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Gov Ivey Announces Expansion of I-65

ABC 33/40


Gov. Ivey is directing Alabama Department of Transportation Director John Cooper to expand a portion of I-65 in Shelby County from four to six lanes.

The announcement came as part of a meeting with the Shelby County Legislative Delegation, according to a release from the Governor's office.

“Infrastructure development is economic development. If traffic is congested and our roads are blocked, transportation is slowed and the wheels of economic progress are slowed. As Governor, my quest is to provide Alabama’s families and small businesses with every opportunity for success; this project is just the start of our statewide focus of spurring economic growth through improving our infrastructure,” Governor Ivey said. 

The plan will expand I-65 from exit 238 in Alabaster to exit 242 in Pelham

“Governor Ivey is to be commended for her leadership on increasing the traffic capacity along a very congested portion of I-65 in north Shelby County. Our community is experiencing tremendous population and economic growth and our roads need to keep up. I am thankful that Governor Ivey recognizes the importance of infrastructure in economic development, and I look forward to working with her on future projects, both in my district and around the state,” Senator Cam Ward said in a news release.

ALDOT will begin taking bids on the plan prior to the end of 2017. The plan is estimated to cost roughly $50-60 million and is anticipated to require two years to complete. Construction is expected to begin by the end February 2018.

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Leaders Promise Autism Vote

The Plainsman

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Senate's powerful Republican leadership has promised a full chamber vote on a bill mandating insurance coverage for a type of autism therapy. The bill caused a split in the Senate Republican caucus.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said Thursday he had worked out an agreement with the bill's supporters and budget committee chairman Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, to allow the bill to the floor. Pittman had threatened to hold the bill in committee Wednesday, even after it passed with only two nays.

Marsh said the bill will get a full day's focus Wednesday. It will be the only bill on the day's special order calendar.

"It is our full intention to take full attention to that bill on Wednesday," Marsh said. "That gives us Wednesday, Thursdayand Friday, if we need it, to deal with that. I would hope we will be able to deal with it on Wednesday, though."

The bill, which would mandate insurance coverage for an autism spectrum therapy called applied behavioral analysis therapy, has had many senators demanding a vote and some promising an inconvenient slowdown in Senate business if the opportunity for one isn’t provided.

Auburn's Sen. Tom Whatley is the senate sponsor of the bill, which was passed by the House earlier in the legislative session. Whatley and the bill’s other supporters say the mandate is needed to ensure families can afford the important but expensive therapy.

"There is a cost to it. It is a mandate, but we mandate things every day," Whatley said. "I think one of our charges is to take care of people and take care of families. When you see a parent who sees a reaction from his or her child, that is priceless."

The coverage can cost thousands of dollars a month if it isn’t covered by a family’s health insurance coverage. The therapy costs upward of $120 an hour. In Alabama, the ABA therapy is currently not covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state’s largest provider.

The bill would force BCBS and other insurance providers, including state providers, to cover the therapy. The costs of the therapy could cause premiums to rise between $1-4 a month, based on numbers from other states similar in size to Alabama that have implemented similar provisions.

Auburn is one of the only schools in the Southeast to train ABA practitioners, and many have to go out of state to find jobs, Whatley said. So for him, the bill is not only positive for families but for the University and his district as well.

"One out of 68 kids has something on the autism spectrum," Whatley said. "Auburn University provides this ABA training at the school. That's our largest employer. I've got an economic look at it as well as an emotional community issue. We have a large autism community in the Auburn area."

Alabama would not be the first to mandate the coverage; it would actually be one of the last. Forty-five other states have already mandated the coverage.

Regardless, Pittman said the decision to let the bill move out of committee was a hard one. Pittman's comments Wednesday sparked controversy. Whatley, Sen. Cam Ward and Sen. Dick Brewbaker, all Republicans, promised to filibuster and hold up Senate business if there was no floor vote. They did the same thing last week to get a committee vote.

