Category Archives: Alabama politics

How to distract voters: Planned Parenthood

THE ISSUE: Desperate for a distraction that would keep their constituents from expecting them to govern, the Alabama Legislature found one: Planned Parenthood.

It’s an awkward time to be in the Alabama Legislature for those who have spent their political careers calling for smaller government and lower taxes.

What do such politicians do when they already delivered on the small-government promise, but don’t have the tax revenue even to sustain that?

One approach, of course, is to confront the problem. To explain to constituents that as much as they might like the state to provide no-cost services, it needs tax revenue.

That’s the approach Gov. Robert Bentley has taken since being elected to his second and last term. His naive hope was his willingness to educate the people on the realities of running a functional state would give legislators the courage to take the only responsible avenue open to them: increasing taxes.

Far from it, lawmakers delighted in using Bentley as a political punching bag, shaming him by passing a budget they knew he’d have to veto, refusing to go into special session when he asked and proposing unrealistic cuts he will once again have to veto.

With those theatrics getting tiresome, however, lawmakers needed something else. The Planned Parenthood videos — showing an official with the organization discussing the availability of fetal tissue for scientific research — were made to order. Legislators, baffled by the budget, are vocal in their support of a bill that would ban the sale of aborted fetuses.

No matter that a federal law already prohibits sale of fetal tissue and places numerous restrictions on its use for life-saving research. No matter that the tissue has been used for medical research for decades.

The Legislature did not need a bill that mattered, it needed an issue that distracted the public from its utter failure to govern the state. It needed something that would prevent people from noticing it is pillaging the Education Trust Fund rather than fixing the General Fund budget. Legislators needed something sensational enough it would keep constituents from asking why they ignored the imminent budget crisis not just in this year’s regular session, but over the last several years.

Indeed, it takes a major distraction to obscure the fact lawmakers year after year patched budget holes with one-time windfalls and borrowed money, but didn’t grapple with the issue of what to do when the one-time fixes ran out.

A beleaguered Bentley was determined to one-up the Legislature, which he did by ending Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood.

This gesture was even more pointless than the House bill that largely duplicated existing federal prohibitions. Medicaid does not cover abortions in Alabama. Indeed, total state Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood over the last two years came to $4,351, and that was for contraception.

With Bentley’s fiscal-conservative halo tarnished by his call for a needed tax increase, he is determined to make headlines that help his social-conservative halo gleam.

Our elected officials have shown us they are brilliant at manufacturing distractions. Now it’s time for them to show they have the backbone to govern.

(Published Aug. 9, 2015)

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Filed under Abortion, Alabama politics, Tax reform

Lawmakers still failing to address budget crisis

THE ISSUE: The Alabama Legislature is demonstrating new levels of dysfunction as it deals with a budgetary crisis. The people deserve better.

Gov. Robert Bentley called the Legislature into a July 13 special session on the budget. It was earlier than lawmakers expected, and for good reason. Bentley had just watched the elected representatives of the state fritter away an entire regular session with no progress — none — on the budgetary crisis that will slam the state Oct. 1.

And while he has been part of the problem in the past, Bentley also must have recognized the Legislature has known the crisis was coming for years. And done nothing about it.

He knew lawmakers needed plenty of time to hammer out legislation that would eliminate a shortfall in the General Fund of at least $200 million, but in reality closer to $500 million.

Rather than acknowledging the urgency of the situation, lawmakers responded to the earlier-than-expected special session with indignation.

“I’m just flabbergasted. I just can’t believe it,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Steve Clouse, R-Ozark.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said lawmakers were angered by a special session that interfered with their schedules and vacation plans.

So legislators shot Bentley down. They convened the special session July 13, as they were legally required to do, but immediately adjourned until Monday. To keep the move from looking as petty as it was, they gave assurances to their constituents the delay was not about vacations, but about maximizing the chance for a consensus.

When the special session resumed Monday, however, nothing had changed. More than a hundred bills have been filed, many of which are silly ideological efforts to distract both voters and lawmakers from the budget. One of the few tax increases that seemed to have a chance in the regular session — a cigarette tax — was quickly shot down in committee.

The same legislators who fumed during the regular session that they had campaigned on pledges of no tax increases are still saying they won’t support tax increases, and are still failing to offer any realistic options for fiscal 2016. Instead of expanding Medicaid — a move that would generate millions in tax revenue — they are threatening to make cuts in a Medicaid program that already is among the least-funded in the nation. This in a state that has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, and that has among the highest prevalence of preventable health conditions in the nation.

Bentley has proposed an uninspiring list of tax increases that fails to address the fundamental inequality of a tax system that places a far greater burden on the poor and middle class than the wealthy, but at least he’s confronting the budgetary crisis.

