Category: Government

GOP: Without New Money to Fund It, Medicaid Expansion Unlikely

MONTGOMERY — Alabama Democrats hope their support of Gov. Kay Ivey’s gas tax increase got them further on possible Medicaid expansion, but legislative leaders last week said expansion can’t happen without new money.

“There is no plan to feasibly make it work,” Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, said Friday. He’s chairman of the Senate General Fund committee.

Ivey met with many Democrats in the past two weeks as she drummed up support for the 10-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase that takes effect this fall. Democrats used those conversations to again push expansion, as they’ve done since 2012. This year, the calls for expansion seem louder, in part driven by the Alabama Hospital Association. Alabama is one of 14 states that hasn’t expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Thirteen Alabama hospitals, including seven rural ones, have closed since 2011. Another closure was announced last month. Read more.

175 Down; 3,701 to Go. Jefferson County Starts Chipping Away at Rape Kit Testing Backlog

With the help of a federal grant program, the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office has begun to chip away at the county’s massive backlog of untested sexual assault kits.

About 175 of the county’s more than 3,800 untested kits have been tested as of this month, with officials prioritizing cases that may lead to the capture of serial offenders. They also are taking steps to make sure that such a backlog never happens again, even once the federal grant runs out.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance awarded the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office with a $1.5 million Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grant. The grant would pay for an inventory to be taken of the county’s backlog, as well as to establish a database of the kits and to “develop a common language and protocol for addressing sexual assault countywide,” said Danny Carr, who was then serving as the county’s district attorney pro tem.

The inventory was finished in September 2017 and found that, out of a total of 4,999 kits in Jefferson County, 3,876 had not been submitted for testing — close to 78 percent. Now, law enforcement officials face the challenge of whittling down that backlog without neglecting new cases — and of changing the mindset that led to the backlog in the first place. Read more.

Councilor Smitherman Carries the Next Generation of the Family Name Into Politics

At 25 years old, Crystal Smitherman might be the youngest member of the Birmingham City Council, but she arguably started the job with the most name recognition. Her father, Rodger Smitherman, has been a member of the Alabama State Senate since 1995; and her mother, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Carole Smitherman, served on the City Council from 2001 to 2013, was council president from 2005 to 2009 and briefly served as acting mayor of Birmingham in 2009 after Larry Langford’s fraud conviction.

Crystal Smitherman was appointed to take over her mother’s old District 6 seat in January, after Sheila Tyson, who held it from 2013 to 2018, was elected to the Jefferson County Commission. Despite still being enrolled in the University of Alabama’s School of Law, Smitherman was considered a noncontroversial appointment by councilors, who voted for her unanimously. She graduates from law school in May.

“No one doubts that you have the capabilities to do this job,” said Council President Valerie Abbott after Smitherman was sworn into office in January.

Since taking office, Smitherman has worked with Council President Pro Tem William Parker to launch a “Let’s Keep Legion Field Green” recycling initiative — a project not without its challenges, she says — and has been appointed as head of the council’s public improvements committee.

Smitherman spoke with BirminghamWatch last week about how growing up in a political family prepared her to be councilor, the shape of ongoing efforts to bring an MLB Youth Academy to Birmingham and what she hopes to make priorities during her time on the council. Read more.

Governor Signs Gas Tax Into Law

The Alabama Senate passed the 10-cent a gallon gas Tax on Tuesday and Gov. Kay Ivey signed it into law the same day.

The new law will gradually raise the state’s tax on gasoline and diesel fuel by 10 cents a gallon over three years. The tax will go up by 6 cents this year, 2 cents in 2020 and 2 cents in 2021. Future increases of a penny are possible every other year after that, depending on inflation. Read more.

Doug Jones Recounts Church Bombing Prosecution in New Book

WBHM

The Klansmen who bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, killing four black girls, did not face justice for years. In 1977, then-Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley won a conviction against Robert Chambliss for his role in the attack. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that two others were tried and convicted. Senator Doug Jones led those later prosecutions and writes about it in his memoir “Bending Toward Justice: The Birmingham Church Bombing that Changed the Course of Cvil Rights.” Read more.

Sunshine Week: Open the Windows and Light up the Workings of Government

This week, reporters across the country are observing Sunshine Week, an event designed to highlight the importance of government transparency and to increase public understanding of freedom of information resources.

Sunshine Week was started by the American Society of News Editors in 2005 and is now co-sponsored by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. In addition to a series of public forums happening across the country — none are scheduled for Birmingham — Sunshine Week will include a series of online webinars focusing on how to navigate transparency laws on federal, state and local levels. See what resources are available to help you learn about state, Birmingham and Jefferson County operations when you read more.

Gas Tax Plan Could Get Final Approval Tuesday

MONTGOMERY — Gov. Kay Ivey’s gas tax and infrastructure proposal could get to her desk Tuesday if it clears the Alabama Senate. Senate leadership said there is a growing comfort level with the bill in the 35-member chamber. The bill would gradually raise the state’s tax on gasoline and diesel fuel by 10 cents a gallon over three years, with possible penny increases every other year after that, depending on inflation. Read more.

Alabama Says its $900 Million Prisons Plan Can Help Fix Mental Health Crisis. Some Disagree.

Kilby Correctional Facility, just outside of Montgomery, looks like a group of warehouse-style buildings surrounded by a tall barbed wire fence. Inside, inmates have just finished lunch. The hallways are loud and sounds echo off the walls. Warden Leon Bolling leads the way to the mental health crisis area. He says this area is for prisoners at risk of suicide.

“Everything is supposed to try to be free from person being able to do something to harm themselves,” Bolling says.

Inmates in these mental health crisis units often stay in their cells alone all day. They are constantly monitored by staff, according to prison officials. But some say that’s not enough.

Suicide is a problem in Alabama’s prisons. In the past 15 months, 14 inmates have died by suicide. Advocacy groups say that amounts to one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. In 2017, a federal judge said mental health care in state prisons was “horrendously inadequate.” The Department of Corrections is under court order to hire more staff and improve treatment. But this is a challenge, according to Jeff Dunn, commissioner of the DOC. Read more.