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Merry Christmas 2016

Our nation has just finished one of the most contentious presidential elections I can remember. In many ways, the American people seem dangerously divided: hate-filled posts fill up social media, while the loudest voices dominate cable television. Active, informed debate about political issues is healthy, but it often seems our political and cultural discourse has more heat than light. However our community and nation will continue to move forward.

This Christmas season, I encourage you to take a break from politics. Put down the newspaper, turn off the cable news network, and go for a week without reading your favorite political blog. Instead, read A Christmas Carol, help out at the local food pantry, send a hand-written letter to a relative or teacher who has had a profound effect on your life, or invite someone over for dinner. Most importantly take the time to enjoy the precious time you have with those that you love. I have learned many lessons in life but one of the most important was the need to take the time to appreciate the blessings we have in life. It was a good lesson that I always try to remember through good times and bad.

As a state senator, I firmly believe in the importance of politics and political discussion, and I am deeply grateful for legacy of liberty we have under the Constitution. But as a conservative, I also know that politics should never occupy the center of our lives. The thrill or pain we get when “our team” wins or loses at the polls is fleeting. The joy we receive when we serve others in our family and our community will last a lifetime.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you this season. 

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How has Prison Reform Impacted Alabama?

The criminal justice system has historically relied on human judgment for sentencing, but Alabama’s recent criminal justice reforms are attempting to equate human error to a quantifiable number.

Crimes now equal a score that effectively decides an offender’s punishment. A similar score sheet labels parolees as high, medium or low risk.

Alabama is a bit of a trendsetter — for better or for worse — on the criminal justice front, said Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission tasked with both implementing the 2013 and 2015 reforms as well as crunching the data.

“With the passage of the 2015 reforms, I think you’re seeing Alabama acknowledge for the first time that data driven decisions need to be the driving force of all criminal justice policy,” Wright said. “That’s a huge shift in policy. Obviously that’s not something everybody will jump on board with, but I think it’s important to make decisions, particularly ones that have huge price tags attached to them, to much more of a data driven process.”

The reforms are not without controversy. Attorneys remain critical of the sentencing guidelines, and judges are split on whether or not the score sheets rob them of their ability to adjudicate, but the reforms have shown promising returns in popping the balloon on Alabama’s prison population and the data collected over the next few years could continue to spur progressive criminal reform.

Numbers game

The two-pronged reform began with the implementation of presumptive sentencing guidelines in 2013 that essentially reduced sentencing decisions to a score sheet in an effort to be more selective and consistent about who gets locked away. For drug offenses, eight or more points  — perhaps a distribution of marijuana charge (6 points) and a possession with intent to distribute charge (5 points) — will land that person in prison barring mitigating factors. For property crimes, 15 points is required for a prison sentence. Both sheets also add points for prior adult convictions, incarcerations, probation revocations and juvenile delinquencies, but the idea was — and still is — to send fewer non-violent offenders to prison to relieve the burden on a prison system that, at the time the guidelines were implemented, housed nearly twice the inmate population (25,299) than it was designed for (13,318).

The guidelines also made sentencing consistent across the state. A possession of marijuana charge, for instance, no longer relies on the presiding judge’s views of the drug.

“Some judges are heavy on possession of marijuana. They detest it and (before the guidelines) would give harsher sentences than other judges would,” said former Montgomery County Circuit Judge William Shashy who retired this past month.

The 2015 prison reform, also known as Senate Bill 67 sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, focused more on fighting the bloated prison system. A new class of felony, Class D, was created for sentencing guidelines to include non-violent offenses such as minor drug possession and third-degree theft. Those crimes now carry the lowest point totals as legislators are more concerned with locking up violent offenders.

“They’re focused on felony offenses the Alabama Legislature has deemed non-violent. Mostly drug and property offenses,” Wright said.

If fewer non-violent offenders are going to prison, more are naturally going to parole and probation. The bill accounted for that by injecting funding into the state parole system to hire 100 more parole officers.

 

Darrell Morgan, assistant executive director of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, said they have hired 71 additional parole officers as of the end of October. Seventeen more are currently being interviewed, and Morgan said more officers will be added using their general fund in an effort to reduce parole officers’ caseloads.

“When this began we were around 200 cases per officer. Our target is to have everybody down to 100 offenders per officer by the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30),” Morgan said. “That was one of the biggest issues with previous parole boards was we didn’t have the adequate staff. Now that these numbers have increased we’re able to better manage our caseloads and we can manage more people.”

Also implemented this year was the Ohio Risk Assessment System (ORAS). The risk assessment is filled out in the pre-sentencing investigation and assigns scores based on severity of the offense, institutional behavior, and what risk-reducing programs that offender will attend. Wright said the sheet not only helps parole officers manage their caseload better, but it also will give him hard, objective data on offenders across the state.

“For the first time, we’re going to be able to say X amount of the probation population has this need or X percent of the population is at this risk level. Right now it’s just anecdotal,” Wright said. “If you talk to the district attorney and the defense lawyers, you’ll probably wonder if you’re talking about the same people. Now for the first time you’ll have an empirical objective tool that we’re going to actually measure that on. For the first time, we’ll be able to see how many people test out as high risk.”

Beyond the numbers

It’s a logical move to combat unsightly statistics by gathering new data, but local attorneys say the reforms have had an impact on how they defend or prosecute offenders who they say have been reduced to a number.

Montgomery County Deputy District Attorney Ben McGough said the sheets and implementation of Class D felonies have incentivized crime and taken the teeth out of the justice system.

