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.