Monday, December 28, 2015

We can't keep cutting our way out of a budget crisis

As we're moving into the New Year, Legislators are--once again--focused on old problems that have only been placated by patchwork solutions: namely, our state budget. The 2016 legislative session is right around the corner, and Republican leadership is wasting no time saying how this session is going to be exactly like the last one.

Remember the last one? The Republican supermajority's in-fighting sent us into two special sessions, spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars before we finally passed a make-shift budget.

The Republican leadership is already saying they're going to make more budget cuts rather than consider responsible, balanced solutions. I'm wondering what's left to cut.

When families sit down to make their household budget or when they need to tighten the belt and cut back due to a job loss or major expense, families know this much: there's only so much you can cut. You can downsize to a smaller house, but you have to have four walls and a roof. You can cut the grocery budget, but the kids still need three square meals a day. You can cut back in a lot of areas, but you can't just cut them out completely if you expect a family to function.

But that's exactly what the Supermajority has done in the State of Alabama: They've cut the textbooks out from under children's noses and still expected our teachers to teach; they've cut the driver's license offices out of rural areas and still expected voters to produce photo identification to vote; they've cut our court systems and prison programs and mental health services and still expected business as usual--its ridiculous!

We're at the limit of what we can cut and still survive as a functional government. Our schools are teetering at the bottom of the barrel nationally. Our driver's license office closings have prompted a federal investigation. Our court systems are clogged on the verge of unconstitutional, our prisons are on the verge of a federal takeover, and our mental health services are non-existent. Can you imagine what more cuts would do?

We must demand more from "Conservative" leadership.

Because just like in our families, leadership is about what's best for the whole family. It's about making decisions for long-term solvency, not just short-term solutions.

Budgeting for the state is no different: we need smart, solvent solutions that work for all Alabamians. And that certainly doesn't mean more budget cuts.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Even the Grinch understands the reason for the season

Amidst the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, sometimes it's difficult to stop and remember the spirit of the season is about one thing: giving.

It's easy to get caught up in the gifts and shopping and sales, making sure you've made your list and checked it twice and having to frantically run to the store for last minute items.

But the "giving" of Christmas is best summed up by a childhood favorite by Dr. Seuss, when the Grinch finally realizes that he can't take Christmas from Whoville: "What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!”

When we think about the Christmas story, we see two young parents, in need of a place to stay. The innkeeper gives them the only available space: a manger in the barn among the animals. We see magi from the East, the "Three Wise Men" traveling to bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the new child, and we see an angel professing the news of the gift to the world, saying, "unto you a child is born!"

You see, the first Christmas was nothing like the Christmas we know today. To quote the beloved Grinch again, "It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags!"

For too many families, the spirit of Christmas centers on what you get instead of what you give, despite so many opportunities to give love and kindness.

The holidays can certainly be a stressful time, but they don't have to be stressful at all. If we choose to approach the holidays, and our lives together in community with one another, from a place of giving, we may find so much more to be thankful for than we ever knew.

Whether it's something as simple as giving the young mother with the fussy baby your place in line at Wal-Mart or dropping some spare change in the Salvation Army bucket, we can all give a little more to create a better community together.

And when we give a little more and focus our hearts on making the world a little better for those around us, we may be surprised to find we also get a little more--more joy, more love, and more community this holiday season.

Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

Monday, December 14, 2015

There's one part of Wallace's legacy worth protecting: Our community colleges

While Governor George Wallace is best known for his stand in the schoolhouse door, he is also responsible for establishing a community college system that made a huge impact on rural and middle-income families.

Wallace wanted to be sure that a junior college education was within reach for every Alabama student to better prepare them for study at a four-year institution or enter the job market trained in a trade.

Fast forward 50 years and our junior college system is struggling to meet the needs of Alabama families.

Our community colleges, like all of Alabama's schools, are struggling to keep qualified instructors in the classrooms at pay far below what the private sector would offer. Instructors for programs like welding and electronics are leaving the community college system in favor of more lucrative private-sector jobs, leaving students with patchwork-solutions.

Unfortunately, the pay scale and funding for junior college professors is set by the state, so community college administrators' hands are tied: they can't offer increases in salary or implement development programs to supplement their budgets.

Meanwhile, the Alabama Community College System has a plan to combine several rural two-year colleges around the state to establish a regional community college program.

When Governor Wallace established the junior college program, he designed it so that no student would have to drive too far to obtain a quality education. Yet merging these programs while cutting the budgets creates a significant risk of our community colleges being neither quality nor accessible.

If we expect students to grow and achieve to provide for themselves and their families, it is our job to provide the resources for them to do so.

This means we absolutely must pay our instructors like the professionals they are so that our community colleges offer quality instruction, and we must keep the doors open to junior colleges across the state so that they are accessible to all students so we can move Alabama boldly forward.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Watch out for the second year of the quadrennium

Each year, the joke around the State House is that the best time to slip something in the law and not be held accountable by media and constituents was the second year of the quadrennium. By this point, media attention has usually shifted to the upcoming presidential election, and 2018 is far enough away that voters won't be looking ahead yet.

In 2012, the second year of the last quadrennium, the Republican Supermajority pushed through their infamously unconstitutional immigration bill, they pulled the teeth out of their signature ethics bill, and a dozen or so incentives to help businesses over families.

The 2016 legislative session is shaping up no differently.

Last week, House Clerk Jeff Woodard announced that the State has paid $62,500 to retain an Architecture firm for House chamber renovations. At a time when Governor Bentley is shutting down state parks and driver's license offices because our state is so strapped for cash.

Just last week, Governor Bentley settled a lawsuit with Planned Parenthood Southeast, paying them $51,000 in state tax dollars over a frivolous lawsuit to stop them from receiving an average $4,300 per year in Medicaid dollars.

Also last week, one State Representative instructed his constituents not to shop at any businesses with "brown people" behind the register because these "stores are owned by folk that send their profits back to their homeland and then in turn use these funds against our country." In case you missed it, small businesses fund families, not ISIS.

If the last week is any indicator, the 2016 legislative session is going to be one for the record books. We thought it couldn't get any worse than Scott Beason's 2012 immigration bill, but I have a feeling Sen. Beason's bill will look like friendly banter after what we may see in the upcoming session.

Keep your eyes open. Don't let the Republican supermajority slip anything past you in the second year of this quadrennium. Believe me, they'll try.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Alabama's education budget must take care of all Alabama's schools

Parents always emphasized the importance of investing time and money in a quality education. They teach you can lose money, material items, and but you can never lose your education.

That's why families put their children's education at the top of their family budget every year: making sure they have the tools to succeed and the resources to pursue higher education.

As a legislator, I try to do the same for the children of Alabama. It's our job to manage the state's money, as tight as the budget may be, to ensure our children have a shot at success.

So the question always boils down to "what is a child's education worth?" How much should we budget for books and teachers and increasing technology in the classrooms?

