Monday, June 30, 2014

We should reexamine our priorities on voting law changes

In last week's primary election, Mississippi Senate candidates were furious that they believed Democratic voters crossed over to vote in the Republican Primary to choose a candidate.

In our own primaries in early June, several Republican incumbent legislators were defeated, and they blamed cross-over voting, as well.

This has lead to rampant discussion of closing off Alabama's primaries to ensure that only Democrats can vote in the Democratic Primary and Republicans can vote in the Republican Primary. Independent voters would have to wait until November to cast a ballot.

As legislators and as citizens, we must ask ourselves: Is the time right to make more changes to Alabama's voting laws during a time when the state is still struggling to fully implement a new voter identification law?  Do we really need more restrictions on who can cast ballots?

Meanwhile, early vote has started in Georgia's primary runoff election. Early vote is something we aren't familiar with here in Alabama.  From June 30 to July 18, Georgia voters can head to polling places to cast their ballots.

Georgia and many other states with similar policies understand that sometimes, voting on Election Day can be problematic. Alabama allows you to vote absentee if you are sick, working or out of town, but sometimes the car breaks down. Sometimes you get called into work. Sometimes the baby gets sick.

Early vote isn't the only way states offer a solution to those days when "life happens."  Some states allow you to vote by mail, which is a similar process to voting absentee, but you don't have to have a documented reason for choosing this method of voting. 

Rather than trying to close off our elections by requiring photo identification and requiring voters to re-register with a specific party, we could reform our elections to allow more people to cast their ballots.

For what it would cost the tax payers to re-register over two million voters, we could implement early vote, vote by mail, electronic voter registration and same-day voter registration to make the polls more open and accessible to all Alabamians.

For this reason, I plan to sponsor legislation for the second year in a row to allow voters to register at the polls on Election Day and a new bill to allow the Secretary of State to set up an online voter registration system.

If we want to embrace liberty and justice for all, we must embrace everyone's right to vote. If we want to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, we must protect the cornerstone of Democracy.  

Rather than making voting more difficult and more complicated for our citizens, let's open the process to ensure every eligible voter can have a say in the government.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Expanding Medicaid would help Governor Bentley fulfill his promise to Alabama

For over a year, we have been making the same request to Governor Bentley, and for over a year, our request has fallen on deaf ears: Alabama needs Medicaid Expansion. It's time to put people over politics and accept the funding.

Across the nation, Republican Governors from Rick Scott in Florida to Scott Walker in Wisconsin to our very own Doctor Robert Bentley have held their hand in the face of their state's neediest citizens in an attempt to play politics with the president. 

We didn't elect you to fight Obama. We elected you to lead this state and do what is best for our people.  This state needs Medicaid expansion.

Failing to expand Medicaid means three major problems for this state: our people don't have health insurance coverage, our hospitals are closing and we are missing out on needed jobs.

Under the Affordable Care Act with Medicaid expansion, states have the ability to accept Federal funds to cover those who make up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of three in Alabama, that is around $26,344.  Everyone else would be eligible for federal subsidies to afford a private insurance plan, or would be able to get coverage from their employers.

According to a study by the Robert Wood Johnson foundation that examined major cities across America with high poverty levels, uninsured rates are expected to drop by an average of 57 percent by 2016 in states that have expanded Medicaid.  

In major cities located in states that did not expand Medicaid, uninsured rates would only drop by 30 percent. The study estimates that Medicaid expansion in those states would lead to an average decline in the rate of uninsured residents of 52 percent.

What all of these numbers boil down to show is that states that expand Medicaid are lowering the percentage of uninsured residents, which means that those individuals are able to receive the medical care they need. 

When individuals are able to get the care they need and the bills get paid, the hospitals are able to operate in a more productive financial state.

In the past three years, ten hospitals across the state have closed their doors and many more are operating with negative numbers.

This means that Alabamians across the state are unable to get medical care, not just those on Medicare or Medicaid. When hospitals close, everyone has to travel further to get the care they need and the community loses a range of jobs at all levels.

