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Monday, February 28, 2011

Bentley declares proration

The day before his first State of the State address, Gov. Robert Bentley declared proration in the state's education budget effective immediately and announced plans to declare double-digit proration in the General Fund budget.
Bentley, on Monday afternoon, declared 3 percent proration in the education budget for the current fiscal year, which lasts until Sept. 30.
The governor announced plans to declare 15 percent proration in the General Fund after working with legislators on supplemental appropriations to protect agencies that are deemed a priority and provide necessary and critical services.
The General Fund provides money for most non-education functions of state government including Medicaid, prisons, and public safety.
"Both our Education Trust Fund and our state's General Fund budgets are based on unreliable revenue projections," Bentley said. "Now, five months into the 2011 fiscal year, it is clear that there is not enough revenue to sustain either budget. Proration is necessary to balance the budgets."
Bentley and most other officials had hoped to avoid proration in the education budget, but were certain proration would be necessary in the General Fund. Bentley and Finance Director David Perry now project that there will not be enough income to meet budgeted spending levels.
Without federal stimulus money, which helped prop up state budgets in recent years, Alabama has to fill several hundred million-dollar holes in both budgets.
The current Education Trust Fund budget has a $165 million shortfall while the current General Fund budget has a $110 million shortfall, according to Bentley's office.
"The taxpayers expect us to live within our means just as families and businesses are forced to do," Perry said. "No one is pleased that we have a revenue shortfall which requires proration in the budgets that were passed last year, but mid-year cuts are necessary for Alabama to meet its constitutional obligation for a balanced budget."

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Bentley to Deliver First State of the State Tuesday

Gov. Robert Bentley will deliver his first State of the State Address to the Alabama Legislature on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. The Alabama Legislature begins its 2011 regular session on the same day.

-- Markeshia Ricks

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Orr to Sponsor Amendment to Remove Racist Language from State Constitution

Racist language in the 1901 Alabama Constitution might be a thing of the past. But the constitution would likely keep its status as one of the most amended constitutions in the world.

State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, announced Thursday that he will sponsor a bill in the upcoming 2011 regular legislative session to remove racist and offensive language from the 1901 Alabama Constitution, according to a press release.

The regular session starts March 1.
If passed by the Legislature, the measure would have to be ratified into law by voters during a referendum election. If the voters approve the amendment it would be one of a long list of hundreds of amendments that have been added to the document over its more than 100 years of existence.

“The racist language that continues to exist in our current state constitution damages our reputation, can be used against us by competing states when recruiting economic development projects, and, quite frankly, needs to go,” Orr said in the press release. “To this day, many of those outside the state continue to define Alabama with misconceptions based upon our past, and I hope that removing this language from our governing document will help all of us begin to focus eyes on the modern Alabama of today and the vibrant future that awaits us.”

As an example of the provisions Orr's bill would remove, he cited Section 256 of the 1901 Constitution, which states:

“Separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of another race.”

Orr also points to constitutional references to Alabama’s “poll tax,” which was used to disenfranchise African-Americans before the passage of the 1965 Federal Voting Rights Act and another example of what his amendment would remove from the constitution.

Organizations such as Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform have advocated for a complete do-over by constitutional convention to draft a new document for at least a decade, but have had little success in getting enough members of the Alabama Legislature to support it.

Orr said in the press release he understands that only a total constitutional rewrite would completely remove the language. But he went on to say that he believes there is little public support for such movement, and he has deep personal reservations about overhauling the entire manuscript.

"Needed constitutional protections, such as prohibitions on raising most taxes without a vote of the people and strict anti-gambling provisions, could be lost if a rewrite convention was convened," said the two-term lawmaker.

He said an amendment is the best avenue to address the needed corrections.

“Critics of this amendment will say that federal court rulings and other measures have rendered this racist language moot, but if that is the case, what is the harm in taking a proactive step and letting the nation know that the Alabama of 2011 refutes these beliefs,” Orr said. “Because job creation is our top priority, it is time to let everyone across the country know that the racist stereotype of Alabama is gone for good, and we are open for business and development.”

-- Markeshia Ricks

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bryne is Back

Former two-year college chancellor and Republican candidate for governor, Bradley Byrne, is making a return to the hill Thursday.

Byrne will announce the launch of a new non-profit venture called Reform Alabama from the steps of the State House at 10 a.m.

According to a press release, Reform Alabama will be a "grassroots-driven organization dedicated to furthering positive government reforms." State budgets, schools and election laws are among the organization's priorities, according to the press release.

Byrne is expected to be joined by several yet to be named local community leaders who will serve as founding members of the Reform Alabama board of directors, according to the press release.

-- Markeshia Ricks

Party Switching Continues

The Great Party Switch of 2010 is continuing as more local Democrats across the state leave the party to pick up the standard of the Alabama Republican Party. This time it's in Calhoun County.

Apparently four former Calhoun County Democratic officials are switching parties much to the disappointment and anger of the Alabama Democratic Party. Those officials are: Calhoun County Probate Judge Alice Martin, License Commissioner Barry Robertson, Circuit Court Judge Brian Howell and County Registrar Carolyn Henderson.

The Democrats sent out a statement blasting the new Republicans for being what the party sees as "disingenuous and unfair to voters" because they were elected as Democrats and with the help of campaign contributions from Democrats.

