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Lawmakers Press Agencies on Budgets, Prisons and Broadband

By Todd Stacy Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY — Alabama's General Fund remains healthy, the Education Trust Fund is uncertain, for now, and top lawmakers have questions about how the state's ambitious prison construction plans will impact future budgets.

Those were the top takeaways from Thursday's budget discussions at the State House. Members of the Senate Ways and Means General Fund Committee met in Montgomery for a special hearing to get a better understanding of the state's finance situation amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak and receive an update on Alabama Department of Corrections' plan to build three new prisons in a contract-lease arrangement.

More information, including updated costs and where the prisons will be located, will be available to lawmakers after contract negotiations are done later this year, ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn said.

Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, asked about the terms of these prison leases and questioned the wisdom of spending so much on buildings the state will ultimately not own.

Dunn said the current proposal calls for the state to lease the prisons from the private companies that build them for 30 years. Beyond that, "something would need to happen," to include the possibility of the state taking over ownership, he said.

Dunn also assured lawmakers the Department would be able to pay for the new prison leases with savings left over from closing current dilapidated prisons that require greater staff and maintenance expenses.

“It is not our intent to come to the Legislature and ask for a plus-up in our allocation (in the General Fund budget) to pay for these leases," he said

Committee Chairman Greg Albritton, R-Range, said he was mostly satisfied with Dunn's explanation but predicted there would be more questions asked going forward on the prison construction plan.

"I've been over it with him before, and those numbers certainly have some validity. That doesn't mean that I accept them completely or that it will completely hold true," Albritton said.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who has championed prison and criminal justice reforms in the Legislature for years, warned against thinking that new prisons would completely solve Alabama's problems with inmate overcrowding and unsafe conditions. On the costs, Ward said he was more worried about inflation creating future problems.

"I don't worry about five years from now, I worry about 10 years from now," Ward said. "There's a lot of variables and the fundamental numbers are fine, it's just the long term you have to worry about."

Dunn said completion of the new prisons is two to three years away.

Finance Director Kelly Butler provided an update on the state's efforts to allocate the $1.9 billion of CARES Act funding from the federal government. While much of that money has been assigned to different "buckets" of funding streams, little has actually been spent so far.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, expressed frustration at the challenge the state faces to spend the federal relief money on time and within the rules, calling it "almost impossible."

Butler said while it's true most of the state's allocation hadn't been spent yet, $816 million had been committed to various entities and efforts, including:

• $668 million to reimburse the state agencies, local governments, the courts and the Department of Public Health for outbreak-related expenses;

• $100 million for the "Revive Alabama" grant fund to assist small businesses;

• $30 million for a college COVID-19 testing program through UAB; and

• $18 million for COVID-19 testing at nursing homes.

“You could use up the money in a hurry," Butler said.

Marsh continued to press the issue of using part of the state's federal CARES Act funds to expand access to high speed broadband internet in rural areas. In passing the CARES Act, Congress put tight restrictions on how the funds could be used, including not allowing any expenses other than those directly related to the outbreak and not allowing any spending past Dec. 30. Those provisions would seem to complicate an ambitious broadband plan, but Marsh said the state should at least press the federal government to find out for sure.

"If we know these dollars can be used to expand broadband... then I think we should be putting on a full effort to get broadband to every corner of this state, so that if in this coming school year our kids have to go home for any reason, then they can continue to learn. I think you might see a mix of in school and online learning, but they can't do it if they don't have access to high speed internet."

Marsh said he had spoken with members of Alabama's congressional delegation about potentially amending the CARES Act to be more flexible.

"I'm hopeful the federal government will give the state a longer period of time to use those dollars."

'Healthy' General Fund

Kirk Fulford, deputy director of the Legislative Services Agency, told lawmakers the General Fund, which pays for non-education programs and services, is "healthy" with revenues not dropping off significantly during the COVID-19 outbreak. One key reason is growth from the Simplified Sellers Use Tax, which taxes online purchases.

