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Chilton County Legislators Discuss Week Ahead

After a winter storm hit Alabama last week resulting in the 2014 legislative session being delayed for two days, Chilton County’s legislative delegation is looking forward to the week ahead.

“Everything is going well so far and we are looking forward to another great week,” Rep. Kurt Wallace, R-Maplesville, said on Monday. “I looked around last week during the storm and saw so many people coming together and trying to help their neighbors and it made me proud to be from Alabama.”

Wallace said the winter storm brought up discussion among legislators regarding missed days during the session.

“On Tuesday when the weather hit we only had 40 people show up in the House and we needed 53 to have a quorum,” Wallace said. “The Senate met and did business but the House did not meet on Tuesday or Wednesday. We burned a few days so it has led to discussion about what the rules say about us convening.”

Wallace said the rules of the Legislature require the bodies to reconvene at 10 a.m. the following day if a quorum is not present.

“Due to the weather still being bad on Wednesday we had to cancel again,” Wallace said.

Wallace said legislators are discussing the possibility of a proposal allowing leadership to reschedule meeting days if the governor declares a state of emergency for the entire state.

Wallace said an important bill recently passed by the Alabama House was the Healthcare Rights of Conscience bill sponsored by Rep. Becky Nordgren (R-Gadsden).

The bill would ensure that medical professionals are not forced to participate in procedures that violate their moral compass, including abortion, human cloning, human embryonic stem cell research and sterilization.

“This bill protects the doctors if they say something goes against their moral convictions,” Wallace said.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said a bill is scheduled for final passage Tuesday seeking a tighter restriction on former lawmakers working as State House lobbyists.

Ward said the bill is sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, and would ban former legislators from lobbying in the Legislature for two years after leaving office.

“I fully support this bill,” Ward said. “People should not use their positions to get a lobbying contract.”

Ward said a bill is scheduled for Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee focusing on midwife legislation.

The bill would allow midwives to work in Alabama and oversee planned home births.

Another bill Ward said is scheduled for debate with the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday is strengthening the Open Meetings Law.

Ward and Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana, sponsor the bill which proposes changes to the Alabama Open Meetings Law that will strengthen the law.

The bill addresses three different concerns with the Open Meetings Law including stopping the practice of conducting secret serial meetings to avoid gathering a quorum at one time, granting citizens standing to sue for violations of the Open Meetings Act as the law was originally intended and make the law clear that the Legislature has a constitutional and statutory duty to meet in public unless they vote to go into executive session.

Gov. Robert Bentley held a press conference Jan. 24 to announce his support for the bill.

Ward said the amendments to the Open Meetings Law, which was passed unanimously by the House and Senate in 2005, restore the intent of the original law.

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Lawmaker: Alabama Must Make Fundamental Changes to Prison System

By Kim Chandler

MONTGOMERY, Alabama – Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, had likened Alabama’s overcrowded prison system to a box of dynamite 

The Department of Justice “probably lit the fuse” with findings of unconstitutional conditions at Tutwiler Prison, he said.

“We’re going to have to make some fundamental system-wide changes. We can’t continue going on this road,” said Ward, who is chairman of the Joint Legislative Prison Committee. 

Legislative leaders today said something must be done to improve Alabama's prison system. But they also said there were no easy immediate answers.

Allen Farley, vice-chairman of the oversight committee, called for an independent investigation of the prison system.

“Nobody should ever be treated the way that these ladies have allegedly been treated,” Farley said. 

Farley called the officers who allegedly committed  the abuses "scum."

“You cannot buy integrity. You’ve got to go back and sit down and look at who we’ve got working for us, how long they’ve worked for us, what their background is, what allegations they’ve got against them,” Farley said.

Ward said he hopes to invite the Council of State Governments to conduct a review of the state prison system.

“We all know there is an issue with the prisons. There is overcrowding. Something has to be done,” Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said.

