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Ward Testifies Before Congress on Prison Reform

Overcrowding in state and federal prisons attracted bipartisan concern Tuesday at a House hearing where an Alabama state legislator said solutions will require political courage from both sides of the aisle.

“Rarely have I seen an issue that generates more bipartisan support than this particular issue does,” said state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster.

The federal prison system is 36 percent over capacity, prompting Congress to consider ways to slow the growth without jeopardizing public safety.

The House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, chaired by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., asked several witnesses, including Ward, how states handle their own overcrowding issues.

Ward, chairman of the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force, said a series of reforms — but no single solution — can reduce the number of people sentenced to incarceration and the number who commit new crimes after finishing their prison terms.

Ward suggested gathering better data on which offenders might qualify for alternatives to prison, increasing the number of community-based corrections programs and courts specializing in substance abuse and mental health issues, sentencing guidelines that give judges more flexibility, more education programs for prisoners, and eliminating laws that mandate long sentences for multiple minor offenses.

Alabama’s state prisons are operating at 192 percent of capacity, and it would take $600 million in new construction to drop that to 137 percent, Ward said. He called that option fiscally and morally unacceptable.

“Money is not going to be the solution,” Ward said.

Republicans and Democrats on the subcommittee embraced many of the same ideas. Some already are sponsoring congressional legislation on the issue.

“I’m beginning to feel like more Republicans like Sen. Ward are thinking about this and it’s a wonderful thing,” said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.

Sensenbrenner said the federal prison system has more than 216,000 inmates, and overcrowding is even worse at medium- and high-security facilities for men. In 2000, there were 4.1 inmates for every prison staffer, but that grew to 4.8 last year.

“The overcrowding leads to inmate misconduct and creates safety issues for both inmates and corrections officers,” Sensenbrenner said.

Ward said many of the proposed reforms are unpopular with conservatives who fear they’ll be viewed as soft on crime, but the changes would save money and improve public safety in the long run. Without changes, Ward added, Alabama risks a federal takeover of its prison system, which should be of special concern to conservatives.

“How can we dare defend our rights … and then turn over our corrections system to the federal courts?” Ward said after the hearing.

Ward, who also met with members of the Alabama congressional delegation about the overcrowding issue, was invited to testify by Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Vestavia Hills.

“There is a need for sensible reform in both our state and federal systems,” Bachus said.

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OUR VIEW: Confront Prison Concerns

Montgomery Advertiser Editorial

A lot of statistics crop up in discussions of Alabama’s prison system, such as the oft-cited reality that the system has almost twice as many inmates as its facilities were built to hold. That’s troubling enough, but there are some new numbers that add further perspective that should be useful as the state proceeds under the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

That initiative, part of the Office of Justice Programs in the U.S. Department of Justice, has helped several other states develop effective reforms in their prison systems. It’s a smart move for Alabama to draw on the expertise and experience JRI offers.

As the state task force delves into the issues, we hope it will bear in mind a critical fact and be open to two important questions that fact raises.

Here’s the fact: Alabama has a higher rate of incarceration than any country on the planet. If Alabama were a nation, its incarceration rate of 861 persons per 100,000 population would rank well ahead of the United States rate of 716 and miles ahead of the country in second place — Cuba, with 510 persons incarcerated per 100,000 residents.

Here are the questions: Why is our rate so high? And, what do we get for it?

Our state’s conservative politics can’t be the only answer to the first question. Other states that no one would confuse with bastions of liberalism have markedly lower incarceration rates — Nebraska at 443, North Dakota at 370, Utah at 458, New Hampshire at 368, Kansas at 631, for example.

Maybe it’s our general attitude toward prisons, a viewpoint geared more toward retribution than — despite the official name of the state’s prison department — corrections.

As for the second question, what we get is largely undesirable. We get a serious drain on an already strapped budget. We get many persons who come back into society poorly equipped to live successfully within its boundaries. Few people die in prison; most will return to society at some point.

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who chairs the state task force, has called the prison problem the biggest challenge Alabama has ever faced. He may well be right.

Ward has been one of only a handful of responsible voices in the Legislature on this issue. We hope more of his colleagues will begin paying serious attention to the situation, moving away from the easy non-answers employed for so long and toward a candid confrontation of the problems that decades of neglect and unsound policies have only made worse.

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Prison Reform Task Force Begins Work

Mike Cason | mcason@al.com By Mike Cason | mcason@al.com 
on June 10, 2014 at 7:53 PM
MONTGOMERY, Alabama --- Alabama's Prison Reform Task Force met for the first time today, launching what could be ambitious changes for the state's criminal justice system.

