Big government intrudes again

Posted: Monday, March 9, 2015
The Issue

  • The same state legislators that resent federal authority are anxious to exert control over elected local school boards.

Move over, elected school board members. The Alabama Legislature is back in session.

The hypocrisy of the legislative efforts to trump local school boards is startling. The same legislators who are so dismissive of local control of public schools are forever railing against federal power over the state. Alabama citizens have more direct input into the state Legislature than into Congress, they argue, so federal lawmakers should back off.

State legislators demand deference from the federal government, but decline to defer to school boards.

One example of the Statehouse’s intrusion in local affairs is the bill to establish charter schools.

The House charter school bill, sponsored by state Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, gives lip service to school-board control.

A local school board, the bill provides, “may approve or deny an application to form a public charter school within the boundaries of the local school system overseen by the local school board.”

That’s a sensible provision that could make charter schools an asset to the school system. A school board is in a better position than the Legislature to decide whether there is local need or support for a charter school. The school board also can evaluate the financial impact a charter school — financed with tax dollars that otherwise would support the school system — would have on the public schools, which educate 90 percent of the state’s school-age children.

Most importantly, local school board members must answer to their neighbors. While only a handful of the 140 legislators who will vote on the charter bill must answer to Decatur voters, all five Decatur school board members are accountable to their constituents.

Giving the local board control over applications to create tax-funded charter schools makes sense, because the public serves as a check to undesirable decisions. If Decatur residents want charter schools and the school board rejects them out of hand, those same board members are unlikely to be re-elected.

Unfortunately, the bill’s suggestion that local school boards have control over charter-school applications is illusory.

If the board denies the application, the charter can appeal the decision to the Alabama Public Charter School Commission.

This nine-member commission would include two members selected by the governor, two by the President Pro Tem of the Senate, two by the Speaker of the House and two by the state Superintendent of Education. Only one of the nine members would be from the school district in which the charter plans to locate.

The GOP majority in Montgomery duped the voters. With few if any exceptions, they ran for office with declarations that the government most directly accountable to the people should hold the most power. But when it comes to education, they are busy intruding on the governmental entity that is closest to the people. Decatur residents, like residents in all area school systems, elected the school board members they trusted to supervise their schools.

Thanks, Montgomery, but your interference is not helping.

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Filed under Alabama politics, charter schools, education

The march must continue

Fifty years ago, Alabama’s shame was broadcast around the world.

On Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, about 600 civil rights marchers walked east out of Selma. They made it six blocks before reaching the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On that bridge, state troopers and local lawmen — including 21 white males deputized that morning by the Dallas County sheriff — attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas, driving them back. Seventeen of the marchers were hospitalized.

In the most literal sense, the march was a failure. The group’s destination was 54 miles beyond the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

In a far more important sense, of course, it was a profound success. A photograph of the unconscious body of Amelia Boynton, beaten and lying at the side of the road, was broadcast around the world. The United States was forced to confront the ugliness that dwelled in Alabama.

Eight days after the protesters were attacked, President Lyndon B. Johnson — a Texas native — convened a joint session of Congress to outline legislation that later became the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

On the marchers’ third attempt to reach Montgomery, the federal government did what then-Gov. George Wallace refused to do. A federal judge ordered protection for the marchers. President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard and sent 1,000 military policemen and 2,000 army troops to escort the marchers from Selma. The marchers made it to the steps of the state capitol building on March 25, 1965.

“Selma, Alabama, became a shining moment in the conscience of man,” Martin Luther King Jr. told the marchers and the world. “If the worst in American life lurked in its dark streets, the best of American instincts arose passionately from across the nation to overcome it.”

Alabama and the nation desperately want Bloody Sunday to be a relic of history, not one step in a continuing battle for racial equality. The U.S. Supreme Court said as much in 2013, when it struck the portion of the Voting Rights Act that required Alabama and other states to obtain federal approval before changing election laws. The disparate treatment of states with a history of discriminatory voting laws, the court said, is “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”

Sadly, Alabama is proving the Supreme Court wrong. The Legislature’s redistricting efforts successfully minimized the representation of black citizens in the Statehouse. Laws advertised as necessary to eliminate imaginary voter fraud have the real effect of keeping blacks from the polls. For every dollar that white households in Alabama make, black households make 59 cents. The unemployment rate for blacks seeking jobs is double that of whites. Because of the dramatic income disparity, the state’s regressive tax structure penalizes blacks more than whites.

Alabama lawmakers continue to embrace intolerance, justifying it with cries of “state rights.” The Legislature continues to pass laws that shift tax dollars from public to private schools, a tactic used with success in the 1960s to circumvent court-ordered desegregation.

