Two weeks after former U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was confirmed as the U.S. Attorney General, Sessions’ score of 0% on the League of Conservation Voters’ (LCV) 2016 National Environmental Scorecard offers insight into what his priorities may be in his new role.
Sen. Richard Shelby and former Sen. Jeff Sessions each earned a score of 0% by voting against clean water, energy efficiency, and public lands. Both senators voted to void the Clean Water Rule that protects the drinking water consumed by one in three Americans. Sessions also voted for a bill that would have gutted the Antiquities Act, a key piece of legislation that is used to preserve public lands from the Statue of Liberty to the Grand Canyon.
“Time and again we’ve seen that conservation can and should be a bipartisan issue,” said Tammy Herrington, Executive Director of Conservation Alabama. “We hope that Attorney General Sessions is mindful of that, and that he remembers his former constituents in Alabama were protected by laws like the Clean Water Act in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.”
LCV’s 2016 National Environmental Scorecard publishes the environmental voting record for each member during the second session of the 114th Congress. This year, a record-breaking 38 House votes are included in the scorecard. The Alabama congressional delegation’s scores are being released by Conservation Alabama in partnership with LCV. The full scorecard is available in English and Spanish here.
Once again, Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Birmingham) maintained her position as the highest scoring member of Alabama’s delegation by voting to protect the laws that safeguard our drinking water and public lands. The remainder of the state’s delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives scored no higher than 3%.
House District: Member – Score
AL-1: Byrne – 0
AL-2: Roby – 3
AL-3: Rogers – 3
AL-4: Aderholt – 3
AL-5: Brooks – 3
AL-6: Palmer – 0
AL-7: Sewell – 82
Senator – Score
Sessions – 0
Shelby – 0
Editor’s Note: Conservation Alabama thanks Claire Guest for her service as an AmeriCorps VISTA. She left us a blog post on her experience with the organization, what she learned from living in Birmingham, and her future plans. Best wishes, Claire!
Almost a year ago, I signed a contract with AmeriCorps and the YWCA to serve as a Programs and Outreach Assistant with Conservation Alabama and the Conservation Alabama Foundation. On August 8th, I officially finished my year of service with Conservation Alabama. It is hard to believe my time here has come to an end. Before this experience I knew little about the social and environmental issues that affect Alabamians. I had spent the last six years earning my Bachelors and Masters degrees in Tuscaloosa and then Pennsylvania. Academic study, despite its obvious merits, created a veil between myself and what I perceived to be the “real world.” One of the greatest gifts AmeriCorps and Conservation Alabama has given me over the past year is the total dissolution of that veil.
Though Conservation Alabama advocates for sound environmental public policies at the state and local levels, much of my service focused specifically on the city of Birmingham, where I have been based. I got the incredible opportunity to collaborate with the United Way’s Community Impact department on projects involving urban agriculture and planning. It became clear to me through this collaboration that public policies affect city planners and residents in profound ways.
I consulted with community gardeners about applying for permits with the city of Birmingham. Before a new urban-ag ordinance was passed last year, all forms of farming and gardening were illegal in the city limits. Many gardeners and operations had already sprung up, but the ordinance had the potential to legitimize these efforts and protect more productive uses of our city’s land.
Through educating city planners on Complete Streets policies, I also learned firsthand how inclusive road designs can affect transportation and local economies. Complete Streets advocate taking existing roads and making them safe for multiple users, including cyclists, buses, and pedestrians. It makes people the focus of design, which automatically shifts the idea of what, or better yet, who our roads are for.
In June, I served as a staff member at Anytown Alabama, a social justice leadership camp for teens from all over Birmingham and other parts of the state. At Anytown, I learned to think of community in a way that has totally enriched my worldview, and through my service with Conservation Alabama, I got to see that refined definition in action. Public policy has the potential to change the way we relate to our communities and to our environment. It can reframe the conversation about what we need and want for our communities in a productive way. It can even change the way individuals feel about themselves. Good policies empower individuals. In one small, personal example: a bike lane on a busy road offers me a safe space to ride. It acknowledges my existence as a cyclist and says, “This road is for you.” It also acknowledges that transportation isn’t limited to cars and trucks – that not everyone has access to these things but they should still feel empowered to get to where they need to go, whether that’s a job or the grocery store or the bank, etc. Public policies and good design have the potential to create a city that feels safe for people in a multitude of different circumstances, as well as address current public health and social justice issues that have plagued Birmingham and Alabama throughout its history.
