Monday, December 29, 2014

Roy Moore and I agree: Alabama's prisons need help

When Judge Roy Moore and I are on common ground, you know there's a big problem.

Last week, the Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice said something I agree with: we need to look at our sentencing and fix our prison system.

In the United States--the land of the free--we lock more people in prison than any other nation in the world. Alabama's incarceration rate ranks third among the states.

Nobody is saying that we should release violent offenders--murderers, rapists, child molesters--but I agree with Moore that we need to take a second look at our habitual offender law that gives life sentences to people who have never physically harmed anyone.

Right now, our prisons are operating at almost double capacity and it's costing the state billions that could be used for early childhood education, health care, infrastructure improvements and other positive steps for Alabama.

Many of these individuals who are incarcerated could really benefit more from rehabilitation rather than punishment. Helping them find jobs, get on their feet and build a life that makes them proud could move Alabama forward in this generation and the next.

I don't know if you've seen the new Senate chamber, but it has been renovated and it's absolutely beautiful. The new desks the Senators will be using were built by talented craftsmen in Alabama's correctional facilities.

These men and women have talents that they can put to work to improve the state and their communities.

Instead, they remain incarcerated in a prison system that is facing a federal take over if we don't find a solution. 

When California's system came under federal control, it cost the state a billion dollars and released thousands of inmates. If we want to reform our prisons on our terms, we have to get to work.

This work will include reforming our sentencing and parole policies to determine who is a risk to the public and who needs rehabilitation, but it also involves new leadership to ensure that our prisons are being managed in efficient, legal and safe ways.

There have been too many allegations of physical abuse, sexual misconduct, drugs and violence behind the bars at our prisons. 

Many groups, like the Equal Justice Initiative are working on reforms to protect our inmates--and I think the Prison Reform Task Force would do well to heed these concerns during their attempt to fix Alabama's prison system. 

There are good men and women in our corrections system that could use a helping hand to get on the right path. It's time that we focused on rehabilitation over retribution and reformed Alabama's prison to create a better path for this generation and those to come. 

If we don't fix it, President Obama will--and we all know that the Republicans can't have that. Let's work together and solve this problem for a better Alabama.

Monday, December 22, 2014

End the violence and embrace the Christmas spirit

Anyone who has turned on the news lately has probably had a difficult time getting into the holiday sprit.

From the protests across the country demanding justice for victims of violence, to the terrible news about young Hiawayi Robinson, to the shooting death of Auburn's Jakell Mitchell, to the tragic deaths of two New York police officers--the Christmas spirit has been anything but overwhelming.

Through all this news, I've held my children a little tighter and hugged them a little longer. I'm sure you have, too.

I feel blessed beyond measure to have two beautiful children, but there are parents who will celebrate this holiday without their babies.

There has been a lot of finger pointing and quickness to blame on both sides: blaming guns, blaming police, blaming criminals, blaming culture.

But this isn't about any of those things: it's about respect for ourselves and one another.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. He sent Him to teach us to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

When we turn to violence, we turn away from this purpose on Earth. We undermine the Christmas message because we undermine the very teachings for which the entire Christmas story is the foundation.

Whether this violence is "street justice" to settle a dispute, unspeakable actions towards a child, an aggressive attitude towards neighbors or a quickness to judge negative intentions, it's time to end the violence.

Too many mothers will spend Christmas without their babies this year because of senseless violence. Too many wives will tuck their children in on Christmas Eve without their husbands by their sides. Too many children will wake up on Christmas morning without their mothers.

This must stop.

We must demand better for ourselves and our families, and it starts with each of us.

We have to take responsibility for the world in which we want to live. If you want a world with less prejudice, lay down your preconceived notions. If you want a world with less violence, lay down your weapons. If you want a world with more joy, lay down your bitterness.

It's time to turn the tides and end the violence in our communities and across our nation.

For God so loved the world that he gave us all a precious gift. The best gift we can ever give in return is to follow His commandments and show love to one another this holiday season.

I'm confident we can do better, and I'm looking forward to a change in 2015. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 15, 2014

You can't blame this one on President Obama

We've heard a lot about the impending budget crisis facing the state of Alabama--we're estimated to fall between $250 million and $700 million short for the next fiscal year.

If the Republicans follow their usual trend, it won't take long before they start blaming President Obama for the entire budget crisis. After all, it's a story many Alabama voters are willing to believe.

So I want to step out front and say very clearly that we have no grounds to blame the President or the federal government. In fact, we owe them a huge "thank you" for keeping Alabama's budget balanced for so long.

Alabama ranks 49th in terms of return on our income tax investment. That measure comes from two statistics: the amount we receive per dollar spent in federal taxes and the percentage of our state budget comprised of federal funds. Based on this measure, we are more dependent on the federal government than every state except New Mexico and Mississippi.

In fact, we receive a little less than $3 for every $1 we send to Washington--that sounds like a pretty good deal to me!

While many Alabama legislators are quick to argue that we need to shrink the size of the "overreaching" federal government, Alabama benefits to the tune of $56.8 billion every year.

Nearly two-thirds of these federal dollars go towards retirement benefits like Social Security, as well as Medicare and food assistance. Federal spending in Alabama amounts to 29.5 percent of our state's gross domestic product.

Because we lean on Washington to balance our state budget, it has helped us keep our state taxes low, which has only perpetuated the cycle of dependence on the federal government.

I think this budget crisis is an opportunity for Alabama's leadership to step up to the plate and fix Alabama for the long haul.