If the group of Republican senators had lined up with Democrats who have also been supportive of the bill, they could have ground the legislative session to a halt only four days before the session is set to end.

After urging from Marsh Wednesday afternoon, Pittman changed his tune.

"This has been one of the most difficult decisions I've had to make," Pittman said Thursday. "After nine years of balancing budgets and trying to pay back debts, this is a very sensitive issue and a very important bill that affects a lot of people. At the end of the day, we have to be able to pay for the costs of it."

Last week, proponents of the bill flocked to the bill’s foray in committee and begged lawmakers to pass the mandate so parents may be able to afford the life-changing therapy for their kids on the spectrum.

Ward has been a strong advocate of the bill and has a personal stake in the matter.

His 14-year-old daughter, Riley Ward, is on the spectrum and has had the ABA therapy. Riley, speaking to the committee last week, credited the therapy for her ability to speak in public.

“I grew up in my dad’s political life, going to boring dinners,” Riley Ward said. “I would lay on the floor and watch DVDs to block out the loudness. Without the help this coverage would provide, I wouldn’t be able to speak here today.”

Brewbaker said he has confidence that Pittman and Marsh will keep their word, but maybe not for the right reasons.

"Sometimes it's good to be in an election cycle, and this is one of those times," Brewbaker said. "I've been in the Legislature almost 12 years, in either the House or the Senate, and I've never seen a chairman hold a bill that's passed a committee overwhelmingly because he was just opposed to the bill."

The bill passed committee Wednesday with several amendments. If it is passed by the Senate, it will have to go back to the House for a concurrence vote. If it's passed by both Houses, it will head to Gov. Kay Ivey's desk for her signature.

Chip Brownlee reported from the State House in Montgomery. 



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Parents, Children Plead for Autism Therapy

By KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Parents and children pleaded with an Alabama legislative committee Thursday to require insurers to cover an intensive therapy that's expensive but can be life-changing, they said, for children on the autism spectrum.

But business groups and the state's dominant insurance company said the costs of the therapy would be passed down to insurance plan holders.

The emotional testimony dominated the public hearing before the Finance and Taxation Committee-General Fund on the bill to require coverage of what's called applied behavioral analysis therapy.

Riley Ward, the 14-year-old daughter of state Sen. Cam Ward, described to the committee how she blossomed in speech and social skills after starting the therapy. Diagnosed at age 3, she went from being able to speak her first words to delivering a speech to legislators.

"Without them, I don't know where I would be now. Kids with autism need this insurance," Riley Ward said of her therapists.

ABA is an individualized and intense form of therapy. Children can require 20 or more hours of it a week. It can cost families thousands of dollars each month, putting it out of financial reach for many, if not most.

Karen Penn said she and her husband are fortunate to be able to pay for the therapy for their son who was also diagnosed at age 3. "He had no functional language. Now, he can speak," Penn said.

Penn said it is "heartbreaking" to see mothers come into the clinic and see the progress other children are making through ABA therapy and learn that they can't obtain it for their own children.

Robin Stone, a lobbyist for Blue Cross of Alabama, said the state's largest insurer provides occupational and speech therapy for children, but not ABA therapy.

"Our main disagreement with the legislation is it removes a businessman's or businesswoman's ability to make that decision. Blue Cross has always opposed mandated benefits, and probably always will. We think that's an employer's decision," Stone said.

Rosemary Elebash, who heads the Alabama chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, said small businesses are already struggling with insurance costs.

"Anytime you add a mandate to insurance coverage, it does add to the costs," Elebash said.

David Bicard, the director of an ABA clinic in Montgomery and a member of the licensing board for therapists, said insurance companies in 45 states provide the coverage without shuttering businesses.

"At our clinic we do what was once thought impossible. We teach children to say Mama and Dada for the first time. We teach them how to make friends and be friends and ask for what they want instead of hitting," Bicard said.

The House approved the bill last month by a unanimous vote. Sen. Trip Pittman, chairman of the Senate budget committee, said the committee will vote on the bill Wednesday.