"That's pretty phenomenal considering everything that's been going on."

Some state revenue streams are down in 2020, including court costs, lodging tax and oil and gas taxes. However, the more than $51 million growth from the online tax is more than enough to make up for those losses, Fulford said.

Gov. Kay Ivey originally proposed a 2021 General Fund budget of $2.56 billion, but after the virus outbreak hit, lawmakers pared it to $2.39 billion, still a record amount. Fulford told lawmakers solid revenues should allow the state to meet those obligations, and even have some left in reserve.

For the Education Trust Fund, by far the largest of the two budgets, the prospects are less than certain at the moment. State income tax makes up a large portion of that fund, and Ivey delayed mandatory tax payments until July 15. Soon after that date, the state should have a better idea of where education funding stands and more hearings could be called.

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Proclamation recognizes JIS’s diligence as PLTW school

Jemison Intermediate Principal D.J. Nix received a proclamation from Sen. Cam Ward in recognition of the outdoor classroom being constructed and the school’s designation as a Project Lead the Way school.

The ceremony took place in the JIS library on July 1 with several faculty and school board members in attendance.

As a Project Lead the Way school, much of the curriculum is taught with a focus on STEM-related learning.

“The STEM program has provided an opportunity for all of the students to have an experience with hands-on learning and inquiry-based learning,” JIS Vice Principal Jackie DeJarnett said.

According to DeJarnett, the current approach to learning is designed to help prepare students for what lies ahead in the 21st century.

“If you look at the work industry now, they are looking for people who can solve problems and be very innovative,” DeJarnett said. “STEM does not just touch students that are gifted, but all the students.”

Working as a team to accomplish projects and goals is another major aspect of the curriculum.

According to JIS teacher Rachel Mims, her students made an LED sign for the classroom as one of their projects last year.

“It meant a lot to those students just being able to see it [finished] and hang it on the wall,” Mims said. “It was amazing to see the pride they took in it and how much harder they work after that.”

Mims has had female students share with her how much they love wiring LEDs together, which they had no idea they would love so much prior to the class.

Ward’s proclamation solidifies even further the fact that JIS has been able to revolutionize the classroom beyond the traditional method of educating.

“They’ve been training teachers for five years and they’re changing the culture at their school,” CCS STEM director Jay LeCroy said. “It creates a longer process and has allowed the kids and teachers to adjust to the new ways over a period of time.”

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Lawmakers Want More Say in Emergency Orders

MONTGOMERY — While Gov. Kay Ivey’s Tuesday "Safer At Home" order extension doesn’t change what’s being asked of the public and some businesses, the mechanics behind her order are different.

The current order that was first issued in March — and amended several times since — had been signed by State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris. It was made possible by a patchwork of state codes, but had a 120-day limit in mid-July.

Separate from the laws that allowed the previous orders, the extension Ivey announced Tuesday that runs through July is a proclamation allowed under the state’s Emergency Management Act, a law that gives the governor broad powers to address various disasters.

The health orders are also separate from states of emergency issued by the governor. A state of emergency in response to the coronavirus will need to be renewed by the governor in July.

The sometimes confusing and far-reaching health orders that have been issued without the Legislature’s input have not gone unnoticed by lawmakers.

Several senators in the spring legislative session co-signed a bill to rein in the health officer’s power, and limit the governor’s declared state of emergency to 14 days, then require legislative approval for extensions.

The bill did not advance in the COVID-19-shortened session, but Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, plans to sponsor it again.

“It gives the governor some checks and balances, and it gives the Legislature some checks and balance, and I think checks and balances are good in our form of government,” Whatley said Tuesday.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, was a co-sponsor on the bill. He said the state has never had to deal with a situation like the coronavirus.

“I think when we get done with this, when we get on the other side of all this, regardless of who the governor is, I do think we need to sit down and take a hard look at the scope of emergency orders," he said. "What powers are there and what are not, because right now it's pretty vague."