We can't just patch the hole--we have to find a sustainable, long term solution that builds a better Alabama for the future: an Alabama that is less dependent on Washington, an Alabama with first-class education and an Alabama with a balanced, responsible budget.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Alabama has a budget crisis: It's time for Alabama Republicans to put people over politics to find a solution

When we return to Montgomery this March, one of the biggest issues we will have to face is patching a projected gap in the general fund budget.  The Governor has projected that the state will fall between $250 million and $700 million short of fulfilling our financial obligations--that's about 13 percent to as much as 38 percent of the state's 2014 budget. 

These are big numbers, but we can put them into perspective: if the average household's budget were to fall 13 percent short, that would be about as much as most families spend on food.  A 38 percent budget shortfall would be equivalent to as much as the average family spends on housing, including a mortgage or rent and utilities.  Imagine having to double either of these items in your family's personal budget--that's the issue facing Alabama.

This is a big problem, and it could leave Alabama in a terrible financial situation moving forward.

Fortunately, the Republican supermajority campaigned on strong leadership and fiscal responsibility, so I'm confident they'll put leading Alabama over political rhetoric.

There are many ways we can work to close this budget shortfall without balancing the cuts on the back of our hardest working Alabamians.  

For example, Representative Craig Ford (D-Gadsden) has proposed a bill to enter into a compact with the Poarch Creek Indians. This would raise additional, elective revenue without increasing taxes on working families. 

We can also look at closing certain corporate tax loopholes that mostly benefit out-of-state corporations and don't make business better for Alabama companies. Closing these loopholes could generate as much as $60 million in new revenue.  

We can also make sure that the incentives we offer to businesses actually work to create jobs and make our communities better.  Last year, House Democrats introduced the "Job Creation and Taxpayer Protection Act," which would require businesses receiving incentives to commit to create a certain number of jobs and maintain those jobs in Alabama for five years.  If the business failed to uphold their end of the deal, they would have to pay back the taxpayer dollars.  Unfortunately, this bill was never even considered by the Republican supermajority.

Now, Republicans across the state are saying they're willing to consider these options to save Alabama's budget. I'm glad to see they're coming to center to work together.

This legislative session will be an opportunity to see if the Republicans are serious about finding solutions to balancing Alabama's budget in a responsible way, or if they're only concerned about lining their own pockets and playing dress-up at the State House.  

Leadership means collaborating and finding a solution that works, not posturing and politicking while people need answers.  

Alabama will only work when we all work together.  It's not about Party, it's about doing right by the people we represent and creating the best and brightest future for Alabama.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Budget shortfall is no surprise--It's time to find real solutions

Last week, Governor Bentley came clean about the state's budget shortfalls--Alabama is officially broke, broke, broke.

This comes as no surprise to anyone who keeps up with Alabama politics. I would hope that includes the Governor.

Alabama's teachers know the state is facing a funding crisis: they're being asked to do more for our students with less money and have taken a pay cut over the past four years.

Alabama's state employees know that we're in financial trouble: record numbers of employees have been laid off and the remaining employees are struggling to keep up.

Alabama's prison system knows we're facing an uphill battle: we're risking a federal takeover if we don't correct issues and reform our system quickly.

Even Alabama's own leadership knew there was going to be a problem: years of borrowing from the trust fund to cover budget shortfalls is coming due, and we haven't done anything to bridge the revenue gap in the interim.

The fact of the matter is that the GOP plan to give away our hard earned tax dollars to big businesses and private schools isn't working. We have to look at a permanent solution.

Just like in our personal budgets at home, we can't balance the budget from one side. There's only so much you can cut from your expenses and only so much you can pull from savings before you put your family into a financial hole. The state budget is no different--the dollars are just bigger.

We have to get creative to bridge the gap without balancing the burden on the backs of working Alabamians.

It's time for the Republicans to show the leadership they bragged about in their campaign ads--it's not always about doing what's popular with special interests and lobbyists, but doing what's best for the people of this state they were elected to represent.

In the next four years, we're all going to have to make some tough decisions and create some compromises to work together and bail Alabama out of this financial hole.

I'm ready to come to the table to work for a better Alabama, and I hope the Republicans will take a seat and put the people over politics, too.

Monday, November 24, 2014

It's time for Americans to embrace the spirit of Thanksgiving

This week, families across the country will come together to give thanks around the dinner table. Thanksgiving has come to be opening day of the holiday season, marking the start of shopping and decorating. However, Thanksgiving should mean so much more than a quick dinner before the Black Friday sales.

Not only is it a time for all of us to take a step back and appreciate the blessings in our lives, it's also a time to remember how we came to be a nation, a melting pot of cultures and nationalities looking for a home.

We typically associate the first Thanksgiving with the pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe at Plymouth Plantation. The pilgrims were struggling to survive in the New World, so Squanto and Massasoit donated food and helped teach them to farm and hunt to survive the winter.   I can imagine that some in the Wampanoag tribe weren't excited about helping the pilgrims, but they came together and offered a helping hand.

Without their help, the pilgrims would have likely died and America may look very different than how we know it today.

Nearly 400 years later, Americans are divided over this same issue.

Just like Squanto and his tribe had to decide how to handle the new pilgrims, Americans today have to decide how to handle the millions of individuals still seeking out our shores for safety.

Last week, President Obama announced an executive order that will prevent deportation of undocumented immigrants and challenged Congress to take further action to fix our broken immigration system.

While Congress seems to forget that policy is more than words on paper--it's families and communities and lives at stake--Americans themselves seem to be equally divided on the issue.

While many have opened their churches, their homes and their hearts to the next generation of Americans, others have been quick to advocate for locking the door and taking down the Statue of Liberty.

The nation of "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" is now saying "no mas."

But many of those same individuals identify America as a Christian nation and call themselves Christians.

But the Bible tells us, "Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt."