The Legislature created the task force, and all three branches of state government signed on to the effort to fix a prison system filled to almost double its capacity, driven partly by concerns that federal courts will intervene if the state does not take action.

The 24-member task force today heard a three-hour presentation from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the state's partner in a Justice Reinvestment project intended to decrease recidivism, increase public safety and spend taxpayer dollars more wisely on corrections programs.

State officials invited CSG to the state and the formal acceptance of that request was announced today. The reinvestment project is funded by grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Department of Justice. Eighteen other states have used the program.

The goal in Alabama is to propose a package of bills in time for the next session of the Legislature in March 2015.

Andy Barbee, research manager for the Justice Center, told the task force that CSG has no preconceived notions about how to resolve Alabama's prison overcrowding.

"From our perspective, this is a blank slate," he said.

Barbee said the CSG would analyze vast reams of data and rely on judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, victim advocates, parole officials and other stakeholders to help come up with a plan.

A tentative timeline calls for three more meetings this year. Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the task force chairman, said the committee would try to reach a consensus on recommendations before going forward with legislation next year.

Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, a task force member, said she did not want the group to be bound to a strict timeline requiring legislation during the 2015 regular session. She said if it takes longer to finish the work, the issue is important enough to justify a special session.

"I think this is too important to rush," Figures said.

Ward said the group would be deliberative, but said the changes cannot be postponed beyond next year without inviting federal litigation.

In January, the Department of Justice reported that it found conditions at Julia Tutwiler Prison to be unconstitutional because of what it said was a failure to protect prisoners from sexual abuse by staff. The investigation is ongoing, and the state has disputed the findings and is making improvements at the women's prison.

But the Justice Reinvestment project is not focused on Tutwiler, but a much broader look at the criminal justice system, including sentencing, parole, probation, community corrections, crime trends and many other factors that contribute to the prison population.

Barbee showed the task force a long slide presentation with statistics about the flow of people through the various parts of the criminal justice system.

He said the CSG was only beginning to compile data to help figure out what's working and what's not working. He said the goal is to come up with evidence-based recommendations, rather than stick to traditional approaches that don't differentiate enough in how offenders are handled.

Barbee said there won't be any simple answers because sentencing practices in Alabama are complex and nuanced, with community corrections, probation, split sentences and other options.

Barbee said Alabama's prisons, with an in-house population of slightly more than 25,000, are at 190 percent of their designed capacity of about 13,000.

He said to reach 130 percent capacity, which is the level ordered in California prisons by federal courts, would require the equivalent of four 1,500-bed prisons at a construction cost of $420 million and an annual operating cost of $93 million.

Ward said that's not a reasonable solution, but said new prison construction has to be part of the long-range plan, partly because some Alabama prisons are aging and will eventually have to be replaced.

"There's no way you can build your way out, but you can't expect to solve this problem without new construction," Ward said.

Task force members expressed some concern about the accuracy of data that will be used to come up with recommendations. Covington County District Attorney Walt Merrell said new sentencing guidelines that took effect Oct. 1, 2013 are already changing sentencing patterns and said he wanted to make sure those are taken into account.

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Ward Selected to Serve on Council of State Government's National Foundation Board of Trustees

May 5, 2013 – Alabaster, Ala.  – The Council of State Governments has asked Senator Cam Ward to join The Board of Trustees for their 21st Century Foundation. A mix of public- and private-sector representatives, CSG’s 21st  Century Foundation serves in a distinctive role helping to shape specific CSG future programming ideas. Your leadership on this important committee will be invaluable to state leaders.

“I’m excited to join The 21st Century Foundation,” Ward said. “It’s an honor to be considered among national leadership of this outstanding organization. CSG is partnering with Alabama on Prison Reform, conducts high level discussions on national energy policy and I look forward to shaping the future of best practices for state governments in these endeavors.”

 

Founded in 1933, The Council of State Governments is our nation’s only organization serving all three branches of state government. CSG is a region-based forum that fosters the exchange of insights and ideas to help state officials shape public policy. This offers unparalleled regional, national and international opportunities to network, develop leaders, collaborate and create problem-solving partnerships.

 

“We look forward to benefiting from [Senator Ward’s] time, energy and talent to guide the Council’s services in the years ahead,” said CSG Chair Mark Norris, The President Pro Tempore of The Tennessee Senate.

