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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Controversial grocery bill up again Wednesday

The first bill the Alabama House of Representatives will consider when it convenes at 4 p.m. Wednesday is the bill that has led to an almost complete shut down of that chamber for the last week.
The House, which did not have enough votes a week ago to bring up the bill, will take up the proposal that would remove the state's 4-cent sales tax from groceries. They propose replacing the revenue by not allowing Alabamians above a certain income level to deduct the federal income tax they pay from their state income tax.
Republicans successfully kept the bill from coming up last week and members of the black caucus have since shut the House down, allowing only a couple of bills to pass.
The members of the black caucus relented temporarily on Tuesday as the sponsor of the grocery tax bill, Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, said he was negotiating to try to resolve the differences.
Unless major changes are made, many lawmakers do not expect there to be enough votes to pass the legislation out of the House, which could lead to even more dissension in the chamber.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

Home buyers bill goes to Riley

The Alabama Legislature passed a bill that supporters believe will help people purchase homes, get home builders back to work and entice lenders to invest in Alabama.
The House of Representatives passed the bill 101-0 on Tuesday to create the Alabama Homeowners Initiative Act, which takes $6 million from the Alabama Capital Improvement Trust Fund to begin a fund that would help guarantee loans.
Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, said he expects the program to stimulate the economy and create jobs.
"It may be one of the best bills I have supported and sponsored in my 27 years in the Legislature," he said.
The Senate previously passed the bill so the proposal now goes to Gov. Bob Riley for consideration.
Barron called the passage of the bill wonderful and called on the governor to sign it soon. He said the program begins as soon as Riley signs it. Barron said he talked with Riley as late as Tuesday morning about the bill.
Todd Stacy, press secretary for Riley, told the Montgomery Advertiser that staff would review the final version of the bill before determining if Riley will sign it.
Some House members expressed concerns about whether the program would set up loans to unqualified applicants, which they said helped lead to the current economic crisis.
Barron said those concerns were justified because there were a lot of "quickie loan processors" who were unscrupulous, leading to the crash in the housing market.
The Alabama Housing Finance Authority would administer the program. Barron said the authority has administered more than 54,000 loans with a foreclosure rate of .08 percent. With that record and with the required qualifications for lenders, Barron said he feels "very comfortable" that the authority will protect taxpayers and home buyers.
"This plan will help qualified buyers," said House sponsor Rep. Marc Keahey, D-Grove Hill, who told his colleagues that the bill requires the purchaser to have a credit score of at least 620. The bill also requires the participants to complete a home-buying counseling course before the purchase and the buyer's debt ratio cannot exceed 50 percent of his gross monthly income.
Barron said the program could help 7,000 new home buyers in the next year and could ensure $1 billion in housing. The interest rates would be lower in the program and would bring mortgage money to Alabama, he said.
Barron and other supporters have called the bill a "win-win." Supporters include the Home Builders Association of Alabama.
Russell Davis, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Alabama, has said he is eager for home builders to get working again. The bill, he said, would create jobs and boost consumer confidence.
Since the borrower income cannot exceed $98,230, Barron said the program is targeted at those in the middle-class income range and below. The program would take 1 percent from the sell of the house and put that back into the fund to help guarantee up to 40 percent of mortgages that are foreclosed on.
With that guarantee fund, Barron believes more lenders would begin investing in Alabama.
He said the fund would save the homeowner money because there would not be a down payment and because they would not have to purchase mortgage insurance. So, he said, the upfront cost of the house would be less.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

An the Beat Goes On...

State Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, asked his fellow Black Caucus members to allow the proposed calendar for the day to go forward so that the House could transact business, but Black Caucus members aren't inclined to oblige.

Many members of the caucus are angry that a bill to remove the state sales tax from groceries has not been brought back to try for another vote. The bill failed on a procedural vote last Tuesday and the Black Caucus has been slowing things down since that vote. Some are even questioning whether the Republican Caucus is serious about coming up with a compromise on the tax bill that can be voted on and out of the House.