It's our story from all nationalities. Whether we are native-born or American by choice, sons of pilgrims or daughters of slaves: the story of America is one of inclusion and diversity, from sea to shining sea.

Because the Wampanoag tribe opened their arms and gave the pilgrims an American welcome, we now owe that same courtesy to the next generation of immigrants.

We show a greater love for humanity by extending our arms and not closing our hearts. That's the spirit we should all embrace this Thanksgiving and throughout the year.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Whitewash is Hogwash: Alabama Democrats are ready to build a better Alabama

Written with Representative Craig Ford (D-Gadsden), Alabama House Minority Leader

Last week, a journalist wrote an article claiming that the Alabama Democrats are making "phony" attempts to "whitewash diversity" in an attempt to keep white voters from leaving the party and taking their money with them.

We'll ignore the ridiculous assumption that Black Democrats don't donate and that Black leadership can't fundraise. We'll even look past the Republican Party's lack of diversity and failed attempts to appeal to anyone who isn't a wealthy white business owner.

The Democratic Party is, and hopefully will remain, a party of coalitions of people with Alabama's best values at heart: schools that give every child an opportunity to succeed, jobs that reward hard work with fair pay, elections that protect one vote for every person, and, most importantly, a government that is fair and honest with the taxpayers’ money.

Although gerrymandered districts have reduced the ability for white democrats to get elected to the state legislature, there is no shortage of Democrats of all colors, backgrounds and upbringings in Alabama.

In fact, the Alabama Democratic Party may be more diverse today than ever before in our past, and we're proud to see that our internal leadership reflects that.

The House members elected Representative Craig Ford (D-Gadsden) to serve another term as House Minority Leader because he knows the legislative process and campaigning from his years in the legislature and from a lifetime of watching and learning from his father, the late Representative Joe Ford.

The House also chose to elect Representative Darrio Melton as caucus chair because of his fresh ideas and willingness to move the Party forward. His experience as a preacher helps him inspire and bring people together.

The caucus also elected two women as caucus whips, Representative Patricia Todd and Representative Adline Clark, giving women an opportunity to shape policy and have a greater voice in the process.

We're looking forward to working with Senator Figures and her fellow Senators, the State Party and staff, and a range of constituency groups to grow the Party and look towards the future.

This isn't about white and Black- it's about moving Alabama forward and growing the Party with the most qualified leaders available.

With such a great team of qualified, confident individuals, the Democrats are ready to share our plan for building a bigger and stronger Alabama.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Republicans are going to be bolder, and so are we

Last week, the Republicans won huge races and picked up historic gains across America. They gained seats in the United States House of Representatives and took control of the US Senate. They elected governors in traditionally blue states and took a stronger hold on the state and local levels, around the country and here in Alabama.

In our own elections, the Alabama Republicans strengthened their supermajority in both chambers of the legislature, unseating several Democrats without losing any Republican seats.

Despite his 23 felony ethics indictments, Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard was reelected to his House seat in Lee County and will remain Speaker of the House, even while he's on trial.

Tuesday night was bad. It was bad for Alabama Democrats, and it was bad for the people of Alabama.

Speaker Hubbard said that the Republicans were going to be "bolder" about their legislation if they were reelected in a supermajority.

We can't combat their "bold" new legislation on the floor of the legislature--they have the ability to tell us to sit down and be quiet if we voice our dissent. In fact, they shut down debate more times in the last four years than in all of Alabama history combined--and I think we can expect that number to double in the next four years.

The only way we can combat their "bold" new plans is for you, the voters, to be bolder, too.

Last week, the Republicans won because the Democratic base didn't show up at the polls. We have to be bolder by casting our ballots every time we have an opportunity.

The Republicans are going to push through legislation that cripples our public schools, undermines our economic foundation and closes the door on healthcare for hundreds of thousands of Alabamians. We have to be bolder by speaking out and showing that we will not be silenced.

The Republicans are going to march through Montgomery for four more years before there's an opportunity to vote again--but we can march to Montgomery and demand they listen to all constituents, not just big businesses and high-powered lobbyists.

They say they're going to be bolder--and I'm going to be bolder, too. I need you to be bolder with me. We have to stand together for these next four years and demand a legislature that represents all Alabamians, not just the GOP base.

Together, we can still have an impact, even when the odds are stacked against us. We can't give up and sit back. Be bolder. Be stronger. Be heard.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Encourage young people to go to the polls

It's time for young people to wake up and realize that their votes can change the world.

Our parents and grandparents took to the ballot box to shape America into a country they could be proud to pass on to the next generation.

As we turn back through history, we can see a footprint left by each generation--a footprint made by the young people of that time. The young Americans 50 years ago lead protests to end the war in Vietnam. They burned their bras, staged sit-ins, marched on Washington and signed up voters to guarantee equality for all Americans.

Their protests and commitment to change led to the passage of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age across America from 21 to 18, expanding the number of young people eligible to cast a ballot.

Thanks to their hard work, 50 years later, an estimated 22-23 million young people voted in 2012, almost half of the eligible youth voting population.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy understood the impact of preparing the next generation.
"Every generation inherits a world it never made; and, as it does so, it automatically becomes the trustee of that world for those who come after," Kennedy said. "In due course, each generation makes its own accounting to its children.  When our time comes, we want to make sure that we bequeath to our descendants a better and safer world than the one in which we live today--a world in which people will be free from the terrors of war and oppression, free from the handicaps of ignorance and poverty, free to realize their own talents and fulfill their own destiny."

Senator Kennedy got it right--its time for young people everywhere to step up to the plate and advocate for the next wave of change for our children and grandchildren.

