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Ward Right for the Job

“Politically, Ward and I agree on probably a handful of things and disagree on a truckload more. But his beliefs are grounded in principles.”

State Sen. Cam Ward has been tapped to head Alabama's Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.

A strange thing happened Tuesday: Gov. Kay Ivey appointed a new director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles and no one complained. 

Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, independents. No one had a bad word to say about Cam Ward. 

The state senator from Alabaster is generally considered one of the most level-headed, respected members of Alabama’s Legislature, which is sort of famous for being anything but level-headed and respected. Unfortunately — or, I suspect, fortunately, in his opinion — he’ll be forced to give up that Senate seat to take on this new role. 

There’s little chance that someone as thoughtful and well-meaning as Ward will get his seat. 

And that’s a problem that I’ve never understood. A problem that is growing by the hour, it seems in today’s hyper-partisan, confrontational, social media-driven, image-only landscape of 2020 politics. 

Truth, decency, common sense and working for the greater good have taken a backseat to raw ambition and personal favorability polls. 

Why be a decent servant of the people and work to make meaningful changes that positively affect thousands of your fellow citizens when you can instead send out press releases and letters saying off-the-wall insane things that drive up your name ID? 

We’re to the point now that good politicians are actively hiding the good deeds they’re doing or their true thoughts about important, helpful legislation because they fear they’ll be demonized by more partisan primary challengers and punished by a voting bloc that increasingly sees elections as a means of confirming their commitment to their favorite R or D team. 

Ward is a perfect example of this. 

Several years ago, not long into his mission to overhaul Alabama’s criminal justice system through complicated legislation that was lost on the average voter and that essentially tricked other lawmakers into voting for good bills, I sat on a couch in the capitol building with Ward and talked about the reform he was pursuing. He asked me, point blank, to tone down anything I would write about it. I assume that was because he was fearful that a story explaining his criminal justice work, combined with my byline, would be attacked by the more conservative lobbyist groups and special interests. 

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He was right. And I toned it way down. 

In fact, over the years, much of what Ward has accomplished in reforms has remained unreported. Partly because it’s complicated and boring and involves endless details of legislative committee hearings and backroom negotiations, but also because so many people were fearful of just what it would mean if certain people and groups learned that Alabama had over the last several years participated in one of the largest mass releases of incarcerated individuals in the entire world. 

That’s not hyperbole. 

Thousands upon thousands of young men have been legally processed out of Alabama prisons through the criminal justice reforms pursued by Ward and others. 

It was accomplished by eliminating petty mandatory sentence mandates and streamlining probation protocols and dozens of other necessary and worthy changes. Changing things that were supposed to keep Alabamians safe but were actually just useless, punitive add-ons that sounded good on campaign websites while unfairly punishing people for petty crimes.

Despite all of those releases, Alabama’s violent crime rate is at its lowest point in decades, and pretty much all crime is at all-time lows. And the state’s recidivism rate is below the national average. 

One day in the future — hopefully, when Alabama’s prison issues have been addressed — the full story of what Ward and others accomplished can be told. 

But in 2020, that is impossible. 

Hell, it’s almost impossible that a guy like Ward exists, especially in the Alabama Republican Party. 

And that’s not a partisan shot. It’s reality. 

When you have a one-party state, as Alabama so firmly is, you squeeze out the middle. The only way to get elected in that party is to keep pushing further and further to the extremes and vilifying anyone who dares to compromise or play nice with “the enemy” on the other side of the aisle. 

Even while representing one of the reddest districts in this state, Ward has resisted such a push. And on more than one occasion, he’s pushed himself and his party back towards the middle on important issues. He’s even gone to war with his party and powerful conservative special interest groups over causes that were important to him and his constituents.

All of that is exceedingly rare these days.

Politically, Ward and I agree on probably a handful of things and disagree on a truckload more. But his beliefs are grounded in principles that he can identify and verbalize, and they come from a place of honesty.