Read the rest of the statement below:

"Judge Martin and License Commissioner Barry Robertson have long had the staunch support of Calhoun County voters and ran as Democrats in their previous elections.

"Circuit Court Judge Brian Howell won election in 2006 against a Republican opponent, and County Registrar Carolyn Henderson was appointed to the Calhoun County Board of Registrars by Democrat Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks. Her position will require her to be reappointed by his Republican successor John McMillan or another Republican official, such as the state auditor or the governor.

“It’s incredibly unfortunate that these officials, with the possible exception of one, could not be bothered to call and discuss their decisions to switch parties with me before announcing it to the press," said Calhoun County Democratic Party Chairwoman Sheila Gilbert. “I had to wonder if they were afraid I would try to talk them out of giving up their years of service as Democratic officeholders and the trust and support Calhoun County Democrats had placed in them."

The Alabama Democratic Party and the Calhoun County Democratic Party reaffirmed their commitment to finding strong candidates to run in each of these elected offices in the upcoming elections.

“We have a number of great Democrats in Calhoun County who would be well-qualified for each of these offices,” Gilbert said. “We look forward to taking on these new Republicans at the ballot box next year.”

-- Markeshia Ricks

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dial Files Bill to Allow Small Town Officers to Enforce Speed Limits

State Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, wants to make right a mistake he said he made when he supported a piece of legislation in 1996.

The legislation stripped the ability of small town police officers – from municipalities of 19,000 or less – to enforce the state's speeding laws on interstates and in police jurisdictions of any city.

Dial has pre-filed a bill that would repeal sections of the Code of Alabama that contain the prohibitions, allowing small town police officers to do what they say is part of their job. A similar bill also is being pre-filed by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster.

Dial, a former eight-term Democrat who returned to the Alabama Senate this year as a Republican, said he was convinced then by another lawmaker that small town police officers didn’t have the proper training to handle such policing. The legislation also was promoted as a way of preventing speed traps in small towns.

Dial said Tuesday that after the bill passed he learned that it was the senator's way of retaliating against small town police officers because he’d received speeding tickets in two small towns on his way home from a legislative session.

-- posted by Markeshia Ricks
Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Leaders oppose privatizing Alabama liquor

The men who oversee the sale of millions of bottles of liquor in the state of Alabama told the more than 100 agents in Montgomery on Tuesday that they oppose turning the work of the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board over to private business.
The new administrator for the ABC Board, Mac Gipson, said he supported privatization of the liquor business in Alabama before taking the helm, but says the numbers do not work in the state's favor. He said that the ABC, through taxes and the sale of liquor, contributed more than $190 million to the state's cash-strapped General Fund last year. And the sales tax goes to education in the state.
"This is one of the few agencies that puts money back into the state," Gipson said.
Assistant Administrator William Thigpen, a former Democratic state legislator from Fayette, said there are 17 states like Alabama that are "controlled." In those states, he said, there are fewer incidents of driving under the influence and there are fewer alcohol-related accidents.
Thigpen also told the ABC agents he opposed privatization. He said the current arrangement is working.
"There's so much we do for the state of Alabama," Thigpen said.
Jeff Rogers, the chief of enforcement for the ABC, said the 137 agents in the state handle issues with alcohol, ephedrine, methamphetamines, and handle investigations and background checks on those who have ABC licenses. He said there is an average of an agent per county with more in the counties with larger populations.
Gipson said the agents also bust illegal stills and work on issues related to gambling.
Gipson, a former legislator from Prattville who lost in the 2010 Republican primary and was appointed by Gov. Robert Bentley to run the ABC, said some other states, including Virginia and North Carolina, have backed away from privatization after finding out what they believe would be financial and law enforcement consequences.
Gipson said the ABC Board does not have a lot of assets except for the vehicles and stock in stores. He said the state does not own the warehouse or the liquor in it.
Alabama marks up the liquor 30 percent from its cost and adds on 56 percent in various taxes, not including the sales tax, Gipson said. That markup pays to keep the agents and their cars on the road.
He said he has not personally talked to Bentley about privatization because the administration "has a lot of fish to fry." He said he has heard rumblings from the Legislature that the new Republican majority there wants to privatize in its quest to support business and shrink government.
But Gipson said he has looked at the numbers.
"They haven't run into an animal like this before," he said.
In their khaki pants and blue polo shirts with "ABC Agent" across the back of the neck, the agents in the ABC force gathered Tuesday in the auditorium of the state Capitol, where they heard from Gipson and Thigpen, received their update on the state's new ethics laws, and were told who received awards for their performance in the last year.
Rogers awarded Agent James Carney of Birmingham as the agent of the year. He said that is based on work product, appraisals and recommendations from supervisors, firearms scores, and physical conditioning. The winner is allowed to drive a new vehicle that has a specialized license tag.
Agent Jason Ward of Brewton received an award for meritorious actions. Rogers said Ward, while working, was informed that his apartment was on fire. Even though he lost everything in the fire, Ward and a sheriff's deputy pulled a disabled senior citizen from the fire.
District 2, which is headquartered in Anniston, was awarded as the district of the year. Lt. Mike Reese and Sgt. Stan Ray supervise the district. Rogers said the district operated short two agents who were serving in the military and that Reese spends much of his time with a program for youth that has shared information about methamphetamines and alcohol with more than 200,000 students.
The state has 11 districts and a central office in Montgomery.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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Dems slam latest party switcher