Hubbard, Ward and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh met with the representatives of the Council of State Governments on Wednesday.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he was concerned about corrections funding before the DOJ report. Gov. Robert Bentley’s proposed General Fund budget gives the prisons essentially level funding.

“One of my areas of interest was to try to increase the appropriations for corrections,” Orr said. He said the DOJ report made that more pressing. 

 Ward said even if Alabama built prisons, it would not address the shortage of corrections officers.

"You don't have enough officers overall. You really don't have enough female officers," Ward said. 

The state is also discussing moving some of the nonviolent Tutwiler inmates to a now-closed state institution that once housed mentally disabled patients.  A spokesman for the department said that was a long-term goal.

Ward said the troubles in the prison system are not new. 

“Hopefully, this DOJ report will really wake everybody up.” Ward said. 

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said the findings in the DOJ report are serious.

"We want to get to the bottom of that," Marsh said. "We want to make sure that our prisons are run correctly. We want to make sure the funding for our prisons is adequate. And we're addressing those things and are trying to continue to address those things."

"We're taking it very seriously," he said. "We want those things looked into, but also work to solve the long-term problems of our prisons."

Mike Cason and Kelsey Stein contributed to this report. 


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OUR VIEW: Undoing Damage to the Open Meetings Act

Published: Sunday, January 19, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.

The Alabama Legislature in 2005 passed a clear, strong Open Meetings Act to ensure that governmental business in this state, with specific, limited exceptions, would be conducted with people watching.

The bill was in response to court rulings, state and federal, that had weakened a law in effect since 1915 barring government bodies from meeting in secret unless someone’s “good name” was being discussed.

That pre-World War I law was ground-breaking in the U.S., and the 2005 revision was viewed throughout the country as a victory for open government.

Alabama can be a “circular” place, however, in that things that are fixed often don’t stay fixed.

Three rulings by the state Supreme Court again chipped away at the Open Meetings Act, giving governmental bodies more leeway to avoid scrutiny.

The court in 2012, in a case involving the Montgomery Board of Education, ruled the act only covered gatherings where a majority of board members were present.

Last September, it ruled plaintiffs couldn’t file civil suits under the act unless they would personally gain from that litigation.

And in another September decision — the topper — it ruled legislators couldn’t be required to follow their own rules and meet in public.

Once more, the Legislature is trying to clean up the mess.

A bill sponsored in the House by Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana, and in the Senate by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, would stipulate that the Open Meetings Act applies to the Legislature, legislative committees and committees and subcommittees of government boards.

It also would ensure that private citizens can sue under the act, with a minimum award of $1,000 if they win.

Gov. Robert Bentley supports the bill, as does the Alabama Press Association. It needs to pass with broad, bipartisan support.

It’s difficult to find better words than Bentley’s: “It is so important that an entity that is supported by taxpayer dollars always be open to the press, and it should always be open to the public.”

That doesn’t mean governmental bodies won’t stop pushing the limits, setting up more court challenges in which judges could do further mischief to the Open Meetings Act.

Executive Director Sonny Brasfield of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama already is concerned about the bill’s definition of a “serial meeting,” and how that might be interpreted if two commissioners show up at one function, two more at another and then they all vote the same way at the next meeting.

We think his concern is misplaced. The bill clearly states a “serial meeting” — which, like email, can’t be used to evade the Open Meetings Act — is when a quorum of a governmental body shows up at one place, without public notice, and discusses the same matter. The act should apply in that case.

Governmental bodies don’t always try to keep the doors closed because they’re up to no good. It’s easier to get things done without people watching — without having to answer questions or justify actions.

There’s just one problem — that’s not representative democracy.

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Ward Introduces Bill to Strengthen Open Meetings Law

By Phillip Rawls, AP

MONTGOMERY (AP) — The governor is joining two legislators and the Alabama Press Association in trying to strengthen Alabama's Open Meetings Act after recent court rulings allowed more government meetings closed to the public.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said the Legislature updated the act in 2005 to provide more transparency in government. But he said, "three recent Supreme Court decisions really tore that transparency to shreds."