The bill faces a rapidly closing legislative window to win approval. Lawmakers are hoping to conclude the session on May 18.

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Leaders Think Prison Construction Bill Can Pass

Lawmakers on Tuesday will hold a public hearing on the latest plan to build new prisons in Alabama.

The House Judiciary Committee will consider a bill to allow the state to build three men's prisons and a replacement for Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.

It's a revised version of a bill the Senate passed in March to allow three men's prisons and renovations to Tutwiler and some other prisons. Most existing men's prisons would close.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, sponsor of the bill, said he's optimistic an agreement can be reached before the end of the legislative session.

"The fact that we're not that far apart is encouraging," Ward said.

Lawmakers have six meeting days remaining and must finish the session by May 22.

As of February, Alabama's prisons held 22,688 inmates, 170 percent of the capacity they were designed for.

The Department of Corrections says the number of violent incidents has increased over the last few years while the number of corrections officers has dropped.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, are optimistic the bill can pass.

"By and large, it's fairly close to what left this chamber and I feel good about that," Marsh said last Thursday.

McCutcheon said House leaders have met with senators, the Department of Corrections and Gov. Kay Ivey in recent days.

"Based upon our work this week and based upon the fact that we have a Senate bill, I think we're very close," McCutcheon said last Thursday. "I'm optimistic today that we will be able to get something passed this session.

Gov. Kay Ivey told the Associated Press in a recent interview that prisons were a priority.

"We do need to get some prisons built sooner rather than later," Ivey said.


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Cities, Counties & Taxpayers Win Under Ward Bill

MONTGOMERY, Ala – On Tuesday, the Alabama Senate gave final approval to a proposal by Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) and Representative Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) to lift a significant financial burden off local governments. Currently, when a person who is on Medicaid – a federally-mandated health insurance program for low-income and disabled persons – is arrested for a crime, their Medicaid benefits are immediately terminated.

However, federal law requires local jails and prisons to pay for all of an inmate’s mental and health care costs. Local sheriffs and city jails are therefore left picking up the entire tab for a prisoner’s medical costs, since the inmate’s Medicaid benefits have been terminated.

House Bill 211 reduces the inmate healthcare burden on cities and counties: going forward, local governments will be responsible for covering 30% of a prisoner’s healthcare costs, and the federal government will cover the remaining costs via Medicaid.

“By making this small change, we guarantee that city and county governments will save valuable money when taking care of prisoners,” remarked Senator Ward.

Ward’s proposal should slow the revolving door of prisoners leaving jail only to commit a crime within a matter of weeks. Currently, once a person exits prison to re-enter society, they are left in “no man’s land,” without Medicaid or any other type of health insurance. These former inmates, who often have mental illnesses, frequently pursue destructive and criminal behavior, absent the help of psychological counseling and medication.

“This proposal will help reduce recidivism and make our communities safer,” Ward observed. “After listening to my local sheriffs from Shelby, Dale, Bibb, Chilton, Hale, and Jefferson counties, I am convinced this is the right action to take.”

House Bill 211 now goes to Governor Kay Ivey for signature before it becomes law.

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Attorney General Marshall Praises Passage of Fair Justice Act

(MONTGOMERY) – Attorney General Steven T. Marshall praised the Alabama Senate for passing the Fair Justice Act (SB 187) which helps streamline the appeals process for death sentences.  The legislation was introduced at the request of the Attorney General’s Office.

“I would like to thank Senator Cam Ward for sponsoring and shepherding this important legislation through the Alabama Senate,” said Attorney General Marshall.  “I also want to thank Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard for championing this much-needed reform of Alabama death sentence appeals which consolidates the time consideration of certain appeals.”

The Fair Justice Act streamlines the appeals process for those death row inmates seeking appeals based on claims of ineffective counsel or juror misconduct, known as Rule 32 post-conviction relief.   The legislation would require defendants sentenced to death in Alabama to seek Rule 32 post-conviction relief at the same time the defendant’s direct appeal is pending rather than waiting until the direct appeal has ended.

