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HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY

The 4th of July is always a time to celebrate our great country. We are truly the land of opportunity, and home to the best people in the world. 

This year’s 4th of July has particular resonance, as it’s the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg, which was fought July 1-3, 1863. While we have the Confederate War Memorial in my district, and we will always remember The Lost Cause, Gettysburg was indeed the turning point for the Civil War, but it was also a turning point for our country. Because of that battle, we are still The United States of America, One Nation, Under God, Indivisible, With Freedom And Justice For All.

Make no mistake about it, even today we have continuing challenges to our freedoms. Federal infringement into our privacy rights and the recent IRS intrusion into our freedom of speech are just a couple of examples.

There are also those who profit from division, they seek to plant the seeds of discord in your mind, and pit American against American, Alabamian against Alabamian, but I want to celebrate our similarities and not our differences.

Despite the challenges we as citizens have faced over the history of our country it is still wonderful to see the way we unite to celebrate the independence of our nation and those that made the ultimate sacrifice for it.

So while you prepare for a weekend at the lake, the beach, or just grilling with your family, please keep in mind that no matter what issues may divide us, there are far more that bring us together.

We all want the same thing for our country and our planet: peace, security, and to make it a better place for our children than it is for us. That is one reason I am grateful to serve our state in the senate, and why I am optimistic for our future.  At the state level we have strong leadership that works hard every day to protect our freedoms, strengthen our economy and ensure our futures.

I hope that you will join me on this commemoration of the birth of our great nation in saying a prayer for continued leadership, strength and wisdom. I for one know that while there are true differences of opinion on the direction of our state and country, our leaders have the best outcome in mind. So Happy Independence Day to all of my fellow citizens and patriots, may we always remember those who made this celebration possible. 

 

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Supreme Court Ruling on Voting Rights Act Praised

MONTGOMERY, Alabama --- Gov. Robert Bentley today applauded the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling striking down part of the Voting Rights Act.

The governor said of the decision announced today: “It may be the most significant ruling in my lifetime.”

“Was there a reason to pass the Voting Rights Act 48 years ago? Yes, there was,” Bentley said. “Obviously there were areas of discrimination across the country that needed to be addressed. It was addressed. Unfortunately the reauthorization of the voting rights bill did not take into account the changes in areas they were trying to address.

And because of the fact that Congress did not update their rules and regulations in Section 4, because of that, that’s why this ruling came out today, because every state has to be treated equally.”

Bentley said Alabama is a strong example of progress made since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. He noted that blacks are now represented in the Alabama Legislature in proportion with the percentage of blacks in the state’s population.

But Rep. Alvin Holmes, D-Montgomery, said it's the Voting Rights Act that led to the election of blacks to the Legislature.

"We're not there because of the generosity of Alabama or the whites in Alabama," Holmes said. "They fought it every way, every chance, every inch. We got there because the 1965 Voting Rights Act was in place. Now they're doing away with the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  "It's a sad day in America. It's a sad day in Alabama."

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, whose district includes the western part of Shelby County, the county that was the plaintiff in the case, praised today's ruling.

"I think it's absurd that Congress still uses the same formula in 2013 that they used on Alabama in 1966," Ward said. "I think we call can agree that Alabama has had a checkered past with regards to discrimination. But to deny that we have made great strides since the 1960s is just not factual. I think the Supreme Court recognized that we've made progress and at the same time struck balance by keeping portions of the Voting Rights Act in place."

Ward said Section 5 requirements posed an undue burden on local governments.

For example, Ward said Alabaster ran into problems in the early 2000s when it annexed a new subdivision and the Justice Department said the city failed to properly file for preclearance.

"So it cost the city a lot of money in legal fees and it cost the city a lot of time with regard to holding an election," Ward said. "All they were doing is annexing in a new subdivision. And that's happening in other cities, as well. They annex in and run afoul of the red tape the Justice Department puts on them with regard to annexation.

Very noncontroversial annexations suddenly become a holdup for the entire election process. That's not fair. That was never the intent of the Voting Rights Act."

Bentley said he would not tolerate racial discrimination.