It's never an easy debate and there are always differences in priorities among members of the Legislature, but one thing shouldn't be up for debate: educating a child who lives in Greene or Perry or Bullock Counties is worth just as much as educating a child in Jefferson or Montgomery Counties.

Because of the way our education budgets work, the state provides funds that are supplemented by the local school district. This is why, even if state funds are appropriated evenly, children in affluent communities have more education dollars spent in their schools than communities who can't afford to provide as much revenue. It creates an inherent disparity in our school systems, but a solution requires revisiting our entire funding mechanism for education, which won't happen any time soon.

What we can do, however, is guarantee that all schools have the resources to succeed before providing millions to develop new schools and establish charter schools.

This year, $9.6 million was spread among 48 school systems, with schools getting approximately $34,000 for each new teacher they hired. However one school outside of Montgomery, Pike Road, received a whopping $2.3 million with $85,000 per new staff member.

As legislators, we are called to look out for our districts but also to represent the interests of the entire state.

I don't understand how we're representing all the teachers who haven't received a raise since the Republicans took office by allocating 250% more money for teachers in one school district than in the other 48.

I don't understand how we're representing all the students who are using worn-out text books and being asked to buy paper towels for the classroom when we're giving one school district $2.3 million and asking the other 48 districts to split $9.6 million.

Education is certainly something worth investing in heavily, but any good investor knows to diversify the portfolio. It's time to invest in all of Alabama's teachers and every single Alabama student.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Thanksgiving is a time to pause and reflect about the kind of America we want to be

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American tradition--a time to join together with friends and family to celebrate the gifts we've been given. As we move forward into the holiday season, I think it's especially poignant that we stop and say thank you for our blessings.

Many of us know the story of the first Thanksgiving. Pilgrims came to America from Europe, struggling to survive in the New World. Some historians cite religious freedom as their major motive while others point to economic concerns, yet regardless of their motives, they made it to America and put down roots that would last for centuries.

When we think about the Thanksgiving story, we think about the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag sitting down to a feast to celebrate a successful harvest. We see cultures blending, barriers breaking down, and friends being made out of strangers.

Now we all know that the real story isn't quite so romantic, but we can't escape this notion that Thanksgiving is a time of coming together, sharing in plenty, and breaking down the barriers between people and cultures.

This is why I find it so ironically heartbreaking that, on the eve of such a sacred holiday in America, State Governors and members of Congress are calling for America to lock her doors and throw away the keys.

Many people, driven by fear and anger, are willing to shut the door and say that America is no longer the land of the free and the home of the brave, despite that same door being opened to our own families. This land is my land; this land is your land--unless you're one of the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

We are being called to make a decision about the kind of nation we want to be: the shining city on a hill or a walled-off land with a "No Trespassing" sign.

I'm personally grateful to live in a nation that opens its doors to those in need and offers a safe place of refuge for those going through trials and tribulations most of us could never imagine.

After all, Thanksgiving is a moment to pause and reflect leading into the holiday season--and I can think of very special political refugee who was told there was no room at the inn.

Monday, November 16, 2015

National Guard armory closings reveal priorities

This week, our hearts went out to the victims of tragedies in Paris and Beirut. Americans stood in solidarity with the victims of these horrific attacks and committed ourselves to continue working to prevent these attacks at home and abroad.

At the heart of the conversation about dealing with terrorism, extremism, and ISIS has been a conversation about Syrian refugees and their role in our nation.

Many have argued it's time to shut down our borders to prevent bad people from coming in with those looking for safety, while others have quoted the lines etched onto the Statue of Liberty: "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Regardless of how you personally feel about Syrian refugees or immigrants in general, we can all agree that we don't want to see an attack occur on American soil, particularly here in Alabama.

In this effort, Governor Bentley has vowed to close Alabama's borders to Syrian refugees and block any attempts to relocate refugees into Alabama through the federal placement programs.

Unfortunately, it seems to me the Governor's attempt to keep our state safe is merely a half-hearted, knee-jerk reaction to a hot button political issue.

The truth is that the federal placement program isn't bringing Syrian refugees into Alabama en masse, and it never will. A processing center in Mobile was approved by the State Department, yet they have not placed a single refugee within Alabama borders. A similar facility in Louisiana has only processed 14 refugees.

Typically, the state has a system in place to respond to large-scale disasters: the National Guard. They are at the discretion of the Governor and can be used to secure any situation from natural disasters to riots.

While our Governor is saying he wants to keep us safe, he's allowing our National Guard Armories to close or consolidate, meaning our first-responders are less capable of managing a large-scale disaster on Alabama soil.

Six of Alabama's armories are scheduled to close due to funding shortfalls, and another 15 are scheduled to be closed and consolidated.

While these armories usually require a 50/50 funding split between federal and state dollars, Alabama has only been willing to fund $16 million to match the $126 million in federal funds to support our National Guard.

I've said it before, and I will continue to say it: our budgets are signs of our priorities.

If our priority is to keep our state and our people safe from harm, we have to put our money where our mouths are. Whether it's a hurricane or a security threat, our National Guard is critical to our safety, and I would urge the Governor to work towards providing the state with this critical funding.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Open Letter to Governor Bentley

SELMA, Ala.--Representative Darrio Melton sent the following open letter to Governor Robert Bentley concerning the closure of Paul M. Grist State Park. Melton is eager to work with the Governor's office and Dallas County leadership to find a solution to maintain operations at this park. Anyone interested in discussing this issue is invited to join Representative Melton for a Telephone Town Hall Meeting on November 10 at 6:00 p.m. by signing up at

Governor Bentley:

I understand that the State of Alabama has been undergoing complicated financial obligations arising from years of poor budgeting decisions. I respect that you have worked to address these issues head on and to establish a more stable financial base for our state’s future.

However, I would like to urge you to reopen Paul M. Grist State Park, as the benefits that our state parks provide for our state vastly outweigh the cost to our General Fund Budget.

While our state needs to consider new methods of revenue to create a solvent General Fund budget, closing these parks has been a strictly political move to make a point to legislators like myself who won’t vote to raise regressive taxes on working families. This decision has come at a tremendous cost to the families who depend on these parks for learning and leisure, and I would urge you not to show political unrest towards the people who we both took an oath to represent.

I have been, and will continue to be, ready and willing to discuss options to secure additional revenue for our state’s budget; but I will not compromise on the values that I was elected to represent in Montgomery. I firmly believe there is a solution to this problem grounded in compromise--not in winners and losers but in give and take--to creatively work together towards an amicable resolution for all parties and all people involved.

That solution must include opening Paul M. Grist State Park and providing a generation of families and friends with the opportunity to grow and bond in God’s beautiful gift of nature. To close the doors on such a gift is not just a disservice to the people of Alabama, but to our state’s legacy of caring for Creation.