The 21st Century Foundation meets twice annually and hosts input from a bi-partisan group of elected officials from across the United States.  Ward is currently finishing his first year in the Alabama Senate where he serves as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.

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Alabama Republican Takes Courages Stand

Alabama Republican state Senator Cam Ward gave a candid – even courageous – interview about prison reform, acknowledging root systemic issues and pressing for changes.

He said Alabama has "the most overcrowded, underfunded system in the United States today at 190 percent capacity."

Ward's interview appeared as Alabama struggles to address its broken corrections system and criticism intensifies.

In January, the U.S. Department of Justice sent to the state a 36-page letter charging that the Julia Tutwiler Prison violated the Constitution.

The Tutwiler facility houses women.

The DOJ said Tutwiler inmates "universally fear for their safety" and that the prison had "a history of unabated staff-on-prisoner sexual abuses and harassment."

Ward expressed gratitude for the female inmates speaking out about the "terrible unconstitutional conditions" at the facility.

When asked about the problem of increased incarceration, Ward said, "Where I think it started was probably in the early '90s when there was a large trend nationwide to get 'tough on crime' and 'lock 'em up and throw away the key.' And while we did get tough on crime, I think we weren't very smart about it. I think that's what led to the increase in penalties and enhanced sentencing in the '90s, which really led to a huge boom in the prison population all across the country."

Ward admitted that the "tough on crime" approach was part of the Republican agenda and pointed out that today the states at the forefront of prison reform are Republican states. Texas and Georgia were named.

"[Prison reform is] one of the few issues you see in Washington that's actually generated a little bit of bipartisan compromise … so I think there's room for both parties to work on it, and it will take both parties working on it too," he said.

EthicsDaily.com articles have repeatedly underscored the bipartisan nature of the prison issue through news stories about federal and state legislation to coverage of the premiere screening of "Through the Door" at Richmond's Bon Air Baptist Church. A 2013 news brief on conservative icon Richard Viguerie notes bipartisan efforts. A 2014 news piece on the State of the State addresses highlighted bipartisanship.

Yet one of the false narratives across the land is that only Democrats are committed to prison reform.

True, liberal Democrats are squawking about mass incarceration and ending the war on drugs. Yet blue states such as California have a notoriously broken prison system at 150 percent overcrowding.

Yet, Ward's plain-spoken interview is another illustration of grass-roots Republican leaders' commitment to addressing the issue.

A member of First United Methodist Church of Alabaster, Ward realistically acknowledges that fixing the nation's prison system will take years to reform.

Ward sees three necessary reforms. One is upgrading prisons.

Second is "finding alternative sentencing programs, cheaper more effective community corrections, drug courts, mental health courts."

And third is "doing everything we can to reduce recidivism."

If he is right and he surely is – that reforming the system will take years, then the question for churches is what they can do now to address the plight of the incarcerated.

After all, Jesus said his agenda was "to proclaim release to the captives" (Luke 4:18). He said visit those in prison (Matthew 25:31-45). He didn't say wait for government reform before taking initiatives.

A good first step for churches is moral education. And no better resource exists than "Through the Door."

We are looking for opportunities to introduce the documentary to church leaders, civic organizations, state legislators and correction officials.

We think the church has a constructive role to play inside prisons and to help those released from prison to avoid going back to prison.

As a staff, we're doing everything we can do to promote screenings of our documentary. If you would like to sponsor a screening, contact us.

Let's be proactive together.

Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

- See more at: http://www.ethicsdaily.com/alabama-republican-speaks-candidly-on-prison-reform-cms-21775#sthash.D4pgLiIz.dpuf

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Ms. Shelby Ridge 2014 Crowned

By NEAL WAGNER / Managing Editor

It won’t be hard for judges at the Miss Alabama Nursing Home pageant in August to remember where Marian Shelby is from when she takes the stage.

“I am so proud and honored,” Shelby, 85, said as she was crowned Miss Shelby Ridge and Rehab Select during the facility’s pageant on May 8. “I’ll try to do my best to bring you honors.”

Shelby was one of six contestants who competed in the Miss Shelby Ridge pageant, which packed the facility’s cafeteria and event room. Bessie Smitherman was named first runner-up, Sarah Carter was second runner-up, Christy Ray was third runner-up, Mary Robbins was fourth runner-up and Agnes Chambers was fifth runner-up.

Shelby Ridge residents decked the room out in a Mardi Gras-inspired masquerade ball theme as the six women sought to represent the nursing home in the state pageant, which will be held this summer at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover.

