Monthly Archives: April 2013

Congress living in a bubble

Last week, both parties in Congress demonstrated they live in a bubble that includes frequent flyers but does not include the poor or the sick.

Both the House and Senate on Friday passed legislation allowing the agency to shift $253 million from other accounts to end furloughs that began five days earlier. Elected officials then scurried to airports to catch a flight home.

Funding for the Federal Aviation Administration is “welfare” in much the same way as funding for Head Start.
In both cases, tax revenue from the U.S. population is being used to provide benefits for a small subset of that population. In both cases, Congress has concluded the subsidy serves the national interest.

America does not want planes crashing and it does not want generational poverty. While there is an arguable inequity in forcing people who do not fly to subsidize those who do and in forcing those who are not impoverished to subsidize those who are, Congress long ago decided the national benefits trumped any unfairness.

The sequestration deal that was necessary to convince the U.S. House to raise the debt ceiling intentionally limited the executive branch’s discretion in absorbing budget cuts. The idea was for the cuts to hurt both parties politically, forcing them to agree on a budget.

A flaw in the plan is that most of the pain has been felt by those who are invisible to politicians.

Children whose best path out of generational poverty was Head Start preschool programs must stay home. Medicare recipients with cancer are missing chemotherapy treatments. Food pantries closed. The long-term unemployed saw a reduction in benefits. Meals on Wheels stopped delivering food to many elderly clients.

This is the human tragedy of Washington gridlock.

People who are poor and sick have no political voice. They are too overwhelmed by their existence to expend the energy necessary to attract the attention of elected officials. They cannot afford to make political contributions. They do not run in the same social circles as their elected representatives, and no wonder. The median estimated wealth for members of the House of Representatives is $746,000, 13 times that of the median American household. The median estimated wealth for senators is $2.6 million, 46 times that of their constituents.

The people most hurt by sequestration are outside the bubble.

Frequent flyers, however, are inside the bubble. Members of Congress depend on timely flights, as do those with the money to contribute to their campaigns. Politicians’ friends resent airport delays. Airport delays are entirely irrelevant to most parents with children in Head Start, but it’s a topic that has dominated cocktail chatter in the circles that many politicians frequent.

The whole point of sequestration was to create enough pain that Congress was forced to act. It is a national embarrassment — a mark of shame for both parties — that the pain that triggered action had nothing to do with the poor, the sick or the elderly.

Congress felt the call to action only when frequent flyers were inconvenienced.


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Filed under Poverty, Sequester

Lawmakers finally take stand for schools

It’s late in the session, but a handful of state senators — including Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur — are finally standing up to out-of-control colleagues.

At issue is the Alabama Accountability Act, passed this session. The claimed purpose of the law is to provide tax credits allowing students in failing public schools to transfer to private schools. The tax credits come from the Education Trust Fund, so the law reduces funding for public schools.

Even if the claimed purpose is a good one, the law is unlikely to accomplish it. The tax credits offered by the law are less than half of typical private-school costs. Private schools have no obligation to accept transferring students. The vast majority of students in failing schools rely on free- or reduced-cost lunches, which they would not receive if they transfer. Students would receive no transportation to the private schools. Families would not receive the tax credits until months after tuition is due.

The most significant question about the Accountability Act, therefore, was how much it would cost public schools if no students used it to transfer from a failing school.

The most straightforward interpretation of the law is that families of students already enrolled in private schools, but assigned to failing public schools, would receive the tax credits. According to the Alabama Association of School Boards, about 10,600 students fall in this category. Assuming tax credits of $4,000 per student, this represents a cost to the ETF of $42 million.

That cost loomed large, because public schools would lose the money even if the law turned out to be a complete flop. The Accountability Act would drain the $42 million from the ETF, plus another $25 million for a scholarship fund, even if not a single child actually transferred from a failing public school to a private school.

While that’s the most straightforward interpretation of the law, the state Department of Revenue made a stretch and interpreted it differently. The department concluded families with students already enrolled in private schools were not eligible for the credit. Its interpretation is important, because it’s the agency responsible for administering the program.

Many legislators questioned the Revenue Department’s interpretation. They responded to it by introducing replacement legislation that would remove any ambiguity, making clear that families already sending their children to private schools still get the ETF-funded tax credits.