Dallas County Probate Judge Kimbrough Ballard has submitted a proposal to State Park Director Greg Lein. Judge Ballard and the County Commission has proposed that the state allow the county to take over the operation of the Paul M. Grist State Park until the state is financially able to resume operations. The leaders in Dallas County are flexible with the terms of operating the park, and we are eager to work with your office to make this transition. It is my understanding that equipment has been removed and moved to other parks that are fortunately still open. Such actions are sending an adverse and divisive message to the citizens of Dallas County. As a good show of faith, I am requesting that you allow the state's property to remain at Grist State Park and allow the County to assume the cost of daily operations until the State is able to resume control of the park.

Governor, I will continue to work with your office to address these budgetary issues in a manner that is financially solvent for our state’s future, and I hope you will continue to work with me by reopening Paul M. Grist State Park. We can only measure the greatness of our state by what we do for the most vulnerable and deserving areas. I believe we can demonstrate our greatness by working together to reopen Paul M. Grist State Park.

Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to working with you soon.


Darrio Melton

CC: Probate Judge Kimbrough Ballard
Director Greg Lein

Monday, November 2, 2015

I have your silver bullet, Governor

In politics and in life, there is seldom a "silver bullet" solution. Panaceas and cure-alls are typically the talk of snake oil salesmen, while public policy is frequently grounded in realms of give-and-take and cost-benefit analyses.

Alabama's budget crisis has been no different. There have been a number of solutions on the table, each with a costly drawback in exchange for a budget cure--except one.

Governor Bentley has tried to raise taxes on working families and chose to close DMVs and state parks as punishment when legislators on both sides of the aisle failed to comply with his requests.

The Republican Supermajority has tried to cut our way out of the problem, putting Alabama precariously on the cusp of going from small government to no government.

If we look at why the Republican Supermajority's plan won't work, we see the closest thing to a silver bullet option Alabama has available.

See, the bulk of Alabama's general fund budget goes two places: health care and prisons. Both of those services deal with more than dollars at the bottom line--they handily affect people's lives.

Currently, the federal government is offering Alabama $1.24 billion in federal spending within our borders if we would opt-in to the Medicaid Expansion program.

Reports show a single stroke of the Governor's pen authorizing this program could save 210 lives in 2016 and save the state $190 million in money we're currently spending to care for uninsured Alabamians.

To put this in perspective, Governor Bentley recently closed 31 Driver's License offices across the state to save a mere $100,000.

This $190 million in savings could be used to rebuild our roads and bridges, recruit industry to the Black Belt and rural Alabama, keep open state parks, or create small-business loans, which would provide quality jobs for Alabamians who are in desperate need of an opportunity to work, even beyond the 30,000 jobs that would be created in the healthcare industry.

With improved jobs, we see impacts that can't be effectively captured individually. We see families being lifted out of poverty and children performing better in school. We see recidivism rates decrease in our criminal justice system and we see an overall lower crime rate in our communities. We see a brighter future for Alabama shaping up quickly on the horizon, all with a single stroke of the Governor's pen.

While we as a state can afford to spend $2.2 million and millions more in tax credits to bring 200 jobs to North Alabama, the Governor refuses to consider accepting federal money to create 30,000 jobs and, more importantly, to save 217 lives.

The argument from the right is that the state will be expected to cover a portion of the costs in the next 10 years--that amount could range from $188 million to $217 million.

Don't let them fool you: we're saving $190 million simply by implementing the program. This means that we will, in fact, save money for the first 10 years, at which time we'll be budget neutral with the added benefits of the $1.24 billion from federal spending, 30,000 new jobs, 200 lives saved every year, economically advanced families, improved education, decreased crime rates, lowered prison and criminal justice costs, and a brighter future for all of Alabama.

No, Governor, it's not quite a silver bullet, but it's pretty close. It just takes one stroke of your pen to expand Medicaid. Let's do it.

Monday, October 26, 2015

We aren't playing the victim or playing politics--We're standing up for our communities

Twentieth Century author Eric Hoffer once pointed out an illogical truth about humans: "People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them."

Such is true with the duality of our political perceptions in Alabama: we lament the Federal government's role while holding out our hand for more than $3 returned to our state for every dollar we send to Washington DC.

We talk about "welfare queens" and support legislation to cut food stamps for our neediest children, yet we never discuss the $13 billion in food stamp dollars that goes back into WalMart's coffers as it pays employees poverty-level wages that forces them to live off assistance programs in the first place.

We talk about hard work and the American Dream, yet we look down on working men and women doing what many believe to be menial jobs and we cut education funding so that children have fewer opportunities to rise to the top.

In Alabama, we do a lot of biting the hand that feeds us--we turn our noses up at the very programs, opportunities, and values that sustain our state while licking the boot that kicks us--looking to Conservative solutions for non-partisan problems.

That's why Governor Bentley is so confused that Democrats and rural Republicans are standing up against his absurd tax package that only takes more money out of the pockets of working men and women. He's trying to play politics, expecting Black Belt leadership to bend over and lick the boot that has kicked us for so long--so again I say, "No deal, Governor."

For five years, Governor Bentley and legislative leadership has had the opportunity to send jobs and industry to the Black Belt, an area where we badly need opportunities. Bentley has announced he has a program for broadband Internet expansion, and he could direct those initiatives to rural Alabama where they are most needed. There are ample opportunities to improve our children's educational opportunities and to provide means for workforce development, but it has often passed over our rural communities.

For five years, opportunity has not been afforded equally or adequately across all parts of Alabama, and for five years, my colleagues and I have worked hard to find solutions based in compromise.

We aren't playing the victim, and we certainly aren't playing politics. We're standing up for ourselves and our communities and asking that Montgomery understand what's fair is fair when it comes to governing this state.

For too long, the Black Belt has been last in boon and first in bust. We won't bite the hand that feeds us, but we certainly aren't about to lick the boot that's kicked us for so long.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Alabama needs solutions, not victim-blaming

While national and local leaders have condemned Governor Bentley's decision to close DMV offices around the state, Rep. Mike Ball has taken this opportunity to throw a punch at my community this week, claiming that we've "got some people who just wallow in being a victim," and that those people "enjoy being a victim" and "want everyone else to do everything for them."

Now Rep. Ball did say that he's met plenty of "innocent victims" in his law enforcement career and throughout his work in the Legislature--people who are looking for solutions and just need a little guidance. But those of us in the Black Belt? We're just being difficult. Or, at least, that's the story they want to tell.

Let's not forget that the Black Belt has persevered with a passion for our communities that is unparalleled in this state, despite being given every opportunity to fail. We have produced fearless trailblazers, timeless authors, iconic visionaries, brave military leaders and even a United States Vice President. And we could do and be so much more with a hand up--not a hand out--from our state leaders like you, Representative Ball.

Because when the state starts looking at an interstate project, there's no doubt that we'll complete I-22 through Northwest Alabama and I-465 through Northeast Alabama before I-85 ever gets a shot at running through Selma to drive commerce through the heart of the Black Belt.