A longtime conservative who has cut the state’s budget with little regard for consequences, Bentley has the sense to know there is a point at which cuts erode the state’s ability to function.

Instead of treating him as the enemy, it is time lawmakers wake up to the urgency of the problem.

It turns out Bentley was right to call for a July 13 special session, but lawmakers stalled. He is right to insist on limiting the special session to legislation that addresses the fiscal 2016 budget, but lawmakers are ignoring his call. He is right to point out the impossibility of addressing the budget without new tax revenue, but so far lawmakers are refusing to act.

The people of Alabama deserve better.

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City, state shortsighted on school funding

THE ISSUE: Elected officials in Decatur and the state are scrambling to take tax dollars from schools and use them for day-to-day operations. In both cases, it is a mistake.

In 1980, the Decatur City Council, in a 4-1 vote, passed a 1-cent sales tax. Unlike another penny added in 2001, the 1980 tax increase stirred little public complaint. The public largely was agreeable to paying the tax because it was going to Decatur City Schools. In good economic times and bad, the City Council has for 34 years provided 100 percent of the proceeds from the 1980 tax to DCS.

As the city prepares for fiscal 2016, Mayor Don Kyle has his eye on the penny tax. He proposed giving DCS the same dollar amount as in fiscal 2015 — about $9 million — and retaining any growth in tax revenue for the general fund. Because Decatur’s economy is growing at a slow rate, he points out that this change would have minimal impact on DCS revenue in fiscal 2016.

Yet the cap also would have minimal impact on the general fund in the coming year. So why do it at all?

The answer is obvious. Once city officials break the expectation that 100 percent of the penny will go to DCS, they can begin treating contributions to the schools the same way they treat expenditures for Parks and Recreation, Sanitation, or any department. In lean times, they could reduce the contribution to DCS. If they really want another amphitheater or to renovate another train depot, they can take the money from DCS. If the economy actually begins growing, DCS will not share in the benefit.

The mayor correctly points out the City Council in 1980 did not pass a resolution designating the tax exclusively to education. There is no legal impediment to the current council giving less than 100 percent of the tax proceeds to DCS; it is not legally required to give the schools anything.

That the city can legally reduce the educational opportunities of Decatur children, however, does not make it a good idea.

Former City Councilman Max Patterson, who cast one of the four votes in favor of the 1980 tax, was blunt in expressing his frustration that the current council appears poised to end the 34-year practice of giving all of the penny to DCS.

“That penny was established for the schools and should continue for the schools,” Patterson said. “If they don’t give the whole penny to the schools this year, I worry that this council and future councils will keep whittling away at it.”

The timing of the mayor’s effort could hardly be worse. DCS recently issued bonds for the construction of two buildings to replace the deteriorating Austin and Decatur high schools, and it will need any revenue it can get to finance operations while handling debt service.

Moreover, the Legislature has been engaged in a relentless attack on public schools, draining money from the Education Trust Fund for non-educational purposes and to finance private schools and charter schools. The ongoing special session could be even worse, as many legislators have their eyes on education funds as a way to plug holes in the General Fund budget.

When lawmakers take money from the Education Trust Fund, they reduce DCS funding.

Both the city and the state are looking greedily at education funds as a way to pay day-to-day expenses. But in both cases, current economic problems are in large part a function of high poverty rates.

The most effective way to combat poverty is through education. Officials in Decatur and the Statehouse should be looking for ways to improve education and buttress long-term economic growth, not raiding education funds to solve short-term financial problems.

(Published Aug. 6, 2015)

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Filed under Alabama politics, education

Alabama gets F on protecting the unborn from preterm birth

Few states can match Alabama in its zeal to protect the unborn. Our lawmakers happily flout U.S. Supreme Court decisions in their efforts to close abortion clinics. Every year, bills appear at the Statehouse that would prohibit abortions closer and closer to the date of conception.

Such efforts to limit abortions are, of course, easy for lawmakers. Regulating clinics out of existence has no effect on the state budget, and the effort to do so generally receives public approval.

The sincerity of the state’s concern for the unborn does not stand up to scrutiny.

The annual March of Dimes report card on premature births came out recently, and Alabama was one of three states to receive an F.

Compared to an 11.4 percent rate of premature births nationally, Alabama’s rate is 15.1 percent. Louisiana had the same rate as Alabama, and only Mississippi — at 16.6 percent — was worse. Failing to meet the national rate is an embarrassment, as 130 countries have a lower percentage of premature births than the United States.

And while the national rate has been creeping down, Alabama’s rate is rising.

To put Alabama’s 15.1-percent rate into global context: Only 11 countries have a rate over 15 percent. All but two are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Does the state’s high rate of preterm births matter? Absolutely. Premature births are the No. 1 killer of children under the age of 5. Alabama has 10,000 premature births a year, contributing to 520 annual deaths of children less than 1 year old.