“The appellate process for capital cases is extremely lengthy,” said Attorney General Marshall.  “Under the current system, a capital defendant may wait up to one year after his direct appeal to file his Rule 32 petition and begin this lengthy appeal process.  The implementation of the Fair Justice Act could result in shortening the average time a death sentence is carried out by five to six years, saving the taxpayers well over $100,000 in total housing costs per inmate.  It also reduces the time victims must wait to see justice carried out in these capital murder cases.”

The Fair Justice Act would make the appeals process more efficient, while both maintaining the same opportunities for appellate review and enhancing representation that are provided to death-row inmates by requiring the appointment of counsel for purposes of seeking Rule 32 post-conviction relief within 30 days of the date the defendant is sentenced.   

The Fair Justice Act passed the Alabama Senate Tuesday night.


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Bentley Resigns as Governor

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley resigned Monday rather than face impeachment and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor campaign violations that arose during an investigation of his alleged affair with a top aide.

In a remarkable fall, the mild-mannered 74-year-old Republican and one-time Baptist deacon stepped down as the sex-tinged scandal gathered force over the past few days. Legislators turned up the pressure by opening impeachment hearings Monday. Last week, the Alabama Ethics Commission cited evidence that Bentley broke state ethics and campaign laws and referred the matter to prosecutors.

"There've been times that I let you and our people down, and I'm sorry for that," Bentley said in the old House chamber of Alabama's Capitol after he pleaded guilty.

The violations were discovered during the investigation of his affair but were not directly related to it.

In court, Bentley appeared sullen and looked down at the floor. He stood up and said "yes, sir" in a gravelly voice as the judge read out the charges he was pleading guilty to.

One misdemeanor charge against Bentley stemmed from a $50,000 loan he made to his campaign in November that investigators said he failed to report until January. State law says major contributions should be reported within a few days. The other charge stemmed from his use of campaign funds to pay nearly $9,000 in legal bills for political adviser Rebekah Caldwell Mason last year.

"He did what he did, and he deserves now to be called a criminal," said Ellen Brooks, a retired district attorney overseeing the state investigation.

The resignation and guilty plea were a dramatic reversal from the man who on Friday stood on the Capitol steps and said he would not leave office because he had done nothing illegal.

The plea agreement specified that Bentley must surrender campaign funds totaling nearly $37,000 within a week and perform 100 hours of community service as a physician. The dermatologist also cannot seek public office again.

Bentley's successor is Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey, who became Alabama's second female governor. The first was Lurleen Wallace, wife of segregationist and four-term Gov. George C. Wallace. She ran as a surrogate for her still-powerful husband in 1966 when he couldn't seek re-election because of term limits. She won, but died in office in 1968.

"The Ivey administration will be open. It will be transparent. And it will be honest," Ivey said.

Bentley said in his statement that he no longer wanted to subject his family and staff "to the consequences that my past actions have brought upon them." His staff gave him a standing ovation as he entered and exited the old House chamber.

Bentley's resignation follows the ouster of former House Speaker Mike Hubbard, who left office in 2016 after being convicted on ethics charges, and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was suspended from his post last year over an order opposing same-sex marriage.

Bentley, a staunch family-values conservative who won two terms partly because of his reputation for moral rectitude, was first engulfed in scandal last year after recordings surfaced of him making sexually charged comments to the 45-year-old Mason.

An investigative report prepared for the House Judiciary Committee and released last week said Bentley encouraged an "atmosphere of intimidation" to keep the story under wraps and directed law enforcement officers to track down and seize the recordings. The report portrayed the governor as paranoid and obsessed with trying to keep the relationship secret.

The committee on Monday started what was expected to be days of hearings.

Bentley lawyer Ross Garber had argued that impeachment should be reserved for only the "most grave misconduct," noting that only two U.S. governors have been impeached since 1929, and both were indicted for serious felonies.