Ward added he thinks those powers need to be better defined, and that’s no reflection on Gov. Ivey.

"I just think with any governor, when you have that broad and vague of an area, I think it is confusing to both the executive and legislative branches of government.”

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, was also a co-sponsor. He said he expects Whatley’s bill to start discussions in a future session.

“I believe that, you know, we legislators should have a play in making these decisions,” Marsh said Tuesday. “I understand the public health angle of it, but maybe after a certain period of time, maybe not as long as 120 days, allow the Legislature to be involved and help them make these decisions based on true data.”

Marsh said the health orders that started in March had a domino effect that in some ways the state wasn’t prepared for, including about 500,000 Alabamians seeking unemployment benefits and overwhelming the Alabama Department of Labor.

He said he’s had to help some out-of-work constituents get their benefits and has had conversations with Alabama Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington about the issue.

Labor has increased staff in an effort to handle the influx of claims.

“But the state of Alabama should be doing everything it can to step up the Department of Labor to make sure that anybody that's applied for unemployment compensation is addressed quickly," Marsh said. "We've had way too many people who've had to wait way too long (to get benefits)."

Before orders are made, there should be infrastructure in place to deal with the reactions, he said.

“It's not just making the health order, it is looking at what's going to happen as a result of that and being prepared for that,” Marsh said.

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State Ordered to Show Prison Hiring Plan

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

A federal judge this week questioned whether the Alabama Department of Corrections can meet required hiring goals and gave it until today to show him a written plan for getting more staff in its prisons. 

“And the bottom line is that the court stands ready now to assist in addressing this problem if there is one,” U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson said in his Monday order.

Thompson previously ordered ADOC to hire about 2,000 additional correctional staff members by early 2022 and quarterly ADOC staffing reports are now required.

The latest report, filed June 1, shows ADOC is still more than 2,000 staff members away from the goal, with less than two years to meet it. Alabama prisons have an overall vacancy rate of 54.9%.

The ADOC would need to gain approximately 213 officers and approximately 23 supervisors per quarter for each of the eight remaining quarters in order to meet that order, Thompson said this week.

“The court’s assessment of the reports reveals that, for the past 12 months of available data, since the second quarter of 2019 through the first quarter of 2020, there has been an overall increase in the number of officers from 1,301 total officers to 1,413 total officers and an overall decrease in the number of supervisors from 359 supervisors to 313 supervisors,” Thompson’s Monday order said.

Thompson highlighted a decrease in ADOC supervisors. Since the first required staffing report in 2017, no increase in supervisors has been reported.

The increase in the number of total officers is the result of a rise in the number of basic correctional officers, which grew from 56 when they were first implemented in the second quarter of 2019 to 294 in the first quarter of 2020. 

In December, Thompson expressed concern about hiring increases based on the addition of lesser-trained staff members. Officials from ADOC defended the hires.

A comment about the order or hiring challenges was not available from ADOC on Thursday.

The Legislature this year increased ADOC’s budget by $40 million in an effort to raise pay and increase benefits for correctional officers.

A new basic correctional officer earns $31,469 per year. New correctional officers earn about $38,335 per year, according to ADOC.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, is the Senate’s point person on prisons and criminal justice. On Thursday he said he thinks the ADOC is doing the best it can to hire additional staff. He said the state’s recent record-low unemployment rates have shrunk the hiring pool.

“You can put the money in, but you have to have people who want to do the job,” Ward said.

More recently,  the coronavirus has also slowed down recruitment and training efforts, Ward said.

And the virus has caused health concerns in crowded prisons.

“The jobs are even less attractive now,” Ward said.

Thompson ordered ADOC by today to confirm his calculations and “regardless of whether the court’s calculations are correct or simply the overall picture is as depicted, the defendants should explain how they plan to meet the February 20, 2022, deadline.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center and others in 2014 sued ADOC over the conditions within the prisons and lack of medical and mental health care.

