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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​​A tough week for states’ rights, but US blessings abound

Many in Alabama were left reeling by the events of last week.

First came the Confederate flag. Stung by its prominence in the murder of nine black church members in Charleston, South Carolina, aware of the international condemnation of the flag as a symbol in a developed nation, and conscious of what it meant to his black constituents, Gov. Robert Bentley ordered the flag removed from the Capitol grounds.

It was the right decision. Confederate flags originated from a conviction of white supremacy and a belief that maintaining slavery was a cause for which secession was appropriate. Since Reconstruction, almost every white supremacy group has proudly displayed the flag.

But despite its origin, for many Alabamians the flag represents something different. It is, for them, a symbol of states’ rights and limited government. It is a symbol of a Southern heritage that, while marred by slavery, also included good.

So the retirement of the Confederate flags at the state Capitol caused anguish.

Then came Obamacare. The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday dashed the last, best hope of those who view the Affordable Care Act as a classic example of the expansion of federal government and the narrowing of state sovereignty.

To be sure, the law will benefit hundreds of thousands of Alabamians, from the impoverished to the entrepreneur. But for states’ rights advocates, it was another blow.

And the week ended with another Supreme Court ruling, which some view as Strike 3 in the effort to keep Alabama a sanctuary of state-protected morality. Nine years after Alabamians voted to outlaw gay marriage, Friday’s decision effectively made the wishes of what was then an Alabama majority irrelevant. While the decision was an important victory to many who struggle to claim an equal place in Alabama society and was supported by many who view protection of individual liberty as a paramount mission of government, it was one more blow to those who chafe at federal power.

In the midst of the angst over the week’s events, however, it is worth remembering the blessing that Alabamians have received from being a part of a strong nation that remains a model for the world. The United States was formed as a nation in which states’ rights were paramount. The Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1777 and ratified in 1781, created a weak federal government, with almost all power residing in the individual states.

It was a disaster. The states fought over numerous issues, from funding of an army to road tariffs to river access. It was a confederation that never could have claimed a prominent spot on the world stage, and that was vulnerable to invasion.

The result was the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which declared the federal government was supreme over state governments and which created the Supreme Court. The Union that Alabama voluntarily joined in 1819 was not a confederation of sovereign states but a nation with a strong federal government.

As many express anger at a week of three strikes to states’ rights, we hope they also will remember that the inroads on Alabama’s sovereignty are the flip side of the constitutional coin. That same coin also made the United States of America strong enough to protect its citizens from foreign foes, to be prosperous, and to be viewed a bastion of freedom throughout the world.

The preamble of the U.S. Constitution that was the source of much of last week’s turmoil says it well:

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

(Published June 28, 2015)

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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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​​Bentley makes right decision on Confederate flags

A week after a white man killed nine black church members in Charleston, South Carolina, Gov. Robert Bentley took a pragmatic step that should be universally applauded: Bentley on Wednesday ordered the removal of Confederate flags from the Capitol grounds.

It will be a controversial move among a portion of his base. It shouldn’t be.

Bentley is not the first governor to recognize that the flag is an anachronism for a state that aggressively seeks to recruit industry from outside its borders, a state that spends considerable sums of money marketing itself as a good home for highly educated professionals.

In April 1993, Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. ordered the Confederate flag removed from its prominent spot atop the Capitol building. It was placed there in 1963 at the order of Gov. George Wallace in advance of a visit by U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The purpose of the visit was to discuss Wallace’s opposition to allowing black students to enroll at the University of Alabama.

Folsom this week reflected on his decision in an interview with The Montgomery Advertiser.

“It was just time to put it behind us,” Folsom said. “The controversy was overshadowing a lot of good things we were doing in economic development. It wasn’t a politic thing to do, because a lot of people were very emotional about it, and they voiced that to me.”

One of the good things the flag overshadowed was Folsom’s efforts to recruit Mercedes-Benz to Vance, near Tuscaloosa.

“If I had not taken the battle flag down from the top of the Capitol dome, I really don’t think we would have been successful in that endeavor,” Folsom said.

It was Folsom who had the flags moved to the Confederate Memorial — still on the Capitol grounds, but in a less prominent spot.

Bentley’s decision may have been triggered by other motivations, but one no doubt was the pragmatic desire for economic development. The Confederate flag is more of an impediment to recruitment of international companies now than it was before the Charleston killings, because the whole world has been seeing pictures of avowed white supremacist Dylann Storm Roof, 21, waving his Confederate battle flag before allegedly shooting churchgoers he deemed his inferiors.

Bentley’s decision also was politically pragmatic. Twenty-seven percent of Alabama’s population — 1.3 million people — are black. Many are descendants of the same people that Alabama was determined to keep enslaved.

Bentley is a conservative. He rails against federal authority at every turn, rarely spurning a podium from which he can preach the benefits of states’ rights and limited government. He no doubt recognizes the Confederate flag has been adopted by some as a symbol for states’ rights. But it’s a lousy symbol for a governmental philosophy held by many intelligent, moral people.