“As governor, I can assure you we’re not going to have discrimination in the state of Alabama based on race, especially related to voting,” the governor said.

Updated at 4:33 p.m. to add comments from Rep. Alvin Holmes. Updated at 4:56 p.m. to add comments from Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster.

 

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Abuses Point to Lack of Prison Cameras

The Associated Press By The Associated Press 
on June 23, 2013 at 12:14 PM, updated June 23, 2013 at 12:17 PM

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Allegations of inmate abuse at Alabama's female prison and an inmate being beaten to death at a male prison have pointed to a lack of security cameras in state prisons.

"It creates an environment that is not good for the safety of the guards or the abuse of the prisoners," said Republican Sen. Cam Ward of Alabaster, chairman of the Legislature's prison oversight committee.

Testimony about the lack of security cameras came up June 17 in a federal court trial over the beating death of an inmate at Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton. Fired prison supervisor Michael Smith is charged with violating inmate Rocrast Mack's rights by fatally beating him. Two others have pleaded guilty to violating Mack's rights, but testimony in the trial revealed that none of it was caught on tape because the overcrowded prison lacks security cameras in high-traffic areas. That includes a prison dorm entrance, where guards have admitted striking Mack repeatedly, and in the prison yard, where Mack ran to try to get away from the blows.

The issue came up earlier at the state prison for women, Tutwiler Prison in Wetumpka, after a legal group that helps inmates complained about male guards assaulting, harassing and raping female prisoners.

The director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, Bryan Stevenson, said Alabama is behind most other states in installing security cameras. "It's one reason abuse has been so difficult to prove in this state," he said.

Alabama Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas brought in the National Institute of Corrections, part of the Justice Department, to conduct a review at Tutwiler. Its report, released in January, cited the lack of security cameras monitoring major areas of the prison.

Thomas, who rose through the ranks to the top spot in the prison system, immediately began to push for improvements. In the spring session of the Legislature, Thomas asked the Legislature for $3.5 million for security improvements at Tutwiler, including security cameras, and additional funding to hire guards throughout the prison system. Alabama's prisons are historically understaffed. At Ventress, there are 14.9 inmates for each correctional officer.

The Legislature responded to the commissioner's budget request with a $16.7 million budget increase that Thomas said would allow the improvements at Tutwiler and the hiring of 100 more correctional officers. Thomas said the department has started the procurement process and hopes to get the cameras installed before the end of the year. The department predicts it will cost about $1.4 million for 400 cameras, a central monitoring station and 60 days of memory storage.

The department is also planning to add cameras at a lower-security women's center in Wetumpka. The department has a limited number of cameras operating in some male prisons. The next step in Thomas' plan is to assess what the prisons have and what is needed.

In the view of Stevenson and Ward, widespread use of security cameras would discourage problems for both inmates and staff.

They could help protect inmates from abuse by employees or attacks by other prisoners, and they could protect guards from attacks by inmates and false accusations of abuse from inmates because everyone would know their actions were being recorded.

Ward said adding cameras is not simply a matter of running a few wires. He said most Alabama's prisons are old and don't have the design structure that makes adding the cameras and wiring easy. But he said they are a necessity for safety reasons.

"You are creating an environment where one day a lawsuit is going to force the Legislature on this issue, and that is unfortunate," he said.

© 2013 al.com. All rights reserved.

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SCHOOL TRESPASS BILL SIGNED INTO LAW

Montgomery, Ala. — A person who stops or delays a school bus in an unauthorized manner could face jail time under a new law named in honor of the Midland City bus driver who died while protecting the children he transported to and from school each day.

The Charles “Chuck” Poland Jr., Act, passed recently by the Alabama Legislature and signed into law by Governor Robert Bentley, now makes it a Class “A” misdemeanor to trespass on a school bus. Such offenses include a punishment of up to a year in jail.

Poland was fatally shot on January 29, 2013, when a gunman boarded his bus and Poland refused his demand to hand over two children. Due to Poland’s heroic actions, all but one student escaped. The gunman took that child to an underground bunker, from which he was rescued unharmed after a six-day standoff.