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, served as the emcee, and asked the contestants questions about their lives and about their time at Shelby Ridge. Maurice Mercer, Janna Jones and Kristie Garrett served as judges in the pageant.

While responding to the question “What is your favorite activity?” Shelby said she enjoys the arts and crafts offered at Shelby Ridge, and said Mia is her favorite activity instructor.

Carter also praised Shelby Ridge while answering her question.

“It is a wonderful place. It’s clean, we have wonderful food, the staff is nice to us. What else can you ask for?” Carter said.

Chambers said she would have no qualms about recommending Shelby Ridge to anyone.

“If you have to go somewhere, this is the place to go,” Chambers said, garnering laughter from the crowd.

Robbins said her sons bring her the greatest pleasure in life, and always ask if there’s anything she needs when they visit her, and Ray said laughter is the key to a long and happy life.

Smitherman said the birth of her first child was the most exciting experience in her life, and said she is “blessed in so many ways.”

- See more at: http://www.shelbycountyreporter.com/2014/05/08/there-she-is-shelby-ridge-crowns-pageant-winner/#sthash.LKJnyBWQ.dpuf
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Alabama Must Enact Prison Reform or Pay Big Financial Price

AL.COM

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Why should Alabama politicians care about issues within the state prison system? Why, for that matter, should residents care?

What's being done now to fix the problems, and what are the potential consequences if they aren't adequately addressed?

No one has all the answers, but state Sen. Cam Ward has increasingly familiarized himself with the system and the players during the past five years of his political career.

A team of AL.com reporters, collaborating with the Center for Investigative Reporting and WBHM, are taking a closer look at the state prison system as part of the Alabama Investigative Journalism Lab.

Last week, WBHM's Rachel Osier Lindley sat down for a lengthy talk with Ward, a Republican from Alabaster and chairman of the state legislature's prison oversight committee. Their interview addressed the prison system's history and how legislators and state officials can remedy current challenges.

[Listen to the 5-minute on-air interview and the extended 20-minute interview here.]

Here are some highlights:

Prisons aren't exactly a fun or popular cause for a person to take up in the legislature, so what first got you interested in prison reform?

Ward: "First of all, no one's ever run for election or re-election on the issue of how to solve prisons. I can tell you it's not a big issue in the minds of voters, but it should be. When you look at the rising costs of prisons in Alabama and you look at the issue of overcrowding and how... out of sync we are with the rest of the country, what it makes me realize is that if we don't do something about it soon it's going to create a huge, huge problem for our budget in the future. You know we love to proclaim ourselves to be a state that prides itself on the 10th Amendment but we would really be disregarding that pride we have if we totally let the federal courts come in and take over our prison system, and I think that's what's on the verge of happening. So I think we have to step up and make some bold political choices or else we're going to have a third or fourth of our general fund budget controlled by the federal government."

"We have to make some bold political choices or we're going to have a third or fourth of our general fund budget controlled by the federal government"

What kind of political heat do politicians take when working on prison issues – showing compassion to people in prison – and what kind of pressure does that put on you?

Ward: "Well it is a lot of pressure but if you look at what other states have gone through, you look at Texas, Kentucky, Georgia. Those are... so-called red states that tackled sentencing reform and it worked out great... They saved money. There's a lot of political pressure because there's a stigma there that you're soft on crime if you want to somehow resolve the prison problem. No one's being soft on crime; you're trying to be smart on crime... And as a state that loves to advocate for the bill of rights we talk often about the 1st, 2nd and 10th amendment but there's still a 3rd through the 9th amendment that we have to advocate for and the 8th amendment it clearly lays out cruel and unusual punishment, and if we violate that then the federal courts are going to take over... I'm not advocating for a prisoner to have certain rights over someone who hasn't committed a crime but if we don't maintain those basic rights a federal court's going to do it for us... It's not a politically popular position, but I think it's gaining traction with the awareness we're raising."

Right now the state prison system is under investigation. Do you feel like you or other members of the Alabama legislature's prison oversight committee are personally taking heat for this investigation by the Department of Justice?

Ward: "I think we have a responsibility to respond and do what we can to correct the system and if there are violations taking place that violate someone's rights under the 8th amendment then we need to step up... I have an obligation as a policymaker to make sure we're enacting or engaging in policy matters that are in compliance with the constitution and also good for the state, our state budget and our state system, so we're not catching personal heat but my opinion is we should be more concerned than we have been."