When we create policies that seek to acknowledge the multi-faceted circumstances of all people – especially those with different abilities and socioeconomic circumstances – we’re helping to create a local culture that’s beginning to acknowledge how valuable every person, every community, is to Birmingham and Alabama.
Through AmeriCorps and Conservation Alabama, I’ve had such incredible opportunities to live lessons outside of a classroom setting. This has been one of the most valuable experiences of my life. I plan on serving a second year with a conservation corps out West, and I can say that I would have never known about that opportunity had I not served this year. I would have never known about the incredible work people throughout Alabama are doing every day to make this little corner of the South a more inclusive and just place to live and play and work. It has been an honor to do my small part. Thank you so much for letting me.
We know you’ve been spending the last few months anxiously awaiting the climax of the legislative session as you’ve been talking with friends and family about the intricate differences between the Compressed Natural Gas Vehicle Tax Incentive, the Hybrid Vehicle Tax Incentive, and the Alternative Fuel Vehicle Tax Incentive bills and the likelihood that they’ll be… What’s that? Oh, you have a life and more important things to do? Fear not, below is a quick recap of the fate of conservation-related legislation.
Perhaps the biggest win for land conservation came from legislation that provides incentives for…wait for it. Development. Odd, right? The catch is that it’s development of historic structures, which are typically in downtown areas or older, more walkable neighborhoods. As demand continues to increase for residential space in urban areas, developers have had a growing incentive to focus their attention on redevelopment of existing structures. The tax credit will direct resources back towards existing infrastructure and away from new neighborhoods built on natural, undeveloped land.
Another piece of legislation that will help direct resources to existing neighborhoods involves granting more local control to municipalities under the state’s land bank authority. Currently, local governments have very little power over tax-delinquent, abandoned properties, which leads to vacant structures and overgrown lots that create safety and sanitation issues for residents. Now cities will have more control to remove legal obstacles for redevelopment of the properties or may choose to use them for other community purposes, such as neighborhood gardens.
Sometimes the bills that don’t pass benefit preservation and restoration efforts as much as ones that make it to the governor’s desk. One example from this session was a proposal to use future settlement funds related to the BP oil spill to repay past borrowing from the Alabama Trust Fund. While repaying what you borrow is certainly admirable, doing it at the expense of coastal communities that suffered devastation probably isn’t the best way to go. With no support from senators representing the areas affected by the spill that are due a larger proportion of the settlement funds, the bill failed to pass the Senate.
Another failed piece of legislation involved an ill-conceived effort to prohibit using green building standards (read: LEED certification) for public buildings. The proposed ban was a result of LEED standards for timber products, which just so happen to differ from other commonly used standards in the state. How much does timber certification factor into the 110-point LEED grading system, you might ask. It affects a single point. One. Fortunately, the legislature determined forbidding governments from seeking the popular LEED certification based on qualms with how they rate one point was a bit of an overreaction.
Last, and least on numerous levels, perhaps the biggest disappointment of the session involved the passage of HB181, which lowers the fees for toxic waste disposal at the Emelle landfill in Sumter County. Governor Bentley signed a moratorium on permitting new landfills in 2011, which the legislature later affirmed, because he recognized our policies were turning the state into the dumping ground for the rest of the country. While state departments are currently studying how to most effectively use our existing waste and prevent unnecessary outside waste from flooding our landfills, the legislature decided to provide further financial incentives for more waste to come in. And it ‘s worth repeating that this isn’t just household garbage they want to bring in. It’s toxic waste.
Many positive bills, such as improved bike safety regulations and a proposed Energy Star tax holiday failed to gain approval, but will likely see life again next year. Conservation Alabama will be in Montgomery advocating for those bills and others that protect the health of Alabama and Alabamians, and we look forward to working with you on making our state a healthier place to live.
As they say, you can count on three things in Alabama; death, taxes, and an entertaining legislative session.
Unless, of course, you want to bury some toxic waste. Then we might just give you a pass on the taxes.