Edmund Pettus, a Confederate general and Alabama senator, also was the Grand Dragon of the state’s Ku Klux Klan chapter.

Pettus is dead and buried, but Alabama remains in his shadow.

The battle continues. For how long? The answer is no clearer than it was in 1965.

“How long?” King intoned to Alabama and the world from outside a hostile Statehouse. “Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

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Filed under Alabama politics, Race

Give the low-income majority a voice

Posted: Tuesday, March 3, 2015 12:00 am

The Issue

  • On this first day of the legislative session, the Alabama Legislature should show a willingness to solve the state’s fiscal problems without increasing the tax burden on the low-income majority.
It’s a momentous day, or should be.

It’s a day when Alabamians expect to see self-governance in its noblest form. Thirty-five state senators and 105 House members, elected by the people, will come together in Montgomery to represent the interests of 4.8 million Alabamians.

Whether Alabama’s effort at governing itself is successful depends largely on the extent in which the voices of those 4.8 million Alabamians can be heard through their elected officials in Montgomery. Any test of the Legislature’s success in representing its constituents, therefore, requires a basic understanding of the people it represents.

Alabama is a desperately poor state. It is in the bottom five of all states when it comes to median income and per-capita gross domestic product.

Forty-two percent of Alabama households have an income of less than $35,000. A solid majority of households, 56 percent, have incomes below $50,000. Half of Alabama households bring in $43,000 or less. Some, of course, are better off. Just under 3 percent of Alabama households bring in more than $200,000 a year, and almost 6 percent of households make more than $150,000.

Fifty-nine percent of Alabama’s K-12 students receive free or reduced lunch. Twenty-seven percent of Alabama children live in poverty.

These grim numbers do not dictate a specific legislative agenda, but they suggest some logical directions.

For starters, Alabama needs to get its finances in order. Gov. Robert Bentley estimates a $700 million shortfall in fiscal 2016, which begins Oct. 1. Nobody likes to pay more taxes, but sensible people understand that self-governance requires funding.

So the question becomes how the Legislature can address the financial imperative of raising revenue while honoring the democratic imperative of representing a low-income population.

The answer is not mysterious, and it does not require a novel approach. It requires doing what most states already do: exact at least as heavy a tax burden from the wealthy as from the poor. Alabama does not do that. The half of Alabama households with incomes below $43,000 pay at least 10 percent of their income in state and local taxes. The percentage drops steadily as household income goes up, with those households enjoying the top 1 percent in income paying less than 5 percent in state and local taxes.

The Legislature can both solve its perpetual budget crisis and reduce the burden on the low-income majority by implementing basic reforms that reduce the state’s dependence on regressive taxes.

Throughout state history, the Legislature has catered to the wealthy — and politically powerful — minority.

Today, on the first day of the legislative session, the Legislature has an opportunity to demonstrate that 4.8 million Alabamians have a voice in Montgomery.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Income inequality

The lesson behind the Holtzclaw-Bentley brawl

Posted: Monday, March 2, 2015 12:00 am

The Issue

A spat between the governor and a local state senator was great theater, but it underlined the often forgotten truism that we depend on a government that cannot function without adequate tax revenue.

It was bare-knuckle Alabama politics with an important lesson for Alabama voters.

In the ring were Republican Gov. Robert Bentley and state Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, who represents parts of Madison and Limestone counties.

The match began when Bentley announced state finances are at a crisis point, and the only solution is more revenue. He gave no specifics, but Holtzclaw immediately removed his gloves. He posted a billboard message in Huntsville saying, “Governor Bentley wants to raise your taxes. I will not let that happen.”

And then came a hard jab from Bentley, or at least from his appointed director of transportation, John Cooper, who announced he was halting state-funded road projects in Holtzclaw’s district.

“If Sen. Holtzclaw feels that strongly about taxes, he probably wouldn’t be comfortable with a significant amount of tax dollars being spent in his district as we had planned,” Cooper said.

The match ended quickly, with Bentley saying the projects would be reinstated.

“But I want to say this: We have serious problems in this state and for a state senator to be critical … before he has even seen any of the solutions, is irresponsible,” Bentley said Friday in a less-than-courteous retreat.

It was great theater, with Alabamians cheering for their favorite combatant and local officials petrified that their own loose-lipped legislators would jeopardize critical infrastructure projects.

In the midst of the drama, however, was a serious lesson.

There is not a legislator in north Alabama who did not loudly proclaim opposition to tax increases when campaigning. Any candidate who had the gall to suggest responsible tax reform as the only way out of Alabama’s financial mess would not be in office.