In January, the Department of Justice contacted Gov. Robert Bentley about what they characterized as unconstitutional conditions at the Julia Tutwiler prison in Wetumpka. How did this change the tone of the legislative session for the prison oversight committee?

Inside Julia Tutwiler prison

Ward: "I think it's raised the awareness level... For years going way back to the early '90s, there was a perception that we had to be tough on crime and forget everything else, and we should be tough on crime. There's no question about that, but we should also be smart on crime. I think what Tutwiler did was raise an awareness of 'Hey, we may be looking into a deep black hole that if we don't do something now we're going to fall off the edge of the cliff.' I think it raised an awareness level that some reforms are needed and if we don't engage in those reforms then we're going to pay a big financial price down the road for our state."

And during the 2014 legislative session the Alabama legislature passed a resolution that is creating a task force and that will work with the Council of State Governments on prison problems. What exactly will that task force do?

Ward: "In the past if you look at other states that have successfully navigated through the prison crises that they had, what they did was they had a group – Council of State Governments, which is a bipartisan group of policymakers from around the country – they had that group come in under their justice institute plan and... study your corrections system and make recommendations. It takes about an eight-month study, but they come in and recommend policy, sentencing reform, facilities – everything from A to Z in your system, what you can do to fix it and make it better. But they require you to have a task force of local officials, of local stakeholders to work with them, so the task force we created was to set the stage for them to come in and work with us, to make sure we had a group in place that's going to be very serious about... coming up with some real solutions and real ideas. And I think 2015's going to be the high water mark for sentencing reform in Alabama."

Sentencing reform is a big issue that you talk a lot about. What do you think that Alabama gets wrong with sentencing?

Ward: "There's a lot of disparities in the way we classify certain crimes. There's a disparity in how we classify crack cocaine as opposed to powder cocaine. They're both cocaine, yet we have different penalties. We have this notion in our mind that somehow, someway a nonviolent offender should get the same amount of time as a violent offender... Someone who commits a crime should be punished, there's no question about that. I think it's the degree of punishment what we're looking at. For example, it costs you $41 a day per inmate to put in the state prison... however, I could put that same nonviolent offender into a community corrections facility and it costs you $11 a day. Why wouldn't you take a nonviolent offender, save $30 per day per inmate putting them in a community corrections facility where they have to work and basically pay back their restitution, as opposed to putting them into a $41 a day lockup that quite honestly does nothing but create a masters' degree in criminals?"

Another thing that you are very passionate about besides sentencing reform is community corrections, and what does community corrections mean? Describe what that would look like for Alabama.

Ward: "Community corrections is different per county because every county has a different need... In Shelby County, for example, we have a very large heroin problem... so a community corrections program there may look like one where they stay, they work during the day and there's drug testing available for them... but also they have to go through rehabilitation, drug counseling and the like. Part of their work (would) help fund the facility they're staying in at night. It's a minimum security facility so... you don't have the same security enhancement costs as you do at a maximum security facility."

When did the prison issue start becoming a bigger problem in the state of Alabama?

Ward: "10 to 15 years ago as the population of inmates boomed; however, we first really started getting involved in it in the legislature probably too late, probably about two or three years ago. Two years ago was when we started seeing an uptick in the issues. The crowding issue has been growing for many years. We're at 192 percent capacity; however I would say that where it really started coming to a head was the first time we had some abuse allegations in Tutwiler. This was pre-DOJ report. We had some abuse allegations there but we also had some inmate-on-inmate violence in a couple other facilities, Donaldson as well as Elmore... We called a joint oversight committee meeting, met with the commissioner, met with the various wardens, talked to them about the issue. They agreed there were some things that needed to be addressed with the limited resources they have – security cameras, guards in training, just a host of issues – and then about a year ago, I would say when the DOJ started their investigation, we started becoming more engaged as far as touring the individual facilities, looking at... what needs to be addressed... There is one important thing to remember though – the DOJ report was based on a tour they did roughly a little over a year ago. All that's being reported on now, what their study was based upon was roughly a year, year and a half ago. There's been a lot of changes since their report took place."

So then that takes us into the legislative session for this year, when the Alabama legislature passed a resolution creating a task force to address some of these issues. And then earlier this month Gov. Robert Bentley announced that the state would be hiring a consulting firm to work with the state on addressing problems at Julia Tutwiler prison, and the state will also be working with the Council of State Governments justice center and a few other groups. What is the significance of the state doing this?

