Inside Alabama Politics – August 28, 2020

Inside Alabama Politics – August 28, 2020

 

Special Session Talk

Ever since the Alabama Legislature adjourned its truncated 2020 regular session, lawmakers and lobbyists alike have asked the same question: Will there be a special session later this year?

It’s a ponderous topic, and yet it remains relevant given all the chatter amongst politicos around the state.

Three months ago, it was almost a forgone conclusion that a special session would be necessary. Because the Legislature only met for 16 days, a bevy of big-ticket items didn’t get addressed. Before lawmakers returned for a final week to pass the budgets, Gov. Kay Ivey had assured legislative leadership that she’d be willing to call as many special sessions as necessary to make up for lost time. But then the session ended acrimoniously with the two branches of government, and even the two legislative chambers, peeved at one another. Inside Alabama Politics spoke to more than a dozen lawmakers and other public officials to get their takes, and the opinions were varied and evolving.

Why might there be a special? It’s all about unfinished business, especially on bills that many believe to be essential and time sensitive.

Sen. Arthur Orr‘s bill to limit businesses’ liability in coronavirus-related lawsuits would have easily passed both chambers, but it was deemed non-budget related by the House, and therefore died. There hasn’t been a rash of lawsuits, and maybe there won’t be, but the legislation is more about giving businesses the confidence to operate. Word is that a deal has been worked out between business groups and trial lawyers to allow this to go forward, and such agreements are sometimes fragile. One development making the matter more urgent is the increasing unlikelihood of Congress passing a similar bill that covers all states.

Two of the state’s premier economic development laws expire this year: the Growing Alabama Tax Credit in September and the Alabama Jobs Act in December. Until those laws are reauthorized by the Legislature, economic developers will be unable to use the incentives to recruit companies. Officials in that industry tell IAP that going a few months without the laws wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it could create “hiccups” in industrial recruitment and offer other states an advantage in that ever-competitive environment.

The latest issue adding calls for a special session is the revelation that state businesses and individuals will be taxed by the state on any coronavirus relief money they receive. Alabama Daily News’ Mary Sell broke the story last week that the Legislature adjourned without passing a simple, but necessary bill exempting federal relief funds from state taxes. Now, as it stands, some who got individual checks and businesses with forgiven PPP loans could be required to pay taxes on them. Of course, the Legislature can quickly fix this when they convene in February, but that will still be a pain in the neck for taxpayers and companies who do their taxes in January.

The final reason many believe a special is needed is the sheer workload that faces lawmakers when they return for their regular session in February. All of the aforementioned issues, plus budgets, broadband, prison reform and a multitude of bills that legislators and lobbyists have had to sit on for a year will make for probably the fullest slate of business any session has ever seen.

Why won’t there be a special? The most obvious reason is that the coronavirus pandemic is still very much ongoing, making a gathering of 140 lawmakers and dozens of staff, many over the age of 60, a major health hazard. In fact, multiple sources tell IAP that officials have checked out alternative locations for lawmakers, especially the more crowded 105-member House, to meet, whether for a special session or even the regular session in February. Spacious event locations in Montgomery have been scouted and considered, sources say. That just tells you how spooked lawmakers and staff are about convening in the State House.

Another factor weighing toward waiting until February is the fact that not everything is hunky dory among Republican leaders right now. Sources tell IAP that top lawmakers still haven’t forgotten the way Ivey embarrassed them at the end of the last session and some of that resentment still lingers. There is also cross-chamber crossness over disagreements from the House and Senate about not taking care of important legislation while they had the chance. And some say that even on seemingly noncontroversial items like the economic development bills and civil liability, significant disagreements remain among top leaders about how to proceed. So having a special session might not be as easy as many make it out to be.

Any decision by Ivey to call a special would likely be closely negotiated with top legislative leaders, which is why the words of Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, tip the scales toward not.

“I think it’s very slim. I just don’t see it,” Marsh told Inside Alabama Politics / Alabama Daily News this week. “Nothing’s changed, so if you go into a special session today, you had the same problems in the House in terms of people coming to the chamber. There was a lot of pushback of taking anything up. So I think it’s just problematic. I don’t think there’s anything that cannot wait till February that I’ve seen.”

HD 49 Runoff Tuesday

This coming Tuesday, voters in Shelby, Bibb and Chilton counties will decide who will fill the vacancy created by the recent resignation of State Rep. April Weaver. A runoff is being held between Mimi Penhale, who has run the Shelby County legislative office for several years, and Russell Bedsole, an Alabaster city councilman.

By all accounts, this is going to be a close race. Penhale has the endorsement of the Alabama Farmers Federation and recently got a $10,000 check from the Alabama Education Association. Bedsole is supported by the Alabama Association of Realtors and has other local business groups backing him.