The state right that prompted Alabama’s secession from the Union was not whether the state could have control over health care. It was not about gun control or immigration. The issue that triggered the Civil War and spawned the Confederate battle flag was whether states had a right to allow their white citizens to own other human beings.

Those who protest most strenuously against Bentley’s decision to remove the Confederate flags from the Capitol grounds should be the first to thank him. The push for states’ rights and limited government is racially neutral and is not immoral. Tying that cause to a symbol whose origin is inextricably linked to a belief in white supremacy and of a right to own other human beings always has been a mistake.

(Published June 25, 2015)

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​It’s time to put away the Confederate flag

THE ISSUE: It’s past time for Alabama to recognize that the Confederate flag is a symbol less of rebellion than of tragic mistakes. It is deeply offensive to many in the state, and it is too often embraced by those espousing hate.

Here in the Deep South, we are steeped in the intricacies of the Confederate States of America and the battle flag that has become its enduring symbol.

The Confederate states did not secede from the union over the slavery issue, we try to believe, but over the nobler principle of states’ rights. The battle flag, and “The Stainless Banner” that incorporated it into the official flag of the Confederacy in 1863, is about protest and courage and the rejection of federal sovereignty.

And certainly it is true the Civil War was not entirely about slavery. Other issues divided the nation, issues that began simmering in 1781 when the Articles of Confederation were dissolved, the U.S. Constitution was adopted and the federal government became supreme over state governments.

Photos of Dylann Storm Roof, however, should give us pause. Shortly before police say he killed nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, he posted a manifesto and photographs of himself on a website. The manifesto was a rant about white supremacy. In most of the photos, he is holding the Confederate battle flag.

The mere fact that a lunatic with bloodlust adopts a symbol for his twisted cause is not reason to abandon that symbol, but it is a good time to evaluate it.

While the issue of states’ rights was indeed the cause that triggered the Civil War, the right in controversy was the ownership of human beings.

Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, speaking in Georgia a few weeks before shots were fired on Fort Sumter, explained in detail the reasons for secession. Some of the reasons — such as the South’s objection to tariffs — had nothing to do with slavery.

But the main reasons had everything to do with it.

“The new (Confederate) Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions — African slavery as it exists among us — the proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution,” Stephens said on March 21, 1861. “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

In 1863, when the battle flag was incorporated into the official flag of the Confederacy — a solid white flag with the battle flag in the corner — the designer of “The Stainless Banner” explained the meaning:

“As a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.”

It is hardly surprising white supremacists like Roof cling to the Confederate battle flag. Nor is it surprising many in Alabama and around the world see the flag as a symbol of racism and oppression.

The surprise is so many people who reject the idea of white supremacy, who abhor the concept of slavery, still venerate the Confederate flag. The surprise is Alabama flies the flag at the Confederate soldiers’ memorial on the Capitol grounds, that it issues license plates with Confederate flags and that the flag decorates so many vehicles. The surprise is of Alabama’s 13 state holidays, three memorialize its Confederate past.

For four of its 195 years, Alabama was a Confederate state. Those years remain a part of state history, but should no longer color its future.

It’s time to put away the symbols as such of the past.

(Published June 24, 2015)

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Hate crimes not confined to history

THE ISSUE: The massacre of nine blacks in a Charleston, South Carolina, prayer meeting is a reminder that hate crimes are not confined to history. In Alabama, as in South Carolina, race-based hatred remains a vibrant and horrifying force.

Possibly more acutely than the residents of most states, Alabamians can feel the horror of Wednesday’s shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

While the investigation continues, initial indications are that a young white man entered the church, sat at a pew for an hour, and then shot and killed nine black church members during a prayer meeting.

It was, police said, a hate crime. Photos of the prime suspect show him in a jacket bearing the flags of apartheid-era South Africa. Another photo shows him sitting on the hood of a car with a Confederate license plate. According to reports, a surviving witness quoted the shooter as saying, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

Alabama’s empathy for the horror felt by South Carolinians stems from our long history of hate crimes. As a state, we continue to struggle with the twisted, mercenary logic that justified slavery. We strain to understand a Civil War that was fought in part over the horrifying principle that a state has a right to decide whether to enslave human beings.

We read of the lynchings, tortures and rapes that occurred both prior to and during the Reconstruction Era.

And many of us remember the horrifying violence, much of it perpetrated by hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, that splintered Alabama during the civil rights era. Alabama’s identity remains inextricably and sadly tied to the bombing, in 1963 by the KKK, of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Four young black girls died in the blast, which injured many more.

The most tragic aspect of hate crimes in Alabama, as in South Carolina, is that they are not confined to history.

Data collected by the FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center indicate hate crimes remain at historically high levels. The victims are most often black. The perpetrators are most often white.

The Southeast, including Alabama, is a hotbed of hate organizations. The SPLC lists 18 such organizations in the state, including organizations based in Huntsville, Elkmont, Killen and Florence.

So even as we pray for the members of Emanuel AME Church and the people of Charleston, we need to take heed. The hate that turned a prayer meeting into a massacre in Charleston is a vibrant force in Alabama. In Alabama, as in South Carolina, racial hatred is not just a subject for history books.

(Published June 19, 2015)

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