Ward: "First of all the biggest significance is that it's the first time in my 12-year career that I've seen the state actually take that seriously. It shows that we recognize there's a problem... and we've got to do something to fix it... I think 90 percent of the issue is awareness and recognizing the problem. Second, I think... it's going to give us a blueprint to go forward... We could throw a lot of bills against the wall and see if they stick, but at the end of the day if you really want to fix it you need to make sure you know first what statistics show, what is a data-driven solution to the problem... I think the big challenge, however, will be in 2015... The people that are going to be on the task force are going to be a broad group of folks... You're going to have all the way across the political spectrum, and I think you have to have that to have legitimacy and make the task force work. But the real challenge will be once that group produces a report and the Council of State Governments produces their report... that means next session it's going to require some real courage on behalf of lawmakers to pass these reforms."

The Council of State Governments Justice Center – tell me more about that group.

Ward: "They have been the leading driver behind prison reform across the country. They come in and they study the system. They get down to the details of data – your inmate incarceration, how many are nonviolent, how many are violent, what crime did they commit, how often do you have people coming back into the system after they've been released. They look at that and say 'Here's a set of recommendations' and the states that have adopted their recommendations have done very good... Now it won't happen overnight, but... over time they have adopted their recommendations, reduced their populations and at the same time saved money and had no increase in crime."

So what do you think it'll take for us to move forward?

Ward: "It took us years and years of neglect and kind of burying our heads in the sand to get here. It's going to take many, many, many years to get back out of it. I don't think it'll be one bill. I don't think there's going to be one budget proposal. I think you're looking at probably 12, 15 different proposals which, over time, will help us get out of this problem we're in. No one wants to be soft on crime. No one's out there saying prisoners are more important than victims; however, there are certain 8th amendment challenges we have that we have to comply with, and if we don't do that then the state of Alabama will suffer the financial consequences for generations to come."

 

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The Good and Not So Good of 2014 Session

The 2014 Session of the Alabama Legislature is now over and what started off as an uneventful session ended as anything but. Every year, not just election years, it is the expressed intent of the leadership in both houses of the Alabama Legislature to “do the people’s work and go home.” And many times, not just election years, we get sometimes get bogged down in procedural machinations and yes, instances of principled disagreement gumming up the works.

At the beginning of this session, I laid out my priorities as follows: Passing a revision of The Alabama Open Meetings Act, passing Judicial Re-Allocation and passing meaningful energy legislation that would help Alabama’s energy providers and job creators stay open for business.

Of the 30 legislative items I sponsored most were considered government reform measures. This included bills that freed companies and the State Department of Labor from filing outmoded and unneeded paperwork, that reduced the level of EPA regulation of stormwater drainage, protected Alabama citizens from financial fraud, and even set up a “blue ribbon panel” of law enforcement and victim’s advocates on tackling our prison overcrowding problem.

And on the last day of the session, just before we adjourned Sine Die, we were able to pass a Judicial Recusal bill I sponsored in the Senate that streamlines the rules for when judges have to step down from overhearing a case. It protects our legal system’s integrity, and prevents companies or attorneys from even the perception of purchasing.

As in most years, not every legislative priority I had was a success. We were stymied in our attempts to pass a 2% pay raise for teachers and unable to pass a pro-business bill to stop lawsuit lending from which is practice of charging extremely high interest rates on money loaned to accident victims, which in turn prevents the victim from recovering the full value of their judgment and creates a domino effect of higher costs for our courts and legal fees. In the end despite months of negotiations we even came up seconds short of passing my Open Meetings Act bill that would have brought more transparency to all levels of government.

I will have the chance to fight for these bills and more another day, and would like to thank you again for the honor of serving you in the Alabama State Senate. I had a successful session and am optimistic about the next four years. I am truly grateful to my family, the wonderful people in my district, and the support staff in the legislature who helped make my service possible.

In 2015, the legislature will have many new fresh faces, ready to bring their agendas and do the work of the people of Alabama. I look forward to working with those new members as well as those who return. It is always a rewarding and challenging experience. 

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Why I Support Paul DeMarco

I call it “bumper sticker politics.” It’s the catchy phrases that promote a political stance or send a message of opposition. While “bumper sticker politics” may stir emotions or grab a headline, those catchy phrases don’t necessarily make a difference in our day-to-day lives. The difference is made by public servants willing to work, who understand the governing process and push for real change and real solutions for our communities.