You can reason and compromise with a person like that.  

But most importantly, for the job he’s about to take, Ward actually seems to care about his fellow man. You simply can’t take on the tasks and criticisms that he has over the last several years — all with so little political upside for him in this state — without there being high levels of compassion and empathy in him somewhere. 

And it’s nice to see such a guy finally get this job.

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at jmoon@alreporter.com or follow him on Twitter.

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Reed Elected President Pro-Tempore of Alabama Senate

Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, was unanimously picked Monday by Alabama Senate Republicans to be the next president pro tempore of the chamber, putting Reed in the top leadership role in the Senate and the third highest position in state government. 

The action by senators was in the form of a nomination that is expected to be successful during a vote in the full Senate, with Republicans controlling 27 of the 35 seats in the Senate. 

A rules change in 1999 watered down the power of the lieutenant governor, making the post of president pro tem in reality the highest leadership role in the Senate. 

The nomination came ater Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said Monday he would step down from that role at the start of the 2021 Regular Session, which starts Feb. 2. Marsh had already announced he was not seeking re-election in 2020. He has served as pro tem since 2010.

Reed, 55, has been senate majority leader since 2015. He was re-elected to his Senate seat in 2014 and 2018 without opposition. 

Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, was also picked by Republicans to follow Reed as majority leader. 

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told AL.com, he doesn't see major changes for the Senate as part of the changeover. “Senator Reed works hand-in-hand with Senator Marsh. I see a stable transition,” Ward said.

Reed told the Eagle Tuesday afternoon that in the wake of Marsh's intentions to not run again that it was "a natural progression and an opportunity to maybe take additional responsibilities within the Senate body. I began to think about it and look at it as an opportunity for me, and made it known to my colleagues over time that if and when Senator Marsh decided to step aside, that I would be interested in the opportunity." He said he hoped that his years as majority leader demonstrated he could do the job. 

He said a number of his colleagues also came to him about the possibility of become pro tem.

At Monday's meeting, Marsh made the announcement he had several things he wanted to focus on, and he would step aside as pro tem, Reed said, adding that Marsh had "hinted" beforehand he would make the announcement then, and that it was completely his decision. 

"At that point, a little bit to my surprise, I was quickly nominated, and there was a vote taken by my colleagues, and I was elected unanimously by our caucus to be the pro temp once Senator Marsh stepped aside," he said. However, he emphasized that the formal resignation from the role and Reed's election by the full Senate will not come until the start of the session. 

Reed said he has a "great relationship" with Sen. Bobby Singleton, the minority leader, and has already spoken to him. "He's also offered his support," he said, adding he will be speaking soon to other members of the minority caucus to ask for their support.

He said he has known Scofield for many years, as they were both first elected together. "He is a businessman and farmer from up in Marshall County," he said, adding they will be able to work well together. 

As for the pro tem position, Reed said while he has led the majority caucus of Republicans in the chamber, the pro tem role, elected by the full Senate, will have responsibilities to the full Senate. It will involve operation of the Senate and the Senate staff, he said. The pro tem will also be responsible for a number of appointments and is third in line to succession as governor in the Alabama Constitution, after the governor and lieutenant governor. 

While he will have more responsibility, he will stay the same in focusing to be a "servant leader" to the chamber and to help other senators to be recognized and heard for their thoughts and ideas as part of deliberations. He said he would also be the governor's "primary contact" with the Senate. 

He said he would continue to represent his Senate district and continue those normal responsibilities, bringing "a highlight and a focus on my own district." 

Reed said business needs would be a focus in the coming session, saying he is hearing from colleagues across both chambers and from constituents that Alabamians "are focused keenly right now" on the economy and job growth, and how to keep businesses open. They also want to "take every option to mitigate the coronavirus," he said. Some resulting packages he will focus on are renewing and creating incentive packages to recruit business for the state. 