Speaking of jobs, Alabama desperately needs more of them. We live in a state that shells out hundreds of millions of dollars for "economic expansion." We use tax dollars to build factories and recruit businesses that promise 150 jobs here and 200 jobs there. 

But we are unwilling to accept Medicaid expansion and create 30,700 new jobs at virtually no cost to the state. The number could even climb as high as 51,918 if all eligible Alabamians enroll in Medicaid.

Alabama is currently creating jobs at a slower rate than Mississippi. We are 49th in the nation in job creation and we are the only state to show an increase in the unemployment rate over the past year.

Expanding Medicaid and creating 30,700 new jobs would be enough to lower our unemployment rate to 4.7 percent, which would mean we have reached full employment.

When Governor Bentley campaigned in 2010, he promised not to accept a salary until the state reached full employment. He promised that he would help rebuild Alabama from the Great Recession.  Expanding Medicaid would allow Bentley to fulfill his campaign promise from four years ago while heading into this year's election season.

But Bentley would rather hold his hand in the face of needy Alabamians in attempt to hold his finger to President Obama.  We need less partisan bickering and more protecting our people. It's time to expand Medicaid.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Education funding is an issue, but not the only way to ensure our children succeed

Last week, a year-long study showed what many of us have been saying all along--Alabama's schools are tremendously underfunded. Not only do we not set aside enough money to educate our children adequately, the funding disparity among school districts is bigger than anyone might have guessed.

The study showed that Alabama's most wealthy school districts spent nearly double per student--around $6,000 more per student--than schools in our poorest districts.  The scary part? That difference is only increasing more each year.

It comes as no surprise that schools with better funding are able to produce students who, on average, perform better in the classroom. Better technology, new textbooks and more resources nearly always amount to better educational opportunities.

The Republican Supermajority has tried to fix this problem by pulling state funds from our poorest schools to give a few kids a golden ticket to private school. They are perfectly content giving a few children a hand up to a better life and leaving the rest in an underfunded school worse off than they were before.

We cannot continue to use tax dollars from hard working Alabama families to send a select few children to private school, while leaving the rest to fend for themselves in schools with dwindling funds. 

We must act to find a way to adequately fund all of Alabama's schools so that our children from Camden and Marion have the same opportunity to get an education as those in Mountain Brook and Madison.  

As long as we are educating our children disproportionately, we can only expect to see disproportionate opportunities in our job markets, in our earning potentials and in our poverty rates. 

The policy battle to fix these problems is going to be an uphill climb.  While school funding is a huge issue that we must address, money isn't everything to our children. As parents, we must take on a more active role in our children's lives to ensure they understand the importance of education.  Talk to them. Tell them stories. Ask them questions. 

I remember hearing a story that inspired me, both as a parent and as a policymaker.  A young, divorced mother with two children found herself struggling to inspire her sons to do well in school. They were continually bringing home poor grades and she knew she must do something.  As a child, the mother had been in and out of foster homes and had never learned to read, so she was unsure how to help her children.  

The mother made some house rules--the boys had to read two library books each week and hand in a report on what they read. They were also only allowed to watch two TV programs each week, and only after their homework was done.  Each week, they would hand in their reports and she would look at them as if she were carefully reading them over, then give each report a check mark for a job well done. 

She always told the boys that they were just as good as anyone else and they could do anything they set their minds to accomplish. One of her sons went from the bottom of his fifth grade class to the top of his sixth grade class--he went on to earn a scholarship to Yale University and became a doctor. He was named head of pediatric neurology at 33 years old, one of the youngest individuals and only Black man to ever hold this position.  Today, Dr. Ben Carson is able to give back to young children, and is even being considered as a potential Presidential nominee from the Republican Party.

This story goes to show us that as parents, sometimes our hands are tied when it comes to the school's funding or the policies handed down from Montgomery.  I want to assure you as a parent and as youRepresentative, I'm doing everything in my power to fix it.  But in the mean time, don't underestimate the important role you play in your child's life.  Teach them to love to learn and together we will grow the next generation of leaders.