And without a major interstate running through, new jobs projects look to North Alabama, regardless of how hard the Democrats work to bring those jobs here to Dallas and Wilcox and Perry Counties.

And without more, better-paying jobs, it's hard to discuss ending the cycle of poverty in rural areas by improving Alabama's education or workforce development or agricultural programs or literally any other program. When those conversations start, the Black Belt is almost always left out of the discussion.

I've written extensively about what I think we can do to improve access to necessary programs and grow the economy in the Black Belt, but those ideas fall on deaf ears in Montgomery. The people here don't see themselves as a victim, and we don't want you to see us that way, either. We just want you to know that we expect our state leaders to stand up for a better Alabama for the people in every region, not just in Huntsville or in Birmingham or in Gadsden or in Mobile. While we don't seem big and important to the Montgomery politicians, even Dr. Seuss knows a person's a person know matter how small.

While you're accusing us of playing the victim, remember how far we've come. Remember that there are people still in Selma today who were beaten bloody on the Bridge fifty years ago for the simple right to vote. We still have residents who remember the painful system of oppression that still weighs on our community every day--whether it's something broad and systemic like education or simply in the way the Governor turns his nose up about access to DMVs. And while no, none of our current Legislators are responsible for those horrible Jim Crow scars in our past, we are responsible to do everything within our power to redeem ourselves from our past and build a stronger future for years to come.

We're ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work to build a better Alabama, and I would encourage anyone who doubts it to come visit and let me show you around so you can meet the people who call this their home.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

DMV closings put working families between a rock and a hard place

When you open up the pages of a national newspaper or turn to a major news network and see "Alabama," you can pretty much bet something has gone terribly wrong, and we are, once again, the butt of jokes nationwide. Over the past weeks, Alabama has made headlines from the New York Times to The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore for Governor Bentley's decision to close DMV offices across the state and the impact it will have on voting in upcoming elections.

Since Alabama now requires a photo ID to vote, closing the DMV offices will certainly have an adverse affect on voter turnout, particularly among low-income, rural voters.

But for me, this is about more than access to the polls. While we must do everything within our power to protect the right to vote, the impact is much more pressing for many Alabama families, and this push from Goat Hill has put working families between a rock and a hard place.

Let's rewind for a minute and remember how we got to this point. The Governor swore that he would close crucial state services if the Legislature didn't pass $541 million in new taxes. The Republicans brought a variety of plans to the table, mostly including cuts to the state budget and increases on taxes for working families. The Democrats countered with plans for revenue that would not put the burden on working families: Medicaid expansion, a state lottery, and closing corporate tax loopholes to enforce the laws that are already on the books.

The Republicans took each of these options off the table and forced Democrats to vote between raising taxes on working families or sending the Governor a budget that would threaten state services. I voted no on the increased taxes and voted no on the budget, but Democrats don't have enough votes to stop the will of the Republican supermajority.

They put two options on the table: increase taxes on working families or cut services for working families--essentially, vote for the rock or the hard place. It's the choice without a choice, and it's completely wrong for working men and women across this state.

This is known as a Hobson's Choice--famously incorporated in Henry Ford's Model T: "You can pick any color car, as long as it's Black."

The Legislature, particularly the Democrats, were given a similar choice: "We could vote for any budget solution, as long as it was the one that protected the wealthiest individuals and large corporations while pushing the burden onto working families."

The people didn't elect "take it or leave it" government. They elected representation to look out for their best interests--and it's in the best interests of Alabama families to have access to critical state services like a DMV.

In Alabama's most rural areas, where climbing out of poverty is harder than average due to slower economic growth, lower-performing schools and fewer opportunities for advancement, the last thing the state should do is throw one more obstacle into the mix. Whether driving, banking, writing a check or paying a utility bill, all Alabamians need access to Driver's Licenses, not just those in the most populous areas.

Monday, October 5, 2015

You can't run the state like a business—Voting isn't about the bottom line

Fifty years ago, American Democracy fundamentally shifted right here in Selma, Alabama.  As men and women from all walks of life joined together to march in solidarity for the precious principle of "one man, one vote," the nation watched and took note. What happened in Selma 50 years ago changed this nation--and what's happening in Alabama is rolling the clock back. 

The Selma to Montgomery march brought us the Voting Rights Act, which banned discriminatory voting practices and resulted in mass-enfranchisement of minorities across the nation, but especially across the South.

One of the most critical components of the Voting Rights Act was the pre-clearance provision--a requirement that areas with a history of discriminatory practices had to have any changes to voting laws approved by the Department of Justice to ensure they were fair.  Unfortunately, the Supreme Court overturned this provision in 2013--paving the way for states and municipalities to make any changes they deem appropriate.

Without pre-clearance, Alabama was free to enact legislation to require a photo ID in order to vote, making voting more difficult, especially for those in low-income, rural communities.  They've been able to push the voter registration deadline back and make it harder to vote absentee, all of which has a disproportionate impact on working families.

Now, Alabama has taken it a step further by closing 31 of the state's driver's license offices, leaving a large swath of the Black Belt without access to a DMV.

Now the Department of Public Safety is claiming that these closures are purely based on the populations of these counties and the volume of business done at the DMV--but these are state services, not a for-profit company.

The people who live in Hale County and Greene County and Perry County are just as important as the people who live in Jefferson, Mobile, Madison and Montgomery counties, and they deserve the same access to services--especially the services that guarantee the fundamental right to vote.

All families look forward to celebrating as children achieve milestones when they get their driving permits and licenses, and all drivers must get their licenses renewed every four years. 

The DMV lines are already long, but now they will be backed up even further in the counties that have DMV offices--imagine the expensive inconvenience of taking a day off work, leaving the children with a caretaker and driving 50 miles across the state, only to arrive and find out that there are no more appointments available for the day.

Today, the impact may only be an expired license and a potential ticket if you get cited.  But the primary election is right around the corner--and there's at least one special election in North Alabama coming up on December 8.  These closures have the potential for a tremendous impact on Alabama families and the Democracy that we fought so hard for on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  

Running the state isn't about making business decisions and cutting services where there isn't a sufficient Return on Investment--it's about providing services adequately to preserve liberty and justice for all.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Parks, DMVs close: Bentley owes Alabama an explanation

All we have is our word. We all hold to the old adage, your word is your bond. 

In April, Governor Bentley took to the media to lambaste lawmakers and threaten dire consequences if he didn't get $541 million in new revenue.  He outlined eight ways the state would suffer: state parks and driver's license offices would close, children will go hungry, elderly citizens will be kicked out of their nursing homes, and the list goes on.

"We're not trying to cry wolf," Bentley said. "If people say, 'Well, we hear this every year,' well, you know what? Let's quit saying it. Let's solve the problem once and for all."

Then the Governor said that we would need $300 million for the general fund to create a long-term solution--and for two special sessions, Legislators debated how to find that revenue.