He also wants to concentrate on conservative budget methods, adding the state is in much better shape economically to deal with the pandemic because of the state's conservative approach, compared to other states. As a result, he said Alabama has not had to deal with the deep cuts other states have. 

On COVID-19, he said upcoming vaccines sound promising, but the state has "a ways to go before we get to the timing where those products are readily available for our citizenry." He said the state needed to work with federal officials and the Alabama Department of Public Health in the meantime. 

"I just want people to know what an honor and privilege it is for me at the deepest personal level to be able to serve my district first, and the people of my home district," Reed said, "and to be selected as the leader of the state Senate is a great honor. I take it very seriously. I want to do the absolutely best job I possibly can. I will never claim to have all the answers, but I will everything I can to be a leader that the people the people of my district can be proud of." 

Reed has served in the Senate since 2010, where he represents the 5th District, including Walker, Winston, Fayette, Tuscaloosa and Jefferson counties. 

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Former Mayor of Clanton Honored

Several residents and employees of the City of Clanton came together on Nov. 16 to honor the late Mayor Billy Joe Driver on what would have been his 85th Birthday.

“It’s great to have a day like this where everybody can express their appreciation for him,” Clanton Councilwoman Mary Mell Smith said. “He just loved this city and was a 24/7 mayor.”

Probate Judge Jason Calhoun and Sen. Cam Ward both presented proclamations declaring the day as Billy Joe Driver Day from the county and the state levels respectively.

“Billy Joe was Clanton,” Ward said. “He represented an old-school version of how to do things. He talked to people and cared for people. He was the person we should all strive to be.”

The ceremony was highlighted by Clanton Mayor Jeff Mims presenting Driver’s daughter Kim Hayes with a plaque honoring her father.

“My dad was not big on birthday celebrations, but I know he would be proud of this one,” Hayes said.

Mims understands that he has some big shoes to fill as the one following a legend.

“This town will never forget him,” Mims said. “He’s all a lot of people have ever known.”

However, he is confident in the city’s future growth and credited Driver for putting the Clanton in great shape.

“We are the envy of a lot of little towns,” Mims said.

Mims said he was able to talk to Driver about running for mayor and got some advice, especially when it comes to the financial side of things and budgeting the money.

“I wished I would have gotten to talk to him more,” Mims said. “I thought the world of him, and he was a good man.”

According to Mims, the last time he spoke with Driver was just days before he contracted COVID-19, which would eventually lead to his death.

“We were just sitting there eating lunch and talking,” Mims said. “I was asking him things about the old water works building and told him that it would be a beautiful place for a museum or something. His eyes lit up, and he said, ‘You know that’s where my daddy worked.’ I think it made him feel good to know that I didn’t want to tear it down.”

Driver was the one that encouraged Mims to join the planning and zoning board in 2011.

“He did not turn down anybody who came in to talk with him,” Smith said. “You felt very comfortable about speaking to him about whatever. He made it that way.”

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Ward Vows Pragmatic Approach to Pardon & Parole

Tuesday, Gov. Kay Ivey announced the appointment of State Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) to fill the vacancy left behind by the retired Charlie Graddick for the opening of director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.

Ward will assume the role on December 7 and take over an agency that has been in the spotlight because of controversies over the past few years.

In an interview with Mobile radio FM Talk 106.5’s “The Jeff Poor Show,” the Shelby County Republican lawmaker acknowledged there were difficulties ahead but said he anticipates finding a way to rectify the agency’s problems with a “balanced approach.”

“You’re never going to win a popularity contest in this job, for sure, because you’ve had directors come and go,” he said. “The job itself is to manage the agency, which is about 740-745 employees. So it’s a very large state agency, incorporated in every single county in the state. The controversy has been how they determined who’s been paroled and who didn’t. We had a time when so many people were being paroled, and they got paroled and shouldn’t have been. And then we went to a time when paroles came to an end, and the criminal justice system started backing up. You’ve got to find a balanced approach that is pragmatic and, at the same time, based upon facts and data. And I think we need to get back to that.”