Alabama Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, and State Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton, were instrumental in introducing the bills that led to the legislation. Alabama State Department of Education Pupil Transportation Director Joe Lightsey commended the lawmakers for their hard work on behalf of the state’s students and drivers, noting that unauthorized entry on Alabama school buses has increased dramatically in recent years. 

“All too often, unauthorized persons have boarded school buses and threatened or assaulted students and school bus drivers. Current trespass laws do not specifically address the unauthorized entry of a school bus,” Lightsey said. “The Charles ‘Chuck’ Poland, Jr. Act specifically addresses the issue of trespassing on an Alabama school bus and will help school systems protect students and school bus drivers by vigorously prosecuting persons who do so.”

A person commits the crime of trespass on a school bus in the first degree if they are found guilty of any of the following:

▪   Intentionally demolishing, destroying, defacing, injuring, burning or damaging any public school bus.

▪   Entering a public school bus while the door is open to load or unload students without lawful purpose while at a railroad grade crossing or after being forbidden from doing so by the bus driver in charge of the bus or an authorized school official.

▪   As an occupant of a public school bus, refusing to leave the bus after the bus driver in charge of the bus or authorized school official demands that they do so.

▪   Intentionally stopping, impeding, delaying or detaining any school bus from being operated for public school purposes with the intent to commit a crime.

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END OF THE SESSION UPDATE

Successful Session Comes to an End

I will be the first to admit that this has been one of the hardest legislative sessions I have had.  But meaningful reform can only be achieved with hard work. In the end, I am proud of my accomplishments for the people in my district during this session.

My agenda for Senate District 14, and as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, included laws defining Elder Abuse as a crime in our state, a law defining the fee schedules for attorneys contracted with the state which was recognized by The American Tort Reform Association and The Wall Street Journal as a big step forward for transparency, and The Alabama Commercial Aviation Business Improvement Act, designed to help create as many as 4,000 jobs in our state. All of these passed with wide bi-partisan support and were signed into law by the Governor.

We also passed a series of bills sponsored and written by The Alabama Law Institute that clarify and update outdated laws – laws written at the turn of last century can use tweaking to make them apply to the turn of this century. As Chairman of The Alabama Law Institute, I am proud to say that these bills were crafted with the help of 1000s of hours of volunteer, or pro bono, work by attorneys throughout the state. It is always heartening to see people working hard to give back to their profession and the state.

Another landmark piece of legislation to help get our state budgets under control and get more out of less created The Office of Fleet Management. Before this, state agencies had carte blanche to contract with whomever they saw fit to provide vehicles. Now there is oversight and economies of scale when purchasing automobiles for our state fleet. There is also life cycle costing - taking into account gas mileage and other factors instead of going with the cheapest base price, to ensure that we’re not penny-wise and pound-foolish.

There were hundreds of other bills sponsored and passed this session, including those to update our National Guard Armories, provide safety officers for schools, update school curriculum for a 21st Century workforce, repay The Alabama Trust Fund, and of course The Alabama Accountability Act which will ensure no child is stuck in a failing school with no options to transfer to get a better education.

While I will always believe that less government leads to more freedom, sometimes you have to deal with government to create these choices – and I believe every bill I sponsored and every bill I voted in favor of has that goal in mind. I work hard every day for the people of Senate District 14 and the people of our state as a whole. Even if we disagree on policy or funding priorities, my door is always open to speak to anyone who wants to help Alabama be the best we can be. 

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LEGISLATURE BLOCKS EFFORT TO BROADEN BALLOT ACCESS

For all the grumbling heard about the two major parties in our state, third-party and independent candidates are rare sights on Alabama ballots. You’re about as likely to spot Nick Saban at Toomer’s Corner.

That’s not just happenstance; it’s decidedly by design. Alabama has some of the strictest ballot access laws in the country, with requirements that make it extremely difficult for anyone not seeking office as a Democrat or a Republican to even make it on the ballot, let alone be elected.

The major parties like it that way, and why wouldn’t they? Alabama elections are effectively a closed shop. The two parties face competition from each other, but they have little cause for worry about anyone else.