It’s also a unique election in that, aside from taking place during a pandemic, it is also occurring one week after the municipal elections and two months before the November general election. It will be interesting to see how candidates get their voters out on Election Day.

Farmers Federation backs Barry Moore

The Alabama Farmers Federation is endorsing former State Rep. Barry Moore in his bid for Congress in the 2nd District, IAP has learned. Agriculture has a huge presence in the 2nd District, perhaps more than any of the state’s other six congressional districts, and ALFA’s influence is considerable. The Federation has demonstrated a strong track record in recent years of backing candidates early that go on to win primaries and ultimately general elections, most notably including Tommy Tuberville in the Senate race.

However, in the 2nd District race, Moore was not the first choice. ALFA and nearly every other major association in the state originally endorsed Jeff Coleman, who was long perceived to be the frontrunner before the coronavirus pandemic forced a four-month postponement of the primary runoff. Word to IAP is that Moore has been exceedingly understanding and gracious toward groups that did not back him originally but are now offering their support. His comment on the endorsement demonstrated that.

“I grew up on a family farm in Coffee County and have a strong appreciation for the job Alabama farmers do every day,” Moore said. “I still believe in the American dream. We are blessed to live in a country where hard work is still rewarded. Farmers and rural families know this better than anyone. I appreciate the confidence the Alabama Farmers Federation has placed in me and look forward to working on behalf of their members and everyone in Congressional District 2.”

Federation President Jimmy Parnell said members of the state’s largest farm organization appreciate Moore’s agricultural background, conservative values and work ethic.

“Barry understands the importance of agriculture to southeast Alabama,” Parnell said. “He was a friend of agriculture when serving in the Alabama Legislature, and we are confident he will work hard for the farmers and forest owners of District 2 as a member of Congress.”

The significance of this is not so much giving Moore a boost to win the election in November. Given the strongly conservative leanings of the district, there is little chance Democratic nominee Phyllis Harvey-Hall could pull of a win in November. Rather, the significance of ALFA’s formally endorsing Moore is the desire from both to build a relationship that will carry on in Congress. While the Farmers Federation has considerable influence at election time, its work behind the scenes with individual lawmakers on agriculture issues it arguably its greatest strength. That relationship will be valuable for Moore, especially if he succeeds in getting assigned to the House Agriculture Committee.

What’s on the Ballot in November?

The presidential election and U.S. Senate contest might be the big draws, but there are also six statewide constitutional amendments on the ballot Nov. 3.

Several of the proposed changes to the state constitution were approved by lawmakers in the 2019 legislative session. Here’s a recap of each.

Amendment 1

If approved by voters, Amendment 1 would “provide that only a citizen of the United States has the right to vote.” According to the Fair Ballot Commission, the state constitution grants the right to vote to U.S. citizens who meet certain requirements. The amendment does not change those requirements. Citizenship is a federal requirement to vote. If a majority of voters vote “yes” for Amendment 1, the state constitution will grant the right to vote to “only” those U.S. citizens who meet the requirements. If a majority of voters vote “no” for Amendment 1, the state constitution will continue to grant the right to vote to “every” U.S. citizen who meets the requirements, according to the commission.

Legislation for the proposed amendment was sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, in 2019.

Marsh said he doesn’t think non-citizens voting is a big problem in Alabama. But the amendment “sends a message to Washington.”

“And I think you have a lot of states that do not police this,” Marsh said this week.

Amendment 2

Amendment 2 proposes to make several changes to the administration and oversight of the state’s court system. Currently, the Alabama chief justice appoints the administrator of courts, the executive who oversees court operations. If approved, Amendment 2 would allow the full Supreme Court to make the appointment, ending political or personal favor appointments for the state’s top judicial staff job. Legislation for the proposed amendment was sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur. He said the proposal allows for a renewable contract for the administrator and the position would no longer be at the whim of the chief justice. Because the administrator oversees the entire state court system, there needs to be continuity, Orr said.

“We’ve had a series of AOC directors because new chief justices have come and gone, every six years, and they bring their own director with them,” Orr said this week. “And that’s created a revolving door, as far as the chief administrator of the court system. Putting that responsibility with the Supreme Court as a whole, in coordination with the chief justice, should provide more continuity.”

If approved, the amendment would also:

  • Provide that county district courts do not have to hold city court in a city with a population of less than 1,000;
  • Increases from nine to 11 the total membership of the Judicial Inquiry Commission, which evaluates ethics complaints against judges, and determines who appoints each member;
  • Allow the governor, rather than the lieutenant governor, to appoint a member of the Court of the Judiciary, which hears complaints filed by the Judicial Inquiry Commission;
  • Prevent a judge from being automatically disqualified from holding office simply because a complaint was filed with the Judiciary Inquiry Commission;
  • Provides that a judge can be removed from office only by the Court of the Judiciary. Currently, the Legislature can impeach judges.