The replacement bill, in other words, would guarantee that public schools would lose $42 million, even if it completely failed in its claimed purpose of offering school choice.

Finally, Sen. Arthur Orr spoke out.

“They should not apply to those who are already in private schools,” Orr said. “I would strongly consider voting for a repeal if the bill is going in a direction it was not intended to go.”

He said he plans to introduce an amendment or substitute bill today to address the issue.
Another North Alabama senator, Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, also expressed concerns.

The best result would be repeal of the law, which is deeply flawed because legislators prevented educators from having input. The fact that Orr and others finally are speaking out, however, is a sign that sanity may be returning to Montgomery.

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Filed under Alabama politics, education

Anniversary of tragedy, strength

Two years ago, those Alabamians who had slept at all awoke to a changed state.

From 4 the previous morning until 10 at night, tornadoes had pounded the state. They killed 248 and injured far more. They devastated Hackleburg and Phil Campbell and Mount Hope. They pummeled Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. They slammed Lawrence and Limestone counties and flattened a factory in Decatur.

In a series of stories during the past few days, The Decatur Daily has taken a look at the survivors. They told stories of grief and heroism, of despair and recovery.

There was the story of Bethel Church of Christ in Limestone County. A tornado destroyed the structure as 30 people huddled in the basement. It did not, however, destroy the church, which has emerged stronger than ever in a new facility.

There was the story of Walter McGlocklin, 69, who lost his wife, two children and his home in the 1974 tornadoes. The 2011 tornado destroyed homes around him as he and family members crowded into a storm shelter he built after the 1974 storm.

There was Justin Adams, 24, of Mount Hope, an athlete who lost his brother and his leg in the 2011 tornado.

“Right now, I just want to run one day,” he said. “When I was angry with God, I didn’t see any of this happening. With him on my side, I know the future will be OK.”

His mother struggles with grief and guilt, angry that she survived a tornado that stole one son and seriously injured another.

All of these survivors recall the outpouring of love and support from the community, both from friends and strangers.

Their accounts were a reminder not just of the tragedy of April 27, 2011, but of the state’s nobility that day and in the days that followed.

Two years ago, we all were Alabamians. We were not Republicans or Democrats, rich or poor, black or white, immigrants or non-immigrants. The only classification that mattered was between those who needed help because they were victims of the storms and those who offered help because they were not.

For a few weeks, Alabamians refused to judge. We did not withhold assistance from those who had failed to purchase insurance or to build a storm shelter. We did not evaluate character. The Alabamians who were capable of providing assistance did so without reservation.

Torn by ideology and partisanship, it is easy to forget the underlying unity of Alabama. Alabamians are a strong and good people. April 27 was the anniversary of a tragedy that will live on for many.

It also is an anniversary that should serve as a perpetual reminder of what it means to be an Alabamian.


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Republicans can support public schools

Loyal Republicans who have paid any attention to the actions of their supermajority in Montgomery since 2010 could reasonably come to the conclusion that good Republicans oppose public education.

For some of those with no active connection to public schools, it’s a realization that may go down easy.

For others, the conclusion is stressful. They may have children in public schools. Many teachers — certainly most of those in the Decatur area — are Republicans. These parents and educators see a few burned-out teachers, but they see many more who are intensely devoted to their students. They recognize that teachers have assumed much of the burden of parenting some students. They see countless situations in which attentive teachers and administrators have turned bleak futures into bright ones.

Dr. Charles Elliott, a Decatur Republican who serves on the state Board of Education, provides relief for those torn by the seeming conflict between loyalty to the Republican Party and to public education. It’s a manufactured conflict, he says. Republicans have historically been ardent defenders of public schools, seeing them as essential not just for individual opportunity but for economic progress. He is angry — red-in-the-face furious — that his party has squandered its complete power over the state to pursue a vendetta against public schools.

The legislative attacks on the schools have been nearly constant since the 2011 session, most involving creative ways to reduce school funding or to shift General Fund expenses to the Education Trust Fund.

The Legislature’s most public assault on the schools this session was the Alabama Accountability Act.