Yet it is clear that the two major parties do not have a collective monopoly on good ideas or fresh approaches or even sensible collaboration on the problems facing Alabama. The legislative session that ended this week underscored that once again.

Our state doubtless could benefit from some differing viewpoints, from other policy positions that at the very least could spur renewed debate on important issues and perhaps break through the ideological logjams that so often impede meaningful progress.

That’s why it was disappointing to see, yet again, the failure of legislation that would revise Alabama’s needlessly restrictive ballot access laws. To his credit, Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, has been trying to get the bill passed for several years, but he’s up against a daunting wall of opposition built around the two-party status quo.

Under current law, an independent or third-party candidate faces tremendous obstacles in getting on the ballot. Democratic and Republican candidates are automatically on the ballot, but a third-party candidate gets such placement only if his or her party received at least 20 percent of the vote in the last general election. That’s an extraordinarily high threshold.

An independent candidate must obtain petition signatures totaling at least 3 percent of the votes cast in the last general election race for governor. In the 2010 election, there were 1,485,324 votes cast for governor, meaning that an independent candidate for statewide office would need 44,560 signatures of qualified electors. In reality, the candidate would need to gather far more signatures than that in order to be sure of having the necessary number of valid signatures. It’s a huge barrier to the ballot.

Of course, practicality demands that some reasonable threshold be established. It can’t be so low that any group of grousers at the local coffeeshop can pass around a petition and put a pal on the ballot. At the same time, there’s no justification for setting the threshold so high as to essentially exclude everyone except the Democrats and Republicans.

Ward’s bill lowered the petition requirement to 1.5 percent for statewide candidates. Using the 2010 numbers, that would require 22,280 signatures — not an easy target, but not out of the realm of reality either.

We urge Ward to keep trying and to bring back the bill in next year’s session. In the meantime, Alabamians will be well justified in asking their legislators to explain their opposition to it.

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AMERICAN TORT REFORM ASSOCIATION APPLAUDS WARD TRANSPARENCY BILL

WASHINGTON--(BUSINESS WIRE)--May 21, 2013-- 

The American Tort Reform Association today applauded Alabama lawmakers for final passage of legislation that will bring "good-government transparency to the state's hiring of private sector attorneys on a contingency fee basis."

ATRA president Tiger Joyce said his organization has helped make the case for H.B. 227, the Transparency in Private Attorney Contracting (TiPAC) Act, which passed the House by a nearly 2-1 margin on April 16 and by a 28-1 (with one abstention) Senate vote yesterday.

"As is often the case with the crafting and enactment of positive civil justice reforms, credit for this legislation goes to many," said Joyce. "Representative Paul DeMarco, Senator Cam Ward, Senate Speaker Pro Tem Del Marsh, Speaker Mike Hubbard and Attorney General Luther Strange all helped lead the way, and we expect Gov. [Robert] Bentley, with his solid record of promoting economic growth and jobs in Alabama, to sign the bill into law soon.

"In too many states without comparable statutes, attorneys general or other state officials have sometimes hired their friends or political supporters to perform legal work for the state without an open bidding process and with few if any records kept about compensation and work performed," continued Joyce.

"But Alabama now joins a growing number of states, including neighboring Mississippi, that have chosen the kind of transparency that taxpayers and voters deserve. This legislation will improve the reputation of the state's civil justice system and make it easier to attract businesses and jobs," he concluded.

The legislation provides that the state may not enter into a contingency fee contract with any attorney or law firm unless the contracting agency makes a written determination prior to entering into the contract that contingency fee representation is both cost-effective and in the public interest. It also limits contingency fees relative to the size of the state's recovery in a lawsuit to help assure that litigation brought on behalf of the state is motivated by the public good, not by private profit. It also requires the posting of any contract and any payment of contingency fees online for public scrutiny, among other things.

ATRA has championed a national effort to pass state legislation that codifies a uniform set of standards and brings more transparency and accountability to the hiring of outside contingency fee counsel.