"It is not unusual for elected officials to have ethics and campaign finance issues. In fact, many governors face these things. It is very rare, though, for legislators to try to leverage those issues to impeach a governor. In fact, it is simply not done," Garber told The Associated Press in an email.

The last U.S. governor to be impeached was Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2009. He was removed from office and is now serving a prison sentence for conspiring to sell an appointment to President Barack Obama's vacant U.S. Senate seat.

The investigative report contained text messages that the governor sent to Mason. They were intercepted by Bentley's then-wife, Dianne Bentley, who was able to read the messages because they also showed up on the governor's state-issued iPad, which he had given her.

"I sure miss you. I need you. I want you. You are the only one," one message read.

Dianne Bentley divorced her husband in 2015 after 50 years of marriage.

Bentley denied having a physical relationship with his former aide, though in some of the recordings he talked about the pleasure he got from fondling her breasts.

At one point, according to the investigative report, the governor sent the head of his security detail to fetch the recording from his son Paul Bentley, who responded: "You ain't getting it." Dianne Bentley had secretly recorded her husband by leaving her phone on while she went for a walk.

The former first lady's chief of staff also charged that Bentley threatened her job because he believed she had helped his wife make the recordings.

Former Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier, who a day after being fired by Bentley last year held a news conference where he publicly revealed the affair accusation, said he feels vindicated by the resignation and plea deal.

GOP leaders in the House and Senate called on Bentley to resign, as has the Alabama Republican Party's steering committee.

"It's really time for us to look ahead and start moving forward on more pressing matters," Republican Sen. Cam Ward said. "It was a constant distraction, one that was never going to change, and it's time for us to get back to work."

Two of Bentley's predecessors in the past three decades have been convicted of crimes: Republican Guy Hunt in the 1990s, for misusing funds, and Democrat Don Siegelman, who was convicted of bribery in 2006.

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Ivey Warmly Received As New Governor


Auburn University graduate Kay Ivey, twice elected as Alabama's  lieutenant governor, was sworn in as the state's second female governor Monday after Robert Bentley resigned ahead of an impeachment hearing.

Ivey already has the support of Lee County lawmakers who have pledged support to the transition in the state's highest office.

Auburn Rep. Joe Lovvorn attended Ivey's swearing-in as governor to show her Lee County is behind her, he said.

"It's a tough day in Alabama, but it's a new beginning in a lot of ways," Lovvorn said. "We've had this cloud over the state ever since the problems began, and I'm optimistic moving forward with the real business of the state."

Ivey graduated from Auburn in 1967 and becomes the state's first  female governor to rise through the political ranks on her own, as she was the first Republican to hold the office of lieutenant governor for two straight terms.

Alabama's first female governor was Lurleen Wallace, wife of four-term Gov. George C. Wallace. She ran as a surrogate for her still-powerful husband in 1966 when he couldn't seek re-election because of term limits. She won, but died in office in 1968. Her husband regained the governor's seat in 1970.

Ivey campaigned for Lurleen Wallace as an undergraduate student during her time at Auburn, according to previous Associated Press reports.

The 72-year-old Ivey is from Wilcox County, the same rural area where U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions grew up. First elected lieutenant governor in 2010, she was re-elected in 2014.

Ivey's biography shows her as an accomplished stateswoman who got her start in Alabama politics as a House clerk and later became the first Republican elected treasurer since Reconstruction. Although her current position carries respect, it wields little constitutional power besides being next in line to the executive office.

As the Senate's president and presiding officer, Ivey acts as a moderator who doesn't offer opinions on legislation but instead directs the procedural flow in her signature honey-dripping drawl, cutting off senators whose speeches have gone on too long or namedropping distinguished guests in the gallery.

“I’m very excited to work with Gov. Ivey and looking forward serving out this term,” said Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn. “And having someone in office that will be a champion for Alabama and economic development here in the state.”

In private, however, lawmakers say she doesn't spare them tough questions.

"She is well in-tune to the issues," said Sen. Cam Ward, an Alabaster Republican who's sponsoring a much debated bill to overhaul the state prison system. "I think she will be a steady hand for state government."