Which is to say that what appears to be a personal battle between Bentley and Holtzclaw is really a broader clash.

Simultaneously, Alabamians want good roads and want taxes that are among the lowest in the nation. They want the state to pump tens of millions of dollars into incentive packages for Polaris and Carpenter Technology — both in Limestone County — but they don’t want to pay the taxes that make it possible.

The state wants prisons to hold criminals, but they don’t want to pay the inevitable bill. They want strong schools, but not if it affects their pocketbook.

It’s a particularly odd paradox in the Tennessee Valley, which owes its economic vitality to Huntsville’s tax-financed employers. Take away Redstone Arsenal and Marshall Space Flight Center and the hundreds of contractors that support them, and the Valley is no longer the gem of Alabama.

There was a time when conservatism meant fiscal responsibility. It has been twisted into an anti-government ideology. As Bentley reminded north Alabama in his brief spat with Holtzclaw, government — a government controlled by the people — provides essential services upon which all Alabamians depend. If we want those services to continue, fiscal responsibility requires that we pay the taxes needed to sustain it.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Tax reform

‘Read my lips’ — state needs tax reform

Posted: Sunday, March 1, 2015 12:00 am

  • Gov. Robert Bentley was dishonest in his campaign, but he is right that Alabama needs more tax revenue.
It was 1988 when Vice President George H.W. Bush, a candidate for president, infamously pledged at the 1988 Republican National Convention, “Read my lips: No new taxes.”

He won the election.

Two years later he agreed to a budget deal increasing taxes, effectively sealing his fate as a one-term president.

Gov. Robert Bentley learned a lesson from Bush’s political mistake, but maybe not the one Alabamians would have wished. After four years of proclaiming a “no new tax” mantra, Bentley won a second term. The ballots had barely been counted when he proclaimed what all students of Alabama government already knew: The state needs new tax revenue.

In Bush’s case, the broken promise was excusable. He made the promise before he had served as president, and it took two years before harsh facts intruded on easy ideology.

Bentley has no such excuse. The state limped through his first term with borrowed money, one-time windfalls and increased fees. The $700 million shortfall Bentley announced in November, two weeks after the election, was not a surprise. The only shock was that a governor who prides himself on his candor would wait until after the election to be candid.

Unlike Bush, Bentley cannot pay a political price for his deception.

The temptation, then, is to punish him by rejecting his call for new tax revenue. That would be a mistake.

The GOP was convinced it could wring enough excess out of the state budget to avoid higher taxes. Bentley believed the same when he first took office, and he probably believed it well into his first term. His effort was not a failure. He streamlined several departments and took other steps that reduced the state’s expenditures.

The unfortunate reality is that Alabama cannot sustain the services and infrastructure its citizens need while having one of the lowest per-capita rates of taxation in the nation.

In fairness to Bentley and the GOP, the blame for inadequate revenue falls largely on a Democratic Party that controlled the state for 136 years. By insisting on regressive taxes that did not annoy the rich and powerful, they tried to run a state by creating a tax system that extracted money from those who could least afford it. Both as a matter of fairness and as a means to fiscal solvency, that needs to change.

Bentley’s pre-election dishonesty on Alabama’s financial plight deserves condemnation. In the process of condemning him, however, the public should recognize that the state cannot function without more revenue. Low- and middle-class residents already pay a disproportionate amount of their income in taxes. The path to responsible governance lies with reforms that — for the first time in Alabama’s history — place a greater burden on the wealthy.

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Filed under Tax reform

Joseph only candidate qualified to be auditor

2014 election endorsement

Joseph only candidate qualified to be auditor

Posted: Tuesday, October 28, 2014 12:00 am

The Issue

  • The state auditor position has narrow duties and little power. The one thing it requires is experience in auditing. Of the two candidates, only Miranda Joseph has such experience.
Miranda Joseph is a trained auditor. Her opponent in the race for the state auditor position is not. For that reason, we endorse Joseph for the position.

The reasons the state auditor is an elected position may have been clear when the state Constitution was ratified in 1901, but are no longer. While regular audits of state property make sense, they could more efficiently be handled by qualified appointees or by external auditing firms.

It falls to voters, therefore, to choose a qualified auditor when one runs for the position.

Joseph, a Democrat from Birmingham, is certified in internal auditing and in risk management. The 29-year-old received a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She has worked as an internal auditor for a Birmingham bank and as an external auditor for several financial institutions.

Alabama’s state auditor has no power to do anything but perform constitutionally required audits. The auditor is responsible for the accounting of state personal property costing $500 or more. If state property is missing due to theft, the auditor has no authority to recover it. That job is left to the state Attorney General.