Alabama Democrats are criticizing a Limestone County official who announced Monday he was switching parties.
Limestone County Circuit Court Judge Robert Baker announced Monday, less than four months after being elected as a Democrat without opposition, that he was switching parties to become a Republican.
"Judge Baker ran unopposed in last year's election and more than 14,000 Limestone County residents still turned out to cast a ballot in his favor on the Democratic party line," said Alabama Democratic Party Chairman Mark Kennedy. "Changing parties four months after your re-election reeks of political opportunism, especially when there are many qualified Democratic candidates who may have deferred to the incumbent when he qualified to run for another term in office last year."
Democrats in Limestone County "have strongly backed Judge Baker at the ballot box, and it is unfortunate that he would choose to throw away years of support from these dedicated Democratic voters just to seek short-term political gain," according to the Alabama Democratic Party.
Democrats are undeterred by Baker's "misguided" switch and vowed "full backing" of a future Democratic opponent for the judge. On Saturday, according to the Alabama Democratic Party, there was a standing room only meeting of Limestone County Democrats in Tanner.
Baker is the latest in a series of county officials who have left the Alabama Democratic Party.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Another Democrat switches parties

Another county official said Monday that he is leaving the Democratic Party to become a Republican. Limestone County Circuit Judge Robert Baker declared he was switching parties.

He becomes the 11th elected official in recent weeks to leave the Democratic Party and cross the aisle.

Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard, who is in his last week as chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, said he was excited to welcome the judge into the party.

"Judge Baker is an honorable leader in his county, and I know his decision was made with great thought and consideration," said Hubbard, R-Auburn.

Hubbard also thanked Limestone County Chairman Jim Burden "and the entire county executive committee for their assistance in organizing this change. They continue to show unwavering support for the party and we could not be more grateful for the tremendous strides they are making in that part of the state."

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Republican Hispanic group slams Beason

A national Hispanic group is asking for an apology from Alabama state Sen. Scott Beason for using violent metaphors when referring to exhausting all possibilities to stop illegal immigration.
Somos Republicans, which has been fighting what it believes are incendiary comments and actions in Arizona, slammed Beason for his comments and said other comments show he does not support the birthright citizenship granted by U.S. law.
Beason, chairman of the powerful committee that determines which bills come to the Senate floor for debate, finished remarks about finding solutions to illegal immigration by saying "empty the clip, and do what has to be done."
The group condemned Beason for using the language at a time when there is "extreme tension and occasional violence over illegal immigration" and criticized the senator for not learning from similar rhetoric by other politicians, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
"Such violent metaphors can push some unstable people 'over the edge,'" according to the release from the Somos Republicans.
Beason, R-Gardendale, told the Associated Press he did not suggest any violence toward illegal immigrants or Hispanics. He told the Birmingham News he was using an analogy.
Beason has been an outspoken advocate for immigration reform and said he would like to see Alabama pass some of the reforms passed in other states like Arizona.
The organization labeled Beason as "intellectually dishonest" for backing laws that would likely be challenged in court costing taxpayers millions to defend.
The Somos Republicans, who criticized the Arizona state senator who sponsored the controversial illegal immigration measures there, called on Beason to renounce violence and "apologize for his poor choice of words."
The Somos Republicans want to increase the "Latino Republican voting block by 100 percent within two years."

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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Bentley pushes for fast resolution on healthcare lawsuits

Gov. Robert Bentley joined 27 other Republican governors in sending a letter to President Obama asking him to direct the U.S. Department of Justice to push for an expedited appeals process for the pending lawsuits challenging the healthcare program passed by Congress. They want the decision to reach the U.S. Supreme Court as soon as possible.
As Bentley points out, federal judges in Virginia and Florida have ruled parts of the law unconstitutional in recent weeks. Other federal judges have disagreed.
"It is important for businesses and health care providers in Alabama to know whether all or part of this law will be upheld in order for them to know their legal responsibilities," Bentley said. "I join my other Republican colleagues and call on the president to take swift action and allow this process to reach the Supreme Court as quickly as possible."
The governors believe a resolution to the lawsuits would help prevent states and the private sector from undertaking potentially unnecessary measures and expenses.
Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which will be fully implemented by 2014, in March of 2010.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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Legislator asks state to review city's finances

State Rep. Paul Beckman said Thursday that he will ask the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts to audit the city of Prattville's finances.
Beckman, R-Prattville, said in a statement that he received a letter from new Prattville Mayor Bill Gillespie requesting the audit.
Gillespie became mayor when Jim Byard resigned to become an appointee of Gov. Robert Bentley. Byard is the director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.
"As the residents of District 88 know, I campaigned on a platform of openness and transparency and I am more than happy to assist Mayor Gillespie with this request," Beckman said.
The lawmaker said that his request for an audit is not an accusation that he or Gillespie believe there was any financial impropriety during the previous administration, but that they want examiners to conduct the audit to ensure that the city's accounting methods are adequate and accurate.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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Bentley appoints members to key boards

