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Alabama editorial roundup

March 6, 2019

Recent editorials from Alabama newspapers:

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Feb. 28

Dothan Eagle on civil asset forfeiture:

In theory, civil asset forfeiture - the ability of law enforcement to seize property of those involved in criminal activity - is a good idea. It was adopted in Alabama as a tool to hamstring drug distributors. Upon arrest, police can seize cash on hand, vehicles, and other valuables thought to be fruits of crime or used in the commission of crime. In the past, area residents have seen confiscated vehicles pressed into service by local law enforcement agencies, often as undercover vehicles.

However, civil asset forfeiture guidelines had loopholes big enough to drive a fleet of confiscated vehicles through. Losing confiscated property if convicted is expected, but someone who is exonerated or never even charged should have every expectation to have their property returned. That doesn’t always happen.

Last year, the Alabama Legislature considered legislation that would bring transparency and accountability to civil asset forfeiture in our state. The measure was prompted in part following a story about an Opelika man who was pulled over for following too closely. The officer found that the driver had more than $30,000 in cash, which the driver explained by saying he was on his way to buy a car. Suspecting drug activity, the officer seized the money and turned it over to the DEA.

The driver was never charged with a crime. Two months later he filed a complaint with the courts in an attempt to have his money returned. The case was heard a year later by a local judge who said he couldn’t make a ruling because the money was turned over to a federal agency. The driver never got his money back.

As often happens in the state legislature, the civil asset forfeiture reform measure didn’t make it out of the legislative process. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that civil forfeiture assets received can’t be excessive (beyond the dollar amount of fines for the specified offense).

Recently, a group of Alabama district attorneys, along with Alabama District Attorneys Association, state Rep. Arnold Mooney, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and several public policy groups announced the creation of the Alabama Forfeiture Accountability System, a data collection and reporting system that will make the process more transparent.

These officials deserve commendation for picking up the pieces of stalled legislation and seeing its beneficial intent to fruition.

With more sunlight on the process of civil asset forfeiture, lawmakers, state officials and members of the public will have a better understanding of how the process should work and identify deficiencies that may deserve greater scrutiny.

Online: http://www.dothaneagle.com/

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March 2

Cullman Times on public notices:

Freshman Alabama lawmaker Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals, believes he has a grand idea to save millions of dollars for Alabama taxpayers.

But the truth is that his idea of stripping public notices from newspapers and plunking them all on government websites is a direct hit to transparency.

Chalk it up to inexperience, a lack of historical knowledge, or the presumption that everyone is online and will visit government websites to ponder bids, ordinances and resolutions. They aren’t. And they won’t.

Sorrell, in a story published by Yellowhammer, enters office with the same old song-and-dance that government must first be responsible with the money it has before asking voters to agree to a tax increase for any purpose.

Yes, elected leaders should be responsible trustees over tax dollars. Spending money to publish tax and voter lists and other proposed actions of government is a wise and trusted investment.

However, government across the United States has one purpose - serve the people. That’s also the principle behind newspapers in holding government at all levels accountable and transparent.

We do that locally with news coverage of city and county affairs, and in paid public notices that report the details of foreclosures, tax liens, bond issues, city council ordinances and other vital civic matters.

The publication of public notices is a valuable resource for citizens and government alike. For a citizen, it is a means of keeping up with the actions of government. For government, it is a way to ensure transparency and build trust with the people it serves.

The availability and clear display of public notices through newspapers has alarmingly come under threat from government, particularly at the state level, where some lawmakers want to simply relegate the information to online publishing.

In most places, especially in Alabama, that would be a disservice to the people. Internet access is not reliable in many rural areas.

The thought of only finding public notices on government websites is disturbing, too. Many of those sites are not regularly updated like those of newspapers.

We question, too, if government would take the time or initiative to inform the public when new notices are posted.

Sorrell and others who support moving public notices from newspapers also fail to mention there are expenses involved in having a public employee input, aggregate, categorize and distribute the public notices.

The long history of publishing these notices in newspapers provides a trusted, and expected, source that residents can turn to each day. Maintaining this valued delivery system ensures transparency and keeps a sense of trust between citizens and elected leaders.

Even though public notices are posted online by newspapers, including The Times, the print editions of these legal notices remain the most reliable, trusted platform for reaching people. And, the purpose of public notices is for government to inform as many people as possible of actions or intended actions.

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Newspapers, through the crucial foundation of the First Amendment, take seriously their role of informing the public about important civic activities and decisions.

We encourage all government officials to join in protecting the publication of public notices in newspapers for the purpose of keeping the community informed and maintaining transparency.

Online: https://www.cullmantimes.com/

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March 3

Gadsden Times on the gas tax:

Alabama’s Legislature begins its 2019 session with — finally — some clarity on the issue that’s been percolating the hardest during the political “off-season.”

Gov. Kay Ivey and other Republican leaders recently unveiled their long-awaited plan for a gasoline tax increase to fund infrastructure improvements.

The current gas tax, which has been in place for 27 years, is 18 cents a gallon for regular automotive fuel and 19 cents a gallon for diesel. The new proposal, which is sponsored by Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, would increase the tax by 6 cents in 2019 and 2 cents in each of the next two years. However, it also would be linked to a national index on highway construction costs, which could mean another penny increase every two years.

The math says each 1-cent hike in the tax would mean $32 million in new money. By 2021, that would mean an extra $300 million in the pot, with two-thirds of it going to the state, a quarter to Alabama’s 67 counties, 8 percent to cities and a cut to finance improvements to the shipping channel in Mobile Bay.

Ivey made her announcement outdoors, at a bridge that needs replacing in Maplesville. (Check the box for optics, although rush hour on Alabama Highway 77 in Southside might have been more interesting.) The plan has been given a catchy name, Rebuild Alabama Infrastructure. (Check the box for press conference headers and floor debate on Goat Hill.)

Pardon our cynicism; this is serious business, and on multiple occasions we’ve highlighted the need for infrastructure improvements locally and statewide, and the price tag that work would carry. Since federal highway money can no longer be earmarked for specific projects — perhaps it’s time to realize there were unintended consequences from that move and consider putting that baby back in the tub — that $300 million certainly would be useful seed money.

Still, we’re not convinced that (a.) this is the right move; and (b.) the proposal will pass the Legislature in this form either in a regular or special session, should Ivey call one to deal specifically with it. (Gas tax hikes were proposed, and went nowhere, the past two years.)

An argument can be made that drivers who use Alabama’s roads and bridges should have some skin in the game of keeping them up, and 10 cents doesn’t sound like much. However, a gas tax is inherently regressive, having the biggest impact on those who do have to watch every dime but can’t function or work without driving.

Ten cents also doesn’t sound like that much given the relatively low price of gasoline right now — it’s why this potential revenue source is so inviting to folks who in the past probably would retch at the notion of a tax increase. However, one world crisis — and we’re aware that the U.S. doesn’t get most of its oil from the Persian Gulf anymore, but perceptions are everything and markets are hyper-sensitive — could change that in a hurry.

The state Republican Party has come out against the proposal unless there’s an offsetting tax cut elsewhere, and at least one political action committee has been organized to fight it. The idea of an offset sounds intriguing; some have mentioned eliminating the sales tax on food. However, we doubt Ivey and the GOP leadership would buy into it because it would open the door for opponents to say, “Well, if you were able to offset the increase, what was the point of it anyway?”

This is going to be a test of Ivey’s leadership abilities (by putting herself in the forefront, this has her name on it even if the heavy lifting is done outside the governor’s office).

Can she sell a tax increase for any reason, righteous or otherwise, to legislators, and by extension to voters who despise the thought, who think there’s still fat that could be cut from the state’s budget and who want to see not just the size of government but its scope and role in people’s lives reduced, and politicians be forced to make do with what they’ve got like working families have to?

Stay tuned.

Online: https://www.gadsdentimes.com/