There is room for disagreement on whether the ostensible purpose of the law — to allow students to transfer from “failing” public schools to taxpayer-subsidized private schools — benefits students. There can be no disagreement that the law is fiscally irresponsible.

Legislators have no reliable estimate on the number of schools the law deems failing, and thus have no idea how many students could transfer. Consequently, they cannot calculate the total cost of the tuition tax credits, which run at least $3,500 per student. Most significantly, they cannot agree whether the law that received their votes gives the tuition credits to families whose children are assigned to failing schools but already are enrolled in private ones.

In what seemed a wise move, legislators called a Mulligan. Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh proposed a replacement bill to clarify the many confusing aspects of the law.

The changes — some of which appear in the bill and some of which legislators have promised to add to it Tuesday — do not increase the likelihood that students stuck in failing public schools will have a chance to transfer. Indeed, the bill declares that neither private nor out-of-district public schools have any obligation to accept a student that seeks a transfer.

The bill does not change the timing of the tax credits, which come after tuition is due, and it shifts the cost of transportation to a non-failing public school to the family. Taken together, the bill ensures almost no student who lacks the money to enroll in a private school will benefit.

The changes will, however, benefit those who — because they have the financial wherewithal to enroll in a private school — already have done so. The bill gives tax credits to families of students who have never set foot in the failing school to which they are assigned. Despite concerns raised by some legislators, these families can receive the tax credits regardless of their wealth or income level.

This part of the bill, of course, is not about “school choice.” It is a tax credit for families who both have a choice and have exercised it.

The cost to the Education Trust Fund of the tax credit for students assigned to failing schools but already enrolled in private schools is about $42 million, according to the Alabama Association of School Boards.

Two other major changes in the bill involve the private-school scholarship program, capped at $25 million and fully funded by the ETF. The financial hit to public schools might have turned out to be less devastating under the Accountability Act if either donations to the scholarship fund did not meet the cap or if so few students tried to transfer that the money never got spent.

The bill ends this possibility by giving a 100 percent tax credit — which comes straight from the ETF — for donations to the scholarship fund by both individuals and corporations. If no students actually elect to transfer from failing schools, does the money return to the ETF? No, not under Marsh’s bill. Students in non-failing public schools also can get scholarships to private and religious schools. The scholarships are unlimited in amount.

After the Accountability Act passed, legislative estimates of its cost started at over $100 million. The law never changed, but as budget negotiations neared estimates dropped to $70 million and then to $55 million and finally — during budget negotiations — to $35 million. Legislators are manipulating their estimates based on what the budget can handle.

Because the bill guarantees the full $25 million scholarship fund will be spent and because it clarifies that students already enrolled in private schools, regardless of income, will benefit from the tuition tax credit, it will drain more from the ETF than the law it replaces.

The minimum cost — assuming not a single student actually transfers from a failing public school to a private one — is $68 million.

Even under the less expensive Accountability Act that the bill would replace, Decatur City Schools is preparing to cut its annual budget by $726,000, which will result in the dismissal of 16 non-tenured teachers. Student-teacher ratios will increase.

Public education, as Elliott had the courage to say, need not be a partisan issue.

Those stressed because of the apparent conflict between their loyalty to public education and to the Republican Party can relax. The tension comes not from Republican values but from anti-education incumbents.

Every Republican legislator in Morgan and Limestone counties — and almost every Republican in the state — joined the bandwagon that rolled over public education. If they don’t seek to undo the damage and if their challengers offer a traditional Republican vision that supports public schools, supporters of public schools can vote the incumbents out. The next Legislature can seek to repair the damage.

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Filed under Alabama politics, education

‘Gotcha’ – Senate pulls another fast one

The state Senate, apparently not impressed with public disgust over past legislative tricks, pulled another fast one Wednesday.

At issue was a bill that would require welfare recipients to pass drug screens as a prerequisite to receiving assistance. The bill was on the agenda for 2 p.m. and senators with concerns about the bill had said they wanted to discuss it before a vote.

There was good reason to question the bill, which mimics similar legislation passed in Florida in 2011. Copycat bills sometimes make sense; if something worked in one state, it might work in Alabama.