Unlike the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts, the state auditor does not have significant oversight responsibilities for the accounts of entities receiving or disbursing public funds.

In short, the job of state auditor needs expertise in only one area: auditing. Only one candidate has that expertise.

Republican Jim Zeigler, a lawyer from Mobile, has no experience in auditing or accounting. He served one term on the Alabama Public Service Commission beginning 1974. Starting in 1982, Zeigler lost close races for state Supreme Court, state treasurer, civil appeals court and state auditor in 2002. Those close races earned the perpetual candidate the nickname “Mr. 49 Percent.”

Zeigler, 66, seeks to make up for his lack of experience with an abundance of enthusiasm. While acknowledging the state auditor has no power to retrieve stolen property, he promises he will bring lawsuits as a private citizen. This is a bad idea.

If he were to bring such suits, he would have to finance litigation costs out of his own pocket. Any time spent on such lawsuits would detract from the sole duty of the auditor, which is performing audits.

The Attorney General’s office — when it receives the support it needs from the state auditor — is well-equipped to bring lawsuits for recovery of state property, can prosecute crimes and already receives funding for the task.

Joseph and Zeigler are running for a job with narrow duties and little power. We would applaud Zeigler if he sought to amend the constitution to eliminate the requirement that the auditor be elected, but we foresee nothing but problems if he tries to turn the job into something it’s not.

Of the two candidates available, Joseph is the only one qualified to serve.

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Amendments would aid armories, schools

2014 Election Endorsement

Amendments would aid armories, schools

Posted: Monday, October 27, 2014 12:00 am

We recommend a vote in favor of Amendments 2 and 4, and against Amendments 1 and 3 on the Nov. 4 ballot. We have no recommendation on Amendment 5.

Amendment 1 is an example of the political posturing that has become commonplace in the constitutional amendments placed on the ballot in recent years. It is the equivalent of placing a yard sign in the state constitution, which already is the longest in the nation.

Amendment 1 prohibits Alabama courts from applying foreign law if doing so would violate rights guaranteed to Alabama citizens. Alabama courts, however, do not apply foreign law. They never have. Even if a court did seek to apply foreign law, it already is prohibited from applying it — or any other law — in a way that infringes on the constitutional rights of Alabama citizens.

If the Islamic caliphate makes inroads on Alabama’s borders and Sharia law starts popping up in decisions by Alabama’s elected judges, citizens may want to revisit the issue. In the meantime, the amendment should be recognized for what it is: a political stunt.

Amendment 2 merits support. The amendment authorizes the state to borrow up to $50 million for the construction and maintenance of Alabama National Guard armories. Combined with federal funds, it could benefit Decatur directly by helping to finance the relocation of National Guard training facilities to the vacant Lurleen B. Wallace Development Center.

The downside of the amendment is that the state will have to repay any bonds from the Alabama Trust Fund, which is funded by revenues generated from oil and gas wells in the Gulf. The payments would come from an already anemic state General Fund and would reduce distributions to local governments.

Amendment 3 is a reminder that no matter how many lawsuits the state loses and how much it wastes in legal fees, legislators cannot grasp the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Federal law trumps state law, even when the state law is in the form of a constitutional amendment.

Amendment 3 reiterates the right to bear arms, a right already firmly entrenched in both the U.S. and Alabama constitutions. It then provides that any restriction on the right is subject to “strict scrutiny.” Even the most casual observer recognizes that the state Legislature has no inclination to restrict the right to bear arms; indeed, it routinely passes legislation purporting to broaden the right. The perceived threat comes not from Montgomery, but from Washington, D.C.

State constitutional amendments cannot defeat federal law. This would seem to merely make Amendment 3 irrelevant, but recent history in our state suggests otherwise. Rather than accept that the Supremacy Clause means what it says, our state Attorney General litigates everything to the bitter and inevitable end. He and the Legislature count on political points for their tenacity. The taxpayers get stuck with the bill.

Amendment 4 requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to pass laws that impose unfunded mandates of more than $50,000 on city or county boards of education. It does not apply to laws involving compensation, benefits or due process rights. The attack on public schools has been so relentless over the last four years that they need any protection they can get. We look forward to a time when the Legislature once again recognizes that well-funded and well-managed public schools are the solution to the state’s many ills, not the cause of them.

Amendment 5, coined the “Sportsperson’s Bill of Rights” and introduced at the recommendation of the National Rifle Association, is sufficiently vague that it is unlikely to have any effect. It states that, subject to reasonable regulations, Alabama citizens have a right to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife using traditional methods. It would make hunting and fishing the preferred method of managing wildlife in the state.

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