Because of the voices of young people before us, we now have Medicare, Medicaid, workplace safety and standards, environmental protection, clean air and clean water, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Acts.

African Americans are moving beyond a hurtful past, standing up for quality education and fair pay and have excelled to the nation's highest offices.  

Women have broken through the glass ceiling and hold record numbers of seats in the Senate, three US Supreme Court seats, and hold the top spot for the next President of the United States.

We have inherited a legacy of progress started by the young Americans of 50 years ago.  What will young people 50 years from now say about our generation?

I want them to say that we voted to ensure equal rights for All Americans. I want to vote to give them guaranteed education starting with Pre-K and affordable college and career training.  I want to give the next generation health care, high-speed rail and clean and independent energy.

I want to give them a country that's moving forward. And it's young people who must take the lead.

We owe everything we are and everything we will become to the generation before us who took the lead and set the stage for change--what difference will your vote make?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Take charge at the polls next Tuesday

Four years ago, the Alabama Republicans stormed the state house and ended 136 years of the Democratic majority. They unveiled their plan, the handshake with Alabama, to reform what they felt was broken in this state.

Four years later, what do we have to show for it?

They campaigned on improving education for Alabama's children. In reality, they've improved education for a select number of students at the cost of $25 million each year to Alabama taxpayers. College tuition is skyrocketing, students have few opportunities for technical trainings and our teachers make less today than they did when the Republicans took office.

They campaigned on bringing jobs to the state, but failed to note that most new jobs are created by small businesses. They spent millions of our tax dollars to bring in huge corporations while mom and pop stores struggled to get by.  They halted our minimum wage bill in its tracks and doubled down on your employer's right to fire you for no reason.

They campaigned on fighting Obamacare, but have found that the state legislature has zero authority to fight federal law. All they've managed to do is protect the health care monopoly that keeps prices high and deny Medicaid to 300,000 Alabamians in order to try to prove a political point to the President.

They campaigned on ethics reform, promising to clean up the corruption in Montgomery, and they successfully passed an ethics law so strong that many of its own authors are struggling to comply. Allegations of inappropriate conduct have run rampant from Montgomery to Lee County and the judicial system will sort out whether or not inappropriate behavior has occurred under the GOP leadership.

There's a trend here: Republicans will say and do anything to get elected, but their actions in office speak for themselves. We have the option to choose a different path for Alabama on November 4. 

Amid voter ID laws and the overturning of the Voting Rights Act, the ballot box is still the sacred place where everyone's voice carries equal weight.  The millionaire company CEO and the night janitor who makes minimum wage each only get one vote on Election Day.

The only way to make your vote count is to cast the ballot. This is your shot. It's time to speak up for the kind of Alabama you want to live in.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Vote for your right to vote this November

In two short weeks, people across America will head to the polls to cast their ballots for the next generation of leadership. Here in Alabama, we have a US Senate seat and seven congressional seats on the ballot, plus our entire state legislature and all of our constitutional offices, like Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General.

Yet, with the tremendous amount of power on the line--the sheer number of seats on the ballot--voter apathy is at an all time low. People just aren't paying attention this cycle, and it's time to start.

As an Alabamian, voting is an integral part of our history and heritage.  In my own district of Selma, marchers faced State Troopers with billy clubs and police dogs as they marched for the right to vote.  Just up the road in Shelby County, opponents of the same Voting Rights Act they fought for on the Edmund Pettus Bridge was challenged and went to the US Supreme Court, where its most crucial components were overturned. 

Yes, Alabama brought you the Voting Rights Act, and Alabama killed the Voting Rights Act. No matter which side of the issue you're on, voting is part and parcel to our identity as Alabamians, yet only about 60 percent of Alabamians go to the polls.

And what do we have to show for it?  We have a supermajority of Republican legislators who shut down debate every time a bill comes to the floor for discussion.  In fact, they've shut down debate more times in the past four years than in all of Alabama history combined. 

When they silence debate, they silence our ability as representatives to represent you, the people. They ram through bills without hearing how those bills will affect our communities, our friends, our neighbors. 

The thing about voting is that it's the one right that protects all of our other rights.  When we vote to stop the shenanigans, we vote to protect our access to affordable health care, quality schools and safe communities. When we don't vote, we leave those decisions about our lives up to someone else.

The Republicans know that what they're doing is wrong--and that's why they're doing everything they can to make it harder for everyday, working Alabamians to go to the polls to speak out against them.

They've shortened the length of time available to register to vote and they've passed a restrictive photo ID bill, which has been shown to disproportionately disenfranchise poor, elderly and minority voters.

If they win this November, they won't stop there. They've said they'll be "bolder" with the way they assault the Democratic process.  

The only way to stop it is to stand up and vote against it. Your vote will make the difference--it will show the Republican supermajority that they can't win in a battle of will. We must refuse to let them steamroll over us and steal the state from the people.

We must get out to vote on November 4--and we must vote for the right to vote when we get there.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Vote for policy, not talking points, this November

With only three weeks until Election Day, the campaigns are in full swing and voters are hearing from candidates on both sides of the aisle. The Democrats are pointing out the failed policies of four years with a Republican supermajority. Meanwhile, the Republicans are promising to fight the liberal candidates and liberal special interests and liberal Obama policies and liberal, liberal, liberal.

A few weeks ago, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) sent out a mail piece to voters promising to fight "the Liberal special interests in Springfield." That's the capital of Illinois, not Alabama.

If you turn on the TV, you see commercials for Attorney General Luther Strange blasting Joe Hubbard for being a "liberal" like Obama.

Even in House and Senate races, the President's picture and the word "liberal" is plastered across all manner of campaign materials.