Does the state have the ability to reduce preterm births? Again, absolutely.

Not surprisingly, there is a direct correlation between the percentage of uninsured women — 21.2 percent in Alabama — and the rate of premature births. States with relatively low rates of premature births invariably are states that have liberal Medicaid coverage. A healthy mother is far more likely to deliver a full-term and healthy baby, but women without insurance are less likely to be healthy.

So in a state like Alabama, where almost every politician vows publicly and often to protect the rights of the unborn, why do we not do more to reduce premature births?

Partly because of money, and partly because of politics.

Improving the health of prospective mothers — through Medicaid expansion, education and preventive care — costs money. In a cash-strapped state, that means raising taxes on the wealthy. And those who control Montgomery through political contributions are both wealthy and resistant to taxes.

Railing against abortion and passing laws that close abortion clinics costs nothing. Protecting unborn children from the health risks of premature birth, however, requires funding.

It’s also, however, simple politics. Most Alabamians oppose abortion, but they also oppose the most direct route to preserving the lives of the unborn: Medicaid expansion.

It is time for Alabamians and their elected representatives to either abandon their avowed enthusiasm for protecting unborn children, or to recognize that supporting the sanctity of life is not just about rebelling against the U.S. Supreme Court. We can save the lives of children by expanding access to health care.

(Published July 26, 2015)

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Filed under Abortion, Alabama politics, Health care

BP settlement doesn’t change need for tax reform

Lurking in the background of the last two or three legislative sessions was the slight hope that the state’s financial problems would find a short-term solution when BP got around to paying up.

A proposed settlement with BP, announced last week, is for a spill that resulted from the April 20, 2010, explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 workers. It took three months to cap the rig and stop the flow of oil into the Gulf. The financial consequences for the state and for residents were significant. The damage to the environment was massive, and it is continuing.

The settlement amount may, as the state’s lawyers claim, be adequate compensation for the losses sustained by state government. The General Fund would receive $1 billion over 18 years, with additional funds loosely earmarked for coastal restoration in Mobile and Baldwin counties.

The settlement would mean an additional $55 million per year for the General Fund if it is divided evenly over the 18 years, but it is an open question whether any of the money would be available in fiscal 2016. This amount contrasts to the $200 million shortfall the state faces in fiscal 2016 if it keeps spending at the same level as fiscal 2015, and to the approximately $310 million Gov. Robert Bentley said Friday is needed in order to adequately fund state operations.

The danger is lawmakers will deal with this one-time cash infusion in the same way they have dealt with past windfalls — as an excuse to delay necessary tax reform.

While lawmakers adopt a populist stance when expressing opposition to new taxes, they are protecting the small portion of the population that would be affected by progressive tax reform. Unfortunately, this is the same portion of the population that has the disposable income necessary to dictate legislative action through political contributions.

Lawmakers’ recent history of delaying needed tax reform is what got the state into its current financial mess.

In fiscal 2010 and 2011, the General Fund received windfalls from the federal government, in the form of stimulus funds. In fiscal 2012, the General Fund enjoyed a one-time $266 million windfall as a result of past overpayments of oil and gas royalties to the Alabama Trust Fund.

With no other windfalls in sight, the lawmakers in 2012 convinced voters to allow the General Fund to borrow $435 million, payable in fiscal years 2013, 2014 and 2015.

The fiscal 2016 budget shortfall has been inevitable since at least fiscal 2010.

Rational tax reform would not increase taxes for most Alabamians. Low- and middle-income Alabamians pay more than twice as much of their income in overall state and local taxes as do those with the highest incomes, according to a study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

The bottom fifth of Alabamians pay 10.2 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while the middle fifth pay 9.5 percent. The top 1 percent of earners pay 4 percent of their income in state and local taxes.

Alabama’s tax system is unfair to the poor and to the middle class. Commonsense reforms, such as a progressive income tax and elimination of the state-tax deduction for federal income taxes paid, would create a sustainable budget in the long term.

Lawmakers have used one-time windfalls as an excuse for delaying tax reform for too long. They should not do it again with the BP settlement.

(Published July 12, 2015)

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Alabama ranks last on health of its democracy

THE ISSUE: A recent survey determined Alabama has the least-healthy democracy in the nation. It’s time for the state to encourage voting, not look for ways to suppress it.

A recent survey on the health of democracy in the 50 states and the District of Columbia ranked Alabama 51st in the nation.

The survey, by the Center for Progress American Action Fund, looked at numerous factors. The healthiest democracies, by the group’s standards, were those that provided broad access to voting, equal representation in state government and a limited concentration of influence over the political system.