Whether the methods to reach a solution were right or wrong, the Legislature reached a solution and put $166 million new dollars into the general fund--$86 million from new taxes and $80 million transferred from the Education Trust Fund through the Use Tax, matched with $154 million in additional budget cuts, freeing a total $320 million in funding for the General Fund.

Yet Bentley announced today that he is moving forward with his plans to close state parks and driver's license offices across Alabama, regardless of the new revenue in the General Fund Budget.

Governor Bentley, you owe us an explanation.  You stood at the podium and gave the people of Alabama your word, telling us that these tax increases were necessary to prevent closures.  But the closures are here, despite the $166 million new dollars in the General Fund Budget and $154 in budget cuts.  Why have you now gone back on your word? You got your money--with $20 million to spare--now it's time for you to uphold your end of the bargain and keep these important state services open. If the budget wasn't drafted to your satisfaction, you had the option to veto it.  It's unexplainable to resort to going back on your word.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Bentley dares to (selectively) defend his rights

"We dare defend our rights." The state motto has been flaunted by politicians across Montgomery to promote partisan agendas for years, however Governor Bentley is taking the motto a step further by asking the Alabama Supreme Court to determine whether certain parts of the state's General Fund budget are unconstitutional.

Bentley's camp is saying that the Constitution creates certain powers for the Executive Branch that the General Fund budget attacks. Bentley is daring to defend his rights as Chief Executive Officer of the State of Alabama by challenging those provisions in court.

Let's not forget that this is the same governor who has signed multiple pieces of blatantly unconstitutional legislation into law in the past five years--so the constitutional violations must be egregious for Bentley himself to ask the state's highest court for a ruling. Nope.

The provisions Bentley is challenging are all safeguards to protect the people of Alabama from harmful effects of poor leadership in Montgomery. One provision Bentley is attacking says that DMV offices must remain open across Alabama--to ensure that drivers can renew their licenses and to ensure that voters can get photo IDs that are now required by law. Another aspect Bentley is challenging says that cuts must be made on the administrative end before cuts could impact services provided to Alabama citizens--to ensure that people who depend on state services for health care or child care are insulated from cuts as long as possible.

Now don't get me wrong--I'm not defending this budget by any means. I'm unhappy with cuts to our classrooms and state employees while we leave billions in Medicaid Expansion money on the table. But I also don't support resorting to cheap political tricks to rewind the process. We'll continue the conversation and work on improving the budget next year.

Bentley, on the other hand, has no problem with political tricks. He never worried about unconstitutional laws at the same time he was bragging about saving the state over a billion dollars--mostly on the backs of working families who lost jobs and benefits. And he certainly didn't care about constitutionality when he thought it was good politics--like when he signed the Anti-Immigration Bill or rushed to sign the Alabama Accountability Act into law. But now that it's his own power that is being attacked, Bentley has suddenly found a new appreciation for the Constitution that he has so casually disregarded for the past 5 years at the taxpayers' expense.

Truly, Bentley didn't raise any of these concerns when the budget hit his desk--he simply raised his pen and signed. Now he's trying to find a loophole to bring the budget back for consideration or increase his own authority where he has none. If Bentley wanted to protect Executive authority, he should have started by using his veto to kick back a bad budget, returning it to the Legislature without his approval.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Bentley needs to put away his stick and worry about the people of Alabama

"Walk softly and carry a big stick.

President Teddy Roosevelt's nutshell-theory on foreign policy has become a common political expression, heard in historical context more often than seen used by political leadership.  The theory, of course, refers to the use of soft-power in difficult political situations--using words, strategic planning and diplomacy over hard-power tactics of military intervention, embargoes and sanctions.

While Roosevelt wasn't afraid to use military tactics, his diplomacy earned him a Nobel Peace Prize and respect among his peers in Washington.

Governor Bentley, however, seems to be preoccupied with his "big stick" strategies and they're backfiring left and right across Montgomery.  During the budget battle, it was no secret that Bentley was heavily invested in tax increases for the state, but lawmakers disagreed with his position and he refused to consider diplomatic solutions for compromise.

Democrats refused to support Bentley's tax package, not because we didn't believe the state needed new revenue, but because we refused to tax working families when there is free money on the table through expanding Medicaid and elective money on the table through an education lottery.

Republicans refused to support Bentley's tax package for a variety of reasons--some because they believed budget cuts would solve the problem and some because they promised their constituents no new taxes.

Regardless of the Party or reason, Bentley's plan to raise taxes went over Goat Hill like a lead balloon, and a large part of the blame rests on Bentley's failure to walk softly and carry a big stick.

Instead of working to find common ground and compromises on both sides of the aisle, he hardly allowed Democrats a seat at the table.  Instead of circumventing leadership and working with rank-and-file lawmakers to find solutions, he went to lobbyists for help.  Instead of considering the alternate solutions, he dug in his heels in support of bad policy with no support.

And now? Now he's threatening to pull project funding from districts with representatives who didn't support his tax package.

I've made my position on this matter clear all along: I've made it clear to Governor Bentley and clear to the people of my district.  I would never support tax increases on working families as long as there was Medicaid money on the table we refused to accept, large corporations were not paying their fair share, and we weren't putting a band-aid on deeply cut artery.

Rather than understanding that I'm voting for what's best for my district and working families across Alabama, Bentley is now trying to beat areas that did not support his regressive tax package with his big stick, punishing, in some cases, districts that are already suffering economically because the needs of this districts didn't line up with the needs of the Montgomery elite.

Governor Bentley, you are the governor of everyone who lives in this state--Christian or non-christian, Black or white, wealthy or working--and it's time you started acting like it.

Walk softly.  Treat the people of Alabama with the dignity and respect they deserve.  Bring people to the table and encourage creative, diverse viewpoints and solutions to problems.  Keep your stick put away.  We aren't the enemy, Governor.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Republicans need to spend half as much energy fixing the budget as they do overseeing local issues

This afternoon, House Republicans spent valuable time in the second special session discussing a matter of no importance to the legislative call: prohibiting municipalities from establishing or increasing their own minimum wage ordinances.

While the Ways and Means General Fund Budget Committee should be primarily concerned with drafting a state budget, the committee chair brought HB27, sponsored by Rep. Faulkner, in lieu of substantial budget bills. The bill was tabled for a vote on Thursday.

The bill is in response to a recent ordinance passed by the City of Birmingham increasing the minimum wage within Birmingham City Limits to $10.10 over the next two years.

"We worked closely with the Birmingham City Council and local business leaders to establish a wage that is fair to the people and the businesses within the city. These legislators weren't at the table for those discussions, so it isn't their right to come in and tell local government that they don't have the authority to do what's best for the people of their districts," said Le'Darius Hilliard, president of the Jefferson County Young Democrats and leader of the Birmingham initiative.

Representative Darrio Melton agrees. "We've been working on establishing a minimum wage on the state level for two years, and I'm proud to see the City of Birmingham moving in the right direction. This is a prime example of the supermajority running amok with power, overruling any decisions that don't fit with their special interests," Melton says.