Ward is sponsoring the new legislation with Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana. At a news conference Thursday, Gov. Robert Bentley and the association for Alabama's weekly and daily newspapers endorsed it.

"It is so important that an entity that is supported by taxpayer dollars always be open to the press, and it should always be open to the public," said Bentley. The governor noted that he voted for the 2005 law when he was a state representative.

Ward, an attorney, pointed to three recent rulings by the Alabama Supreme Court. One said there is no requirement for the Legislature to hold open meetings. Another allowed some committees and subcommittees of government bodies to meet in private. The third said citizens do not have standing to bring suits under the Open Meetings Act if the civil penalty is paid to the state and there is no allegation of a likelihood of future violations

The bill provides that the Open Meeting Act applies to the Legislature, legislative committees, and committees and subcommittees of government boards. It also provides that private citizens can bring suit under the Open Meetings Act and, if they prevail, receive at least $1,000.

Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, agreed that some issues in the law need addressing. But he said the bill creates a new term called "serial meetings." He said his organization is concerned how that might be interpreted if two county commissioners show up at the same function, two more show up at a different function, and then all four vote the same way at the next commission meeting.

"We want to be sure public officials don't have to run from each other,' he said.

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Ward Named Chairman of Permanent Joint Oversight Committee for Energy Policy

Citing Work With National Legislative Committees on Energy, Committee Members Vote to Elevate Ward to Chairman 

January 15, 2014 – Montgomery, Ala. – Citing his national footprint on state-level energy policy, The Joint Legislative Committee on Energy Policy voted unanimously to elevate Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) to serve as Chairman.

“I’m honored that my colleagues see me as a leader, and have chosen to give me this opportunity,” Ward said. “I was present at the conception of this committee, and to see that hard work pay off, and be given a chance to make a real difference in our state energy policy, and the jobs that it brings, is a real proud moment for me.”

Ward has emerged as a leader on energy issues in Alabama, and regionally, through his work with associations of state legislative leaders such as Southern Legislative Conference, State Agriculture and Rural Leaders and as Vice Chairman of The Energy Task Force for The National Conference of State Legislatures.

Ward was recently in Oklahoma City to meet with a group of Agriculture Committee Chairmen to see how those two vital interests can better work together. Ward was the Keynote Speaker for The Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce Legislative Lunch, speaking to them about the importance of The Port of Mobile in regional energy policy, and the recent attacks on Alabama’s energy interests by environmental groups such as The Sierra Club.

“Cam is passionate about energy policy, and he is known as a leader in national energy committee circles, so this is a no brainer,” Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh (R-Anniston) said. “Cam just gets it, and that’s why you see him out in front on vital issues like energy.”

“My plan is to share the good news about energy exploration and creation in Alabama, and the threats that the current administration and EPA policies pose to this vital industry,” Ward said. “Alabama ranks 13th in Energy production, and has the highest percentage of “mix” in base load production of any southeastern state. That’s a fancy way of saying we’re in the top 25% of energy producing states, and we get our energy from a diverse set of fuels: hydro-electric, nuclear, coal and renewables. Each one of the industries creates jobs for our state, and each receives industry-specific tax incentives to ensure lower consumer costs, and higher worker retention rates.”

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Ward: "We are dealing with a box of dynamite with Prisons."

By- Mike Cason

MONTGOMERY, Alabama --- The chairman of the Alabama Legislature’s prison oversight committee said he expects nonviolent protests at several Alabama prisons to blow over but says they are another sign the state needs to address the persistent problems of overcrowding and understaffing.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said nobody wants plush accommodations for prisoners but said the current conditions make the prisons ripe for violence and federal takeover.

“We’re dealing with a box of dynamite in our prison system,” Ward said.