Amendment 3

Amendment 3 is also court related. If approved, it would extend the time appointed circuit and district court judges could fill a vacancy before facing election. Under current law, district and circuit judges appointed by the governor serve an initial term of one year or the remainder of the original term, whichever is longer. This amendment would change that initial term of the appointed judge to at least two years.

Amendment 4

Proposed Amendment 4 would reorganize  Alabama’s notoriously long constitution and remove outdated and racist language. The legislation by Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, would authorize the Legislature to recompile the Constitution during its 2022 session. Citing calls for social justice across the nation, Coleman on Thursday said she thinks “this is a prime time for the state of Alabama to actually come to the 21st Century by removing the racist language that is embodied inside the state constitution.”

The changes are limited to removing racist language and language that is repeated or no longer applies and combining language related to economic development and language that relates to the same county.  The Constitution still has references to separate schools for white and “colored children” and laws against marriages between “any white person and a negro … .”

Similar ballot referendums failed in 2012 and 2004.

Coleman said it’s not just a social issue, but an economic development issue “for those of us who want to bring industry, new ideas, new technology, new research, new employees that are diverse into the state of Alabama.”

Amendments 5 and 6

Amendments 5 and 6 are specific only to Franklin and Lauderdale counties, respectively. But because the supporting legislation to specify that church members in those counties can use deadly force if they feel threatened was voted against by one House member, they now go to a statewide ballot. The county constitutional amendments were proposed in 2019 after a statewide bill appeared in danger of failing for a fourth year in a row. Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, said the legislation clarifies the state’s “stand your ground” law applies inside houses of worship. It says a person is presumed justified in the use of force if they or someone else is in danger.

Opponents of the proposal, including Democrats, said it’s not needed because the 2006 “stand your ground” law already applies in churches. Greer recently said he’d prefer the Lauderdale County amendment was only voted on in that county, but if it fails on the statewide ballot, he’ll refile the legislation next year.

“You wouldn’t believe the groups we’ve met with, all over Alabama,“ Greer said about his work on the legislation since 2016. His proposal is modeled after Mississippi law. “This is probably the most popular piece of legislation I’ve ever dealt with,” Greer said.

Bronner Discusses Cancer Diagnosis

By Mary Sell, Alabama Daily News

Retirement Systems of Alabama CEO David Bronner says he was diagnosed with cancer on his left tonsil in May. Now, he is using his experience to encourage others to have regular health check-ups and screenings.

“After six weeks of radiation, five days per week, plus your prayers, the mold on my tonsil had not moved to other areas, which is unusual,” Bronner writes in the September issue of The Advisor, RSA’s monthly newsletter. An advanced copy was given to Inside Alabama Politics / Alabama Daily News.

He said the cancer on his tonsil is dead. A follow-up scan is scheduled for November his office said. Bronner, 75, has led RSA for more than 40 years. He said he had no signs or symptoms of the cancer and credits his “hero” dentist for detecting it at a routine appointment. A member of the State Employees’ Insurance Board, he encouraged members to use their health benefits.

“Remember the old saying ‘use it or lose it?’” Bronner said in the newsletter. “In health care, you can lose your life if you do not use the benefits provided for you. If I had not kept my six-month dental check-up, it would have been a train wreck for me. If you skip your physical, blood tests, cancer checks or screenings, you are truly asking for an early exit from this world…

Our state and teacher health care programs cost more than the pensions programs because of the excellent benefits they provide. I implore you to utilize these excellent screening benefits to enjoy a longer, more productive life for yourself, your family and your state.”

In addition to radiation, Bronner also received chemotherapy. He continued to work through his treatment, missing one day of work, his office said.

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 53,260 people will be diagnosed this year with oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers, including tonsil cancer.

A More Aggressive API

The Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank based in Birmingham, has been advocating on issues in state politics since 1989. But up until now much of that advocacy has remained politely on the periphery, always thoughtful but never antagonistic. Now, API appears to be taking a more aggressive approach. The group this week took a jab at Gov. Kay Ivey for her administration’s determination that API’s proposed sales tax holiday paid for with COVID funds wasn’t permissible. They even contracted the services of Bryan Taylor, Ivey’s former legal advisor, to make their case. Word to IAP is they aren’t finished talking about this issue, and may propose using the state’s Rainy Day Trust Fund to pay for the sales tax holiday, which they argue would boost the economy.