In 2017, Thompson ruled mental health care was “horrendously inadequate” in state prisons and said that low staffing and overcrowding are the “overarching issues.”

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Gov Ivey: No Special Session Before August 1

Gov. Kay Ivey told legislators on a conference call Wednesday that she would not call them back into special session for at least six more weeks as officials wait to see what the COVID-19 outbreak did to state revenues. 

“The governor told members of the Legislature that there is no reason to call them back before July 15, which is when the state will have a full financial picture,” Gina Maiola, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in a statement. “She has also stressed that she will continue working closely with bipartisan leadership to determine if there is a need to convene on items that cannot wait until the Regular Session.”

Gov. Kay Ivey speaks at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, Ala., on Friday, May 8, 2020.

Gov. Kay Ivey speaks at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, Ala., on Friday, May 8, 2020. (Photo: Jake Crandall/ Advertiser)

Most legislators expect at least one special session in the summer or fall to deal with issues that the COVID-19 outbreak pushed aside. Topping that list are steps to address the violence and overcrowding in Alabama’s state prisons. 

But there’s also a possibility that legislators will have to reopen the Education Trust Fund (ETF) and General Fund budgets for fiscal year 2021, which begins on Oct. 1. Income taxes, which make up a major portion of funding for the ETF, will come in on July 15. The House and Senate last month approved slight increases to both budgets, but a full picture for the 2021 year won’t be clear until the income tax receipts arrive. 

Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, the chair of the House Ways and Means Education committee could not get on the conference call Wednesday and declined comment. Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said he expected “nothing before Aug. 1.” 

More: Alabama Legislature agrees to Gov. Kay Ivey proposals on COVID-19 federal money

“My feeling is that any special sessions or sessions would be in the fall,” he said.

Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, the chair of the House Ways and Means General Fund committee, also said he expected a special session in the fall. The General Fund gets most of its revenues from non-growth sources, and Clouse said Wednesday he did not foresee changes.

Rep. Steve Clouse watches as members in the gallery cast their votes on the education budget package at the Alabama State House in Montgomery, Ala., on Thursday, May 7, 2020.

Rep. Steve Clouse watches as members in the gallery cast their votes on the education budget package at the Alabama State House in Montgomery, Ala., on Thursday, May 7, 2020. (Photo: Jake Crandall/ Advertiser)

"I don’t think we’re in danger of going into proration before Oct. 1, and the budget we passed is not all we wanted when went into session in February but it’s an adequate budget, and it will be adequate until we get into session in February," he said.

House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, said on Wednesday that legislators would need those figures to determine what steps if any would be needed for economic recovery. Alabama's unemployment rate hit 12.9% in April, the highest recorded in the state since 1983. 

More: Alabama unemployment rate near 13%, highest in 37 years; Lowndes County at 26%

"I think looking at the revenue on July 15 will tell us what we can and can't do, and what we have to do to build the recovery, and build a pandemic-proof economy," he said.

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A Prisons Move Forward, Lawmakers Still Have Questions

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Some Alabama lawmakers say they still have questions about Gov. Kay Ivey’s possible selection of private companies to build three state prisons, a process that so far has largely excluded the Legislature.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told Alabama Daily News he plans to send Ivey’s office a letter this week asking if contracting out prison services is an option she’s considering or in bids recently submitted to the Alabama Department of Corrections.

“I’m just going to ask point blank,” Ward said. “I am going to be 100% opposed to privately run prisons.

“That’s a big policy shift that the Legislature should be involved in.”

Ivey has previously said the prisons would be leased from developers, but run and staffed by ADOC.

“The state will operate the prisons,” Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola said Monday.

“Gov. Ivey remains focused on leaving Alabama better than she found it, and that includes addressing the long-neglected challenges facing the prison system – something that requires a multifaceted solution,” Maiola said. “One part of the equation is making improvements to our prison infrastructure, which is why she remains committed to moving this construction process forward. Receiving the proposals is the next step in the process, and Governor Ivey, from day one, has been committed to transparency and accountability.