Not long after asking two key state panels to stop making policy for his administration to review them, Gov. Robert Bentley appointed members to two key health care committees.
Bentley appointed members to the Certificate of Need Review Board or CON Board and the State Health Coordinating Council or SHCC.
Bentley signed an executive order rescinding an order he signed on Jan. 18 that called for a moratorium on action from the boards.
"I have full confidence in the newly appointed members of both the CON and SHCC boards," Bentley said in a statement. "Those I appointed, or re-appointed, have a wealth of experience in their respective fields and will make the right decisions as they serve in their capacity as board members."
The members of the Certificate of Need Review Board are: Dr. Swaid N. Swaid, Dr. Herb Stone, Dr. Bob Sheppard, former state Rep. Neal Morrison, Guice Slawson Jr., General Ed Crowell, Hodges Washington, Dr. Michael Gosney and Dr. Chris Harmon.
The members of the State Health Coordinating Council are: Dr. Ruth Yates, Dr. James Walburn, Dr. Vera Soong, Ruth Harrell, Dr. Gillis Payne, Dr. McCain Ashurst, Dr. Theodis Buggs, Dr. Tommy Bender, Dr. Jeff Underwood III, Robbie Owen, Brenda Culver, William Smith, Rebecca Thrasher, Judy Merritt, John Killian, Brandon Farmer, Mary Holcomb, Rep. Jim McClendon, Sen. Greg Reed, Ross Gunnells, Mary Sue McClurkin, F.Wayne Pate, and Rep. April Weaver.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Local Delegation Selects Holmes, Wren for Leadership

Montgomery County’s legislative delegation in the House of Representatives elected its leadership for the next four years Wednesday.

State Rep. Alvin Holmes, a Democrat, will serve as the delegation’s chairman and state Rep. Greg Wren, a Republican, will serve as vice chairman. In the last quadrennium, Holmes served as chairman for the first two years and Wren served as chairman for the last two.

The Montgomery County committee is one of the few standing House Committees headed by a Democrat. The House has seven other standing House committees that mainly handle local legislation for counties in the major metropolitan areas of the state.

Republicans took majorities in both the House and the Senate for the first time in 136 years during the 2010-election cycle. Republican leadership decided to keep the same rules as their predecessors by making a Republican the head of most of the major committees. Democrats hold no major chairmanships.

Holmes, who also is the current longest serving member of the House of Representative and the Dean of the House, said that the delegation’s selection of leadership was by design a bipartisan structure. He said he also believes that the structure would best serve the needs of residents of the city and the county.

Montgomery’s House delegation is made up of four Democrats and two Republicans. In addition to Holmes and Wren, state Reps. Jay Love (R), Thad McClammy (D), Joe Hubbard (D) and John Knight (D) all represent Montgomery County. State Sens. Quinton Ross, a Democrat, and Dick Brewbaker, a Republican, also represent Montgomery County.

— Markeshia Ricks

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Prison chief requests $464 million for 2012

The head of the state prison system is asking state lawmakers for $464 million to operate the overcrowded system in 2012.
Kim Thomas, the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, outlined the obstacles for the system, including aging facilities that are well over capacity with inmates that are guaranteed health care.
Thomas said the department, which is operating with a budget of $436 million this year, will not have $39.1 million in federal funds in the 2012 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
The Legislature convenes March 1, when lawmakers begin debating the budgets for 2012.
Thomas said the department is asking for an increase of $28.2 million, which will include $17.5 million more for salaries and benefits; $4.4 million more for inmate health care; $300,000 more to lease beds from counties to house inmates; $1.4 million more for inmate food and clothing; $700,000 more for utilities; and $2.2 million for vehicle replacement.
Thomas said the department generates $45.4 million of that money itself from work release, inmate labor for counties and other state agencies, proceeds from canteens, telephone contract, oil and gas proceeds, and license plates.
Thomas, who was previously the general counsel for the department, said he has been on the job for 23 days and was looking at possible places to cut.
Most Alabama officials agree the corrections department operates on a barebones budget.
Thomas said the correctional officers are also paid less than other law enforcement officers. Department officials have pushed for years for a 10 percent pay increase for officers. Thomas said they have been fortunate with the downturn in the economy to retain employees and recruit more employees.
Sen. Arthur Orr, chairman of the Senate General Fund committee, said corrections and Medicaid are asking for more than $400 million in new funding for 2012 while the Legislative Fiscal Office is expecting a $555 million shortfall in that budget.
Orr, R-Decatur, said balancing the budget will be a "very onerous task."
Corrections and Medicaid are requesting a total of $1.1 billion while the entire General Fund this year has a budget of $1.6 billion and that is expected to be smaller in 2012 because there is no influx of money from a federal stimulus or similar plan.
Other agencies in the General Fund include public safety, public health and senior services.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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Ala. Medicaid Ask for $700M

The loss of federal stimulus dollars and the continuing increase of the number of people in Alabama who are eligible for Medicaid has doubled what the state needs just to level fund existing services.

Dr. R. Bob Mullins, new commissioner for Alabama Medicaid, told lawmakers Wednesday that his agency needs an estimated $700 million to continue offering the bare minimum of what the state’s conservative program already provides.

The money would help support the 91,000 new enrollees who have become eligible for Medicaid since fiscal 2010. It also would fill in the gap for the $270 million in federal stimulus money that the state will lose after this year, and make up for a less favorable federal matching rate that goes into effect in fiscal 2012. Lawmakers appropriated about $345 million from the state General Fund for fiscal 2011.