The American Tort Reform Association, based in Washington, D.C., is the only national organization dedicated exclusively to tort and liability reform through public education and the enactment of legislation. Its members include nonprofit organizations and small and large companies, as well as trade, business and professional associations from the state and national level. The American Tort Reform Foundation is a sister organization dedicated primarily to research and public education.

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ELDER ABUSE BILL RECEIVES FINAL PASSAGE ON LAST DAY OF SESSION

MONTGOMERY – Planning on taking advantage of Alabama’s seniors?  You may want to think again.  The bill known as the Protecting Alabama’s Elders Act passed the House last night which will create new articles in the Criminal Code to combat elder abuse and financial exploitation.  It passed the Senate earlier in the session.  

 

"As public officials it is our moral obligation to protect senior citizens from both physical and financial predators. This legislation will defend our seniors from the criminals who prey on them," stated Senator Cam Ward, Sponsor of the Senate version, SB 29.

This legislation will strengthen Alabama’s laws to protect our seniors and provide our law enforcement agencies with the tools needed to punish those who hurt them. 

 

"I am pleased the legislature passed this important legislation so we can make sure law enforcement have the tools that they need to prosecute those who attempt to take advantage of Alabama's seniors," explained Representative Paul DeMarco, Sponsor of the House version, HB 45.  “I am pleased that the legislature recognized the importance of this bill.”   

The legislation was drafted by the Alabama Council for the Prevention of Elder Abuse which was created during the 2012 Legislation Session.  The Council has approximately 30 agencies and organizations who participate.

 

“Combating elder abuse has been a top priority of Governor Bentley,” explained Neal Morrison, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Senior Services which is the Lead Agency designated for the Council.  “I am so glad we were able to collaborate with the 30 agencies and organizations who participate in the Council to pull together and stand in a united front to protect our seniors.  We will not stand by and watch quietly as our seniors are taken advantage of.”

 

The legislation will create additional section(s) in the criminal code for elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation.  These new sections will provide law enforcement and prosecutors with additional avenues to prosecute elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation. 

 

“This is truly a phenomenal piece of legislation.  Many people in our state came together and created a much needed and long overdue bill for seniors that has now passed,” stated Nancy Buckner, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Human Resources.  “This process is a model of how entities with common interests can and do work together.  The elder abuse act sends a message to those who might abuse or exploit seniors that Alabama will not tolerate it!”

 

Currently, the penalties are found in the Adult Protective Services Act and apply only to victims who could be categorized as a “protected person” but anyone can be scammed or abused.  The proposed legislation does not change the current APS penalties, but adds new sections to the Alabama criminal code.  The new criminal code sections would apply to victims who are 60 years of age or older, regardless of mental competency, so all that law enforcement officials will have to prove is the victim’s age. 

 

Elder abuse and neglect can be prosecuted as first degree, second degree, or third degree abuse or neglect depending on the type and severity of harm to the victim.  The penalties range from a class A misdemeanor for elder abuse and neglect in the third degree to a class A felony for intentional abuse or neglect which causes serious physical injury.  A class A felony carries a sentence of ten (10) years to life in Alabama.

 

The financial exploitation penalties apply to elderly victims (60 and older) who have been exploited by deception, intimidation, undue influence, force, or threat of force.  Additionally, agents under a power of attorney, guardians, and conservators who exploit the person they have a responsibility to may be subject to the criminal penalties.  The financial exploitation penalties range from a class A misdemeanor for exploitation of money or property totaling $500 or less to a class B felony for exploitation of money or property exceeding $2,500.  A class B felony carries a sentence of two (2) to twenty (20) years in Alabama.

 

 

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LEGAL TRANSPARENCY BILL PASSED BY LEGISLATURE

20-May-2013

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

MONTGOMERY—A legal transparency bill that is a top priority for the Business Council of Alabama in the 2013 legislative session has been approved by the legislature and now goes to Governor Robert Bentley’s desk for his consideration.

HB 227 by Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, is landmark legislation known as the Transparency in Private Attorney Contracting (TIPAC) that will provide a commonsense approach when it comes to the state contracting with outside counsel to handle litigation on its behalf.  The TIPAC bill will provide greater accountability by requiring a contracting agency to prove that any contingency fee contract is cost-effective and in the public’s best interest.  Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, sponsored the legislation in the Senate.