The group in a op-ed this week also criticized Gov. Kay Ivey for not calling a special session and lawmakers for not asking for one.

Inside Alabama Politics has also learned that API will soon begin “scoring” legislators, state officials, and mayors. The score card will be based upon the group’s conservative principles and also include such things as how vocal those officials are on the issues, attendance in the Legislature and accessibility to their constituency. This is a tactic used frequently by groups like the Heritage Foundation and Club for Growth to pressure congressman into voting for or co-sponsoring their agenda bills, or opposing the ones they don’t like. Many congressman loathe these scorecards and the attack ads they produce, and we’d expect the same from state lawmakers here. It also appears that a new, well-funded conservative PAC is forming to focus on state issues in Alabama and has expressed the desire to know how API’s new scorecards come out.

BCA Virtual Conference Draws Rave Reviews, But Hard to Compete With the Real Thing 

As with so many other traditional events in these unprecedented times, the Business Council of Alabama’s annual government affairs conference was canceled this year. But, instead of doing nothing, the group worked to produce a virtual conference, one that was perhaps as much or more substantive as any in-person conference in recent memory. Rebranded as Engage Alabama, it featured panels about leadership, diversity and engagement with speakers ranging from mayors and other elected officials to powerful company executives and chambers of commerce leaders.

It’s a hard needle to thread, but such virtual events can be good at engaging membership, setting the right tone, and even conveying the state of the industry, but they can’t compare to the in-person conferences and events we all remember from before all of this.

BCA is no exception. In fact it’s fame and fortunes are so well known and so ubiquitous that the name is as synonymous with the organization as it is with their annual conference. In years past (and presumably in the future) it was held at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear – which is a jewel in the crown of the RSA hotel properties. More importantly than the venue, even, are the attendees. The bold face names it draws to the end of summer event were the stuff of legend, and the deals made by the pool, or in the “Birdcage” bar are too numerous to name, and the dealmakers wouldn’t name them if we tried to ask – but everyone knows its where things get done, prior to the craziness of post Labor Day campaign schedules, football season and back-to–school rush to the end of the year.

Previous speakers include Super Bowl winners, the guy who killed Osama Bin Laden, renowned DC prognosticator Charlie Cook, inspirational authors, climbers of Mount Everest and a who’s who of government officials including U.S. senators, congressmen, governors and a few former White House chiefs of staff.

Alabama Well Represented at National Conventions 

While the mayors’ offices throughout the state are officially non-partisan elections, sometimes party affiliation is well documented. Such is the case of Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, who spoke at the Democratic National Committee’s virtual Convention. As did Senator Doug Jones, who is a longtime friend and confidant of Vice President Joe Biden – the Democratic nominee for President.

Another Alabama elected official with a big role to play for the Dems this year is Rep. Terri Sewell. While her name was floated as a potential VP nominee, which eventually went to Sen. Kamala Harris, Sewell received raves for her casting the Alabama delegates’ votes during the Dems’ “virtual roll call” from the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In a year with so much racial strife and an ongoing battle of police treatment of African Americans, Sewell’s smiling face in front of the scene of an American tragedy was seen as a unifying message.

For the Republicans, State Rep. Andrew Sorrell‘s cast the delegation’s votes for President Trump and VP Pence, and his time in the spotlight is thought to possibly portend greater things for the young man from the Shoals. Party Chairman Terry Lathan was more behind the scenes in her role, but was present not only in Charlotte but also at the White House Thursday night in her unique Auburn/American Flag mask.

Potpourri

Congratulations are in order for a few individuals making moves this summer.

Jon Barganier has been hired as the chief operating officer for Manufacture Alabama. Most recently, Jon served as the primary lobbyist and regulatory analyst for the American Petroleum Institute (API) in Alabama. Barganier goes to Manufacture Alabama with more than 14 years of government affairs experience, including seemingly singlehandedly keeping the executive branch afloat during the Bentley abdication.

Seth Morrow has been named Chief of Staff for Congressman Bradley Byrne. Morrow most recently managed Byrne’s Senate campaign, but he has worked for the South Alabama congressman for more than five years, mostly in a communications role. On Capitol Hill, it’s sometimes rare to see someone go from intern/staff assistant to the top job in six or seven years, and that’s what Morrow has accomplished.

Brian Keeter, the longtime executive director of Public Affairs for Auburn University, has accepted a position with APCO Worldwide in Washington, D.C., one of the nation’s largest public relations firm. At Auburn, Keeter has been the point man overseeing not just the public image of the university, but the behind-the-scenes work in Congress and elsewhere to build good will for Auburn amongst the decision makers that matter. APCO is about as big as it gets in the public relations world, so this move is a coveted one.