Alabama editorial roundup
By The Associated Press
Recent editorials from Alabama newspapers:
The Gadsden Times on proposed changes to the state's ethics law:
As much as we've tried to avoid it - tried to remain optimistic that people ultimately will do the right thing and that which is good and righteous will prevail - we're calloused and cynical about the political process at all levels. It takes a lot to make us shake our heads or go beyond guffaws about "what the rascals are up to now."
Well, our heads are shaking and we aren't laughing about a bill introduced last week in the Alabama Senate that basically would, despite protests to the contrary from its backers, gut the ethics law that was a hallmark of the Republican takeover of the Legislature in 2010.
That bill, by Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, would eliminate the ban on public officials receiving gifts of monetary value from lobbyists or principals, defined as companies or individuals who employ lobbyists. (They currently, with some exceptions, can take meals or trinkets costing $25 or less.)
Those officials would simply be required to report any gifts, which Albritton claims will allow their constituents to decide whether their actions are OK or whether they should be turned out of office in the next election. The legal system couldn't get involved unless there was actual criminal intent.
The bill also would change the definition of lobbying (it would only apply to people currying favor with legislators; they would face no restrictions and wouldn't have to register as lobbyists to approach the governor or state agencies); change the definition of principal; limit which family members of public officials would be subject to the ethics law; remove the Alabama Ethics Commission and, with some exceptions, the attorney general's office from ethics enforcement in favor of local district attorneys (both the commission and Attorney General Steve Marshall oppose the bill); and make using one's office for personal gain a misdemeanor if the amount in question is under $6,000.
Albritton insists he's not trying to neuter the ethics law, but instead is seeking "clarity" because public officials are confused about what they see as an ambiguous law. We see nothing ambiguous about impeding folks from wandering around Montgomery sporting "For Sale" signs.
It's so tough to get people to the polls these days - by the way, Gadsden's school board election is today; polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., go do your civic duty - the chances of voters administering any consequences to someone who totes off a knapsack full of gifts is remote. They also have grown calloused and cynical to the point of tuning out of the process. "Somebody gets $1 million worth of vintage wine and Atlanta Braves tickets? Oh well, nothing I can do about it, that's the way the game is played."
Alabama's district attorneys already have full plates and diminishing resources to deal with what's on them, and we doubt they'll be cheering this addition to their workload. Plus they are subject to local pressures that an ideally nonpartisan entity like the Ethics Commission shouldn't face.
As for the line between a felony and misdemeanor on personal gain violations - important because a felony conviction removes someone from office - $6,000 can buy a lot of loot.
Albritton denies this bill has anything to do with the case of former House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, architect of the GOP takeover, who's appealing ethics convictions for seeking work from lobbyists and company executives for his consulting and printing businesses. Hubbard insists these actions weren't violations; these changes would ensure that's more than just his opinion moving forward.
It doesn't take much brain exertion to see that Albritton's bill, Hubbard's protests and the general tone in Montgomery are about removing any pretense that Republicans care about an ethics law that can snare them and not just "the other guys."
We hope some of them wake up and kill this before the State House becomes a den of money-changers
The TimesDaily on Alabama's prisons:
Last week, Gov. Kay Ivey signed a proclamation declaring April "Second Chance Month" in Alabama.
The proclamation highlights the importance of reintegrating those who have served time in prison back into society after they have served their sentences.
"There is no such thing as a throwaway person, and by granting second chances to those who have earned them, we will be contributing to the restoration of families, communities and our nation," said Craig DeRoche of the Christian nonprofit group Prison Fellowship in response to Ivey's declaration.
How bad are Alabama's prisons? The Justice Department left no room for doubt: They're so deplorable they violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The table of contents to the Justice Department's 56-page report reads like a prosecutor's opening statement, citing the "excessive number" of deaths due to violent assaults, which demonstrates that the Alabama Department of Corrections is unable to adequately keep inmates safe "even when officials have advance warning."
The Justice Department charges that the state Department of Corrections is unable to protect inmates from violence, unable to keep out weapons, drugs and other contraband, and unable to stem sexual abuse in its prisons.
Inmates who raise concerns can find themselves punished for other infractions for their trouble. It is little wonder suicide in Alabama prisons has become an epidemic. All of this also impacts the safety of corrections personnel.
Equally troubling are the Justice Department's warnings about ADOC's record- keeping, which obscures how bad things are.
"The prison system documented 24 prisoner homicides between January 2015 and June 2018, but the Justice Department said that high number was an undercount: It identified three more, and said the state sometimes classifies violent deaths as arising from natural causes," The Associated Press summarized.
These problems are systemic and point to a culture of violence, abuse and negligence within the state's prison system. This will not be solved simply by spending more money (although it will take that) or building more prisons. It takes a change of mindset, about who deserves to be locked up and about how they should be treated when in the state's custody.
The state of Alabama can talk about giving inmates who have paid their debt a second chance, but the state is well past second chances when it comes to fixing its prisons. Either it acts, or the Justice Department will.
Ironically, the same day the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report on the state of Alabama's prisons. The word most frequently used to describe the Justice Department's findings was "scathing," and for once this was no mere rhetorical flourish.
Proclamations cost nothing, but "throwaway people" is exactly how Alabama treats those incarcerated in its aging, crumbling, overcrowded and understaffed prisons.
Alabama's elected officials in the state Legislature and the governor's office know this, yet despite much talk, as yet they have done nothing to address the issue. Instead, it has festered.
Now the Justice Department has given the state a deadline: Begin correcting decades of neglect within 49 days or potentially face a federal lawsuit.
Ivey responded with a promise to work together on "an Alabama solution," meaning a solution Alabama's officials formulate and not one imposed by the federal government. Given the state's track record of dealing with civil rights abuses, however, we are not optimistic an "Alabama solution" that solves anything will be forthcoming, although we may get a "solution" that buys the state time.
The Dothan Eagle on Alabama considering establishing a state lottery:
Alabama residents can count on one thing from their elected leaders: any time the Alabama Legislature goes into a regular session, there's going to be some sort of legislation that would expand gambling in the state.
If only lawmakers were half as intent on addressing some of the chronic, pressing challenges that hold our state back.
There are two bills afoot that would put the question of a state lottery before the people of Alabama. One involves paper lottery tickets like the ones many Alabamians travel into Florida and Georgia to buy.
One goes a step further, allowing for "video lottery terminals" in licensed places - primarily state dog tracks in Birmingham, Macon County, Greene County and Mobile, as well as Lowndes County.
"It ensures jobs and increases jobs in the state of Alabama," said Rep. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, sponsor of the measure with the video terminal provision.
A video lottery terminal looks a lot like an electronic bingo machine, which looks a lot like a slot machine. A room full of them will look a lot like a casino floor, as does a room full of electronic bingo games.
Apparently lawmakers believe the people of Alabama are too provincial to stand for gambling unless it's presented as something more innocuous.
They'd do better to put a measure before the people that would override the constitutional prohibition on gambling altogether, create a regulatory body, and allow every area of the state to consider gambling facilities.
However, we're not convinced that expanded gambling will be the economic panacea some lawmakers would have us believe. Neither are we convinced that Alabama voters, given the opportunity to consider a lottery referendum, would approve the measure.
Legislators have raging fires to address, not the least of which is the horrendous conditions of the state's prison system, which are outlined by a Department of Justice report issued last week along with a warning that DOJ may well sue the state if significant improvements aren't made in the coming 49 days.
Then again, if we get a lottery approved and up and running, the state coffers will soon be flush and we can fix every ill the state faces.
That sounds a lot like the pipe dreams of millions of lottery ticket holders who renew their delusions week after week.
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