Ward said he thought the Department of Corrections was doing the best it could with limited resources. He said he would propose a joint resolution during the legislative session to ask The Council of State Governments to come in a study Alabama’s prisons and criminal justice system and propose ways to improve it. He said the CSG did that in Texas and the state adopted many of its recommendations with positive results. He said there would be no cost to the state for a CSG study.

Alabama has already worked at reforms, including the establishment of the Alabama Sentencing Commission in the late 1990s. The commission compiles data and has advised the Legislature on changes in sentencing laws to allocate more of the scarce prison space for violent offenders.

This week, some inmates at Elmore, Holman and St. Clair correctional facilities have refused to do their assigned prison jobs, such as kitchen, laundry or maintenance work, as a way to protest prison conditions and other issues. Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett said fewer inmates participated in the work stoppage today.

In an incident unrelated to the protests, a St. Clair Correctional facility inmate was stabbed by another inmate Monday and was in critical condition at UAB Hospital. An inmate was stabbed to death by another inmate at the St. Clair prison in August. An inmate died at Elmore Correctional Facility in October after a fight with another inmate.

Ward said solving Alabama’s prison problem will be a long-term process, involving the use of more community corrections programs, pretrial diversion, drug courts and other alternatives to sending offenders to the state penitentiaries.

He said advocating for programs that will improve prisons is never politically popular. But he said failure to act could result in what has happened in California, where federal courts have ordered the state to release inmates.

“I would rather us as a Legislature deal with it … as opposed to a federal judge coming in slashing and burning,” Ward said.

Legislators begin their annual session on Tuesday. The state General Fund budget, which supports prisons and many other agencies, is expected to be one of the toughest challenges facing lawmakers because revenues that support the fund have not kept up with rising costs.


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Ward Talks Energy at Mobile Chamber of Commerce Luncheon

MOBILE, Alabama – Mobile and Baldwin County's state political delegation must be "united" to make the region successful in attracting energy productivity to boost economic development, state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said Friday.

Ward, the keynote speaker before state, county and city officials at the Renaissance Riverview Hotel, said local officials need to be together in expressing a similar message and showing a sense of collaboration in attracting energy development to the area.

"You know what is best for Mobile than anyone else," Ward said during the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce's legislative luncheon. "Your political leadership from the city level, state level, county level and federal level means all the difference in the world in how you are perceived. Your energy economy has to be on the forefront of your overall economy."

Ward only briefly touched upon some of the local issues that have received publicity in the past year – an oil pipeline through the Big Creek Lake watershed, and the development of a coal terminal near Brookley Aeroplex – and said he wasn't going to give a talk on what local leaders "should do" about them.

But Ward emphasized during his speech that it's important for officials to avoid "knee-jerk" reactions to controversies involving the oil, coal, and natural gas industries.

He also urged leaders to utilize the resources provided at the Alabama State Port Authority in providing a prime location in the Southeast to export natural resources.

"If we ship energy to South America, you have to go to Mobile," Ward said. "You have the facilities. Don't let the facilities go to waste."

Ward, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the Alabama Senate, also promoted the Keystone XL pipeline and the Canadian markets for exporting natural resources. The potential storage and shipment of Canadian tar sands oil has caused controversy in Mobile in recent months.

"Why would we reject our neighbor's to the north?" said Ward, who also serves on the executive committee of the Energy Council and is vice-chairman of the Energy Committee of the National Conference of State Legislators. "We, as a country, are crazy if we don't trade with Canada."

He said by linking with Canada, the U.S. and Alabama has the potential to save on fuel costs while avoiding imported oils from Middle Eastern markets. He said by utilizing Canada's oil sands, it will help make the U.S. more energy independent by 2020.

Ward also criticized federal incentives to promote wind and solar energy, saying he felt that "unfortunately, it will never be a big part" of Alabama's economy.