Today's adventure in filibustering has gone on for more than an hour today. The Alabama Legislature is working a three-day week, and they'll be in session today, Wednesday and Thursday.

-- posted by Markeshia Ricks

Should cities and counties be allowed to remove their portion of the sales tax on groceries?

Both sides spoke on a bill on Tuesday that would allow cities and counties to remove their portion of the sales tax on groceries and determine which items are considered food.
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee held a public hearing on a bill that would allow cities and counties to remove their portion of the sales tax on groceries, but did not vote. The public hearing was at the end of the committee meeting and only two senators, Democrats Larry Means of Attalla and Bobby Denton of Muscle Shoals were present at the end of the meeting.
Several people expressed concerns about allowing the different entities to determine which items are food.
Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, spoke against the bill. He said everyone uses the same definition of food and, according to the bill, an item such as cookies could be exempt in one community and not in another. He also said the counties would not have a way to replace the revenue.
Keith Seagle, a city commissioner in Dothan, and the sponsor, Republican Sen. Arthur Orr of Decatur, said they supported the communities being allowed to decide if they wanted to remove the tax.
Seagle said cities do not have the money for grants to help families, but he said officials "can set local taxes in accordance with local needs."
"Everyone realizes taxing food is wrong and something needs to be done about it," he said.
Seagle said the change would allow cities and counties to decide the fate of taxes in the community without going to the Legislature.
Susan Kennedy, speaking for the Alabama Education Association, said many communities use sales tax for teachers and to repay bonds that help to fund building projects.
Orr said people talked about lost revenue, but his bill gives local government the option.
The senator said that several years ago the City Council in Decatur voted to raise the sales tax by 1 cent, but to exempt groceries. Orr said the city attorney eventually discovered that the city could not exempt groceries.
Senators on the committee did not ask any questions about the bill.
Removing the sales tax from groceries has been a controversial topic during the last two legislative sessions with Democrats pushing for the removal. Republicans have said they do not oppose removing the sales tax, but are opposed to replacing the revenue by burdening the wealthier Alabamians they represent. The Democratic proposal would replace the revenue by not allowing people above a certain income level to claim the federal income taxes they pay on their state income taxes.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

Committee passes bill giving entities five days to produce public records

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee passed a bill 9-0 that would give a government entity in the state five days to provide copies of public records requested from the public or the media. The bill now goes on to the full Senate for consideration.
The sponsor, Sen. Larry Dixon, R-Montgomery, said he reached a compromise with the Alabama Press Association, the Association of County Commissions of Alabama and other entities that would increase that window to 15 days. The committee passed the bill with a five-day window, but Dixon plans to substitute the bill on the Senate floor.
The senator said he arbitrarily chose five days. People have a right to those documents in a reasonable time, he said, but the agency needs time to assemble the request.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen
Monday, March 30, 2009

Riley appeals White Hall gaming decision

As expected, Gov. Bob Riley asked the Alabama Supreme Court on Monday to overturn a judge's ruling in the recent raid on a gaming center in White Hall because of the judge's work for an Indian casino, according to a release from Riley's office.
The judge appointed to oversee the case, former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Mark Kennedy, ruled on Saturday that the White Hall Resort and Entertainment Center could reopen without the threat of the governor's task force on illegal gambling raiding the site again.
David Barber, commander of the task force, and other law enforcement recently led a raid on the center, taking more than 100 machines and $560,000 in cash. Kennedy also ordered the property to be returned.
Riley had asked Kennedy to recuse himself because of his work as project manager for the Wind Creek Casino in Atmore. The governor's office believes the case could affect the legality of machines operated at Indian casinos in the state.
“The judge has an obvious conflict of interest,” said Jeff Emerson, communications director for Riley. “He has a business relationship with a casino and should never have of issued any kind of ruling in this gambling case. We have asked the Supreme Court to recognize that and we’re confident they will.”
The petition filed by Riley's office asks for the Supreme Court to throw out Kennedy's' preliminary injunction because Kennedy did not recuse himself and did not fully disclose any connections to gambling interests.
The action is the latest in an intensifying fight over gambling in Alabama.
Riley created the task force aimed at taking a test case to the Alabama Supreme Court in hopes of a ruling that many of the machines in Alabama would be ruled illegal slot machines.
Barber and Riley believe the machines in White Hall are slot machines.
State lawmakers are currently considering a bill that would make electronic bingo legal at specific points of destination in the state. The bill would also tax and regulate gambling.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