“When a defendant looks at their sheet and their score is two and it takes 15 to go to prison, they’re guaranteed from the beginning. You’re not going to prison no matter what happens,” McGough said. “Then they look at the sheet and think, ‘I’ve got 13 points to burn.’ they can look at the sheet, do the math, and think, ‘I can do four more non-violent offenses before the judge even has the option to send me to prison.’ And we’re literally giving them the figures.”

On the defense side, Public Defender’s Office Director Aliya McKee said the sheets reduce her clients to a figure instead of treating each case as a unique situation.

“Our clients, from my perspective, get reduced to a number,” McKee said. “I’m somewhat comfortable with that being the starting point, but it’s not the solution. We want the court to see the person behind the charge. The name, not the case number.”

 

The guidelines do offer judges opportunities for discretion. Defense attorneys can argue mitigating factors to reduce a sentence and prosecutors can argue aggravating factors to increase it.

Some of the biggest holes in the one-size-fits-all sentencing sheet concern number of counts against a person and whether or not an offense is on the sheet.

If a person is charged with 14 counts of third degree theft and has no prior record, that’s only eight points on the sheet, a score that will not get that person to prison.

Then again, much of the point of the guidelines is keeping offenders out of the engorged prison system. Judges such as Shashy and Montgomery Circuit Judge Truman Hobbs Jr. have no problem with the guidelines, but said some judges take umbrage with the reduced sentences.

“It’s not with its detractors but on the whole it’s served its purpose,” Hobbs said. “The guidelines gave shorter sentences closer to what was served, but the reality is the prison is so overcrowded that before a five-year sentence would be reduced to three, and now it’s a three-year sentence and they’re getting out in less than a year. We’re giving shorter sentences, but they’re still getting out pretty quickly. That bothers some judges, but for the most part it's served a good purpose.”

Besides keeping offenders out of prison, the goal for most involved is to find a better way to rehabilitate the offenders. The reforms put in place foster a good environment for rehab programs, but the funding remains lacking in many areas, according to Wright and McKee.

The reforms did allow the Board of Pardons and Paroles to institute rehabilitation programs in counties lacking community corrections services, Morgan said.

“We’ve partnered with the Department of Mental Health to obtain contracts with local community service providers to do drug treatment and mental health counseling for offenders under our supervision. Right now those are the 22 counties that don’t have community corrections services,” Morgan said.

Still, Wright and others would like to see more investment in rehabilitation programs. Lowering the prison population doesn’t matter if the cause of the behavior is not being treated.

“I think one of the things the state of Alabama has always struggled with is enough investment into community alternatives. The state has always had a difficult time funding substance abuse treatment, drug treatment and more recently mental health treatment,” Wright said. “Those options have to be fully funded if we are going to divert more people from prison and jail to give them a chance to succeed in the community. The latest prison reform legislation is an effort to do that, but we need to remain vigilant in making sure these alternatives are properly funded and make sure we’re measuring results to make sure the outcomes desired are being achieved.”

Early results

As judges and attorneys feel their way through the reforms, all eyes are keen to judge what impact reforms have had on key statistics such as prison population, crime rate, parole caseload and recidivism. It’s still too soon to make definitive claims, but Wright said some early data returns are promising.

State prison population, for example, has dropped from 25,299 in 2013 (189.9 percent capacity) to 23,318 this year (175 percent).

“I think the initial results of the presumptive sentencing standards are promising,” Wright said. There has been a steady decrease in the prison population averaging 80-100 fewer inmates per month.”

State crime rate has also dropped during the period going from nearly 174,000 total crimes in 2013 (about 3,586 crimes per 100,000 people) to just over 162,000 this year, however, that rate was already falling from 191,318 in 2011 and 181,752 in 2012, according to Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

Parole caseload has also begun to dip slightly. Morgan said it took longer than expected to hire new officers but active caseload is down to about 145 cases per officer. When adding inactive cases, that decline looks much smaller (about 215 per officer to about 195), but Morgan said the reform has had a noticeable impact.

“(Adding inactive cases) makes the numbers still look high, but the hiring of the officers have gotten our active caseload down to a manageable level, which is lower than it was. But we still have to hire more people,” Morgan said.

The risk assessment and recidivism data will take longer to gather with Wright saying, “a lot of the big data prizes won’t be coming in for four to five to six years,” but some usable risk assessment results will become available in the next 12 to 18 months.

On a local level, one particular statistic has the District Attorney’s Office concerned that the guidelines may be doing more harm than good for public safety.

Montgomery has seen 530 more thefts this year than last year, and many in the DA’s office, including Chief Deputy District Attorney Lloria James, see the lenient sentencing guidelines as the blame.

“Those statistics don’t surprise us at all. It’s almost like a revolving door,” James said. “The problem is sort of like word travels fast on a college campus or neighborhood or things like that, in the criminal community word travels fast, and I think it’s gotten out there that pretty much if it’s non-violent — thefts, burglaries things like that — there’s almost zero chance you’re going to see some prison time, so it’s worth it to them.”

Whether or not there is a connection remains up for debate, but that hasn’t stopped District Attorney Daryl Bailey from reaching out to Sen. Ward in recent weeks about possibly making some changes.

“We’ll continue looking at it, but we’ve done a lot of reform already,” Ward said. “Obviously that’s a point being made by the district attorneys, but if there's any changes needed to be made in the guidelines we need to do that. We need to make sure it's prudent for the safety of the public.”

The full impact of the prison reform remains unclear, and whether or not there is a next phase that supports post-sentencing rehabilitation remains to be seen.

The reforms have shown themselves not to be perfect, but Wright said that should engender further study and support in his ideal scenario.