Ward praised the Mobile state delegation, calling it one of the more united in the Alabama. But he urged local lawmakers to remain together on energy-related issues.

Local lawmakers agreed.

"Once (these energy issues) come to us, hopefully we can sit down and discuss those issues and still come out in a united front," state Rep. Napoleon Bracy, D-Prichard, said. "This is not the first time (the area) has had coal issues and natural gas issues and things like that. It's about how things were treated in the past, and the right way to go forward."

State Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, said most of the concerns about local energy projects in Mobile – from the Plains Southcap pipeline through the Big Creek Lake watershed to the development of oil storage tanks near downtown – are related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

"I think a lot of the uproar and hesitation now to go forward with energy projects is about what we went through with the BP situation," Figures said. "When we don't have the energy coming through here with the pipelines and oil (projects), we don't get to have the amenities that we do."

Figures said she felt the delegation was "moving in a direction of unity" with regards to energy-related issues for the region.

"When you get the facts and figures, that is where the conversation starts," Figures said. "Everyone wants to know the truth of what we're dealing with."

Ward, who's politically backed by Alabama Power, was asked to speak before the Chamber of Commerce's legislative luncheon in October, according to Ginny Russell, vice-president of community and governmental affairs with the chamber.

The Mobile chamber, within the past month, had been a vocal opponent to a 180-day moratorium proposed on oil storage tank development near downtown Mobile. The Mobile City Council voted recently to forgo the moratorium and, instead, decided to have more dialogue about the future of the oil industry for the next six months.

"It was certainly a timely topic," Russell said. "It's just timely that this issue has gotten so public here. There is a lot of community dialogue about it. It's important in that dialogue to understand the impact to the economy and jobs as well as the environmental impact. It's important we get the whole picture here."

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Sen. Ward Speaks at Shelby County Town Hall Forum

By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

On Wednesday, the Shelby County Legislative Delegation met with constituents and the Shelby County Chamber of Commerce in Pelham.  The town hall meeting occurred just days prior to the 2014 State Legislative Session. Each legislator present was given a few minutes to introduce themselves and then the event was opened up for questions from the audience.  Alabama State Senator Cam Ward (R) from Alabaster was the first to address the gathered crowd.

Senator Ward said that this is the fourth year of this legislature.  Typically the fourth year produces a lot less fireworks than other years.  Sen. Ward said that Alabama is one of the last states to still have two separate funds for education and the general fund.  80% of Alabama revenues go towards education and only 20% goes toward the general fund.  The prison system and Alabama Medicaid account for 65% of the general fund.  Everything else that the state does comes out of the remaining General Fund.  Ward said that another problems it that there is not a lot of high growth money earmarked for the state’s general fund.

Sen. Ward said that the education fund budget has seen some growth.  What to do with that education growth will be part of the debate during this session.  Sen. Ward said that rising health care costs for education and state employees is a serious issue and a lot of debate will be about how much money that the state sends to PEEHIP for the teachers and education employees healthcare insurance costs.  Ward said that their costs have risen due to the Affordable Care Act.

Sen. Ward warned that the prison overcrowding issue is one of the biggest issues facing the state. Ward said that the state is at 192% of its prison capacity making Alabama the most overcrowded prison system in America.  Ward said that a federal judge ordered California to address its own overcrowded prison system.  California released 35,000 prisoners and crimes, particularly auto thefts, went up substantially.  Ward warned that the prison overcrowding situation will be solved either by a federal judge or by state government.

Sen. Ward warned that roads will continue to be a problem.  As cars have become more fuel efficient the revenues received from gas and diesel taxes decrease meaning that the dollars for roads are going down.

Ward said that on the plus side is the economy.  It is picking up and Alabama has the potential for a growing energy economy.  Between new oil and gas field discovered offshore and the oil sands being discovered in West Alabama, the state is becoming a leading energy exporter.  The state of Alabama is currently ranked 13th in the country in energy exported.