That’s why I support Paul DeMarco for Congress to replace U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus. I have served with Paul for several years now. He has chaired the House Judiciary Committee while I have chaired the Senate committee. He will be missed in the state legislature. 

There are several good people running for 6th Congressional seat. Many of them are personal friends.  However, I believe Paul’s commitment to real change and advocacy for the people of his district and throughout Alabama will make a difference in Washington. Paul DeMarco is a conservative with proven results. This past session, he took on the Alabama Department of Revenue to pass a Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights to simplify the tax assessment appeals process for individuals and businesses. It may not be a top story on your local news, but it makes a big difference for that small business owner. Paul has fought for accountability and transparency in state government and in his home county. When Jefferson County faced the dark days of bankruptcy, Paul worked tirelessly to reform the system and put the local government on the right track for the future.

Paul is forward looking. He wants to make a difference in the communities he represents. He understands the governing process. He may not always get the flashy headlines, but he works hard to gets things done.

This nation faces many challenges: an out-of-control deficit, a complicated tax system and regulatory requirements that threaten jobs and family businesses. You may not see people “post” it on Facebook or discuss it at the Saturday ballgame at the park, but it affects all of our lives. Paul Demarco knows that and wants to make a difference.

I’ve said it before. The little things, the so-called “boring” things often create better opportunities for us all. Those actions get government out of the way. For that reason, Paul DeMarco is the kind of conservative we can trust to do the right thing in Congress. I hope you will consider joining me in supporting Paul in the June 3rd primary.

 

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Good Session for Business Community

By William J. Canary

The 2014 legislative session that began Jan. 14 and ended April 3 saw significant results for Business Council of Alabama members and the entire business community of more than 1 million employees, their families, and investors, topped by enactment into law of Taxpayers Bill of Rights II legislation.

For more than a dozen years, the BCA has teamed with members, Governmental Affairs Committee members, tax experts, and legislators, to update the original TBOR, which first passed in 1992, and level the playing field in the tax appeals process by separating the tax adjudicator from the tax collector.

Since the beginning, the singular goal of this legislation has been fairness, and the Business Council of Alabama commends the Alabama Legislature for updating the current TBOR.

After passage by the House and Senate, Governor Robert Bentley signed TBOR II into law on March 11 as the Taxpayer Fairness Act. His early support helped move the bill and for that he deserves credit and our heartfelt thanks.

The law creates an Alabama Tax Tribunal independent of the Alabama Department of Revenue where the tax appeals process had been under an ADOR administrative law judge. The new department created from the ALJ division will become an independent executive branch agency beginning Oct. 1.

Its enactment ensures the appearance of taxpayer fairness during state and local government tax appeals. TBOR II is not only about tax appeal fairness but it's also an economic development tool that shows prospective industrial prospects that Alabama's tax fairness model is second to none.

If the legislative session was like a glass half full or half empty, our glass was nearly filled to the brim due to the approval of important measures sought on behalf of the state's businesses.

Among the successes was the BCA's opposition to legislative proposals that attempted to disassemble Alabama's rigorous education standards or to usurp the authority of the Alabama State Board of Education. The voices of business and industry for the State of Alabama stood united in support of the standards that will ensure that our students are college- and career-ready when they graduate from high school.

The Alabama standards are the cornerstone of the state's Plan 2020 to increase graduation rates, reduce college remediation, and raise student achievement. We believe that education standards that allow students to move from state to state, or region to region without fear of falling behind or repeating material, are critical to our economy and our workforce.

Let's be clear about one thing: in no instance has the federal government taken over, or attempted to take over, Alabama's education system, nor will our elected officials in the legislature or on the State Board of Education allow that to happen. That accusation is based in fear, not reality. 

Our children need to be among the best educated in the world to compete for admission into the best colleges and to secure good-paying jobs. We feel strongly that this is a matter best left to the Alabama State Board of Education, a body created and empowered by Alabama's Constitution to handle these issues.

Among the important pro-business legislation that passed were small-business tax relief, neutrality in government construction contracts, income tax credits for dual-enrollment students, and a workforce council:

House Bill 24 sponsored by Rep. Bill Roberts, R-Jasper, requires public agencies to pay contractors working on public jobs within 35 days after the contracting agency approves payment, instead of the current 45 days. Bentley signed it into law on last Wednesday.

HB 30 by Rep. Victor Gaston, R-Mobile, will allow state agencies to withdraw proposed Administrative Procedures Act rule changes without having to go to the Joint Committee on Regulation Review. Governor Bentley signed it last Friday.