The Florida bill, however, was an utter failure. Of the more than 4,000 Floridians who underwent drug tests, only 108 — 2.8 percent — failed. Eight percent of all Floridians use drugs. The law caused no decrease in applications for assistance. The law was in effect for only four months, but the net cost to the state — despite the slight decrease in benefits it paid out — was $46,000.

The reason the Florida experiment lasted only four months was that a federal district court ruled it was unconstitutional. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals — the same court that hears challenges to Alabama laws — agreed in a February ruling.

The Florida law, designed to save money, instead increased costs. It also led to an expensive court battle that Florida lost. Yet the Alabama Senate decided to copy the Florida experiment.

There was good reason, therefore, that senators requested a chance to discuss Senate Bill 191 before a vote. Unfortunately, there were several committee meetings immediately before the full Senate came to session at 2 p.m. One of those committee meetings was to discuss a proposed replacement bill for the Alabama Accountability Act.

The reason Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, proposed a replacement bill for the Accountability Act relates back to another legislative game. Marsh and a few others substituted a 28-page “school choice” bill for a nine-page flexibility bill during a conference committee. They intentionally concealed the existence of the substitute bill from the state superintendent, from the public, from Democratic lawmakers and even from most Republicans. To their glee the bill passed, but to no one’s surprise it is a terribly drafted law. It’s what one would expect when legislators try to reform education policy without input from educators.

At 2 p.m. on Wednesday, therefore, senators were just leaving contentious committee meetings. Almost no senators were in the chamber, according to a reporter who was, yet Marsh called for a vote on the drug-testing bill. He asked to have it passed using the roll call from a previously passed and unrelated bill. No one objected because no Democrats and almost no senators were present. The bill automatically passed in the nearly empty chamber, and Marsh exchanged a high five with the bill’s sponsor as confused senators strolled in.

These sorts of “gotcha” games would be embarrassing if played by student council representatives in an elementary school. They are an insult to Alabama voters. And they result in lousy laws.


Addendum: Derek Trotter, Marsh’s communications director, contacted me regarding this post. He said Marsh offered to reconsider the bill, which “would have negated the passage and essentially reset the debate.” Trotter said he did not know to whom the offer was made or who declined it, “but Senator Rodger Smitherman (D-Birmingham) was the one who encouraged his side to not reconsider and keep things moving.”

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Filed under Alabama politics, Welfare

Regulations by people, for people

Almost lost in the headlines after the Boston Marathon bombing was a tragedy that cost even more lives.

In the town of West, Texas, a massive fertilizer plant explosion killed 14 people and injured 200 more. It destroyed an apartment complex, damaged a school, collapsed a nursing home and leveled houses.

Why did the Boston tragedy claim the headlines? In part because terrorism makes people feel helpless. Stopping those who intend to do Americans harm is nearly impossible.

The Texas tragedy, on the other hand, was entirely preventable. It triggers less fear — even in a city like Decatur, with numerous chemical plants — because citizens know such tragedies can be avoided.

The primary tool the nation has in preventing industrial disasters is regulation. Market forces limit the frequency of corporate-caused tragedy by imposing a financial cost after the fact. As the nation saw with the explosion at West Fertilizer and the oil spill at BP and countless other disasters over the years, the market is imperfect in securing public safety. The desire for profit — or sometimes for financial survival — too often overwhelms the rational evaluation of risk.

Like the BP spill, the West Fertilizer explosion represented not just a market failure, but a failure in oversight. Either the regulations were too lax or enforcement was slack. The disaster should not have happened. Officials need to figure out what went wrong and make sure it does not happen again.

Political campaigns like the one last year oversimplify the issue of regulation. While it is true that regulatory control should be as streamlined as possible so as to reduce the cost to businesses, broad calls for deregulation are reckless.

In Alabama and many other states, political rhetoric suggests the greatest threat to the people is the federal government. Proposals to give the government more regulatory control over businesses — even chemical plants that deal in explosive fertilizer products — is seen as heresy. It’s a popular political argument that must seem strikingly lame to the people of West, Texas, right now.

In America, the government answers to the people. One of its highest missions is to protect the public. That duty applies both to terrorist attacks and to industrial accidents. It would be great if all corporate officials viewed protection of the public as an imperative that always outweighed profit. Sadly, that’s not how our economic system works.