Mullins, who only has been on the job for a little over three weeks, clearly recognized the staggering nature of the news he was delivering to state lawmakers. Lawmakers learned Tuesday that they are facing budgets that have healthy deficits for fiscal 2012.

“Between the budget and the state merit system this job is wearing thin in a hurry,” Mullins joked. “I was thinking that I must be out of my mind to take this job. I’m beginning to wonder if I was.”

Mullins is feeling the heat because he’s asking for a significant chunk of the state’s General Fund during a year when the state is expecting a more than $131 million shortfall and even greater deficits in fiscal 2012. Those shortfalls are only compounded by the fact that when federal health care reform starts to kick in just two years, the program will have to absorb more people.

But that didn’t stop Mullins from impressing upon state lawmakers how Medicaid not only undergirds the state’s rural health system, but also is intertwined with the health care of Alabamians who have private health insurance.

-- posted by Markeshia Ricks

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New commissioner jokes about Bentley's pay pledge

The new commissioner of Medicaid in Alabama told legislators on Wednesday a key reason they need to get unemployment down to 5 percent.
"If we get below 5 percent, I don't have to buy the governor's lunch any more," said Dr. Bob Mullins.
Gov. Robert Bentley, who appointed Mullins commissioner, vowed during his campaign not to take a salary until Alabama reached full unemployment, which he said most economists believe is about 5.2 percent.
Mullins, whose agency is in a dire budget situation with rising costs and decreasing money for the state to spend, was talking about Medicaid's budget to a joint hearing of the Legislature.
Mullins, who was very serious about the budget situation, also joked in his closing remarks that he wanted Bentley to become accustomed to eating cheap because he was not going to spend $25 to buy the governor's lunch.
"You can't," fired back Rep. Jim Barton, a Mobile Republican who is the new chairman of the House General Fund budget committee. He was referring to the new limits placed on spending on public officials and public employees.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

UPDATE: Mullins was far more serious when asked about why he decided to take the job of Medicaid commissioner during such a difficult time for the state.

In a post-hearing interview with the press, Mullins said when Gov. Robert Bentley approached him to take the job, he said "absolutely not."

"I was planing to practice and die in Valley," said the retired family practice physician who practiced in Valley for more than 37 years.

But Mullins, who teared up a bit as he talked, said that his refusal kept him up for three nights. After talking with his wife and praying about it, he changed his mind.

"I took the job because the governor asked me to take the job," he said.

-- posted by Markeshia Ricks

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Budget officials expect cuts, layoffs

Alabama's budgets that fund education, Medicaid, prisons, public safety, and other key functions face cuts this year, but state lawmakers also will have to figure out a way to absorb significant shortfalls in fiscal 2012.
And state finance officials say that means that everything including employees and programs has to be on the table when lawmakers look for areas to cut.
Joyce Bigbee, director of the Legislative Fiscal Office, told state lawmakers Tuesday that the state's Education Trust Fund is projected to be $126 million short in fiscal 2011, and as great as a $688 million short in fiscal 2012, which starts Oct. 1.
And the news actually is worse for the General Fund.
The General Fund, which pays for the state's non-education expenditures including Medicaid and prisons, is expected to be short nearly $132 million this fiscal year and is facing a $554.2 million shortfall in fiscal 2012.
Bigbee said Medicaid and Corrections make up the largest expenditures of the state General Fund, representing 42 percent of the budget. When the cost of the state's judicial system is added in, it amounts to about 50 percent of that budget's expenses.
Bigbee told lawmakers the General Fund's revenues would need to grow by 29 percent to absorb the shortfall for 2012.
And apparently Bigbee's presentation was the optimistic version of what's to come.
David Perry, new director of the state Finance Department, projected even bigger cuts and said that layoffs for state employees paid out of the General Fund have to be on the table.
"I haven't found any options that would avoid layoffs entirely," Perry said. "At this point we don't see any way around some layoffs."
Perry pointed out that in 2012 Medicaid would need $700 million to avoid cutting services.
"Level-funding Medicaid alone would eat up nearly half of the 2012 budget," he said.
Perry said that the state's General Fund would lose about $450 million in one-time stimulus money in fiscal 2012.
Perry said his office is projecting a shortfall of at least $150 million in the General Fund and $200 million short in the Education Trust Fund for fiscal 2011. But he also said that the governor is waiting on February receipts for a better look at revenue trends before a decision is made about whether to declare across the board cuts, also know as proration, to balance the budget. He said the decision on proration would likely come in early March.
Perry said the General Fund budget and the education budget have each been cut about 20 percent in the last two years as the recession has ravaged revenue coming into the state.
He said difficult decisions must be made. With the state's fiscal condition, Perry said "everything must be on the table at this point."
Strategically, state officials should look at whether they should continue certain programs because there are some programs that the state will not be able to sustain, he said.
Perry said the General Fund is in much worse shape than the education budget, which is more likely to avoid layoffs.
Perry said they are not just looking at cuts, although that is the primary focus. He said, as Gov. Robert Bentley talked about during the campaign, they also want to try to collect taxes that are on the books that people are currently not paying, such as the use tax on web purchases.
Perry said he has been meeting with agency heads in his office about the effects of cuts on those agencies and to determine which agencies can absorb those cuts without "significant pain." After those meetings, Perry said the administration will share its recommendations with lawmakers.
"In many cases, these consequences will be severe," Perry said.
State Rep. John Knight of Montgomery, the former chairman of the House General Fund budget committee, said lawmakers knew last year that crafting a budget for 2012 would be a challenge, so he wasn't surprised by the size of the shortfalls.
He said the state is going to have to prioritize.
"There are many programs that we would love to continue, but we've got some real tough decisions to make," he said.
Knight, a Democrat, said he hoped that lawmakers would consider state employees and government services carefully as they consider where to cut.
Republican State Rep. Jay Love of Montgomery, who is the new chairman of the House education budget committee, also said that the cuts coming to education weren't unexpected. He said one of his priorities is to protect the education programs that have proven successful.
"We're going to have to effectively budget the dollars that we do have," Love said.
The Bentley administration must submit its proposed budgets for the 2012 fiscal year to lawmakers by the second day of the regular legislative session, which is March 2.