HB 49 by Alan Boothe, R-Troy, codifies the establishment of the Alabama Drought Assessment and Planning Team that was created by Governor Bentley's June 24, 2011, executive order. The bill reaffirms the governor's ability to respond to extreme drought conditions under the powers provided under the Alabama Emergency Management Act of 1955, and allows the Office of Water Resources to promulgate rules. Gov. Bentley signed it last Wednesday.

HB 97 sponsored by Rep. Jim Patterson, R-Meridianville, was signed into law by Gov. Bentley on Monday of last week. It authorizes the Alabama Department of Revenue to administratively suspend collection of a tax or fee if the cost of collecting the tax is greater than the amount to be collected.

HB 108 sponsored by former Rep. Greg Wren, R-Montgomery, creates an online electronic filing system allowing businesses to file annual business personal property tax returns at no charge to the taxpayer or to the taxing jurisdiction. Gov. Bentley signed it on last Wednesday.

HB 151 by Rep. Barry Moore, R-Enterprise, is the Small Business Tax Relief Act of 2014. HB151 would raise the average monthly tax liability threshold, from $1,000 to $2,500, before a business is required to remit advance estimated sales taxes. By increasing the threshold, an estimated 3,900 businesses will be relieved of making estimated payments, allowing them to redirect those resources to other areas of their businesses. Gov. Bentley signed the bill on Monday of last week.

HB 195 sponsored by Rep. Mack Butler, R-Rainbow City, prohibits specifying union or non-union labor on public works contracts. Bentley signed it into law as Act 2014-107.

HB 384 by Rep. Mac Buttram, R-Cullman, creates an income tax credit for scholarships to support high school students who enroll in two-year colleges while still in high school. The bill became Act 2014-147.

Senate Bill 7 sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Pike Road, was signed into law as Act 214-185. It prohibits the Legislature from approving any unfunded mandate on municipalities of local boards of education unless there is funding to pay for the mandate or unless there is a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. Voters will soon see the issue on statewide ballots.

SB 22 sponsored by Sen. Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City, was signed by Bentley on April 2. The law prohibits the conditioning of licensing of certain health care providers on their participation or non-participation in health insurance plans or other activities.

SB 44 by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, creates a method for "crowd funding" of securities of up to $1 million for business investment purposes. Investors will not be able to put in more than $5,000 unless the investor is an accredited investor. Gov. Bentley signed it on Wednesday of last week.

SB 48 sponsored by Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, passed the Senate and House and was sent to Gov. Bentley, who signed it into law on Thursday. The bill would codify language to prevent employers from attempting to avoid their unemployment taxes by shuttering one business and creating a new entity, with no experience rating concerning layoffs.

SB 121, the Patent Trolling bill sponsored by Sen. Orr was signed into law by Bentley on April 1. The law will make it a crime for anyone to assert a claim of patent infringement in bad faith and authorizes the attorney general to investigate claims and file enforcement actions.

SB 163 is the air bag fraud bill sponsored by Sen. Jerry Fielding, R-Sylacauga. The law makes it a crime to knowingly install a defective air bag or to not install one. Governor Bentley signed it on March 11.

SB 184, the 2014-15 Education Trust Fund budget sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, was forwarded to Governor Bentley on the last day of the session. The $5.931 billion spending plan includes a $10 million increase for Alabama's 1st Class Pre-K program, which the BCA wholeheartedly supports. Bentley signed the bill last Friday.

SB 217 sponsored by Sen. Paul Bussman, R-Cullman, and signed by Governor on Feb. 18, creates the Alabama Workforce Council. The appointed council consisting of state business and industry managers will advise and support the leadership of the Alabama Department of Education and the Alabama Community College System.

SB 355, the stormwater rules bill, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, was signed into law by Bentley on Thursday and makes a statement in support of businesses and the regulated community against regulatory overreach from the Environmental Protection Agency and duplicative environmental regulations. The BCA actively supported this legislation. SB 355 would amend and expand Alabama's stormwater law to cover the entire state and not just Jefferson and Shelby counties and their respective cities.

Moving forward we will continue to be the leading advocate for existing industry by standing for a more accountable and efficient state government so that businesses can do what they do best: create jobs. Our mission at BCA remains simple and strategic: We fight every day for the businessman and woman to be able to sign the front of a paycheck, so that others can sign the back.

(William J. Canary is President and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama, a statewide business advocacy organization and the exclusive representative in Alabama to the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.)

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