Tuscaloosa, AL – 2003 was a year of change in Alabama. It also was a year when the state continued to struggle with some of the same problems that have plagued it for decades. Alabama Public Radio's Butler Cain takes a look at some of the year's memorable stories.
2003 began with the inauguration of a new governor and, with him, the return of the Republican Party to Alabama's executive office.
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Almost immediately, Governor Riley began addressing the state's looming budget crisis. In March, the governor delivered his first State of the State address and began preparing Alabamians for what proved to be one of the year's most debated issues.
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The governor crafted a one-point-two billion dollar tax reform and government accountability plan. Touted as a way to raise money and improve state government, Governor Riley sent his proposal before state voters in September. It was soundly defeated, prompting the governor to make substantial cuts in state services and employees.
Earlier in the year, the state Senate was bogged down for weeks in a dispute between a majority group of Democrats and a minority group of other Democrats and Republicans. The minority group complained the majority was not treating them fairly.
2003 also was a year of war. President George Bush said Iraq continued to violate U-N sanctions, and he sent American soldiers into the country to forcefully depose Saddam Hussein and search for weapons of mass destruction.
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Despite opposition from a number of countries, U-S Senator Jeff Sessions said the president received considerable support in Congress.
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Hundreds of Alabama soldiers have been activated for duty, and some of them have died. More than two thousand remain deployed in the Middle East. Departure ceremonies have been common in cities and towns across the state.
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During the summer, the University of Alabama celebrated a milestone in its history. 2003 marked the 40th anniversary of former Governor George Wallace's Stand in the Schoolhouse Door on the university's campus. James Hood, one of the two African American students attempting to enroll that day, was among many who talked about their experiences. He said there was a stark difference between the public side of the issue and his actual experience as a student.
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The event in 1963 marked the final desegregation of the University of Alabama and helped the Kennedy administration shape its policy on civil rights. Another issue involving school and race occurred in Tuscaloosa this year. The city Board of Education has been grappling with the relocation of Central High School. Debate centered on whether to rebuild the school in its current location or build a new facility in predominantly black western Tuscaloosa. The issue has proven divisive.
After months of delays and challenges, the chemical weapons incinerator began operating at the Anniston Army Depot. The facility also began disposing of dangerous nerve agents stored in those weapons.
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A massive corporate scandal unfolded at HealthSouth in Birmingham. Federal investigators discovered the company had artificially inflated earnings by a couple billion dollars to improve its status in the market. The company's new leadership tried to recover.
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Several former HealthSouth officers pleaded guilty to numerous charges and agreed to cooperate with the government's case. But it took federal prosecutors several weeks to formally charge Richard Scrushy, the company's former C-E-O. Scrushy has been indicted on 85 counts of criminal charges.
After spending five years avoiding capture, Eric Robert Rudolph was arrested in North Carolina in May. He's charged with the January 1998 bombing of a Birmingham abortion clinic. The blast killed an off duty police officer and seriously injured a nurse. Rudolph will be tried on those charges first, and federal prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty. Rudolph also faces bombing charges in Georgia.
Attorney General Bill Pryor's nomination to a federal appeals court did not get far. His nomination was blocked by Democratic filibusters in the U-S Senate. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions complained Pryor's record was being distorted.
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President Bush nominated Pryor to a seat on the 11th U-S Circuit Court of Appeals.
Alabama continued to struggle to find ways to remove prisoners from overcrowded prisoners. Governor Riley focused on streamlining the parole process to thin the inmate population.
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That process began late in the year.
During the spring, severe storms caused widespread floods that damaged homes, businesses, roadways and bridges across north Alabama.
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In Tuscaloosa, a small tornado came from nowhere in mid-November and struck one of the city's busiest intersections. Buildings and automobiles were damaged, but no one was killed.
There were storms of a different kind in the football programs at the University of Alabama and Auburn University. Alabama hired Washington State football coach Mike Price to lead the Crimson Tide. But within a few months, a scandal involving a Florida strip club cost Price his job. President Robert Witt, who had just recently taken the helm at the University of Alabama, made the announcement.
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Alabama hired Mike Shula, a former Tide quarterback and longtime N-F-L assistant, to take the football program's reins. Even that brought some national criticism because Sylvester Croom, another former Bama player and N-F-L assistant, also was being considered for the job. The issue became one of race. Shula is white, Croom is black. Croom was later hired as head football coach at Mississippi State, becoming the Southeastern Conference's first African American head football coach.
On the plains, Auburn University experienced its own football scandal. The school's president, athletic director and some trustees flew to Kentucky to recruit another football coach before Tommy Tuberville knew his job might be in jeopardy. And, it was later revealed, it happened just a couple of days before the Iron Bowl. Fans and alumni asked for the resignations of everyone involved, and the administration was forced to apologize for what it admitted was an embarrassing occurrence. In the end, Tuberville decided he would stay. But the bad news got worse for Auburn when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed the university on probation. The designation threatens millions of dollars in funding and the school's accreditation. Auburn alumni officials were outraged.
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SACS also placed the University of West Alabama on probation.
State Senator Roger Bedford, who was charged with extortion and attempted extortion for a dispute involving state money and the Marion County Commission, went to trial in December. However, the judge threw out the case, saying there was no evidence of wrongdoing.
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The flu hit Alabama early, and just like residents across the country, Alabamians began scrambling to get a flu vaccine.
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Soon, supplies began running out, and federal health officials have been trying to redistribute vaccines to areas where they are needed most.
Alabama began aggressively pursuing agricultural trade deals with Cuba. State delegates have traveled there several times this year and have already secured some trade agreements. Residents in and around Anniston began receiving settlement checks related to the P-C-B contamination in the area. And the state's natural gas dispute with Exxon-Mobil went to trial for a second time, and again, the jury gave the state a massive award -- nearly 12 billion dollars.
But it could be argued that the biggest story of 2003 involved Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and his effort to keep a monument of the Ten Commandments in the state judicial building. Federal Judge Myron Thompson ordered Moore to move the monument from the rotunda of the state judicial building, but Moore refused.
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The issue sparked heavy debate of the U-S Constitution's separation of church and state.
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Alabama's eight associate supreme court justices later overruled Moore and ordered the monument moved. Moore then found himself facing charges of violating judicial ethics for refusing to obey the authority of a higher court. In November, the Alabama Court of the Judiciary made its decision.
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Moore said he was not surprised, and he said he would not change the way he handled the situation.
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Moore is appealing to win back his job as chief justice, and all eight associate justices have stepped aside from the case. A new set of judges has been chosen to hear Moore's appeal.
For Alabama Public Radio, I'm Butler Cain.