The reforms were put in place after studying prison reform in other Republican states such as Texas and North Carolina, but implementing front-to-back change is “trendsetting,” Wright said.

For now, the state must wait and see what the numbers hold.

“It’s a little daunting, but that’s trendsetting to have this big of a process going on at one time,” Wright said. “That’s also why I tell people both for it and against it to take a deep breath and let’s do our best to implement it. I think with a lot of things, people get in the way of things before they implement it. We owe it to ourselves to embrace what the Legislature passed and what the intent was. Let’s give it our best good faith effort, wait a while and then sit around the table and talk about it then.”

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How Sessions as Attorney General Would Oversee Alabama Prison Probe

By John Sharp, AL.COM

If U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions is confirmed as the nation's next Attorney General, he will oversee an ongoing federal probe into the dangerous, overcrowded conditions of the prisons in his home state.

But how Sessions might handle the Department of Justice's investigation into the men's prisons in Alabama is up for speculation. Experts are split on whether the conservative Sessions will get involved in the case, if he'll take a hands-off approach or if he will establish policy that might be lenient on enforcing change.

Sessions has granted few, if any, interviews since he was chosen by President-elect Donald Trump as the next Attorney General. A spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

"I won't say there will be a push back (on the state prison probe), but I would assume it would be (handled) different in terms of how they approach it with the new administration," said Doug Jones, a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District who served from 1997 to 2001. "At this point, you just don't know what the new administration's view of this would be. It is just going to be a different world."

Said John Carroll, professor of law at the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham: "The Attorney General sets high level policy. It would be rare for him to go down to the level of these investigations."

'Constitutional violations'

Alabama prisons are the most overcrowded in the nation. They are also understaffed. State task forces and legislative proposals in recent years have tackled the problem, but relief has been slow to come.

Instead, the federal government, which once forced California to release prisoners, this year launched a formal investigation into the basic conditions.

The Obama Administration's DOJ announced the investigation in October, amid repeated claims about inadequate protections of prisoners who face physical and sexual harm.

The notoriously overcrowded prisons are more than 160 percent beyond capacity, and state lawmakers are likely to prioritize plans next year to address the situation, while a federal lawsuit over medical and mental health issues for inmates progresses.

The system is plagued with violence against employees and inmates, with alarming situations at Holman Correctional Facility near Atmore: A warden and officer were stabbed during a riot in March, and a corrections officer died after being stabbed by an inmate in September.

 

Alabama prisons crumbling under dangerous conditions

Alabama prisons crumbling under dangerous conditions

The recent murder of a Holman correctional officer underlines the dangerous conditions that exist within an Alabama state prison system that has suffered from chronic overcrowding and understaffing in recent years.

 

The DOJ's investigation is being handled under the Civil Rights of Institutionalize Persons Act (CRIPA), which gives the department the authority to investigate violations of prisoners' constitutional rights.

Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, who heads the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, is heading up the probe.

But once Trump is inaugurated on Jan. 20, and if Sessions' appointment as Attorney General is confirmed early next year, a new slate of personnel will come on board. Sessions will have the authority to oversee the DOJ's Civil Rights' division, and will be charged with setting administrative policy.

Sessions is expected to join Trump for a rare joint public appearance together during a rally Saturday at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile.

But even critics of Sessions' appointment to the AG's post say it's unlikely he would become overly involved in an investigation.

Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center - who has expressed reservations about how a Sessions Justice Department will enforce civil rights laws nationwide - said he doesn't anticipate the Alabama senator getting overly involved with the prison situation.

"When it comes to this situation in Alabama, everyone knows that the prison system is in crisis," said Cohen. "Everyone knows it has a mammoth problem of rampant violence and problems of failure to provide adequate health care. It's a clear case of constitutional violations that no Attorney General, no matter where they might be on the political spectrum, will feel any differently on with this case."

Said Carroll, "It's universally held even among the most conservative politicians in the state that the prison system has serious issues with it and that it has to be remedied."

Sessions' approach

What will be interesting to watch, according to Jones and others, is how the DOJ under Sessions' watch will handle other criminal justice-related matters that could affect Alabama's overcrowded prisons.

Jones said he believes that Sessions, who has had past hardline approaches toward incarcerating criminals - and who once supported legislation that would integrate juvenile prisoners into adult corrections facilities - will likely be "very deferential to the states" on how they handle similar matters.

"I don't think he would be the kind of Attorney General to push for interventions if he can see a way around it," said Jones.

Stephen Rushin, assistant professor of law at the University of Alabama's School of Law, said he believes a Sessions-led DOJ will be similar to those under President George W. Bush's administration. In other words, Rushing said, an investigation into Alabama's prison won't be altered but the recommendations following it will differ than what could have occurred under a Democratic administration.

"Instead of pursuing a consent decree or a court order to force a city or state to effect a change, during the Bush Administration, they provided voluntary assistance of convincing municipalities (and other government agencies) to make changes rather than forcing their hand," Rushin said, noting that Democrat-led DOJ's are more likely to "zealously pursue" federal sanctions on matters of police shooting investigations and prison reform.

Rushin also said a key issue to watch is how advanced the investigation has become.

"There are time considerations here," he said. "It takes time for an Attorney General, a prominent level Cabinet position, to be confirmed by the Senate."

Federal lawsuit

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster - and a leading advocate for prison reform in the state - said the DOJ probe will advance "regardless of whether Sessions is appointed or not."

"As a state, we've done a pretty good job working with the DOJ in the past," said Ward, adding that Alabama lawmakers are not surprised with the federal investigation that was initiated with assistance from U.S. Attorney's Offices for the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Alabama.