As far as what to expect under his leadership, Ward said he would abide by the laws passed by the Alabama Legislature and said public safety was the priority.

“The legislature makes the law, and we should enforce and do what the legislature has given us the charge to do,” Ward explained. “That’s the most important thing — follow the letter of the law. I do think philosophically — you know, public safety has to always come first. That should be our number one priority. But in order to achieve public safety, there’s a lot of reentry programs and rehabilitation efforts that can take place to make sure if someone is going to be out, that they’re getting the supervision and the treatment they need so they don’t commit a crime again. It’s a different philosophy. It’s easy for people also to knock Judge Graddick. But he came into a job — it was a very, very difficult situation. So, I think it is a little unfair to knock any one person for a problem that’s been building for years.”

Ward argued communication was an integral component to overcoming the bureau’s woes and vowed to work with Attorney General Steve Marshall and Alabama Department of Corrections head Jeff Dunn in the future.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

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Ward to be Next Director of Pardon & Parole

Sen. Cam Ward, a leading advocate for criminal justice reform in the Alabama Legislature, will become the next director of the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. 

"It’s got to be the hardest job in state government," said the Alabaster Republican in a phone interview on Tuesday. "They have a lot of issues going on. My number one issue is criminal justice reform."

Gov. Kay Ivey, who announced the appointment on Tuesday, said in a statement that Ward's "background and experience will position him to closely follow the letter of the law while providing individuals every opportunity possible to rebuild their lives post incarceration.”

Ward, elected to the Senate in 2010, has taken the lead on addressing prison overcrowding and criminal justice issues during his time in the legislature. In 2015, he sponsored a reform package that helped bring down the prison population for several years. Ward was also shepherding a package of follow-up bills this year, before the COVID-19 outbreak caused the legislature to cut back its activities this spring.

Ward will succeed Charles Graddick, who is leaving the position at the end of the month. 

Graddick, who made his name as a tough-on-crime Alabama attorney general in the 1980s, became director after a reorganization stemming from the release of an inmate improperly labeled nonviolent. The inmate killed three people, including a 7-year-old child, in the course of two robberies in the summer of 2018. 

Graddick faced criticism for a drop in paroles granted during his time in the position. Statistics compiled by Alabamians for Fair Justice found parole grants dropped from 54% from 2017 to 2018 to 20% during the time Graddick was in the role.

More:Charles Graddick to resign as director of Pardons and Paroles

The outgoing director did not vote on parole decisions, but defended the fall off at a budget hearing earlier this year, saying many inmates coming up for parole had not completed requirements for early release. 

Ward was one of Graddick's critics at the meeting, asking about the drop-off in paroles and the bureau publicizing the crimes of those who went before the board. 

“I don’t believe it’s the Pardons and Parole Board’s job to retry every single case,” he said. “I think your job is to say, ‘What did you do, and are you going to be dangerous if you get out?’"

Ward said Tuesday he hoped to improve communication between the Board and the Department of Corrections, and said there needed to be a "balance" in parole decisions. 

"The key is again you’ve got to follow the statues, follow the law," he said. "I think you need a Goldilocks approach." 

Ward said he expects criminal justice reform efforts to continue in the Legislature. 

The senator will take over the position on Dec. 7, when he plans to resign from the Senate. A special election to fill Ward's seat will follow shortly afterward. The district, mostly located in Shelby County, is strongly Republican. 

Ivey and Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn are pushing to build three new men's prisons to alleviate overcrowding and provide more training and rehabilitation programs for inmates. The Legislature has been effectively sidelined as the process moves forward. 

Ward sought the Republican nomination for an Alabama Supreme Court seat earlier this year, but lost in the primary to incumbent Justice Greg Shaw.

Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brian Lyman at 334-240-0185 or blyman@gannett.com. Updated at 8:06 a.m. Thursday to clarify Graddick's position with Pardons and Paroles. 

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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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