Ivey, who immediately assumed the role of the governor after Bentley's resignation, would hold that position until the next general election in 2018.

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Alabaster Residents Meet Kazach Delegation

ALABASTER- Alabaster residents Tom and Charlotte Laggy hosted a dinner at their home for six delegates from Kazakhstan as part of the Friendship Force Open World program on the evening of Sunday, April 9.

During the evening, state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, led an informal discussion and answered questions about the legislation processes of Alabama and the U.S., as opposed to those in Kazakhstan.

According to Tom Laggy, he and his wife were able to act as hosts as members of the Birmingham chapter of Friendship Force, a non-profit organization that seeks to promote peace and understanding on an international level.

“When we go to another country, we stay in the homes of club members. We live with them, eat with them and follow their way of life,” Tom Laggy said.

Karima Akhmatova served as a facilitator for the delegates. Laggy said the six delegates, Aikyn Konurov, Aliya Saparov, Arman Yessenzholov, Assel Rakisheva and Botagoz Bontabayey, all have active roles in the Kazakh government.

On Monday, April 10, the six delegates traveled to Montgomery, where they observed a legislative session and met with Alabaster resident and former Alabama Republican Party Chairman Marty Connors.

Laggy said the visit was eye-opening for everyone involved, and served as an opportunity for two groups from different countries to learn about each other’s cultures.

“One of our members asked what they [the delegates] thought of America. They said they were surprised that there wasn’t a violent atmosphere and everyone was so friendly,” Laggy said. “I think a lot of people have this idea that our country is more violent than it is. They just saw normal Americans living their everyday lives.”

To learn more about the Friendship Force Birmingham chapter, visit Meetings occur on the third Sunday of January, March, May, July, September and November at the Vestavia Civic Center.

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Prison Construction Bill Clears Senate

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The State Senate took significant steps today to solve the long-standing crisis in Alabama’s prisons by passing a measure to build up to three new prison facilities. Currently, Alabama’s prisons house far more inmates than originally intended, with the prisons bursting to over 170% of capacity. The proposal passed today, sponsored by Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), authorizes the Department of Corrections to enter lease agreements with counties to finance and construct the facilities, and establishes clear criteria for how Corrections will award the lease agreements.

As the second-largest expenditure in the state’s General Fund, the budget for all non-education state spending, the prison system is a significant and persistent fiscal strain on the state. For the current fiscal year, Corrections alone costs the state $496 million and consumes 22% of the General Fund budget.

“The state prison system is close to exploding the state budget,” said Ward. “We have numerous prisons that were built before the Vietnam War and some pre-date World War Two. The upkeep alone for these facilities is a bleeding hole in our budgets.”

Senate Bill 302 protects against waste or cost overruns by requiring Corrections to hire an outside project manager to oversee construction of the facilities, and limits the bond authority to $325 million. Governor Robert Bentley’s original prison construction plan from earlier in the year called for the building of four new prisons at a cost of $800 million.

“This plan will dramatically increase safety for our inmates and our correctional officers,” Ward remarked. “There have been too many instances over the past year of officers being assaulted and, in some cases, killed. The dormitory-style of housing at some of our prisons is particularly dangerous. Modern, cell-block facilities with high-tech cameras and better lines-of-sight will save lives.”

Alabama’s prison system is beset with challenges. Corrections is being sued in federal court and faces an imminent threat of federal takeover, similar to what has occurred in California, where federal courts have ruled that California’s prison conditions amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment,” a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision to place California in receivership, and ordered the state to lower its prison capacity to a 137.5%. Since the ruling, California’s prison system has essentially been run by the federal court system.

“The threat of a federal takeover is reduced if the courts see that the Legislature is serious about solving the problems our prison system faces, and getting our capacity down closer to 137.5%,” Ward said. “But it took the state decades to get in this hole, and it will take us time to climb out of it.”

Senate Bill 302 now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration.

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.

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