But Ward said the worry for state lawmakers is over a 2014 lawsuit filed by the SPLC before U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson.

The case focuses on a different aspect of the prison system: Mental health, medical care for inmates and discrimination against inmates with disabilities.

The state agreed to settle most of the disability claims under a plan that will require improvements in accommodations for prisoners with physical disabilities. A jury trial is underway on the mental health aspects of the case. 

"That's where Alabama's real danger is, in my opinion," Ward said.

Richard Fording, a political science professor at the University of Alabama, said the most effective way for the federal government to force change with Alabama's prisons is through lawsuits filed in the federal court system.

He noted that in California, federal courts - with the backing of the U.S. Supreme Court - pushed for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity. In 2015, for the first time in years, the overcrowded prisons were able to meet that threshold.

"Federal action generally results from successful lawsuits filed in federal court, based on guarantees offered by the 8th Amendment to the Constitution," Fording said. "Many of the important decisions regarding California's prison system - especially health care - were made by federal judges or other designated federal officials."

Speculation premature  

Meanwhile, Bentley's proposed $800 million borrowing plan to build three new mega-prisons for men and one for women is on hold. The proposal would call for closing many of the existing 15 state prisons in Alabama.

Bentley had considered calling state lawmakers back to Montgomery for a special session to address the matter. But there is no indication that the governor's office will move forward with that ahead of the Legislature's regular session that will begin in January.

Yasamie August, spokeswoman for Bentley, said it was "premature to speculate" on what "may or may not happen" with the federal investigation pending Sessions' confirmation. She said the governor's office "welcomes" the investigation.

Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn did not add anything further to his initial comments about the DOJ probe. He said the department is cooperating fully with federal investigators, and that the state plans to "dedicate the necessary time and resources to enable the investigators to complete their work."

He added, "We have been working to provide solutions to the problems faced by the department and will work with the DOJ on recommendations to improve conditions in the Alabama Department of Corrections."

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Alabama Prison System Goes on Trial

A lawsuit on behalf of Alabama's prisoners, claiming they're being denied mental health care, begins in federal court Monday. The class-action suit states that Alabama doesn't provide adequate mental health treatment for those behind bars.

Lawyers for the prisoners argue that the state provides little other than medication, and sometimes inmates are forced to take it against their will. The plaintiffs allege prison conditions are dangerous and discriminatory, which amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The conditions in the prisons are inhumane, according to attorney Maria Morris with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Montgomery-based group that represents some of the plaintiffs.

"There's just nothing that comports with anything like what we as a civilized people in the 21st century would expect to see as far as the way we're treating people," Morris says.

For instance, she says, one severely mentally ill plaintiff is housed in a suicide-watch cell.

"He is spending 23 hours a day or more locked up in a cell, getting no counseling," says Morris. "That's their highest level of care that they can give him."

The lawsuit is on behalf of Alabama's male prison population. Two years ago, the state agreed to improve conditions in women's prisons after a federal investigation found nearly two decades of systematic abuses, including male officers forcing women to have sex.

The trial that starts Monday is part of a larger lawsuit that also accuses the state of denying male inmates basic medical care. That issue will come to court early next year.

The root problem, Morris says, is that Alabama can't afford to provide adequate services for the number of prisoners it incarcerates.

Alabama's prisons are some of the most crowded in the country. At times, the lockups are at nearly double capacity, with staffing levels that are half what they should be, according to Alabama's Department of Corrections. For example, the state has 21 doctors for about 23,300 prisoners.

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Senator Joins AT&T in Announcing New, Local Fiber Network

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. Nov. 15, 2016 —

AT&T launched ultra-fast internet service in parts of the Birmingham area, including in parts of Chelsea,  Montevallo, Pelham and surrounding communities. We’re offering a 1 gigabit connection to area homes, apartments and small business locations on our 100% fiber network powered by AT&T FiberSM.

In addition to the homes and small businesses connected to our 100% fiber network in the Birmingham area, we connect nearly 25 area apartment and condo properties.

We plan to expand access to our ultra-fast internet speeds in parts of Alabaster, Calera, Hoover and Tuscaloosa in the future.

The Birmingham area is one of 44 metros nationwide where our ultra-fast internet service is currently available. We plan to reach at least 67 metros with our fastest internet service.

We market our ultra-fast service to over 3 million locations nationwide, of which over 500,000 include apartments and condo units. We’re on track to meet the 12.5 million locations planned by mid-2019.

“The strength of our state’s economy relies on innovation and investment, and it is exciting to have AT&T already fulfilling the promise made less than a year ago to bring ultra-fast internet to Birmingham and surrounding communities,” said State Senator Jabo Waggoner. “New technology enriches the quality of life for area residents and business owners. I applaud AT&T’s continuing investment across Alabama.”

“AT&T’s robust investment in the greater Birmingham area and continued fiber deployment offer enhanced opportunities across all segments of our economy,” said Senator Cam Ward. “AT&T is the first major provider to offer these speeds to area residential customers. AT&T's ultra-fast internet is a welcome addition to Jefferson and Shelby Counties and our state.”

“AT&T is committed to extending access to ultra-fast internet in the greater Birmingham area because our customers are increasingly interacting with their world in more data-intensive ways,” said Fred McCallum, president of AT&T Alabama. “A growing number of people are streaming content directly from their devices and interacting with family and friends through live videos. For these reasons, we are proud to now offer our fastest internet speeds in Birmingham and its surrounding communities.”

Internet-only pricing for customers who choose AT&T Internet 1000, our fastest speed tier on our 100% fiber network, starts as low as $70 a month. Customers may be able to add one of our award-winning DIRECTV or U-verse TV services. We have single, double and triple play offers to fit each customer’s needs.