-- Markeshia Ricks and Sebastian Kitchen

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Senator comes under fire for immigration comments

Alabama Democrats are among those criticizing a powerful state senator for referencing firearms when talking about taking care of illegal immigration.
In a speech to the Cullman County Republican Party, Sen. Scott Beason finished remarks about finding solutions to illegal immigration by saying "empty the clip, and do what has to be done."
Beason, a Gardendale Republican who is the chairman of the committee that determines which bills come before the Senate for debate, has come under fire from some for comments that some consider inflammatory, especially for using that phrase following the tragic shooting in Tucson, Ariz.
Beason has since told the Associated Press he did not suggest any violence toward illegal immigrants or Hispanics. He told the Birmingham News he was using an analogy.
"Senator Beason's remarks in Cullman were unnecessary and dangerous, particularly in light of the recent tragic shootings in Tuscon," said Mark Kennedy, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party. "If Republicans are truly interested in pursuing sensible immigration reform, they should put a stop to this reckless rhetoric about emptying gun clips and build on the strong ties our Democratic Legislature made with the business community to hold corporations accountable for their part in enabling illegal workers."
Beason has been an outspoken advocate for immigration reform and said he would like to see Alabama pass some of the reforms passed in other states like Arizona.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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Lawmakers Learn Bentley Administration Budget Principles

David Perry, Gov. Robert Bentley's new finance director, outlined Tuesday during a budget hearing the governor's principles for budgeting in what is could be multiple years of difficult budget decisions.

Here's what Perry had to say about the Bentley administration budget principles:

1) Conservative budgeting.
"We must take a more conservative and responsible approach to the process of the budget," Perry said. "We can’t afford to continue to put our schools through this budgeting process. Proration cannot always be entirely avoided, but it can be minimized. It can be reduced."

2) A better job of allocating resources.
"We cannot continue to fund programs at the same level and proportion as we have in the past," Perry said.

3) Prioritizing people over projects.
"You’re going to have some very difficult decision in the next few years and particularly in the next four months," Perry told lawmakers. "Our job will be to help you understand what the consequences will be of the budget decisions we’ll make over the next few months.

4) Working with Legislature on the front end of budgeting process

5) Structural long-term reform
"We can’t grow our way out of a hole this big," he said of the deficits the state is facing, particularly in the General Fund. "What we really have to look at is the fundamental realignment and restructuring of state government."
Perry said the governor's Commission to Improve State Government would play a crucial role in the kind of restructuring that will be necessary to reduce costs.

6) Everything is on the table
"In our judgment, based on the severity of the shortfalls, everything has to be on the table," Perry said. "We’re not only looking at cuts, we’re also looking at opportunities for revenue. "
Perry pointed out Bentley's desire on the campaign trail to look at finding a way to collect lost sales tax revenue from online sales.

-- posted by Markeshia Ricks

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State finance chief: expect cuts, layoffs

The new state finance director said he does not see a way to avoid laying off state employees in the 2012 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
"I haven't found any options that would avoid layoffs entirely," finance director David Perry said to legislators.
Lawmakers are hearing from state budget officials and agency heads this week as they begin to look at shaping budgets for the 2012 fiscal year. Legislators begin crafting the budget for the 2012 fiscal year when they convene on March 1.
Perry and Joyce Bigbee, director of the Legislative Fiscal Office, also talked about the likely need for cuts this year to ensure the budget is balanced.
Perry and Bigbee said the economy is improving, but they foresee a tough 2011 and a tougher 2012, especially without the infusion of billions in federal stimulus funding that has helped balance the budgets in the last two years.
Medicaid, corrections and the state court system account for more than half of the money in the current general fund, Perry said. And the court system, through a vote of the Alabama Supreme Court, has protected itself from many cuts, he said.
Level-funding Medicaid alone would eat up more than half of the 2012 general fund budget, Perry said.
Perry said the general fund budget and the education budget have each been cut about 20 percent in the last two years as the recession has ravaged revenue coming into the state.
He said difficult decisions must be made. With the state's fiscal condition, Perry said "everything must be on the table at this point." Strategically, state officials should look at whether they should continue certain programs because there are some programs they will not be able to sustain, he said.
Perry said the general fund, which is the budget for most non-education entities, is in much worse shape than the education budget, which is more likely to avoid layoffs.
Perry, the finance director for new Gov. Robert Bentley, said they are not just looking at cuts, although that is the primary focus. He said, as Bentley talked about during the campaign, they also want to try to collect taxes that are on the books that people are currently not paying, such as the use tax on web purchases.
Perry said he has been meeting with agency heads in his office about the effects of cuts on those agencies and to determine which agencies can absorb those cuts without "significant pain." After those meetings, Perry said the administration will share its recommendations with lawmakers.
"In many cases, these consequences will be severe," Perry said.

--posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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Friday, February 4, 2011

Bentley appoints Ivey to head new commission

Gov. Bentley has tapped Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey to serve as the head of his newly-created Alabama Commission on Improving State Government.

Bentley apparently made the announcement during the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama's annual meeting Friday. The commission was established by Executive Order No. 4, which Bentley signed on Jan. 25.

The goal of the commission is to make government more efficient, effective and responsive. The commission also will be responsible for looking at ways to privatize some state services and reduce state spending. The preliminary report of the commission is due June 1.

Ivey, who is a former state treasurer, said in a press release that she was honored that the governor chose her to take the helm of the commission.

I also know this assignment presents both a challenge as well as an opportunity—a challenge because we face tough economic times, but an opportunity to show that we’re serious about addressing the people’s priorities of more efficient and honest state government,” she said.

Ivey said her appointment signals that the partnership for moving Alabama forward that she and Bentley discussed during the transition is alive and well.

“I’m anxious to get started," she said. "The governor has assured me that he’s ready to implement the commission’s recommendations efficiently and effectively.

"We know that spending reform is essential. Some programs are too costly and must be evaluated on an ongoing basis. Our review will be comprehensive and will not duplicate completed previous studies," Ivey said.

-- posted by Markeshia Ricks

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Spearman to resign as ADP director

After six years at the helm of day-to-day operations of the Alabama Democratic Party, Jim Spearman will resign Friday, according to a press release.

Spearman was appointed executive director in 2005 by then Alabama Democratic Party Chairman Redding Pitt and continued serving throughout the tenure of Chairman Joe Turnham. Spearman is now assisting with the transition of the newly elected Chairman, Judge Mark Kennedy.

“This has been a tough decision to make, but I feel it is the right one at this point in my life,” Spearman said. “Timing is everything in politics and it is time for new leadership in the party. I know I am leaving the party in capable hands.”

Spearman said he was proud of the many accomplishments the party had achieved over the past six years.

“We elected candidates in areas that a Democrat had not served in many years," he said. "We modernized technology at the party offices, improved the operations of several county executive committees and had unprecedented outreach on the grassroots level.

“I am extremely grateful for the help I have received from county chairs, activists, elected officials, county and state committee members and especially the staff at the Alabama Democratic Party. It has been a team effort. Over the past six years I have traveled across Alabama and have seen the hard work of Democrats. From Limestone to DeKalb to Houston to Washington counties you will find Democrats working to improve Alabama and I am proud to be a part of that effort,” Spearman said.

“Unfortunately, like other states around the nation we have had some temporary electoral setbacks along the way, but you learn from these and work harder to build a better Democratic Party that stands with the people of Alabama and is true to our core principles. Over time the people of Alabama will realize that Democrats stand with them and are right on the issues for the majority of Alabamians.”

Spearman plans to return home to Lamar County to pursue other interests. He said he would remain active in the Democratic Party as he continues to serve as the vice chairman for county affairs and represents the interests of the people of Fayette, Lamar and Tuscaloosa counties on the State Democratic Executive Committee.

-- posted by Markeshia Ricks

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Democrats blast Republicans for restricting access to legislators

The Alabama Democratic Party is taking the new Republican legislative leadership to task for its proposal to restrict public access to legislative hallways and offices in the upcoming regular session.

Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard and Senate President Pro-Tem Del Marsh announced plans Monday to restrict access in the wake of the shootings in Tuscon, Ariz. The plan calls for stopping the public and lobbyists from being able to wander in and out of legislative offices on days when the Legislature is in session.

New Alabama Democratic Party Chairman Mark Kennedy said in a press release Wednesday that the new rules would only allow legislators the opportunity to duck questions and concerns from voters.

“After 136 years of open door policies under Democratic leadership, a new day of Republican control has dawned in the Alabama Legislature, but the sun isn't shining," he said.

Kennedy went on to say in the press release that Hubbard’s use of the Tuscon shooting to draw a parallel to security at the Alabama State House was a stretch, because that incident took place outside the walls of the U.S. Capitol and Congressional office buildings. He said both the capitol and office buildings were the public has free access.

Kennedy also said that there is a police presence at the State House and visitors are required to pass through metal detectors and security checkpoints at the door.

Kennedy said the changes would do nothing more than facilitate questionable closed door meetings and possibly skirt the new ethics law recently passed in the special session.

-- posted by Markeshia Ricks

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Marsh makes big cuts to President Pro Tem Office

There’s a new sheriff in town and that means there will be new rules in the Alabama Senate, especially when it comes to spending.

New Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh is making some changes to long-standing practices of the Senate and he’s starting with the office he now heads.

Marsh announced Wednesday that he has significantly reduced the staff of the Office of the President Pro Tem – from more than 40 to 4 – and he has plans to continue to reduce the cost of that office.

Marsh said he was confident that a leaner team would be able to serve the needs of the Senate and the taxpayers.