But there's a dirty little secret in all this: There are no liberal special interests in Alabama.

Our "Liberals" are moderates by everyone else's standards. Only in Alabama are 75 percent of the NRA "A+" rated candidates Democrats. That's not liberal. I would estimate that a majority of the Democrats running are pro-life and support traditional family values. That's not liberal.

The Republicans think the voters won't figure this out. They're playing a mean game of Wizard of Oz with the voters.

Just like the Wizard, they talk with a big voice and blow a lot of smoke. They think that by calling Democrats "liberals," voters will turn their heads and mark a Republican ballot, without asking what's so special about the "Conservatives" on the other side of the aisle.

When Dorothy and her friends finally come to greet the Wizard, he tells them to come back tomorrow, but Dorothy calls him out: "If you were really so great and powerful, you'd keep your promises," she tells him.

In the past four years, the "liberal Democrats" have been relegated to a back corner of the State House. We have had no power to pass legislation or to debate bills. The Republicans could do whatever they wanted and there was nobody to stop them.

Yet four years later, they're still running on "fighting Obamacare" and "growing our economy." If they could stop Obamacare, they would have done it already. Rather than creating jobs, Alabama is one of the fews states to suffer from a shrinking economy and to lose jobs last year.

Instead of being the Great and Powerful Oz, the Republicans just made a mess and hoped we won't notice.

Then comes Toto, who pulls back the curtain to reveal an old, grumpy man masquerading as the wizard. He's not really great and powerful at all--he just puts on a show and fools people into believing he's something he's not.

The Republicans want you to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain this November.

I'm asking you to pull the curtain back and look for yourself.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Vote for an education policy that works this November

We are less than a month out from Election Day, and the campaigns are in full-swing. "Jobs, jobs, jobs" and "stronger schools" are plastered all over campaign ads on the TVs and in the mailboxes.

But more important than campaign ad rhetoric are the records of the leaders who are asking for our votes. Last week, we discussed the failed jobs policies of the Republican supermajority--this week, I want to talk about the damage they have done to our schools.

The biggest blow to our schools under the GOP leadership was the Alabama Accountability Act. This law was passed using Washington-style tactics behind closed doors in the middle of the night. The way it was passed was deceptive and the policies it contained were disastrous. 

This law set aside $40 million its first year to give tax credits to families who wanted to move their children from a failing public school to a private school. This year and each year the law remains in effect, it will take $25 million from Alabama schools. The Republican leadership has said they will lift the $25 million cap if they are sent back to Montgomery.

The issue here is that every Alabama school loses funding for a few students to transfer to private schools. Receiving schools are not required to accept students from failing schools and there is no accountability to ensure that the private schools are any better than the public schools. Schools that are already struggling are now losing precious funding for all students so a few privileged children can transfer out to attend a different school.

Because of bad policy like the Accountability Act, our education budget is in shambles and our teachers are being asked to do more with less. Since the Republicans have taken over, our teachers make half a percent less in pay than four years ago.  After a 2.5 percent pay cut, the legislature tried to win their favor in an election year with a two percent pay raise--but our teachers aren't fooled. They are still paying out-of-pocket for supplies for the classrooms and receiving less pay than our surrounding states.

At the end of the day, money doesn't fix our schools--quality educators are the best way to ensure that our children are getting a first-rate education.  But to keep quality teachers in our classrooms, we have to pay them like professionals. 

We must make funding education a first priority in the next legislative session--and guarantee that our education dollars are protected. 

The Republican supermajority has shown us their plan, and I think Alabama can do better.  

We can pay our teachers and provide funding for consumable resources. We can make college more affordable and partner with small businesses to give our high school students career training. We can make sure every child has access to a good education--from quality pre-K to college or career.

We can do better, Alabama. We must vote for an education policy that works and demand better than more of the same.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Vote for a jobs policy that works this November

This Saturday will mark one month until the November midterm election. There is a lot at stake for the state of Alabama, and your vote will be important. Even though the president is not on the ballot, it is critical that we still stand up for the issues that matter most to our families.

Over the next several weeks, I want to write about all the reasons why I'm voting for Democrats this November, and all of the things that are on the line for our communities and our state.

Alabama is the only state to not return to pre-recession jobs numbers. We are one of only five states with increasing unemployment. The Republican supermajority's plan to "right-size" Alabama is not helping families.

In the past four years, the Republican leadership has offered millions of your tax dollars in handouts to big businesses to come to Alabama. Some of those companies have stayed and created a few hundred jobs here, but other companies have taken the money and failed to deliver.

Instead of giving our tax dollars to big businesses, I think that Alabama could use the bail out.

We need to vote for leadership that will create a plan that works for small businesses and creates a healthy competition, not an unfair advantage. Let's use those millions in tax dollars to repair and rebuild our infrastructure--this would makeAlabama more appealing to businesses who might want to move in our state, put people back to work, and use tax dollars for things that we all use.

We also need leadership who understands that we can't balance our company's budget or our state's budget on the backs of the working people. Just like how the state government doesn't work without people to carry out the tasks of government, our companies don't work without people behind the counters and on the floor doing the work to make the company great. We need leadership to understand thatAlabama needs to revisit the minimum wage. I sponsored the bill last session and I will work to see that it comes to a vote this session.

We must elect leaders who understand that a healthy jobs plan does not just start with today-- it starts with looking at tomorrow, too.

If we want businesses in Alabama, we must make sure that our workforce is trained and ready to do the jobs they bring to the state. We have to make sure that every child is educated from pre-K to graduating college or career ready.

There are people running for office in Alabama who understand these things, and they need your vote.

It's not about running for office to pad your pockets and guarantee contracts to your friends. It's about helping the people in the state who count on us to represent them in Montgomery.