Internet customers on the 100% fiber network have access to the latest Wi-Fi technology. They can enjoy our best in-home experience with faster Wi-Fi speeds and broad coverage to seamlessly connect all their devices.

What can I do with a service that starts with a 1 gig connection?

These internet speeds are 20x faster than the average cable customer.4 You can download 25 songs in 1 second or your favorite 90-minute HD movie in less than 34 seconds.5 Customers can enjoy our fastest upload and download speeds.

You can also instantly access and stream the latest online movies, music and games. These ultra-fast speeds let you seamlessly telecommute, video-conference, upload and download photos and videos, and connect faster to the cloud.

What is AT&T Fiber?

The 100% fiber network under the AT&T Fiber umbrella brand gives customers the power to choose from a wide range of internet speeds over an ultra-fast internet connection. This network is just one of the network technologies we plan to use to connect customers as a part of AT&T Fiber.  

For more information on AT&T Fiber, visit att.com/getfiber. To find an apartment or condo on the 100% fiber network, visit att.com/apartments.

AT&T in Alabama:

AT&T has invested nearly $1.2 billion in its wireless and wireline networks in Alabama between 2013 through 2015. This drives upgrades to reliability, coverage, speed and performance for residents and business customers. 

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Amendment 14 Protects Chilton County

By Sen. Cam Ward & Rep. Jimmy Martin

We are very fortunate to serve in the Alabama Legislature, and are grateful to the voters who have supported us over the years. We do not go to Montgomery simply to represent our voices and views – we go to Montgomery to represent the will of the people in Chilton County.

Many of our colleagues – both in the House and the Senate – approach their work in the same ways. They fight for the local folks back home, and they work hard to pass local acts that create jobs, fund public safety, provide access to healthcare and improve education.

Over the past thirty years, hundreds of local acts were passed through the state legislature and later voted on by citizens in local referendums. Although these acts benefit Alabamians every day, we have recently discovered a minor gap in the way our state House of Representatives voted on them. The gap is very small and easy to correct, and it must be fixed.  

If we want to maintain hospitals, fire departments, schools and jobs programs in communities across the state, then Alabamians need to come together to correct the gap. Thankfully, Amendment 14 gives voters a chance to do just that.

By casting a YES vote for Amendment 14 on November 8, you will be voting YES to protecting our families, defending our way of life and securing our future.

Simply stated, Amendment 14 Protects Alabama.

In Chilton County, we know that a YES vote will defend the decision by the Chilton County voters to approve construction of the new hospital in Clanton that now serves the entire County and surrounding areas.  Folks no longer have to drive to Shelby County or Montgomery for access to quality health care, especially in an emergency. But due to this voting gap issue, lawyers have sued to stop the revenue stream supporting the hospital and thus undermining the will of the people in Chilton County.  It is critical that we vote YES on Amendment 14 to protect our new hospital and the services it provides.

On November 8, vote YES for Alabama. Vote YES for Amendment 14. In the coming weeks, we strongly encourage you to share this message with your family, friends and colleagues. 

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Hundreds of Local Laws at Stake on November Ballot

Voters statewide will decide the fates of 14 proposed amendments to the Alabama Constitution on Nov. 8.

The topics range widely – from protecting money for state parks to expanding the Auburn University board of trustees.  A few affect only one county.

Voters might find some of the amendments confusing unless they do some homework before heading to the polls.

An example is Amendment 14, which officials say is needed to save hundreds of local laws from legal jeopardy.

"All 67 counties would have something at stake should this go down," Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said.

The issue goes back to another amendment added to the state Constitution in 1984.

Amendment 448 requires legislators to pass the state budgets before other bills.

The budgets are long, detailed documents that need lots of fine-tuning, so lawmakers circumvent the mandate to approve them first.

To do that, they pass a "budget isolation resolution" for each bill they consider before the budgets, which is allowed under Amendment 448.

The so-called BIR vote is ingrained in the legislative routine.

In December, a court ruled that a Jefferson County sales tax law was invalid because the BIR vote did not get the required three-fifths vote.

Amendment 448 says approval requires three-fifths of a quorum, meaning at least 32 votes in the House.

But a House of Representatives rule says approval requires three-fifths of those voting, a lower standard.

The Jefferson County sales tax bill passed the House after a 13-3 vote on the BIR.

Hundreds of other local bills have become law since the 1980s with BIR approval by fewer than 32 votes in the House. That's because it's customary for House members to abstain on local bills outside their districts.

The court ruling invalidating the Jefferson County law is on appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court.

Ward said more than 600 local laws would be ripe for lawsuits if the Supreme Court upholds the decision.

That would "pretty much guarantee that any other challenges will sail right through," said Ward, who sponsored the bill to put Amendment 14 on the ballot.

Local laws that are potentially at risk affect sales taxes, gasoline taxes, property taxes, court costs, pistol permit fees, Sunday alcohol sales, annexations and dozens of other matters.

One example is a Chilton County law passed in 2014 to allow a referendum for a 1-cent sales tax to build a hospital.  St. Vincent's Chilton Hospital will have a grand opening on Sept. 30.

Amendment 14 would ratify and validate all the bills that have passed under the House BIR rule.

Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said Amendment 14 is the logical way to resolve a technicality that jeopardizes established laws needed to deliver government services.

Brasfield said it's not practical to think that the Legislature could pass them again.

Local bills have to be advertised for four consecutive weeks before passing, and Brasfield said that alone would cost an estimated $3 to $4 million.

Brasfield said he's worried because there are 13 other amendments before Amendment 14 on the ballot.