“Our Office and the ADOC will continue keeping the public informed at each stage. Governor Ivey has sought to tackle this issue head-on and make it a priority of her administration.”

Ward said as of Sunday, he hadn’t seen the proposals by two companies to build the three large prisons for men. The Alabama Department of Corrections opened the bids on Friday. The previously reported cost estimate is about $900 million.

The Associated Press reported that ADOC declined its request to make the proposals public, saying that a “confidential evaluation period has begun.” The prison system said the successful developer team or teams will be announced this summer and the financial terms will be announced in the fall.

The three prisons will replace most of the smaller existing facilities around the state.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said Monday he didn’t know if lawmakers would see the contracts before they’re signed.

“I haven’t been a part of any talks or negotiations with the governor as far as contracts go so it would be premature for me to speak about that.

“… I have said from the very beginning that the legislative body needs to be aware and given information as it flows in so that we can be working as a team and I still believe that. Its important that we all work together as a team on this.”

The U.S. Justice Department last year said violent and crowded conditions in Alabama prisons violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Justice Department said understaffing and overcrowding were a primary driver of the violence, but also mentioned the need to improve facility conditions.

Lawmakers expect Ivey to call a special session of the Legislature later this year to address a package of criminal justice-related bills that didn’t pass in the regular session because of a COVID-19-caused hiatus.

“Obviously, we do not want the federal authorities taking over our prisons,” Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said. “I don’t want that to happen. Whatever we need to do to address the concerns of the federal judge, we need to do that and I do think we’re working on things, including construction of new prisons but we’ll see where that ends up. But yes I do believe you have to call a special session.”

Ivey can enter into the lease contracts without the Legislature’s approval.

Ward said some in the Legislature want the state to build the new prisons because it’d be cheaper. But previous attempts to do that have fallen apart in the State House because of territorial disputes about where the new prisons — which are large employers — will be located and what existing sites will be closed.

McCutcheon said more information is needed about costs of leasing prisons compared to building them.

“And there I go back to the fact of, how much do we need, what would be the lease payment versus a borrowing and building our own facilities, and these are numbers that we need to see and I stand firm on that.”

Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said lawmakers have to be part of the process.

“I think we’re all very leery about spending $1 billion-plus on prisons and at the end of the day it still won’t be adequate enough room in the state, we’ll still be overcrowded,” he said. “If the governor wants this to happen, we’re going to have to be part of this process.

“Only the Legislature can appropriate money.”

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Small Business Resources During Coronavirus Outbreak

The Alabama Small Business Commission has created a website to assist small business owners during the coronavirus pandemic. From tax relief to SBA loans to unemployment benefits, there are various avenues of assistance available at the federal, state, and local levels. You can visit the website by clicking the link here-https://atlasalabama.gov

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Alabama Legislative Session On Hold Due to Coronavirus

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — State lawmakers say the coronavirus has put the 2020 Alabama legislative session on pause, and it may stay that way until the end of the year.

Lawmakers plan to pass a joint rule Tuesday that would adjourn the legislative session until the end of April. The rule would allow them to continue the session without meeting. When legislators meet to vote, they’ll be practicing social distancing.

“It’s going to be a logistical nightmare. Department of public health is going to test each one of us for fevers when we go in. We have hand sanitizers, cleaning materials. So this is a new world for all of us,” Sen. Cam Ward said.

The legislative session is not mandatory and legislators who feel attending may put their health at risk are encouraged to stay home. Rep. Neil Rafferty said many of his colleagues will likely take that precaution.

“I do yes, particularly because we have some older members that might be at a higher risk category of complications with COVID-19,” Rafferty said.

Gov. Kay Ivey is asking all residents to follow state and federal mandates to stop the spread. “So now, and for the foreseeable future, please consider staying safe at home,” Ivey said.

Because of these guidelines, state lawmakers say they likely won’t be able to pass non-emergent bills this year.