If we standby on election day and let the special interests, PACs and corporations call the shots, we will only have four more years of the same. Are you better off than you were four years ago? I think we can do better.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Drugs and alcohol aren't the problem, and blaming isn't the solution

"I'm so sorry for your loss."

That's what Governor Bentley should have said when he learned of the death of 8-year-old Hiawayi Robinson.

"I'm so sorry for your loss, and I know my words can't ease your suffering. It's hard to understand when a child is taken from us, but I hope your family finds peace, and that law enforcement finds the person responsible for this terrible act."

Instead of offering heartfelt condolences, Governor Bentley gave his two-cents to reporters, blaming the problem on potential drug or alcohol problems within the family.

"There are things that happen we just don't understand. There are difficulties in families. You never know, it may be drug related, it may be alcohol related. It may be family problems. We just don't know what the situation is," Bentley said.

Let us not forget, Governor, that there are family problems everywhere there are families--from Madison and Mountain Brook to Prichard and Bessemer. 

Drug and alcohol problems aren't limited--they span the range of racial, economic and cultural backgrounds.

But family problems are no excuse for a child to get hurt, and it's certainly not a reason to rationalize it.

Last week, we talked about Ray Rice and Judge Mark Fuller, two men in the news for domestic violence. Ray Rice is a 27-year-old Black man from New York, who plays football for the Baltimore Ravens. Judge Fuller is a 56-year-old white man from Alabama, who sits as a Federal Judge. These are two very different men, but their problems are the same, and their actions are both inexcusable. 

Similarly, Adrian Peterson has made the news for beating his 4-year-old son with a switch. Stories similar to this one--detailing physical or sexual abuse of a child--line our newspapers every week. 

The only common thread in all of these stories is that there is a child who has been hurt and pain that needs to be eased. 

For the governor to jump to conclusions about the death of this child shows how out of touch he is with Alabama families. It shows he views her death as another product of an impoverished community, not as a child whose future was robbed.

We have to work together to look for the warning signs and keep children and families safe. After all, it takes a village to raise a child. We can end the violence together.

And next time there's a tragedy, Governor, try sticking to "I'm sorry for your loss."

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ray Rice and Judge Fuller show why the Violence Against Women Act isn't enough

This weekend, policymakers in Washington celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, which made ending rape and domestic violence a national priority. 

Yet this national milestone was overlooked as the news told stories of NFL running back Ray Rice dragging his unconscious wife out of an elevator and US Federal Judge Mark Fuller taking a plea deal after being arrested for beating his wife in an Atlanta hotel.

While these two stories made national news, an estimated three women die each day as a result of domestic violence. An estimated one in five women are victims of rape in their lifetimes, many before the age of 25.  On our college campuses, as many as one in four women are victims of sexual assault. 

Let me make myself clear: rape is never okay and violence is never the answer. No means no. There are no excuses for this type of behavior.

But in the face of so much violence and disrespect towards women, I remember the wise words of Edmund Burke, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
I'm disappointed to see that the leadership in Montgomery isn't standing up against this type of violence, but I'm not surprised. Most of the Republican leadership in Washington voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act two years ago when it came up for a vote.

Thankfully, there are some in this state who are willing to make a stand and support legislation that takes these issues head on.

We've made productive steps by proposing legislation that revokes parental rights to first-degree rapists of any child resulting from rape, but there's more that can be done. I hope my colleagues in the legislature will work to increase the penalty for possession of date-rape drugs on college campuses, zero-tolerance legislation for rape and domestic violence, and fully funding forensics, judicial programs and resource centers.  And we must make sure these bills actually become law, not just die in committee.

There is so much we can do in Montgomery to end the violence and protect families from violence, but the solution starts at home. We must teach respect and healthy conflict resolution to young couples. We must teach our men what healthy sexual relationships look like. We must teach our women to recognize early warning signs and get help. 

I'm tired of hearing stories like Ray Rice and Judge Fuller, but my heart aches even more for the thousands of women who are victims of violence and never make the news or get a helping hand.

I'm ready to stand beside women to end rape and domestic violence, from the kitchen table to the church pew to the ballot box. I hope you'll do the same.

Monday, September 8, 2014

We don't need "BOLD" partisan policy--We need what's good for Alabama

Last week, Speaker Mike Hubbard promised that the Republicans would be "bolder" if they kept the supermajority after the election. This should be a wake up call to all Alabamians that we must stand up for our state this November.

We must stand up and vote to protect Alabama's economy from the "bold" actions of the Republican supermajority. We are 49th in job growth in the entire United States and the only state with rising unemployment. We don't need more "bold," far-right policies that only help a privileged few. We need common sense economic reform for Alabama.

We must stand up and vote to protect public education from more "bold" assaults from the supermajority. Every Alabama school has lost $1,200 in funding per student since 2008. We lead the nation in cuts to public education. This is about our children's futures, not "bold" changes that make big profits for private schools.

We must stand up and vote to protect our rural hospitals and access to health care from their "bold" disregard for Alabama's medical needs. We must elect leadership who will expand Medicaid and give healthcare to 300,000 hard-working Alabamians, not allow the Republicans to play Washington-style politics and pander against President Obama.

Most importantly, we must stand up and vote to protect the cornerstones of democracy: open government and the right to vote.

The Republicans passed the Alabama Accountability Act, robbing $40 million of our tax dollars, behind closed doors in the middle of the night. They never allowed the bill to be seen by the public before passing it, and they even admitted they couldn't have passed it through legal channels. These "bold" back room deals must stop.