"Sometimes voters lose interest," Brasfield said.

Ward said mayors, county commissioners, sheriffs and other local officials have participated in conference calls about the importance of approving Amendment 14. He said they will be the leading the effort to get the word out.

"That's going to be your principal cheerleaders and surrogates out there because they realize what it can do to so many local laws and sources of funding," Ward said.

There is a new resource to help voters understand the proposed amendments.

The Legislature passed a bill in 2015 to create the Fair Ballot Commission. The commission writes summaries of constitutional amendments in plain language, easier to digest than the legalistic wording of some amendments.

The summaries are on the Secretary of State's website.

Some of the other amendments:

Amendment No. 1 would add two at-large members to the Auburn University Board of Trustees and ensure that no more than three trustees have terms that expire the same year. The board would increase to 16 members.

Amendment No. 2 would prohibit the Legislature from using money generated at state parks for purposes other than maintaining the parks. It would allow certain parks and lands to be operated and maintained by someone other than the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Amendment No. 4 would allow county commissions to create policies on county personnel, litter-free roadways and public property, public transportation, safety on public roads and emergency assistance. Currently, counties have to seek passage of a local law for many basic policy decisions. The amendment would not authorize tax increases, planning and zoning or salary changes.

Amendment No. 6 would repeal and replace Article VII of the Constitution, which governs impeachments.

Currently, the impeachment article does not say how many votes is required in the Senate to remove an official from office.

Amendment 6 would say a two-thirds vote is required.

It would not change reasons for which an official can be impeached.

The amendment was proposed by a bill passed in 2015, before the ongoing move to impeach Gov. Robert Bentley, which is being investigated by the House Judiciary Committee.

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Special Session Allows Medicaid Reform to Move Forward

On Wednesday, the Alabama Legislature concluded a special session focused on Medicaid called by Governor Robert Bentley. The state’s Medicaid program has faced enormous fiscal challenges over the past few years: Medicaid’s costs have skyrocketed over the past decade as the number of recipients has increased in a sluggish economy, while state tax revenues for the General Fund budget (the budget for all non-education state spending) have mostly flat-lined.

Indeed, going into the special session, Medicaid faced a $85 million shortfall between what administrators had requested for the coming fiscal year and what the Legislature had been able to budget. The $85 million deficit led Medicaid to cut physician reimbursements in August, and the department warned cuts in other service reimbursements would soon follow. I spoke with medical group directors and hospital administrators across the state who warned that Medicaid’s cuts would lead to higher health care costs for all Alabamians, as people who were previously on Medicaid would begin using the ER for routine services.  

After much debate in the special session, the Legislature chose to use the state’s BP settlement for three purposes: pay off debt, increase Medicaid’s funding, and jump-start critical infrastructure projects in Mobile and Baldwin counties, an area that sustained enormous economic loss as a result of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. All told, Medicaid will receive an increase of $190 million over the next two years from the BP settlement. That increase should stave off cuts for the next two years.

Most importantly, the Legislature’s plan enables long-term reform of Medicaid to move forward. There is no doubt that Medicaid – the largest expense line by far in the state’s General Fund – must be reformed for our state to be financially stable. In 2010, Medicaid cost the state $314 million. By 2015, Medicaid’s costs had spiked to $685 million, consuming 37% of the General Fund.

In 2013, conservatives in the Legislature passed a series of reforms designed to bend down Medicaid’s long-term cost curve. Under this plan, groups of local health care providers called Regional Care Organizations (RCOs) would each be given annual budgets to care for Medicaid patients in their geographic region. Essentially, part of Medicaid’s budget would be block-granted to the RCOs, which would assume responsibility for the delivery of care.

Poised to begin this coming year, the RCOs are projected by independent actuarial studies to save the state millions of dollars. Federal administrators at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) have praised Alabama’s RCO innovation and recommended it to other states. CMS has even set aside over $700 million in additional federal money to help jump-start the program, with the proviso that Alabama must continue to adequately fund the state portion of the program’s costs.

The outcome of the special session for Medicaid, then, is this: impending cuts to Medicaid have been averted, and more importantly, long-term reform of the program via the RCOs can move forward. By any definition, the special session was a success for stabilizing Medicaid, and that is a win for the entire state.

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Republican Senator Cam Ward represents District 14 in the Alabama State Senate, which includes all or parts of Shelby, Bibb, Chilton, Hale, and Jefferson counties. He serves as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Follow him on Twitter: @SenCamWard

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Senator Works to Save Local Bills

MONTGOMERY — A proposed constitutional amendment in the Statehouse to keep hundreds of local pieces of legislation from potentially being undone is facing the same deadline challenge that a lottery proposal did.

If it doesn’t pass and get to voters, more than 600 local laws could be invalidated by courts, Sen. Cam Ward said Wednesday.

The list of local bills that could be undone goes back more than a decade and in the Tennessee Valley includes tax referendums, changes to city limits and the distribution of TVA money.

“The ramifications would be very far reaching and you would have a pure disaster,” Ward, R-Alabaster, said.

Eric Mackey, the head of the state’s school superintendent association, said this morning some school districts’ local tax revenue could be impacted, but each piece of legislation would have to be overturned individually.

The issue, according to Ward, is that a trial court recently ruled that the way the Alabama House has been counting votes on its budget isolation resolutions is unconstitutional. Budget isolation resolutions are procedural votes in each chamber that allow bills to be discussed and voted on before the Legislature has passed the General Fund and education budgets.

The House and Senate rules differ on the definition of the three-fifths vote required to pass a budget isolation resolution, Ward said. A recent court challenge on a local bill led a state trial court to declare local bills passed by the House invalid. If an appeals court upholds that decision, more than 600 bills could be struck down, Ward said.