“Most likely, this pandemic has put an end to any legislative agenda outside of what we call the highly important bills until next year,” Ward said.

“It has put an end to it, for right now. To where we can’t introduce, pass, or debate any legislation,” Rafferty said.

The last day lawmakers can meet in a legislative session is May 18. Ivey would then need to call a special session for legislators to introduce and pass bills in which they are unable to meet before their deadline.


 

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Medical Marijuana Bill Passes Senate

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. - The Alabama Senate on Thursday passed legislation to allow and regulate medical marijuana after five hours of debate.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said he believes medical marijuana can bring pain relief to many Alabamians. He's worked on the legislation for more than a year and addressed a variety of groups' concerns.

“This is going to be grown by the people of Alabama, dispensed by the people of Alabama and is for patients of Alabama,” Melson said. “It’s not about getting high, it’s about getting well.”

The final vote was 22 yeas and 11 nays. The legislation now goes to the House.

The “Compassion Act” creates a nine-member Medical Cannabis Commission to oversee regulations and licensing for medical marijuana cultivators, processors and dispensaries and requires a statewide seed-to-sale tracking system for all cannabis in the state.

More than a dozen qualifying medical conditions and symptoms are listed in the bill, including post-traumatic stress disorder, autism spectrum disorder, Crohn’s disease, HIV/AIDS-related nausea and cancer-related chronic pain and nausea. Patients must have the okay of approved doctors to qualify.

For a doctor to prescribe a patient to use medical marijuana it has to be proven that all other methods of treatment are unsuccessful.

Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, was a main voice of opposition during debate on the Senate floor.

“We’re calling it a medicine, but as a physician I can’t write a prescription for it,” Stutts, a doctor, said. “This bill has the potential to have huge ramifications across the state.”

A number of amendments were added to the final bill during floor discussion.

Amendments from Melson require the commission set up rules and standards of how dispensary employees are to be trained and to cap the level of THC that can be prescribed to 75 mg. Previously there was no cap set.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, attempted to amend the bill further to cap the THC levels at 50 mg, but that amendment was defeated. Orr said he was worried about the safety of Alabamians using the drug and "wanted to error on the side of safety."

Orr attempted to further limit the list of qualifying conditions with an amendment, but it failed. At one point during the already lengthy debate, Orr began to filibuster the bill and threatened to kill the bill if he wasn’t allowed to air out his grievances with the legislation through the amendments he was offering.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, questioned Orr's intentions, asking if all his amendments would change his ultimate vote on the bill. Orr, who voted no, said his amendments were aimed at making a potential law better.

“If I wanted to stop the bill, by golly, I would do it,” Orr said. “We could just take a whole lot of time to do it. We could take days of the legislative time, your time, everybody’s time in the chamber, and that’s our prerogative, and I’ve got enough SOB in me, I would do it.”

The bill does not allow for the smoking or vaping of marijuana or edible forms of the drug. However, treatment in the form of pills, gelatinous cubes, gels, oils or creams, transdermal patches and nebulizers would be allowed.

Users would receive a state-issued medical cannabis card and an electronic patient registry would be created.

The bill allows for 34 total dispensaries in the state and mandates no more than 70 doses per patient at one time.

The marijuana would be grown in-state by farmers and the process to create the product would be conducted by Alabama businesses. An amendment from Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, was added that requires farmers who grow the crop to have at least 15 years of farming experience.

Two amendments from Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, were added that require at least 25% of the licensed dispensaries involved be a minority-owned.

“We are wanting to expand it and give more people an opportunity,” Singleton said.

An amendment from Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, prevents the Medical Cannabis Commission from adding new qualifying conditions. Any new conditions would need to be approved by the Legislature.

Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, added an amendment that includes menopause as a qualifying condition.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall sent a letter to legislators earlier this year saying he opposes the bill saying marijuana is an addictive substance and drew parallels with the ongoing opioid addiction crisis. He also noted that federal law continues to ban marijuana.