“The BCA remains committed to the continued advancement of legal reform in Alabama. Over the years, we have worked closely with the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform on this type of model legislation to ensure accountability and full disclosure,” said BCA President and CEO William J. Canary. 

 "Alabama will join a vanguard of states like Arizona, Florida, Indiana, and Mississippi who have led the effort to open the relationships between state attorneys general and private lawyers hired to work with them to public scrutiny.  Attorney General Strange is to be commended for his leadership,” said Harold Kim, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform. 

State attorneys general are becoming increasingly more involved in consumer protection cases and are often times relying on outside counsel to handle litigation on behalf of a state.  Currently, these outside firms receive a contingency fee based on the percentage of whatever amount is awarded on behalf of the consumer.  This often results in excessive fees and can cause the appearance of impropriety, which undermines our legal system.

Additionally, to ensure that the private plaintiff's firm is acting in the best interests of the state, and not in the interest of its own profit, the legislation requires government attorneys to maintain control of the case and any settlement decisions.  Transparency is achieved through the requirement that a copy of the executed fee contract be posted online. 

“We applaud the House and Senate legislative leadership and our attorney general who collectively made this legislation a priority and helped ensure its passage,” Canary concluded.

The Business Council of Alabama is Alabama’s foremost voice for business. The BCA is a non-partisan statewide business association representing the interests and concerns of nearly one million working Alabamians through its member companies and its partnership with the Chamber of Commerce Association of Alabama.  BCA is Alabama’s exclusive affiliate to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers.

Contact: Nathan Lindsay (334) 834-6000

 

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LEGISLATIVE SESSION DOWN TO FINAL DAY

State legislators will have full plates when they return to the statehouse Monday for the last day of the current session.

In addition to bills that have garnered national headlines, such as the Alabama Accountability Act and a gun rights bill, lawmakers representing Chilton County will try to push through bills that affect residents here.

“This is it,” state Rep. Kurt Wallace said about the final day. “We’ll be here until midnight if we have to.”

State Sen. Cam Ward said a data processing fee increase that would raise additional funding for the Chilton County Humane Society has cleared the Senate and is on the schedule for the House of Representatives to consider.

Ward said he expects the bill to pass.

Wallace is less hopeful about a bill he sponsored that would regulate the state’s barber industry.

He said Monday marks the fourth time the bill will be on the House’s schedule, but this time it is so far down the agenda that Wallace said he doesn’t expect it to come to a vote.

“Everybody has bills they are trying to get up there,” he said.

Wallace said he intends to re-introduce the bill during the Legislature’s next session, possibly with some modifications.

Ward, meanwhile, hopes to see final passage of three bills he is sponsoring: one would strengthen laws against financial and physical abuse of the elderly, the second would place caps on the amounts state government can pay to outside legal representation, and the third would increase penalties against an unauthorized person who boards a school bus and assaults the driver or a student.

Wallace and Ward differed on the latest development with the Accountability Act, which has garnered attention nationwide while being hailed by its Republican supporters as groundbreaking for education in the state.

Gov. Robert Bentley announced that instead of signing a set of revisions to the act into law, that he would tack on an executive amendment delaying implemenation by two years.

The Legislature would then consider the amendment.

The Accountability Act calls for tax credits for state residents who take their children out of “failing” schools and enroll them in non-failing schools. Bentley said the state needs to focus first on re-paying more than $400 million borrowed from the Education Trust Fund, a position Ward said he agrees with.

“We need to start paying that money back,” Ward said. “[Bentley’s amendment] doesn’t do away with the tax credit, and it doesn’t do away with school choice.”

But Wallace said legislators have been assured that the act is “fiscally responsible.”

“If everything continues on the path we’ve been on, we’ll be fine,” Wallace said. “We worked really, really hard, and this could put our work in jeopardy. Right now, I don’t support it.”

Wallace said he thinks both the House and Senate would override Bentley’s veto if the amendment came to a vote.

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