Bingo bill up again in Senate committee

The Tourism and Marketing Committee of the Alabama Senate will meet at 9 a.m. Wednesday in the State House and members are expected to vote on a bill that would allow electronic bingo at points of destination in the state, tax it and set up a commission to regulate it.
The committee was scheduled to vote on the bill a week earlier, but Democratic senators including the sponsor, Quinton Ross of Montgomery, said work continued on the bill. Ross said there are currently nine "points of destination" in the bill which dictates which cities and counties can have an establishment, but the senator said people want more.
The bill, like most gambling issues in Alabama, has been controversial. Many conservatives are speaking out against the legislation, stating it would expand gambling in the state. They also said there is a social cost.
Proponents, with help from country music stars, have said the bill would stop the expansion of gambling and would bring about $200 million in revenue into the state to fund education and health care.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

See the full story

The Associated Press and local television have picked up the Montgomery Advertiser's Sunday story on contracts requested by the Riley administration that concern some Democrats.

You can see the full story at:

Lawmakers question governor's contracts

Several Democratic lawmakers have concerns about contracts, submitted to them by departments that answer to Gov. Bob Riley, that include another $400,000 for his former finance director, $110,000 for a former appointee who lost in the November election and $250,000 for lawyers to help the governor's task force on gambling.
Thursday, March 26, 2009

Legislators adjourn after filibusters

Legislation got caught up in filibusters in the Alabama House and Senate on Thursday, with both of those chambers shutting down and adjourning after very little progress.
Members of the black caucus shut down the House because they are upset that they were unable to bring up a bill earlier in the week that would remove the state's 4-cent sales tax from groceries. Republicans voted against bringing up the bill on Tuesday, stating it would be a tax increase on the people they represent because the state would replace the revenue by not allowing people to claim their federal income tax on their state income tax.
State Sen. Phil Poole, D-Tuscaloosa, again shut down the Senate. Poole has shut down the chamber on the several occasions for various reasons. He said the Democratic leadership has misled him and has become involved in local issues in Tuscaloosa County. Poole has also vowed to kill Republican bills since Gov. Bob Riley vetoed money intended for a highway project in his district at the end of the 2007 session.
Both chambers left without passing a statewide bill.
House Speaker Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, said he had hoped House members would be able to move past the sales tax issue.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

Black caucus shutting down Alabama House

Members of the black caucus in the Alabama House of Representatives are shutting down the chamber today over frustration that they did not have the votes earlier in the week to bring up a bill that would allow people to decide if they want to remove the state's 4-percent sales tax from groceries. The revenue would be replaced by not allowing wealthier Alabamians to deduct the federal income tax they pay from their state income tax.
Several members of the caucus are speaking against the failure to bring the bill up on Tuesday. They have said the bill is one of their highest priorities.
Republicans have said the bill would be a tax increase on their constituents.
The sponsor, state Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, said people are spreading misinformation.
He said poor farmers were told their taxes would go up and lined the halls of the State House. Knight said baby chickens are exempt from taxes, but baby food is not.
Many members expect the shut down to keep the House from moving forward with other legislation.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen
Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hawkins decides against running for governor

Troy University Chancellor Jack Hawkins said Wednesday that he was intrigued by the idea of running for governor, but instead of pursuing the state’s top office has decided to continue his work at the school.