The Birmingham ordinance is projected to provide a wage increase for 30,000-40,000 workers within the city, which should deliver a sizable economic boost.

"When families have more money in their pockets, they spend it at the grocery store and buying their children school supplies. These are families who are going to work every day--not asking for handouts. It's time to reward that hard work with fair pay," Melton says.

The legislature has until October 1 to pass a budget or risk massive state agency shutdowns that will obstruct basic government services like driver's license offices.

"The people should be outraged that the Republicans in the legislature are choosing to spend their time playing big-government instead of doing the work they were sent to Montgomery to do. It's time to pass a budget and leave the regular legislative work to the regular legislative sessions," Melton said.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Republicans missed the Labor Day memo about hard work

This Labor Day was a time for family and friends to come together and enjoy a day off in celebration of the American Labor Movement--the men and women who have worked hard to guarantee honest pay, safe working conditions, and fair treatment for the people who built this country.

The labor movement was never about getting something for nothing. It was about the honesty and dignity of a hard day's work.

Yet our legislative leadership is pushing Alabama into a second special session to do the job that they didn't get done in the regular session or in the first special session.

Imagine for a second telling your boss that you'll need to be paid to come to work on Saturday and Sunday to finish the work you weren't able to do on Thursday and Friday--and you'll expect pay for that weekend work. That's exactly what the Republican supermajorities are doing to the people of Alabama.

They had the opportunity to complete the tasks on time--but they chose to only bring up trivial bills instead of prioritizing a budget.

They have the option of considering new ideas the Democrats have put on the table to solve the budget crisis, but they've chosen to shut the door and only consider internal solutions from the good ol' boys club.

They have the option of bringing people to the table to help find a solution, but they have only offered seats to the inner circle of Republican leadership, who still can't seem to agree.

The fact is that Labor Day is a time to celebrate the American Dream and embrace American ingenuity--but it looks like the Republican supermajority has missed the memo.

They're refusing to open the door and consider options on the table, and the people of Alabama are paying the price for it. It's time to demand better, because we frankly don't have time for a third special session.

It's time to quit playing politics and prioritize the people of this state--and do the hard work the job requires.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The clock is ticking - This budget crisis is a time bomb for Alabama

This Monday marked exactly one month before the state enters full-blown crisis mode without a functional general fund budget. Governor Bentley called a special session to resolve the $300 million budget shortfall, and it was a tremendous failure to say the least. Three different Republican leaders are fixed firmly on three different plans for the state of Alabama, but it seems to me the right hand doesn't understand what the left is doing and nobody is willing to compromise to find the solutions that work for the people of Alabama.

Take, for example, Medicaid funding. Medicaid is one of the largest line items in our state's budget, and we can alleviate a tremendous amount of pressure by accepting federal dollars through Medicaid expansion. This is no different than federal dollars we already accept for schools, roads and other projects, except that it would provide hundreds of thousands of Alabamians with health coverage and save nearly 300 people each year from dying due to lack of care.

Or consider the state's $300 million budget shortfall. For years we've borrowed from Peter to pay Paul, and we can't put off paying the piper, but nobody can come to an agreement on where to get the money. The Governor is calling for taxes, the Senate is calling for gambling and the Speaker is calling for deeper budget cuts, but all of these plans will be worthless without the votes to pass them before the clock runs out.

The truth of the matter is that State of Alabama is facing a tremendous budget crisis, and it appears our leaders are too preoccupied with their own agendas to handle the situation appropriately. Now that the people are learning what this will mean, alarm bells are sounding and the voters are waking up:

This means that all but four driver's license offices will close--so if you live in Dallas county, make plans to take off work and drive to Montgomery to wait in line for the day.

This means that we'll have fewer State Troopers to keep our roadways safe--so you better hope you're not in an accident when you're making the long-distance drive for the license renewal.

This means that our state parks will be closing--so if you enjoy taking your kids out for some fresh air on the weekends, you better find another option.

When voters went to the ballot box and chose their leadership in 2014, they chose who to hire to do a job for the State. A big part of that job is doing the business of the State of Alabama--most importantly, passing a budget. The Republican supermajorities ran on the platform of fiscal responsibility, yet now they're turning around and asking you to get less services for the same tax dollars you've always paid.

There's nothing Conservative about that, and there's certainly nothing right about that.

We have 30 days to fix this mess, and I hope the people of Alabama will stand beside common-sense solutions and reject the political posturing by the Republicans.

This is truly a life-or-death situation for thousands of people, and the clock is ticking.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Budgets show our priorities: Where are Alabama's?

When families sit down each year to make our household budgets, it's a negotiating process. It's an exercise in give-and-take. It's a time to sit down and evaluate where we are and prioritize our plans for the upcoming year.

Yet as we are still in the process of creating our state's budget, we have to wonder if we see the same level of prioritizing and planning that we would expect of our own families.

For too many years, the state has borrowed money from here and there to compensate for shortfalls in the budget, and now it's time to repay that money. The Governor has promised to veto any budget that doesn't include new revenue, but the Republican House supermajority is sticking to reckless cuts across the board.

In their last desperate attempt to prove a point, the House Republicans passed a death sentence for thousands of Alabamians, by cutting Medicaid to the point that the program would simply dissolve. They didn't do away with the Medicaid Agency, they just cut their resources to the point that Medicaid couldn't keep the lights on, much less provide needed services.

The Republicans control the budgeting process, and they're using their power to play politics with critical government programs in order to get their way and safeguard their reelection.

The people of Alabama should be looking to the Republican supermajorities to find responsible methods to resolve our budgeting issue, and that should include accepting revenue that is on the table through Medicaid Expansion and closing corporate tax loopholes so that everyone pays their fair share.

Just like when your family sits down to make your budget, you can't just cut "groceries" out the budget to find a little extra cash to pay the power bill. Alabama can't just cut "Medicaid" out of the budget to find a little extra cash for prisons.

The fact of the matter is that we're doing something far more important than budgeting for our own families: We're taking responsibility for the money that has been sent to Montgomery from all Alabama families' household budgets. It's our job to spend that money as wisely as the families who earned it.

Monday, August 17, 2015

When words fall short: Bentley endorses Kasich's campaign but not his policies

Governor Bentley has just announced that he is endorsing Ohio Governor John Kasich for President of the United States. Governor Kasich has been faulted by many Republicans for stepping up and expanding Medicaid in Ohio, although he has doubled-down on his decision several times.

Governor Kasich has been quoted as defending his decision from his religious perspective, saying, "Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer."

In the first Republican debate, Kasich stood by his decision again, reminding viewers that President Reagan expanded Medicaid multiple times.

Yet our own governor, who is endorsing Kasich for showing leadership and having a heart for people, refuses to show the very same leadership to save Alabama lives, keep our rural hospitals open, create jobs and return Alabama dollars to our state where they belong.

