghamWatch developed this year. Here’s a sampling of BirminghamWatch’s best work in 2018. Read more.

County’s Major Air Polluters Concentrated in Low-Income, Minority Neighborhoods

Seventy-one percent of Jefferson County’s 31 major sources of pollution – those emitting enough pollution to require a permit under Title V of the Clean Air Act – are located in low-income areas, a BirminghamWatch analysis found.

U.S. Attorneys: Leading the Justice Department on the Ground in Alabama

BirminghamWatch interviewed the three U.S. Attorneys appointed by Trump, who all said violent
crime would be a priority during their tenures.

Trump’s Budget Wish List: What It Could Mean for Alabama

BirminghamWatch took a look this year at a number of the programs on President Trump’s chopping block and asked, “What If.”

Written in Black and White: In Alabama’s Statehouse, the Parties Are Split Almost Entirely by Race

When newly elected Neil Rafferty takes his place in the Alabama House of Representatives next year, he will be the only white Democrat in the 105-seat chamber With one other white Democrat in the Senate, the Alabama Legislature’s two parties are almost entirely divided by race. An all-white GOP has a supermajority

Guarded: Alabama Correctional Officers Work Long Hours in Dangerous Conditions for Low Pay – and There Aren’t Nearly Enough of Them

Update: The debate about making prisons better – and safer – has been simmering for years. But because of more violence in the prisons, look for the Legislature in 2019 to consider multiple bills aimed at the prisons, including one to significantly increase the number of correctional officers. A recent report showed that south Alabama’s Holman Correctional Facility was functioning with only 40 percent staffing. The governor also reportedly is considering moves to pay private companies to develop prison space and lease it to the state. Also on the table for prisons, a federal judge is considering whether Alabama prisons should be held in contempt for continued shortages in mental health staff.

The Tyranny of Sales Tax: Alabama Cities Rely on It. Walmart is the Sought-After Retailer. But E-Commerce Threatens.

In Alabama, the big catch for the state’s economic development prospectors is a manufacturing plant and its hundreds, maybe thousands, of high-paying jobs. But individual cities go to great lengths to get big-box retailers to set up shop in their city limits, deploying consultants and dangling incentives. They’re following the money. Because of the state’s tax laws, the largest single source of municipal tax revenues is sales tax.

Coal Ash Ponds Leach Toxins into Alabama Groundwater, Waterways, Analysis Finds. ADEM Fines Power Companies, but Route to Remedy Uncertain.

Significant levels of toxic materials are leaching into the state’s groundwater and waterways from the millions of cubic yards of coal ash stored in massive, unlined storage ponds adjacent to six electrical power generating plants, including plants in Shelby, Jefferson and Walker counties.

In Soap-Making and Landscaping, ‘Creative’ Entrepreneurs Get Help Building Business Skills from Co.Starters

A designer, a scuba diver, an art curator, a furniture maker. They all share something in common – seeking and receiving help with the business side of their creative work from the Co.Starters program of Create Birmingham.

Ready, Set, Action: Birmingham’s Become a Film-Making Destination That Brings Jobs, Millions of Dollars to Economy

The Magic City is not quite Hollywood, yet. But Birmingham’s economy is getting a show business-sized boost with millions of film dollars flowing into the local economy. The city’s Red Mountain substituted for the Hollywood Hills, wearing the famous HOLLYWOOD sign in “Bigger,” one of dozens of films made in metro Birmingham in recent years.

All’s Not Quiet at Birmingham Public Library: Board Surveys Employees after Criticism of Director

Update: The Birmingham Public Library Board has set out a “corrective action plan” for library Executive Director Floyd Council.
A survey asking the Birmingham Public Library’s 285 employees about staff morale was conducted in the spring amid growing concerns over employee dissatisfaction and public criticism of the library’s new executive director. One staff member said discontent is high and morale low among many library employees because of what some employees called Council’s belittling comments, lack of appropriate communication, disrespect, micromanagement and a growing “environment of suspicion” at the library.

Amazon’s a Big Deal, but West Jefferson’s Economic Rebirth is Bigger and Broader

The television cameras were in action and the local politicians were all smiling at the recent announcement of a huge new distribution center in Bessemer for Amazon, the online retail behemoth. It’s a project that will bring an estimated 1,500 jobs, and it makes for a great picture of a down-on-its-heels part of Alabama that is remaking itself for the digital age. But in fact, the Bessemer Cut-Off area — the traditional name for the separate division of Jefferson County that has its own courthouse and other separate government functions — has been in transformation from steelmaking, mining and heavy manufacturing for the past decade or so.