The Senate approved similar legislation last year but the bill faced more opposition in the House and was heavily amended to create a study commission on medical marijuana.

Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, voted against it and said a major concern for him was allowing those who use medical marijuana to operate vehicles or heavy machinery.

"I just think those common-sense things are really important and kind of feels like the people of Alabama do as well," Reed told ADN. "Whether your for this or not, being able to make sure it's done appropriately and correctly."

Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, voted against the bill and said he thinks passing this law will lead to allowing recreational marijuana in the state.

"Some want recreational use of marijuana to be legal, I believe this opens that door," Allen said. "This legislation is bad public policy. I remain concerned about its effects on law enforcement, and the safety of our drivers on our roads."

Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Birmingham, voted against the bill and said he was worried about the well being of children in the state if medical marijuana was legalized.

"I believe we are doing irreparable damage to the children of our state," Roberts said. "If there was a way to expand Carly's Law or Lenny's Law, then I would be completely for that."

Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, supported the bill and said this will give people an alternative pain medication rather than resorting to opioid drugs.

"It really is time for us to start addressing medical issues rather than prescription drugs," Coleman-Madison said. "We know where that has gotten us with the opioid epidemic and we have really not been able to slow that down. This enables people to get the help that they need. I mean, it's across the board, young and old and everyone so I think it's a great bill."

Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, voted yes for the bill because he said it has the potential in helping tackle the opioid abuse crisis in the state.

"The fact that it's shown that the use of marijuana is much better in dealing with people who are in pain, based on the research that I've seen, and being non-addictive and I think the crisis we're facing with opioids in the state and country, that is the issue that resonated with me and why I supported the legislation," Marsh said.

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham: Yes

Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham: Yes

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster: Yes

Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Birmingham: No

Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Birmingham: Didn't vote

Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville: No

Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Cottondale: No

Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro: Yes

Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper: No

Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston: Yes

Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre: Yes

Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville: Yes

Copyright 2020 WBRC. All rights reserved.

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Viewpoint: Open Records Law Needed

Over the course of our mission, the BBJ regularly requests access to public records. Unfortunately, those requests often fall on deaf ears. And we’re not alone.

Members of the media and Alabama citizens regularly encounter situations where our local and state governments say they can’t provide records that are easily obtained in other states, including our neighbors. That’s unacceptable, especially in a state where so many politicians run on the ideals of transparency and open government.

It’s particularly problematic in terms of contracts, which Alabama officials often say they can’t provide due to nondisclosure agreements with private companies, proprietary information for those companies or similar reasons even though the companies involved know fully well that contracts with public entities are indeed public documents.

But that begs the question why our state and local governments – the customer in many of these contracts – are more willing to protect their vendors than their taxpayers and citizens.

If contracts aren’t open to inspection, how do we know our governments are getting a good deal? Unfortunately, we don’t. But contracts are just one part of the larger public records puzzle.

We’ve faced challenges seeking public records on a range of topics, from vendor agreements and incentives to even simple requests like copies of an annual budget. Many of our requests aren’t even in pursuit of controversial records. Often they are seeking data to aid in the BBJ’s efforts to provide local business intelligence and help our readers grow their businesses. To be fair, we do have plenty of local governments and state offices that do respect the public’s right to know, and we commend them.

But there are too many entities that aren’t taking their duties seriously. Instead, they are ignoring or outright refusing to allow the public or members of the media to inspect documents.

While they are rightfully to blame for those decisions, it’s important to note the role Alabama’s lackluster open records law plays in this situation.

Currently, public officials in Alabama have little incentive to comply with public records requests because the law is one of the weakest in the nation. They can essentially ignore the request and dare media outlets or members of the public to file suit to obtain records that should be available for public inspection. A bill, sponsored by Alabama Sen. Cam Ward, would change that. It would inject some common sense and checks and balances into the state’s public records law – the tools needed to hold officials accountable.

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