At his endorsement announcement, Kasich said that his mother used to tell him that it's a sin not to help those who need it, and the Bible goes on to support Kasich's mother's words: "But whoever has the world's goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth."

Governor Bentley says he has a heart for people, and he says he cares about the poor. But it is not enough to love in word or with tongue. He must love in deed and truth by turning those words into actions as Governor Kasich did by expanding Medicaid.

It's time to stop playing party politics and do what's right for Alabama. I support Governor Bentley's words, and I'm looking forward to the opportunity to support his deeds when he follows in Kasich's footsteps and expands Medicaid.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Republicans' fiscal irresponsibility could rob our future

Alabama's voters should be paying close attention to what's been going on in Montgomery, and what will play out over the next few months.  The Governor has called the Legislature back for a Special Session to pass a budget--a task the Republican supermajority was unable to accomplish successfully in the regular session. 

They must complete the special session and find a solution by August 11--without a solution the Governor will need to call a second special session or allow the state government to shut down in October.

The Republicans control every step of this process, yet they are unable to find a solution to patch the $300 million budget shortfall. 

This isn't a problem that cropped up overnight, and it isn't the first time it's come up.  Everyone in Montgomery knew this problem would need to be addressed, yet nobody with any power wanted to show the leadership necessary to solve the problem.  

In 2012, the legislature sent voters to the polls to ask them to authorize a loan from one of our state's savings accounts to cover shortfalls in our state's budget.  They told voters that they would kick elderly patients out of nursing homes and turn prisoners loose on the streets if they weren't able to use the money, and they promised they would pay it back when the economy bounced back.

Well the economy has bounced back and the loan is due.

Yet now, they want to avoid the problem again and pull money from a different savings account, the education trust fund.

I have said from day one that I will never support a plan that pulls a single dime out of education so Montgomery politicians can avoid hard decisions and protect their re-election.  I'm standing by that promise.

You see, the problems we're facing as a state can be blamed on a lot of people: partisan politicians, influential lobbyists and government bureaucrats among them.  But the one group who is not to blame are our children, and they shouldn't be the ones punished by pulling our investments in their future.

If we want Alabama to bounce back and become a key economic player in our nation, we must provide quality education for our children.  This commitment to our future will offer a return on investment in a trained workforce, a higher standard of living, a lower dependency on social services and a shrinking role for our state's prisons.  There's no magic bullet for public policy, but education is the closest thing we have.

So we can't sit back and let our current leadership rob our future to pay for our present.  We can't avoid tough decisions today for an easier path, because one day our children will have to answer for the decisions we make as a legislative body.  And pulling money from the Education Trust Fund to patch the hole will only leave the children who have to deal with this with fewer tools to solve the problems and no savings to fall back on if they need it.

Don't listen to the Republican talking points about "fiscal responsibility."  Instead, ask yourself if this would be the responsible decision for your family.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Budget battles show Republicans lack plan to lead Alabama

As students across Alabama are preparing to head back to school, Alabama's legislators are heading back to Montgomery to continue work on the state's general fund budget.

During the regular legislative session, the Republican supermajority brought up bills to name an official state desert and an official state crustacean, which they were able to successfully pass, however they let the clock run out on setting a state budget.

See, legislatures from years past knew this type of procrastination could be a problem, so they passed a law that requires the legislature to make budgeting a priority. To bring a bill for consideration before the budgets have passed requires a two-thirds vote of the legislature. Unfortunately, the Republican caucus controls more than two-thirds of the legislature, so Democrats' cries for responsible planning fell on deaf ears.

So now we're back in Montgomery with no more of a plan than we had when we left.

Democrats have been offering concrete solutions since day one, but the Republicans have promised that they're all dead-on-arrival.

Our plan to expand Medicaid and accept $3.63 billion in federal dollars would create more than 15,000 new jobs and generate $2.65 billion in economic activity, not to mention providing 300,000 Alabamians with health coverage, saving hundreds of lives and dozens of hospitals.

Our plan to create a statewide lottery would allow the state to generate revenue without taking it from hard-working families through taxes. It would make us competitive with neighboring states and keep Alabama dollars here in Alabama, rather than funding scholarships for students in Georgia or Florida.

Our plan to close corporate tax loopholes would level the playing field, giving small businesses the opportunity to compete with big-box stores and ensure that everyone plays by the same rules and pays their fair share, not just those who can't afford fancy accountants.

We brought all of these plans to the table during the regular session and not a single one was even brought to the floor for a vote.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have the votes to do whatever they want--they control more than two-thirds of the legislature. Yet no Republican plan can generate any more support than the Democratic plans.

The Governor has proposed a new tax package but the Republicans in the Legislature have scoffed at the idea of raising taxes. The Speaker and House Republicans are ready to try to cut ourselves out of a crisis, but we can't cut our way out of a $300 million hole. Senate Republicans are looking at a gaming compact with the Poarch Creek Indians, but the Governor has promised to veto any gaming legislation.

We're looking at some tough decisions, but one thing is painfully obvious: we're going to keep talking ourselves in circles until the Republicans come to an agreement or the clock runs out in October.

The Republicans created this problem when they raided our savings account to avoid these tough decisions in 2012, and now it's time for them to repay the debt they owe to the people of Alabama.

I'm not sure what solution they'll agree on, but I can promise you this: I'm not voting to take a single dollar out of the pockets of working families until we accept the free money that's on the table from Medicaid expansion and consider avenues for elective revenue, and the people should demand the GOP does the same.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Our kids know iPads and iPhones, but do Alabama schools prepare them for the iFuture?

If you've spent any amount of time around a young person lately, you've probably had a tough time prying the iPhone, iPad, iSomething, away from them. The new generation of students is growing up in a digital age--one where they can't imagine having to stop to use a pay phone, get a map for directions or live without googling anything on their mind. 

Yet when those same children step into the classroom, many teaching strategies haven't changed since I was in school. The YouTube and Instagram generation is being told to sit in a desk and write with pen and paper, read from textbooks and learn from chalkboard lectures. We know their workplace will look nothing like this, but we're continuing to instruct them with out-dated methods.

Meanwhile, schools that have the funding and ability are implementing digital components to the classroom, preparing students for an increasingly technological economy.

Those schools that are utilizing technology in the classroom are changing the dynamic of education from passive learning to active participation, giving the students the ability to get instant feedback and learn in a way that fits with their individual learning style. Teachers are able to promote collaboration on projects, upload lectures to iTunes, and empower students to harness the power of technology to complete their assignments.

And we're sending our pen-and-paper students out into the workforce to compete with them.

Now I understand that we have many schools in the state that are digitally integrating their classrooms to capture all of these benefits. But I also understand that we have schools in this state that don't have the resources to offer a simple computer course for students.

If we, as policymakers, are serious about moving Alabama into a 21st century economy, recruiting businesses and promoting our workforce, we must start by building a 21st century education system for every student in our state.

Rather than spending $30 million tax dollars to take rich kids out of failing schools, we could invest $30 million into making sure that our schools have the tools they need to give students the resources for a quality education.