As Alabama’s Unemployment Rate Decreases, Medicaid Enrollment Does Not

Alabama’s unemployment rate hit record lows in the past year, falling below 4 percent, but the number of people enrolled in Medicaid hasn’t decreased. Medicaid, the health care provider for the state’s poor and disabled, has higher enrollment now than when the unemployment rate hit nearly 12 percent in 2009. While more people are working, not all of them are in jobs that pay enough to get their families off Medicaid, advocates say.

Amid Immigration Controversy, More Hispanic Students Arrive in Alabama Classrooms

Lipscomb Elementary School, tucked away on a quiet neighborhood street, does not draw a lot of attention to itself. Its enrollment numbers, however, show a dramatic story of Alabama’s growing Hispanic population.

Reading Birmingham: For Halloween, Birmingham Murder Story That’s ‘Grisly,’ ‘Hard-Boiled’

In his book “The Infamous Birmingham Axe Murders,” journalist Jeremy Gray has a hell of a story to tell. From 1919 to 1924, as many as 18 people were killed and 16 injured in a series of brutal attacks. A number of the victims were Italian grocers killed when their stores were robbed.

The killings were not the work of a single killer or group of killers, and not all the victims were attacked with axes (one victim was beaten to death with a shovel, another with a metal pipe) but the spree of murders panicked Birmingham and stirred the nasty specters of race, class and religious bigotry.

The police and the newspapers focused on African-American suspects and, because several of the victims were Italian, the Mafia. The Birmingham Age-Herald offered readers a completely made up serial killer, publishing a racist cartoon of an axe-wielding black man dubbed “Henry the Hacker.” With the approval of the police, the Ku Klux Klan paraded through African-American neighborhoods at night hoping to intimidate potential black criminals. Read more.

AIIJ/BirminghamWatch Selected For NewsMatch 2018, National Campaign to Encourage Donations for Journalism

More than 150 nonprofit newsrooms across the country, including Alabama Initiative for Independent Journalism in Birmingham, will participate in this year’s NewsMatch, the largest grassroots fundraising campaign to support nonprofit news organizations. The national effort will launch Nov. 1.

In 2017 NewsMatch helped to raise more than $4.8 million from individual donors and a coalition of private funders.

Sue Cross, executive director and CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit News, which serves as one of NewsMatch’s nonprofit partners, said, “We are encouraged to see such strong growth in community support of news … NewsMatch makes it easy for communities and individuals to find and fund their local sources of trusted news.” Read more.

Reading Birmingham: Put Aside the Politics. This is First and Foremost a Story of People who Love Music.

About 10 years ago, while visiting rural England, I met a genuine Southernphile (and yes, that is a word I just made up). When a young hotel clerk learned I was from Alabama, he engaged me in a long and animated conversation about his love for Southern pop culture.

While his sources were dubious (his favorite movie was Smokey and the Bandit and his favorite television show was The Dukes of Hazzard), his fascination was sincere. What he loved most of all was the band Lynyrd Skynyrd. “I don’t care about the politics,” he said. “They just sound so bloody good.”

Historian Andre Millard found a similar lack of interest in politics, especially the politics of race, among many of the musicians interviewed for his book Magic City Nights. Read more.

Reading Birmingham: In Birmingham 1931, a Man Went Out for Cornbread, Died in Prison

Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham by Melanie S. Morrison (Duke University Press, 2018)

By James L. Baggett

UPDATED: Victim’s daughter challenges book’s view.

Willie Peterson just wanted to pick up some cornbread for supper. On a hot September afternoon in 1931, Peterson boarded a streetcar near his home in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Birmingham and rode to Southside.

After visiting his mother-in-law, Peterson walked up Avenue G (now Seventh Avenue South) toward Beamon’s Café. A slightly built African-American man, Peterson suffered from tuberculous and followed his wife’s instructions not to overexert himself. Before Peterson reached the café, three white people in a car — a man and woman in their 20s and an older woman — stopped and began to question him. As the young man held Peterson at gun point, the young woman said, “Yes, it’s him. I know it’s him.”

When three police officers arrived, they beat and handcuffed Peterson and drove him to jail.

“You’ve got the wrong Negro,” Peterson told the officers. Willie Peterson lived in a time when being the “wrong Negro,” or just any black man in the wrong place at the wrong time, could be deadly.

In this new book, Melanie S. Morrison, a United Church of Christ minister and self-described social justice educator, researches and retells a story she heard as a child in Michigan from her Birmingham-born father. Read more.

Reading Birmingham: An Introduction
Today, BirminghamWatch begins a new feature spotlighting books about Birmingham and Alabama. Read more.