Monday, June 9, 2014

We must secure our children's financial futures

If you read these opinion pieces with any regularity, you know that I am a strong supporter of the American Dream. You know that I believe that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules should be able to be successful. You also know that I don't like when the cards seem stacked against these hard working people, especially for circumstances beyond their control.

We talk a lot about access to quality education so our children can reach their fullest potential. We talk about higher education and trade schools to offer them the opportunity to get a job that provides for themselves and their families. We talk about a strong economy that makes all of these things possible.

What we haven't talked about is when children have their futures stolen before they even start.

Nationally, child identity theft is on the rise. We must find a way to combat identity theft and identity fraud so our children can start adulthood with a clean slate.

Whether it's a parent or relative using a child's identity to obtain a credit line or a stranger using the identity for a false credit-repairing service, the victims often spend years unaware that their credit score is practically negative. 

When those children get ready to apply for a student loan, their first apartment, a car or a credit card, they find a long list of negative credit items  that force them into bankruptcy for mistakes they never made.

When some break the rules, it isn't fair to the kids who worked hard and played by the rules. So we must find a way to strengthen the rules to protect the innocent young adults just trying to get on their feet.

From a legal side, companies that deal in credit should verify the age of those applying for a loan. If the applicant is 7-years-old, that loan should probably be reconsidered.

We must also find a way to reclaim the debt incurred on the child's credit without forcing them to take a parent or family member to court. 

As parents, we absolutely must keep our children's social security numbers and identifying information in a safe, secure area.

We can also run a credit check on our children once a year for free. If the child is under 18, he or she should not have a credit history.

If you ever have any suspicions about your child's credit, such as receiving notices in the child's name, contact authorities immediately. 

We must work together--as parents and a community--to keep our children safe from harm and ensure they are able to reach any dreams they work to achieve.

Our children are the future of this state and this community--we cannot let their futures get taken from them.

Monday, June 2, 2014

We must stand up for Alabama at the ballot box

Today, the polls are open for Alabama's primary elections and voters around the state are heading to cast their ballots in the party primary elections.

Despite the millions of dollars that candidates and political organizations have spent trying to persuade you to head to the polls to support a particular candidate, many voters will stay home today.

I've heard a range of reasons why voters won't be voting on Election Day, but I don't think there's any excuse not to go cast your ballot. 

People say they are tired of the Red versus Blue hyper-partisan nature of politics. They're ready for compromise and collaboration, not fighting and finger pointing.  

Voters don't think any of the candidates running actually want to help Alabama, just fight President Obama. They're ready for candidates to stand up and say what they want to do to fix our state.

People are tired of hearing about the corruption in Montgomery and the grand jury investigations. They're ready to elect good, honest leadership and just don't feel like anyone will look out for the public's best interests anymore.

But the truth is, there are good candidates on both ballots who will work together, conduct government with integrity, and fight to make Alabama better for all of us. Those people will not have the opportunity to serve if you don't go to the polls and exercise your right to vote. 

If we sit at home on Election Day, we will continue to elect more of the same. We will continue to elect leadership that dismantles public education in back-room deals in the middle of the night.  They will continue to shut down dissenting voices in the legislature and waste millions of state dollars defending unconstitutional legislation like the Accountability Act.

If we don't vote, we will have four more years of tax breaks to big business and poverty wages for their employees.  We will continue to live in a state with 600,000 uninsured citizens, half of which could be covered if the state's leadership would choose to expand Medicaid.  Alabama will continue to be last in everything that is good and first in everything that is bad.

It's up to you. That's the beauty of Democracy--we create the government we want on Election Day.  Today, we choose the future of Alabama. 

We can go to the polls and choose to stand up against the corrupt, Montgomery elite or we can choose to stay home and let others decide for us. 

As for me, I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired. I'm ready for change in Montgomery. And I'm ready for you to stand with me to create it.

Do your research. Go vote. Bring a photo ID. Make your mark on Alabama.