In the past four years, the Republican supermajority has passed new district lines that are under Supreme Court review for stacking and packing minority voters to dilute their voices. They have passed photo ID laws to make it harder to cast a ballot and they have shortened the amount of time to register to vote.

They are afraid that we will stand up for these values that we hold dear in Alabama. That's why they have worked to restrict the right to vote and operated government behind closed doors.

The Republicans know the public will throw them out of the State House if they knew what they were doing, so they tried to hide it. They've covered their trails with "bold" rhetoric and flashy talking points.

But we know the truth. The Republican supermajority has been nothing but bad for Alabama, and we will stand up for our state this November.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day is about more than football and barbeque

This weekend was an eventful time for Alabama. We took advantage of the long weekend by heading to the lake with friends or grilling out with family. We saw the first week of SEC football and we caught up on some needed R&R.

But this weekend is about more than barbecue, football, and a long weekend.  It's about the strides we've made as a nation to protect working men and women and ensure quality of life for those who make this country great.

The labor movement has been integral to our development as a nation.  Unions fighting to make life a little easier for working people like us gave us some benefits we don't think twice about today: minimum wage, overtime pay, paycheck fairness laws, weekends, 40-hour work weeks and health and safety regulations.  They also fought to establish child labor laws and increase access to public education so that all children have a shot at the American Dream.

Because I firmly believe that every person between the ages of five and 65 deserves to be in a good job or a good school, I thank the labor movement.

Because I believe that its the working men and women who make America great, not the huge corporations who move offshore to avoid paying taxes, I thank the labor movement.

And because I believe that hard work should pay off, and that the hardest working among us shouldn't need to look to safety nets to survive, I'm proud to work to continue the labor movement by fighting to raise the minimum wage and protect health care access for hard working Alabamians.

So as we all head back to work from a long weekend, I want to thank you for keeping up the good work and keeping America running, even at a time when it's been tough to do.  It's hard working men and women doing everything they can to provide for their families that will build the next generation of leaders.

Thank you for all you do, and thank you to the brave men and women who stand for what's right.

Happy Labor Day.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Alabama's very own Dr. Death

We've all heard the stories of Dr. Kevorkian--also known as "Dr. Death," who assisted more than 130 patients in committing suicide. Dr. Kevorkian gained his fame as he fought for patients' rights to control their own bodies, but the medical industry took a harsh view of his practices.

The medical industry frowned on Dr. Kevorkian because the Hippocratic Oath says, "I will prescribe no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel."  Many doctors feel it is their duty to heal, to repair, to cure--not to kill.

But Dr. Kevorkian would have probably found a friend in Alabama's own Governor Bentley.  Bentley, a medical doctor himself, has seen fit to throw out the Hippocratic Oath and deny medical care to 300,000 Alabamians who work hard but fall into a coverage gap.

Without Medicaid expansion, our own Gov. Death is allowing 700 people to needlessly die each year--that's 700 people whose lives could be saved with the stroke of a pen.  

Not only are our sick parents, friends and neighbors going to die without Medicaid expansion, our rural hospitals are dying too.  In Alabama alone, 10 hospitals have closed in the past three years, which makes it harder for all Alabamians to get the care they need.

When these hospitals close, the entire community suffers. Everyone has to drive further for medical treatment, hundreds of people lose jobs and the rural county and city loses a valuable revenue source.  Who really wins when the hospitals close?

Yet Dr. Kevorkian is somehow known as Dr. Death, when he was acting at the request of the patients and doing his level best to end suffering for 130 people. Dr. Bentley is putting his hand in the face of hundreds of thousands of needy Alabamians who are begging for his help, looking down out of his taxpayer funded plane at the 700 people who will die this year.

Who do you think we should call Dr. Death?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Our budgets show our priorities: Do Alabama's kids come first?

In Alabama, it's no secret that our state government is pressed for cash.  We struggle every legislative session to dole out our dollars for infrastructure, education, prisons, Medicaid and Medicare, as well as a broad list of state agencies that do good work for Alabama. 

In legislative budgeting, just like in our household budgets, sometimes it's easy to overspend or to lose track of our priorities.  After all, that's what budgets do: they show our priorities.

One way our budgets show our priorities is simply the way they are structured. Alabama has two budgets: the General Fund budget and the Education Trust Fund budget. This allows us to appropriate resources separately--for non-education interests and for education-specific interests.

Until now.

A group of Alabama lawmakers are tossing around the idea of combining the two budgets, making the dollars set aside for education fluid with the rest of the state general fund.

I just can't support such a blatant attack on public education.

This would be like attaching a debit card to your child's college fund, then handing it over to your sixteen-year-old because he or she "promised" to be responsible and only use it for emergencies.  Nickel by dime, that fund would deplete and the child left without a future.

The difference here is that the legislators who want to combine the budgets can actually afford to send their kids to private school. They can shoulder the burden of rising tuition costs. To them, it's just politics.

But to the families of this state who depend on quality public schools and affordable college and career training, this is an affront to the very concept of investing in the future.

In Matthew, Jesus says, "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." 

We have to look at where we're putting our "treasure" in Alabama. Are we investing it in bigger and better things for our future through education, or are we squandering it on the here and now? Is our heart with our children or with the business interests? 

We must decide what our priorities are and the budgeting will take care of itself.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Right-sizing the government should start with the Speaker's staff

Last week, several major news outlets across the state covered a story that should have outraged voters across Alabama.  

The stories gave specific details about how the staff for Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard received large increases in pay over the last four years while state employees and teachers were overlooked in the budgeting process.

The articles detail the salary increases for Hubbard's staff over the past four years- several of them receiving raises of 20 and 27 percent. Most of them received a raise between 5 and 15 percent. 