The 2014 Alabama Legislative Session begins on January 15th.

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Ward Continues Regional Leadership on Energy Issues

MONTGOMERY— State Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) was among the attendees at a meeting to discuss the formation of a State Energy Chairs Leadership Council, the priorities of such an organization, and the growing number of energy issues contended with by State Legislators.
“This was a great opportunity for me to be at the forefront of energy issues on a national level,” Ward said. “From my position as Vice Chairman of the NCSL Energy Task Force, I can tell you these types of organizations and meetings will be vital to ensuring the competitive edge of American Energy production in the future.”
State Agriculture and Rural Leaders, or SARL, was formed out of the need for legislators dealing with those issues to share best practices, and to study and be more informed on the issues that effect those vital sectors of American life.
The confluence of Agricultural and Energy issues make the formation of a group like SARL, but composed of state level legislative energy chairs a natural outgrowth of the work SARL does.
The meeting was paid for by The Council of State Governments and The National Council of State Legislators, so the cost to the Alabama Taxpayers for attendance at this meeting was zero.
“My district is rural and suburban, and we have a ton of issues pertaining to Agriculture and Energy, from the biggest peach farm in the state to one of the largest natural gas production facilities in Alabama,” Ward said. “So even though I am the chairman of the Alabama Senate Energy Committee, I understand the connection between Agriculture, Energy and our way of life at a grassroots level. These are dinner table issues in my district, and I am just glad to have been in on the ground floor of the formation of this type of growth.”

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MONTGOMERY — An Alabama law that goes into effect today will allow for collaboration, which is a form of alternative dispute resolution in which matters are settled out of court.

The bill that became law applies to matters such as divorces, annulments, property distribution, child custody and child support. The bill was sponsored in the 2013 legislative session by Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, and Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. Both are attorneys.

“It is designed to try to put it in a less controversial, adversarial position,” Black said. “And if it doesn’t work, you can still take it to court.”

Othni Latham, director of the Alabama Law Institute, which helped draft the bill, said it is ideal for people working in good faith to reach the best-possible resolution for themselves or their children. The process involves attorneys, but can include financial planners and counselors.

“The process only works if both parties agree on the front end that they will share more information quicker than they would in litigation,” Latham said.

The new, voluntary option will save the state’s court system money, Latham said, but how much will depend on how many people use the alternative. It could also save individuals money in lawyers’ courtroom fees.

Alabama was the eighth state to pass a collaborative law bill.

Three other laws go into effect today:

Senate Bill 18

Senate Bill 18 allows a specialized Breast Cancer Foundation of Alabama license plate for motorcycles. A portion of the tag fee will go to breast cancer research. Most specialized plates require an additional $50 annual fee.

House Bill 215

House Bill 215 also pertains to license plates and makes the following changes:

Allows for other specialized plates for motorcycles if there are at least 1,000 commitments for purchase before the plates are created.

The 1,000 commitments applies to cars and trucks, too. If a group seeking a specialty plate fails to reach that commitment, it must wait one year before applying again for a specialty tag.

Removes the 8,000-pound limit for trucks to be able to display specialty plates.

Changes the distribution of proceeds from the sale of National Guard license plates from the National Guard Historical Society to the National Guard Foundation.

Allows a retired volunteer firefighter from a department in another state to receive a firefighter license plate for a $23 fee.

Allows for a law enforcement memorial license plate honoring officers killed in the line of duty. Revenue from the sale of that tag will go to the State Law Enforcement Memorial and the general fund that supports state operations.

House Bill 119

House Bill 119 has to do with insurance companies in the state and their reinsurers. Companies can buy reinsurance to help cover some of their risk.

The new law sets up new standards the companies must meet, said Reyn Norman, general counsel for the Alabama Department of Insurance. The law won’t impact the average Alabamian, he said.

Mary Sell covers state government for The Decatur Daily. She can be reached at [email protected].

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