“Declaring all these local bills unconstitutional would have an enormous impact,” Ward said. “You’d see a lot of counties that would suffer financially…

“Money for your sheriffs, district attorneys, judges, county governments, school funding, annexations would all go away.”

Ward sponsored Senate Bill 7 in this special session. It calls for a constitutional amendment put before voters to essentially declare the local bills valid, as well as the Legislature’s voting process moving forward.

The bill passed the Senate last week and was sent to the House, where changes were made. The bill was sent to a conference committee of Senators and House members to work out differences in the two versions of the bill, but that meeting didn’t happen Wednesday.

That was the deadline to get proposed constitutional amendments on the Nov. 8 ballot, Secretary of State John Merrill said Wednesday. He said that unless the law was changed or he received an attorney general’s opinion telling him otherwise, a constitutional amendment allowing for a statewide lottery would not be on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Ward on Wednesday night said he was hoping Merrill would reconsider. Ward, an attorney, said he believed state law allowed a few more days to get an amendment on the ballot.

He said the conference committee was going to go ahead with work on the bill today.

“I’m not so sure the Secretary of State is going to be so hard and firm on that (deadline rule),” Ward said.

As lawmakers continue to hash out a proposed lottery and the best way to use the state’s nearly $1 billion BP settlement, Ward said his bill is a bit of a political pawn.

“What you’re doing, people are holding my bill hostage,” he said. “If you don’t (pass it) all 67 counties are hurt.”

The words “budget isolation resolution” aren’t sexy, Ward said, and he can’t see a special election being called on the topic. But not getting the proposal to voters could have disastrous ramifications.

“Not everyone is in love with lottery, not everyone is in love with BP, but all sides see that we have to (do) this,” Ward said.

Ward has a list of local bills that could potentially be challenged and undone. It includes:

• Limestone County’s TVA in-lieu-of-tax money distribution changes made in 2012;

• Hartselle’s 2015 ad valorem tax increase referendum to support education. The referendum was approved by voters.

mary.sell@decaturdaily.com. Twitter @DD_MarySell.

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Lottery Special Session Uncertain

The General Fund is in trouble and must be fixed before a rapidly approaching deadline.

But a shortfall that’s squeezing health care weeks before the 2017 budget goes into effect is a new and unwelcome development.

It’s one forcing doctors around the state to lay employees off, creating longer waiting times, and threatening to become much worse if legislators can't find a solution.

“That affects people, whether they’re on Medicaid or not,” said Linda Lee, president of the Alabama Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents pediatricians. “The impacts that are happening will be felt by all the patients who come to those practices.”

To address the problem, Gov. Robert Bentley will lay two options before legislators when they convene for a special session Monday. The governor plans to ask the Legislature to consider an amendment allowing a statewide lottery, with proceeds going to Medicaid. Because that money won't be available until 2018 at the earliest, Bentley should ask the Legislature to approve an agreement on distributing the state's share of the settlement 2010 Gulf oil spill, which could free tens of millions of dollars for Medicaid.

In appearances around the state, Bentley has said the health of hundreds of thousands of children – who make up the majority of Medicaid recipients – depends on finding a solution.

“All of this boils down to children, it boils down to the disabled, the elderly and the pregnant women that are Medicaid right now, the (one) million people in the state,” Bentley said at a press conference Aug. 3. “The lottery is just a means to an end.”

The question is whether legislators embrace that approach. Most last week rated the lottery’s chances of passage as no better than a coin flip.

“I wouldn’t vote for it,” said Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, the chairman of the Senate’s General Fund committee. “I think it’s a poor way to fund government, and it doesn’t solve our problems.”

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said Friday he "honestly didn't know" what the lottery's prospects were.

"At end of day, it’s getting 21 votes in the Senate," he said. "Right now, I don’t know that anyone can claim they have 21 votes."

But no one seems to deny the problem with Medicaid, or the need to address it.

“I have heard a number of practices specifically tell me A) they have already laid people off or B) they will be doing so in the near future,” said Mark Jackson, executive director of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, which represents 7,000 physicians statewide.

Opening the Constitution

The Alabama Constitution bans lotteries and gambling. Any measure approved by the Legislature will be a constitutional amendment requiring the approval of three-fifths of both chambers, and then approval by the state’s voters. To get on the November ballot, legislators will have to approve a lottery by Aug. 24.The governor had not issued the formal call for the session as of Friday afternoon. Yasamie August, a spokeswoman for Bentley, said in emails Friday they were working on the language related to BP. August said the call would come on Monday. Legislators plan to meet Monday afternoon.

Bentley’s proposal, if approved, would authorize the Legislature to create a lottery with all proceeds going to the state’s beleaguered General Fund, where Medicaid funding originates. The state could set up its own lottery or join a multistate game, like Powerball.

For the most part, the General Fund’s revenue streams post flat growth year to year, and can't keep up with growing expenses. That affects Medicaid, which in June covered 1 million Alabamians, over 20 percent of the state’s population. While the federal government picks up more than two-thirds the program, Alabama must put up matching dollars to pull that money down.

The Legislature allocated $700 million for the program in the General Fund budget approved over Bentley's veto last spring. That was $85 million less than the agency said it needs to maintain its current level of services and implement regional care organizations (RCOs), aimed at moving Medicaid into a managed care model that supporters hope will slow cost growth in the program.

To address the shortfall, Medicaid cut physician reimbursements earlier this month. Bentley said he wants to reverse that as soon as possible, but layoffs have already begun in some practices, and physicians’ groups warn that waiting times will likely increase for all patients.