“I believe it is critical that each agency and branch of government review their budgets and tighten their belts, just as the people of Alabama and private businesses are forced to do during lean economic times,” he said in a press release.

The Pro Tem’s office has a budget of approximately $3 million, and during fiscal 2010 more than $1.83 million paid the salaries of more than 40 people.

“There were times that no one in the Senate knew who some of the Pro Tem employees were, and I can promise you one thing – our staff will be visible and accessible at all times,” Marsh said. “My predecessors may have needed each and every one of those staffers to effectively run the office, but I can assure the taxpayers that they are getting a bargain compared to the $2 million that was spent on Pro Tem staff salaries last year.”

The Pro Tem’s office has hired the following staffers: Philip Bryan, chief of staff, Ryan Cantrell, policy and research analyst, Molly Middlebrooks, senate liaison, and Gale Dunlap, part-time accounting/bookkeeper. Chief of Staff Philip Bryan estimates that the office payroll would be reduced from $130,000 a month to about $15,000 a month.

In addition to the staffing cuts, Marsh also has issued new guidelines for what expenditures will be allowed out of the Pro Tem’s budget. Senate committee chairmen, who are now all Republicans, will have to turn in request prior to making purchases.

“We recognize that Senators have needs such as postage and other resources to assist them in communicating with their constituents, so we certainly want to allocate funds for those needs” Marsh said. “However, the culture that existed was one that had no accountability for these expenditures, and we felt that each member should have a budget – so when it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Marsh also said that instead of giving each senator a blank check for expenditures, there would be a fix dollar amount allocated for each of the 35 senators. He said he believed it would force members to spend money on only the necessities, and not just a lot of amenities.

“I guess I’m just cheap,” Marsh said. “But I believe the taxpayers elected us to be good stewards of their hard earned money, and I hope they will recognize that the new Republican leadership is going to great lengths to do just that.”

-- posted by Markeshia Ricks

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Christian Coalition criticizes new State House security policy

The head of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, Randy Brinson, said Tuesday that a new policy launched by the new Republican leadership in the Legislature "will likely have a chilling effect on the ability of the people to contact their representatives."
Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said Monday that people would no longer be able to freely roam the halls of the floors where lawmakers have offices when the Legislature is in session. They said people can set up appointments to see their lawmakers.
Hubbard, R-Auburn, and Marsh, R-Anniston, cited the tragic shooting in Tucson as a reason for restricting access.
But, as Brinson points out, that occurred in an open area while people must pass through security personnel and metal detectors to get into the State House.
"The fact that the tragedy in Tucson is now being used as a justification for diminishing access of the people to their representatives is neither prudent nor necessary," Brinson said.
Hubbard and Marsh said they wanted to help relieve the hallways of congestion.
Marsh said there are times he has gone to his office and six lobbyists were there waiting on him.
The top lawmakers mentioned on Monday a freshman legislator being cornered and intimidated in an office during the special session in December.
"Many have brought allegations of intimidation during the special session," Brinson said. "If that is the case, then such matters need to be brought forward and investigated and if there were lapses in security or badgering of legislators, then those who committed such acts need to be held accountable. To date, no specifics have been elucidated."
Brinson said he agreed with Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, who wanted "to clear the halls of the lobbyists so that the people will have access to their representatives."
"We totally concur with this sentiment, and as such, we will work with the leadership so that everyday citizens will be able to address their legislators and not just the special interests or affluent," Brinson said.
He said they want to ensure that all citizens have access to their representatives.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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Milton McGregor withdraws motion to remove monitor

VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor withdrew his motion to remove an ankle monitor with his lead attorney saying they had more important motions before the court.
McGregor is one of 10 defendants in an ongoing federal investigation into alleged vote buying and selling aimed at passing electronic bingo legislation.
In a very brief court hearing after the two sides discussed the issue in the judge's chambers on Tuesday, McGregor attorney Joe Espy said they were withdrawing the motion, which was filed after concerns about the device affecting McGregor's sleep.
On Tuesday, Espy would not comment on its affect on McGregor, said that information should not have been made public, and that they have a motion pending on the issue.
Prosecutors did not contest withdrawing the motion.
McGregor was the only one of 11 original defendants that was required to wear an electronic monitoring device on his ankle as a condition of his release. He was alleged to have made threatening remarks at agents who came to arrest him. His attorneys have denied that allegation.
"We want to be treated like everybody else," Espy said.
The judge told Espy that it was McGregor's right to withdraw the motion, but that he would not look favorably on the motion if it was filed again in the future.
Espy said there was some miscommunication between his legal team and prosecutors during discussions in the judge's chambers. He would not comment farther on the issue, but when asked about discussions about calling witnesses in the hearing Espy said "we got into it a little about that."
Espy said they have about 14 pending motions that are more substantive, including severing McGregor's trial from the other nine remaining defendants.
"This just wasn't a battle to fight today," Espy said. " ... This is a minor issue."
When asked if they would bring up the issue of the ankle monitor again, Espy said "it depends."
Espy said they made a strategic decision about whether that was a battle they needed to fight on Tuesday.
"We felt like it was one we didn't need to insist on," Espy said.
He said McGregor concurred.
For now, the 10 defendants are set to go to trial on April 4.
He and 10 other defendants were arrested in October after being indicted.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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