The Center for Progress is a liberal group, but the standards by which it evaluated state democracies are ones the nation has long cherished.

On one factor after another, Alabama exhibits a pattern of discouraging people from voting.

On accessibility of the ballot, the state allows no voter preregistration for 16- or 17-year-olds. It does not offer online voter registration or portable voter registration.

Early voting is not allowed, and its requirement voters show photo identification adds a major hurdle to those without driver’s licenses.

The state also scores low on representation in state government. Females, blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented in government. Districts are drawn in such a way as to minimize the influence of black voters, a fact being scrutinized by federal courts.

Ex-felons remain disenfranchised even after they served their sentences.

Alabama also is one of the worst states in the nation in terms of the influence of money on the political system. There are no contribution limits on individual campaign donations and weak campaign disclosure laws. Legislative data is not easily accessible to the public.

It has become almost cliche to marvel at how frequently Alabamians vote against their own interests. We routinely reject tax initiatives that would have minimal impact on the majority, but that would improve schools and thus increase income mobility. We elect representatives who siphon money from the public schools that educate 90 percent of our children, and who fight federal programs that would benefit most Alabamians.

We endure a tax system that exacts a far greater percentage of the income of the poor and middle class than it does of the wealthy.

The Center for Progress survey is a reminder one of the poorest states in the nation routinely votes in ways that hurt the poor, in part, because the poor face numerous barriers at the polls.

America’s success is inextricably tied to democracy. Not only do we enjoy a more effective government when we maximize voter participation, we avoid the hostility and violence that comes when a large segment of the population is convinced it has no voice in self-governance.

Alabama needs to broaden access to the polls, strive for equal representation and minimize the influence of money in state politics. These are not liberal goals. They are goals that are essential to a healthy democracy.

(Published July 10, 2015)

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Filed under Alabama politics, Voting

With court battles over, it’s time to improve Obamacare

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Thursday — that the Affordable Care Act authorizes the payment of premium subsidies in states, including Alabama, that use the federal insurance exchange — was huge for Alabamians.

There are 132,000 Alabamians who rely on the subsidies to maintain health insurance. That number is likely to double next year.

This is not a program for people who choose not to work. The subsidies do not apply to people below the poverty line. People are eligible for subsidies even if their incomes are four times the poverty level, or well above Alabama’s median income. The subsidies benefit working Alabamians whose employers do not provide health insurance.

When what now is known as Obamacare passed in 2010, the typical GOP opposition was that it would damage America’s superb health care system, a system that was the envy of the world. It did not take long for the party to realize the health care system that was superb for those with excellent insurance and no pre-existing conditions was terribly deficient for millions of Americans.

To the credit of GOP lawmakers, the opposition has changed. U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, trotted out the party line shortly after the court ruled Thursday.

“I think that everyone agrees that our healthcare system needed changes and improvement,” Aderholt said. “However, this was a typical bureaucratic, overreaching approach to a situation that did not need to be nearly as complicated.”

To be sure, it is complicated.

The legislation is a patchwork of compromises designed to provide needed coverage to millions of uninsured Americans while dodging the main objections of insurance and health industry lobbyists. It is far more complicated — and less effective in its goal of making sure all Americans have access to quality health care — than the universal Medicare legislation shot down by Congress during the Clinton administration.

Like any major piece of legislation, it needs changes to work efficiently. Already imperfect, its deficiencies blossomed when the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 struck down a provision effectively requiring states to expand their Medicaid programs. For states like Alabama that rejected a Medicaid expansion, the irrational and sometimes tragic result is that people who make too much money to be on Medicaid but not enough for subsidies are left hanging.

The immediate consequence of Thursday’s Supreme Court decision is that 8.7 million Americans will keep the subsidies that make their insurance affordable.

The long-term consequences could be just as important if Alabama and the GOP-controlled Congress will quit trying to destroy the law and instead try to improve it.

A first step — one that could be taken by the state — would be to expand Medicaid and thereby eliminate the coverage gap. It’s a move that would give 300,000 Alabamians access to health care, improve the state’s labor force and revitalize hospitals.

Economists estimate the expansion, more than 90 percent of which would be paid for with federal tax dollars, would have a $20 billion economic impact on the state and create more than 30,000 jobs.

There are dozens of changes that could be made by Congress that would streamline the law and increase competition in the insurance exchanges, thus reducing premiums and taxpayer costs.

Lawmakers of both parties now recognize how desperately the nation needed health care reform. With the significant legal challenges over, it is time for them to accept the Affordable Care Act as a starting point and to begin the process of improving it.

(Published June 26, 2015)

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Filed under Alabama politics, Health care, Medicaid, Obamacare