Regulations are created by a government that answers to the people. While officials should constantly seek to minimize regulatory burdens, they must never forget the purpose of oversight. The profit motive of individuals cannot be allowed to jeopardize the safety of the public.

Regulatory control, demonized in political debate, is an essential function of the people’s government.

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How will we handle this 9/11?

Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, we’ve known it would happen again. When the next terrorist attack came, we wondered, would we handle it differently? Would we find a better balance between security and freedom?

Immediately after the Boston Marathon bombing, a Saudi national took off running. He was tackled and arrested. Police searched his residence, but quickly announced he had nothing to do with the bombings. Before the announcement, the New York Post published his photo and nationality on Page 1.

I couldn’t help sympathize with the Saudi for running. If there is anything a non-Caucasian Muslim in the United States legitimately fears, it is being anywhere near a terrorist attack. He was an immediate suspect because of his ethnicity. The Post confirmed the validity of his fears. He should have run faster.

The nearly 7 million Muslims who reside in the United States no doubt groaned when they got word that the brothers who placed bombs at the marathon were self-identified followers of Islam.

As I write this on Friday, we know nothing about the bombers’ motives and little about who they are. They were legal immigrants born in Chechnya who had lived in the United States for years. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev received a scholarship to a Cambridge high school and headed his wrestling team. The 19-year-old was majoring in marine biology at a Massachusetts university. Yet with this sliver of information, the sober Associated Press already was running stories about Chechen militants in the West. No telling what the Post was running.

It may turn out that the Tsarnaev brothers are Islamic extremists. It also may turn out that they are run-of-the-mill misfits like the Americans who slaughtered children in Newtown, Conn., or fired on officials in Tucson or targeted moviegoers in Aurora, Colo. They may have more in common with the Elvis impersonator from Mississippi alleged to have sent ricin to elected officials than to Chechen terrorists who have targeted Russia.

We are, in other words, doing the same thing we did in 2001. The determination to expand culpability beyond the murderers — to focus our anger on a definable religious or ethnic group — is starting not with the government, but with the people and the press. For this is to play out differently than in 2001, elected officials would have to resist the panic and prejudices of their constituents. Politicians are notoriously bad at doing so, falling more easily into the politically beneficial strategy of egging on our fears.

While the casualties were fewer, the rush of events since the Boston Marathon felt like those following the terrorist attacks of September 2001. The tragedies brought out the crazies, creating real threats. We are scared. The constant reports of suspected bombs weigh on us, even when they turn out to be textbooks in a misplaced backpack.

What we want is protection. We demand it from our leaders. Niceties like Due Process and religious tolerance are forgotten.

Democrats and many Republicans love to blame former President George W. Bush for the loss of individual liberties that resulted from the terrorist attacks during his administration. This week’s events are a reminder that his failure was not aggression but passivity. We demanded security over liberty, and he complied.

Before the smoke of Boston, most Americans had concluded the nation overreacted to the 2011 attacks. The Patriot Act and numerous other infringements of our liberties, the Iraq War, Guantanamo, the trillions of dollars spent, were — we thought — examples of governmental overreach. Benjamin Franklin’s quote became a mainstay of both the left and the right: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Once again, our temptation is to embrace safety over liberty. Once again, we feel the temptation to lash out at Muslims. While most of us condemn torture, who would not make an exception for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who remains alive and in custody as I write this? To protect ourselves, we need to know if he is part of a terrorist cell. Bring out the water board.

There are no simple answers. Maybe the lesson of the Boston Marathon bombing is that security does trump liberty, that the U.S. response to the more dramatic tragedy of September 2001 was appropriate. Maybe profiling Muslims is a reasonable response to a real threat.

One thing is certain, though. If we are to avoid the path we took after Sept. 11, 2001, we must get a grip. Whether the Tsarnaev brothers turn out to be Muslim extremists or Chechen separatists or violent and disgruntled miscreants, we must take a breath. Elected officials will respond to our demands. If we demand more security and less liberty, we will get it. If we blame Muslims for our terror, national policy will shift to assuage our fears.

We’ve been through this before. Will we handle it differently this time?


Filed under Civil liberties, Terrorism