“The most obvious thing is the reduction in pay,” Jackson said. “The least obvious is the uncertainty, (and) not knowing what to expect down the road. It puts a tremendous strain on the practice and a tremendous strain on the employees at the practice.”

The cuts hit the state’s pediatricians particularly hard. The Alabama Medicaid Agency says more than 52 percent of Medicaid recipients – 542,697 people -- are 17 years old or younger. Pediatric offices rely on Medicaid to keep their doors open.  Some pediatricians have already laid off employees, Lee said, and they may not be coming back, even if the cuts are reversed.

"The more devastating effects are going to be felt in the rural areas," she said. "That’s where you may have only one doctor taking care of kids. If they stop taking Medicaid, (patients) have to travel further. And they’re already at a disadvantage when it comes to transportation."

Both Bentley and Medicaid officials have warned that other cuts may come. But Bentley said Aug. 3 that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the federal agency that administers Medicaid, have warned the state that any further cuts would jeopardize up to $748 million the state could get from the federal government to implement the RCOs and improve the state’s performance on benchmarks like infant mortality.

The governor estimates his lottery bill would bring about $225 million into state coffers. If voters approved the amendment, the Legislature would work out the details in a future session.

Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, who will sponsor Bentley's bill in the Senate, plans to file a second bill that would not only set up a lottery but allow virtual lottery terminals – resembling slot machines but considered Class II, non-casino gaming in some jurisdictions – at the state’s four pari-mutuel locations: VictoryLand in Macon County; GreeneTrack in Greene County; the Mobile Greyhound Park and the Birmingham Race Course.

McClendon’s legislation, also a constitutional amendment, would also allow the governor to negotiate a gaming compact with Poarch Band of Creek Indians, who own the Birmingham and Mobile facilities and also operate casinos in Atmore, Montgomery, and Wetumpka.

McClendon says his proposal would bring in $427 million, with about $127 million coming from the lottery machines.

For the most part, the state’s gambling industry has maintained public silence on the proposals. Attempts to reach VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor and GreeneTrack CEO Luther Winn last week were unsuccessful. Bentley and McClendon said in separate press conferences earlier this month they expect pushback from the Poarch Band against McClendon’s plan. Marsh said Friday he had heard nothing, "not from the existing tracks nor from the Indians" about the plans.

Sharon Delmar, a spokeswoman for the Poarch Band, said in a statement last week the tribe “supported the governor’s efforts to find a solution to the funding crisis.”

“We believe a lottery that is highly regulated can play a role in easing the shortfall, but there are a myriad of considerations and details that must be addressed before any such plan can be structured and implemented,” the statement said.

Support for gambling generally falls down party lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans – who control a supermajority in both chambers – usually opposed. Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, whose district includes GreeneTrack, said last week he preferred McClendon’s bill and believed the casinos could get the lottery machines in place quickly.

“I’m for whatever will give us most money to solve the Medicaid funding issue,” he said.

But Bentley and other legislators say gambling would kill any lottery proposal put forward.

“You can’t get the votes,” said Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. “(McClendon’s) worked hard because he realizes you can’t get any Democratic votes without casino votes. But you put casino gambling in, you lose a lot of Republicans.”

The lottery itself will be a tough sell. Some legislators want to see at least some proceeds go to the state’s Education Trust Fund (ETF); McClendon said his plan would put the first $100 million of revenues toward education. House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, plans to introduce a lottery bill that would put the proceeds toward scholarships for college.

Others oppose the lottery on moral grounds or see it as at best a stopgap solution: Lottery revenues tend to post flat growth, and a lottery on its own may not be able to keep up with growing expenses in the General Fund.

Legislators give the chances of lottery passage mixed chances at best, particularly with the Aug. 24 deadline looming.

“I don’t see this thing getting any traction,” said Rep. Reed Ingram, R-Pike Road. “I’d give it a 98 percent failure rate.”

Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, said both he and members of the House Black Caucus would study the bills put before them.

“It’s got to generate money on a consistent basis,” he said. “It has to be something that makes sense. It has to be something fair for everybody.”

It may be a measure of the lottery bill’s chances that legislators see a settlement of the state’s claims against energy company BP over the 2010 Gulf oil spill as more likely. The bill, sponsored by House Ways and Means General Fund chairman Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, passed the House in the spring but never came to a vote in the Senate. Clouse will refile the bill for the special session, and it could be in committee Tuesday.

The issue last spring was not the Medicaid part of settlement – the bill would use most of an estimated $639 million to pay off outstanding debts and free up $70 million for Medicaid – but the allocation of money for road projects. The version that passed the House included $191 million for road projects for Mobile and Baldwin counties, hit hardest by the oil spill. North Alabama senators attempted to amend the bill to increase the debt repayment and give a smaller share of road funds to all 67 counties in the state.

Nothing had changed on the bill, Clouse said Friday, except the situation in Medicaid and the absence of other remedies.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily changed so much as the realism has set in that this is the only thing that’s going to pass,” Clouse said.

Pittman, whose district is in Baldwin County, fought north Alabama efforts to change the bill in the last session, said he would support Clouse’s proposal. If the Legislature can’t pass a lottery bill before Aug. 24, legislators could continue meeting until mid-September to come up with a solution.

“If the votes aren’t there for a lottery, you move for other solutions, you circle back and try come up with other solutions,” he said.

The state's health care providers will watch.

“Year in and year out, this is constantly happening,” Lee said. “Every year is a guessing game as to whether there will be enough funding. I think the Legislature is going to have to come up with sustainable funding, or those impacts will remain there.”

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