Alabama

Montgomery, AL – The Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs is closing 17 veterans' service offices around the state. This means veterans in some counties will have to travel to get assistance in receiving benefits or help with other issues.

The offices are being closed because of severe funding cuts to agencies funded by the state General Fund budget.

Spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, Robert Horton, says no employees will lose jobs because of the offices being closed. Manpower will be consolidated in the offices remaining open.

Montgomery, AL – Gov. Robert Bentley has vetoed a bill passed by the Legislature with only one negative vote. It would have set up a new streamlined system for hearing appeals of state and local tax disputes.

Legislators and lawyers who worked on the legislation to create the Alabama Tax Appeals Commission said a compromise was worked out on the final day of the legislative session, but in the rush of the last day, not all of the agreed-upon language got included in the bill that was presented to the Legislature for the nearly unanimous vote

Montgomery, AL – The state Department of Public Safety says troopers investigated three fatal crashes this year, down from seven in 2011, over the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

The crashes occurred in Walker, Madison and Winston counties. Preliminary investigations indicate that in two of the three crashes, seat belts were not used. In the third fatal crash, a motorcyclist was killed.

The holiday period began at 6 p.m. Friday and ended Monday. Despite heavier-than-usual holiday traffic, troopers were not called to investigate any fatal crashes Sunday or Monday.

Montgomery, AL – Fewer Alabamians are graduating from high school than previously thought according to a new formula for calculating graduation rates.

State officials said Thursday about 72 percent of Alabama high school students are graduating. That rate was previously thought to be at more than 87 percent under the old methodology.

State officials say the new formula for calculating graduation rates is believed to be more accurate.

Anniston, AL – Alabama community colleges are having a tougher time funding services and employee payroll amid state budget cuts and declining enrollment.

The Alabama Department of Postsecondary education reports that early 97,000 students are enrolled in the state's community colleges for this fall. That marks a significant decrease from the 102,000 students enrolled in 2010.

The Department says state community colleges will see their budgets decrease by 2.4 percent and tuition will increase by nearly 1.9 percent.

Montgomery, AL – Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has signed two state budgets into law.

Bentley said Thursday he didn't like everything the Legislature put into the education and General Fund budgets, but there were more positives than negatives.

Bentley said he waited to sign the budgets until the Legislature passed a use tax bill early Thursday morning. It moves part of the state use tax from education purposes to the General Fund budget.

Birmingham, AL – Three major Alabama daily newspapers will switch to publishing three days a week as part of a new focus on online news, in line with their new Orleans sister publication, The Times-Picayune.

The three papers in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville and The Times-Picayune announced the new strategy Thursday. All four are owned by the Newhouse family group.

Both announcements said there will be unspecified staff reductions. The changes will take place in the fall.

Florence, AL – A new report shows that more Alabama students read beneath their grade level than the national average.

The Alliance for Excellent Education's 2011 Nation's Report Card in reading shows that 31 percent of Alabama eighth-graders read below their grade level. Nationally, that rate is 25 percent.

Alliance president Bob Wise says that poor reading skills result in unprepared college students taking remedial courses and employers spending more money on job training.

Montgomery, AL – The Alabama Legislature has approved a plan that redraws House and Senate lines during an all-night session that saw Democrats claim Republican leaders used strong-arm tactics to gavel the plan to final passage.

It was after 4 a.m. when the Senate voted 24-12 to pass a House redistricting plan moments before the House approved a Senate plan by a 65-36 vote.

Montgomery, AL – Alabama's Medicaid chief has proposed hiring a chief financial officer and actuary to keep track of spending in the agency that accounts for more than a third of the state's non-education budget.

Dr. Donald Williamson told a legislative panel on Tuesday that the hires would be part of a managed care system. Williamson heads a task force looking at ways to rein in costs for the $5.3 billion program.

Dauphin Island, AL – Alabama's Conservation Department has announced that state waters will open to shrimping on May 30 for the brown shrimp season.

The season usually opens the second week in June, but officials said a warm winter resulted in early spawning allowing shrimp to reach the legal size earlier than normal.

The program administrator for the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission, Chris Blankenship, said the early opening is perfect timing because it coincides with the tourist season getting into full swing on Memorial Day weekend.

Tuscaloosa, AL – The Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery has asked the Department of Justice to get involved in a serious issue at the Tutwiler Prison for Women. The organization wants the DOJ to look into what they call a widespread pattern of officer-on-inmate sexual violence. Bryan Stevenson is executive director at the Equal Justice Initiative. He talked to me about how the issue got to this point and how his organization got involved.

Montgomery, AL – Republicans in the Alabama Senate say they have the votes to approve new Senate districts that could increase GOP membership in the Senate.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said the proposed districts could boost the number of Republicans in the 35-member Senate from 22 to 27.

Montgomery, AL – A prisoner's rights group has asked the U.S. Justice Department to look into alleged sexual abuse of inmates by guards at an Alabama women's prison.

The Equal Justice Initiative says it filed a complaint with the Justice Department on Tuesday. It claims guards at the Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka have raped inmates, sexually assaulted them, exchanged smuggled contraband for sexual favors and sexually harassed them.

The Justice Department could not immediately be reached. The Alabama Corrections Department declined to comment on the allegations.

Montgomery, AL – The Republican majority in the Alabama House and Senate blocked efforts by Democrats to get new legislative districts that could favor them in the 2014 elections.

The House voted along party lines against House districts proposed by Mobile Democratic Rep. James Buskey. The Senate did the same thing Monday to block Senate districts offered by Greensboro Democratic Sen. Bobby Singleton.

Republican leaders predict they will have the votes to pass House and Senate plans favored by the GOP later Monday.

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