People had talked for months about the possibility of Hawkins entering the 2010 race for governor as a Republican. The chancellor said he received encouragement from many people to run, but after consulting with his family and those who have run for political office, including Gov. Bob Riley, he decided not to enter the race.

Several of the officials in attendance at his announcement at Troy’s Montgomery campus, including a current legislator and a former state senator, said the day was bittersweet.

Former state Sen. Gerald Dial, who is now executive director of the governor’s Rural Alabama Action Commission, and state Rep. Alan Boothe, D-Troy, said they are happy to see Hawkins stay at the university, but that they believe he would have been a good governor.

Hawkins, who has served as the chancellor since 1989, encouraged the next governor to follow Riley’s plans for education, economic development and ethics.

He did say the decision not to run was "difficult" and that he, late last year, was leaning toward running. Hawkins said he contemplated running for more than a year.

"However, I decided I am far more passionate about Troy University than I am about being a candidate for political office," he said.

Hawkins said he had received "considerable encouragement" to run. He said he never said he wanted to run for governor or any elected office, but said the thought was intriguing and he is interested in good government.

A poll conducted earlier this year by the pollster for U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, who has announced he is running for governor, showed Hawkins with a five-percentage point advantage over Davis. Two-year college system Chancellor Bradley Byrne trailed Davis in a head-to-head contest while state Treasurer Kay Ivey was tied with the congressman, according to the Anzalone-Liszt Research Inc.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Attempt to Remove Grocery Tax Fails

A bill that would take the 4 percent state sales tax off groceries failed to get enough votes to get beyond the budget isolation resolution and move on to a full vote for passage.

State Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, once again sponsored the bill. He thanked those who voted for the bill, but chastised those who couldn't. He said he didn't have much to say, but he would be back.

-- posted by Markeshia Ricks

Fury from Lowndes County

State Rep. James Thomas, D-Selma, let it be known on the House floor that he resented "to hell" the governor's gambling task force raid last week on a gaming hall in his district.

Last week the task force confiscated electronic nearly 200 bingo machines and more than $500,000 from a White Hall gaming hall.

Thomas said there is a legal disagreement between the state attorney general and the governor on the issue of electronic bingo, that can not be resolved by the governor going into businesses with guns.

He said he plans to get the U.S. Attorney General involved in the matter.

-- posted by Markeshia Ricks

Isn't It Ironic?

Did anyone find it interesting, dare I say ironic, that the three people selected to serve on a committee to act as a liaison between the Prepaid Alabama College Tuition program board and the state Legislature are all names being floated or have formally announced intentions to run for governor in 2010?

One of the measures that the board took today to help save the PACT program was to ask the state Legislature for money to ensure that it can meet it's obligation to children and parents already enrolled. State Treasurer Kay Ivey, Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. and Chancellor Bradley Byrne will serve on a committee that will work with the legislature.

-- posted by Markeshia Ricks
Monday, March 23, 2009

2010: Ron Sparks for..?

After state Ag and Industries Commissioner Ron Sparks abruptly called off plans earlier this month to announce what statewide position he was running for news hounds and political junkies have been on the edge of their seats.

It's common knowledge that Sparks' has his eye on either the governor's office or the lieutenant governor's office. Since I had a chance to talk with him today on an unrelated story that I'm working for this weekends paper I couldn't help but sneak in a question at the end of the interview.

Sparks said he might make an announcement soon, possibly this week. We'll be waiting.

-- Markeshia Ricks
The Legislature will return to Montgomery on Tuesday after a week off for spring break. The first order of business for the House of Representatives will be a controversial one that will likely have a close vote. House members will debate a bill that would remove the states sales tax off of groceries by replacing the revenue with a measure that would not allow Alabamians to deduct the federal income taxes they pay from their state income tax.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen