Mobile, Baldwin’s Legislative Priorities for 2022: Court Funding, GOMESA Money and an Aggravated Threat
Mobile had its deadliest year in 2021, with more than 50 homicides and a city searching for solutions.
It’s one of the reasons Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson is urging the Mobile County Legislative Delegation to focus on public safety in the 2022 session. His wish list includes additional funding for courts, using federal relief funds to reduce the backlog of cases, adding one more judge to the 13th Judicial Circuit, and increasing sentences for people who commit the crime of aggravated threat.
“Public safety is always at the forefront of our concerns,” said Stimpson, who recently attended the 10 Mayors’ Conference in Huntsville where local officials representing the state’s 10 largest cities discussed of their legislative priorities for the coming year.
“The No. 1 priority for us is public safety and we are monitoring several bills,” Stimpson added.
In addition to public safety, local officials on the Alabama coast are closely monitoring legislation that would prevent oil and gas lease revenues generated by the Gulf of Mexico Security Act (GOMESA) from being spent on other parts of Alabama outside of the coastal region. Alabama is one of four Gulf Coast states to achieve 37.5% specified in GOMESA when it was enacted in 2006, and revenues accruing to the coastal region have grown significantly in recent years. : 17 coastal projects were funded last year with $41. million of GOMESA’s income.
“We need to keep this money here and we don’t need others to dip into this funding and take what should be used along the coast,” Fairhope Mayor Sherry Sullivan said.
Officials will also pay close attention to how the legislature allocates about $1.5 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds.
Coastal lawmakers are also expected to play a key role in the ongoing debate over whether to rid Alabama gun owners of the requirement to purchase a license to carry concealed handguns.
Stimpson said focusing on court funding provides the “greatest opportunity” for the Legislative Assembly when it comes to ensuring public safety. He said increased state funding will relieve cities and counties of a financial obligation they incurred years ago to fund the justice system. He said an addition of $3.2 million would relieve city and county budgets of the annual obligation.
Stimpson also said he hopes the Legislature will add five new judges and staff across the state. The 13th Mobile County Judicial Circuit is expected to get one of the new offices. The new judicial posts would be permanent and funded from the state’s General Fund at a cost of approximately $2.2 million.
“Those two things will impact the city of Mobile,” Stimpson said.
Mobile County Commissioner Connie Hudson said she supports action by the legislature that provides “adequate funding to the courts.”
Stimpson said the state’s ARPA money could be used to hire interim judges to handle the backlog of pandemic-related cases across Alabama. He also said additional funds could be used to fund information technology, broadband and equipment for counties so they can create virtual courtrooms. The city’s municipal court was the first in the state to add virtual courtrooms in December.
Stimpson also said another priority is to pass legislation that creates a new crime of “aggravated threat.”
Jennifer Susman, chief assistant prosecutor for the City of Mobile’s Criminal Division, said tougher sentences are needed for perpetrators who use firearms to threaten people.
She said Alabama law currently lists threatening as a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail. By comparison, stealing a candy bar is a Class A misdemeanor and can carry a sentence of up to a year in prison.
“You get more (jail) time stealing a candy bar than pointing a gun at someone,” Susman said.
According to Alabama law, if someone points a gun at someone and orders someone to give them their money, it is robbery punishable by up to 99 years in prison.
She added: “Clearly there is a major gap here.”
Susman cites concrete examples that would be considered Class B misdemeanors in Alabama.
- An uncle points a gun at his nephew’s head demanding an apology.
- An officer responded to a domestic violence call. When he introduced himself, someone was handing him a gun.
- A man pointed a gun at a woman’s eye and did not hurt her.
“These situations are clearly not misdemeanor situations,” Susman said. “They are a trembling finger away from manslaughter or split decision from murder.”
Oil and gas leases
GOMESA has proven to be a revelation for the Alabama coast in recent years.
Last year alone, $41 million from oil and gas leases went to fund a long list of projects in Mobile and Baldwin counties. Land preservation, boat launches, and the development of new parks have all been tied to the money that was funneled into Alabama through the GOMESA Act.
Alabama State Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Daphne, said he wants to make sure the funds stay in Baldwin and Mobile counties. He sponsors SB9, demanding that GOMESA funds be spent only in the two coastal counties.
“I knew it would be a bigger goal the further we got,” Elliott said, noting that GOMESA’s early returns in Alabama were no more than $1 million.
He added, “There have been conversations with people (in other parts of the state) trying to argue that the Mobile River goes north and the rivers in Alabama connect and if you can do this project (in the northern part of Alabama) it will eventually go to the Bay and be an advantage. You had the idea.”
Elliott and other coastal lawmakers have concerning precedents. In 2016, Mobile and Baldwin county lawmakers engaged in two filibusters while debating the fate of the BP oil spill settlement. Coastal lawmakers argued at the time that more money should be diverted to the area most affected by the 2010 spill – Mobile and Baldwin counties.
State officials, however, agreed to a proposal that funneled the settlement money to the state treasury.
“We want this to be memorialized in the statue and state code, so we don’t see what we’ve seen before,” Elliott said.
Transport without license
Coastal Alabama lawmakers will be at the center of the state’s debate over whether to eliminate the requirement for gun owners to purchase a license to carry concealed handguns.
For the past two months, State Rep. Shane Stringer of Citronelle and Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran have clashed over the issue. Cochran argues that eliminating permits is a public safety concern because they provide essential background checks for law enforcement. Stringer said sheriffs are most concerned about revenue generated from annual permits.
The issue between the two is personal: Stringer was removed from his position last year as a captain in the sheriff’s department because of his opposing views to Cochran on the matter.
Both are Republicans.
The unlicensed carry also splits GOP allegiances between state lawmakers and sheriffs elsewhere. Elliott, a former Baldwin County commissioner who considers Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack a “close personal friend,” said he and the sheriff stand poles apart in the debate.
Elliott said debates about carrying without a license will need to take into account the lost revenue sheriffs will incur once licensing requirements are removed. And he said Republican lawmakers, ahead of the Republican primaries in May, will need to show they are committed to law enforcement.
Related: Alabama lawmakers’ debate over concealed carry permits could include whether to allow firearms at school sporting events
Democrats, in fact, have voiced support for the sheriff’s stance on maintaining permits.
“I think there’s a real conflict here between lawmakers who support law enforcement and believe in law and order and keep guns out of the hands of the bad guys, and individuals like me who are strong supporters of Second Amendment rights and want to keep the government from (violating) those rights,” Elliott said.