Hubbard's spokesperson Rachel Adams says that the pay increases are just like the merit raises state employees receive. "As the staff members' responsibilities and work portfolios have expanded, their compensation has expanded as well," she said.

But Adams and Speaker Hubbard miss the mark.  They show now and again that they fail to understand working men and women in this state.

See, state employees merit raises have been frozen since 2009. Governor Bentley re-instated them starting January 1, 2014, but the state employees have still gone without their cost-of-living increase since 2008. 

At the same time, we've cut nearly 11 percent of our state employees--we've fired 5,000 working men and women--and asked those who stayed to do more work for less money.

At the same time, teachers across Alabama have seen their pay cut by half a percent since 2010. Our class sizes are getting bigger and our funding for schools is dwindling. We're asking our teachers to do more work for less money.

But Mike Hubbard's staff? They better get the raise they think they deserve.

I have to ask--what makes the Speaker's staff better than other state employees who keep Alabama operational? What makes their 27 percent pay raise acceptable to the Republican Supermajority, while they ask the average state employee making $37,389 per year to forego a two-percent pay raise or cost of living adjustment?

For the $10,000 annual increase Speaker Hubbard gave just one staffer, he could have given 13 state employees a pay raise.

So while Mike Hubbard and the Republicans talk about "Right-Sizing the Government" this election cycle, remember what that means to them: tremendous pay raises for their staff while freezing pay for teachers and state employees.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Parents, we must take an active role in our children's education

Over the next few weeks, kids across Alabama will be heading back to school, full of excitement and goals for the upcoming year. While we've talked a lot about education policy and what the problems in the Montgomery State House have to do with your child's education in the local school house, at the end of the day it all comes down to one thing: preparing the next generation of leaders for the state of Alabama.

Because I'm a parent, too, I know how hard it is to watch your child get out of the car and walk into the school, another year older and another year wiser. And I know the last thing on your mind is the legislation in Montgomery-- you just want your kids to have every opportunity available to them. You just want them to get a healthy lunch.  You just want them to be safe at school.

There's a lot of talk about how the current legislation will affect your child's schools--the Education Budget is short $40 million from the Accountability Act, teachers are making less today than they did four years ago, and per-student cuts amount to approximately $1,200 since 2006. The numbers sound scary, and for lawmakers they are.

As a lawmaker, I promise I'm going to work to fix these problems in Montgomery. As a lawmaker, I'm going to stand up for every child's access to quality public education starting with qualified pre-kindergarten programs. I'm going to stand up for paying our teachers like professionals. I'm going to stand up for keeping public dollars in public schools.

But as a parent, all I can do is sit down.  As a parent, I can sit down with my kids every night and help them with their homework. I can sit down at the parent-teacher conferences and the PTA meetings to learn about what's going on in my child's school. I can sit down on the bed with them and read with them at night.

While we have a long way to go as policymakers, there is plenty we can do as parents. We must teach our children that they are strong, capable, and intelligent. We must demand more from them than our parents demanded of us, and hope that they demand even more from their own children. We must teach them that all learning doesn't come from a classroom--it also comes from a desire to take in the world around you.

I'm doing everything I can in Montgomery, but I need your help to build the next generation of leaders in Alabama. I can't guarantee we can fix the policy, but I can guarantee that you will have an impact on your child's future while we work on the problems in Montgomery.

Monday, July 28, 2014

We can't borrow from our future to fund current special interests

Last week, Governor Bentley teased legislators, educators and citizens alike by threatening to call a special session to pull money from the education trust fund to support incentives to bring big business to Alabama.

If you just got deja vu, you aren't alone. It was in 2009 that we pulled $437 million out of the Education Trust Fund's rainy day account to help off-set proration in our public schools.

It was in 2012 that we raided the Alabama Trust Fund for another $437 million to help balance the state budget for three years.

Alabama's state finances are set up in two budgets: the education fund, which provides for education expenses, and the general fund budget, which provides for all other state services, including prisons and Medicaid.  

Each of these budgets have an account from which expenses are paid and revenues are collected.  They also each have a trust fund account, which collects interest to help fund the operating accounts and provides a safety net in case of an emergency.

We can think of these accounts like our household accounts: there's a checking account and a savings account.  And in our homes, what happens when we continually pull money from savings to avoid making tough budget cuts at the kitchen table?

Eventually, the savings account will run dry and you will be in a pinch if your car breaks down or the water heater busts.

Now, think of the education trust fund as the kids' college fund. We all know that education is the most important thing we can give our children, and we must protect those dollars at all costs.
So would your family raid the children's college fund to send some friends on vacation?

That sounds completely ridiculous, but it's exactly what Governor Bentley is proposing we do.  He wants to borrow--again--from the Education Trust Fund for incentives to lure businesses to Alabama.  

We spent $1 billion to bring Thyssenkrupp to Alabama in 2007. Taxpayers spent $400,000 per job that they created.  Today, there's a "For Sale" sign on the $5 billion factory and the state is left with 0 jobs created. 

Instead of spending billions of our children's education dollars to buy big business's favor, we should be doing everything we can to promote the industry that already exists in Alabama, especially our small businesses and entrepreneurs.  

And our education dollars, the foundation of our future, should be protected and preserved at all costs.  If we want business to thrive in Alabama, we must create a strong, educated workforce, which starts with our pre-kindergarten classrooms.  

If we want to reduce our prison populations and balance the general fund budget, we can do that short term by accepting the federal medicaid funding under the Affordable Care Act, and long term through solid education for the future generations.

Alabama won't be able to grow and thrive if we borrow from Peter to pay Paul. We have to look at the budgets and make some choices.  But one choice should always be clear--our children must come first in this state.