The economy isn't slowing down, and it's certainly not returning to an era where proficiency in typing is enough to be considered "computer savvy." The sooner we begin familiarizing our students with digital tools for success, the faster they'll be able to compete in a global economy and move Alabama boldly forward.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Broadband Internet is critical to the future of Alabama

If the statistics hold, seven out of ten people reading this article will be doing so on a laptop using the Internet.  Among all American adults, 56 percent have used a cell phone to access news in the last week.

Needless to say, the Internet has changed the way that we access news and stay up-to-date with current events.  It has changed the way we stay in touch with friends and family, pay bills and make purchases.

It is rapidly evolving the way that companies carry out their business in every field--including health care, education and sales.

When companies look to locate or expand in Alabama, access to up-to-date Internet technology is a factor in making that decision.  When we work to make our schools technologically-driven for the future, we must have the infrastructure to support it.  When our hospitals develop telemedicine programs, they will need top-of-the-line Internet to do so.

For these reasons, I'm proud to learn that Governor Bentley signed an executive order to create the Office of Broadband Development to spread broadband Internet access across Alabama.

If we expect to move Alabama forward into the 21st century, we absolutely must focus on developing and spreading the technology to do so.

Expanding broadband Internet access will be one component to leveling the playing field across urban and rural Alabama--from allowing students the same educational opportunities as their urban and suburban counterparts, to giving businesses the opportunity to expand and reach their consumers, to giving voters the ability to research and learn about candidates for public office, to giving doctors the ability to consult with patients in rural areas without requiring a 100-mile commute. 

It's past time to connect Alabama to the World Wide Web, opening windows and doors to a 21st century state.

I'm proud of Governor Bentley for taking the lead on this initiative, I'm looking forward to working closely with him to see it implemented, and I'm excited to see the benefits for our state.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Patchwork solutions aren't necessary, reasonable or realistic when we address the budget crisis

Last week, Governor Bentley called the Alabama Legislature into a special session to address the state's looming budget shortfall.

Now this isn't a new problem- we had 30 meeting days to do the business of the state. However, instead of addressing the budget shortfall, the Republicans allowed bills up for discussion on a range of topics from riding in the back of pick-up trucks to declaring a state crustacean.

Without reaching a compromise during this special session, the Alabama government will shut down due to lack of funding--without appropriations from the legislature, the various departments like the Public Safety and our Department of Human Resources will be greatly impacted.

When the governor issued his call for the special session, he specifically said that he didn't want the legislature to consider any gaming bills--only those pertaining to new taxes for Alabamians.

Regardless of the governor's wishes, the legislature can bring gaming bills--or any other bills--with a three-fifths vote of the legislature.

It's unnecessary to take a solution off the table, only to force a balanced budget on the backs of our hardest working families.

It's unreasonable to expect working men and women to pay more in taxes until we've expanded Medicaid and accepted the federal money available to make that program solvent.

It's unrealistic to think we can patch the hole with BP settlement checks, when that money belongs to the Gulf Coast for restorations and repairs from the Deepwater Horizon spill.

We don't have time to consider unnecessary, unreasonable and unrealistic solutions to our state's problems.

It's necessary that we consider all options on the table, especially gaming revenue to avoid levying new taxes.

It's reasonable to accept the federal dollars we already pay to help fund our healthcare system.

It's realistic to consider the options on the table, not borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, and solve this crisis by making responsible decisions.

The people of Alabama deserve for us to lead. They deserve better than patchwork solutions to an overwhelming crisis. I hope my colleagues will take this process seriously and move this state forward.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Healthcare

Over the weekend, friends and family gathered together to celebrate our nation's Independence Day. More than 200 years ago, we came together to sign a paper declaring our independence from England and affirming that we are endowed with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Yet across this nation, and certainly across this state, there are working men and women who are unable to achieve these rights--due to a lack of access to affordable healthcare.

A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that took any and all air out of the argument to fight the Affordable Care Act. They made it clear in their ruling: Obamacare is here to stay.

Yet the state of Alabama is continuing to play politics with people's lives, gambling away billions in federal dollars, dozens of rural hospitals and affordable care for 300,000 Alabamians with one simple refusal to expand Medicaid.

The facts of the matter are clear: Alabama is broke and Medicaid is a huge portion of our budget. Our hospitals are closing and taking with them maternity wards and emergency rooms. We have $14.4 billion available to alleviate these concerns, but we're refusing to accept it.

Frankly, we have few other options. When we return for a special session in August, we have two choices on the table to fund Medicaid: Our first choice is to raise taxes to cover the rising costs, pulling more money from Alabama pockets. Our second choice is to claim the federal dollars from taxes we are already paying, and will continue to pay, to make our program solvent.

Nobody wants more taxes, but nobody wants more cuts either. Accepting Medicaid expansion is one of the rare political win-win situations, and it would be a tremendous mistake not to grab it.

Let's face it, Alabama. We're in a budget crisis and we have to take smart steps to resolve this problem. Often, smart steps require hard decisions. Fortunately, this isn't one of those times. Expand Medicaid now.

Monday, June 29, 2015

It's not the chicken or the egg: It's building a better Alabama

There has been a great deal of talk in the past weeks about racism, about equality, about opportunity. As we come on the heels of Independence Day, there's no better time to discuss what we should be doing--239 years after our Declaration of Independence--to form a more perfect union each day.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about expanding access to high-speed Internet and why that was so important for our communities, especially low-income communities. It provides opportunities for education and job growth that will pay dividends for many years to come.

But for many communities, particularly in Alabama, high-speed Internet access is only one component of what it takes to give the community an opportunity to grow.

When you look at a region like the Black Belt or anywhere else in rural Alabama, you see fertile farm lands and communities that appear to be stuck since reconstruction. These communities have little by way of infrastructure to attract businesses, and accordingly have little by way of education to develop a trained workforce.

In many ways, when we look at economic development, we're stuck in a "chicken or egg" mentality--some people say you have to have businesses to grow the community, infrastructure and education, and others say that if you build it, they will come. The truth is, we could argue the age-old question--"which came first, the chicken or the egg?"--all day long and we wouldn't be any closer to economic development in these regions.

But take Selma, for example. My hometown is brimming with history and opportunity for growth. But for a business to consider moving to Selma, Interstate 85 needs to run past Montgomery. Our cell-phone services need to be top-notch. Our hospital needs to be open and operating. Our workforce needs to be trained and ready for the job at hand. Then when businesses look to expand, they see a community ripe for growth and development.

Once business moves in and pays fair wages, the quality of life around Selma would go up, local businesses will prosper and our education system will meet ever-growing standards. Then, more businesses will look towards Selma and the cycle of opportunity will continue.

But first, we have to lay the foundation. The people of Selma are doing their part to clean up the community, to create a strong education system and create an environment welcoming to businesses. Now we need to look to our leadership to help open Selma for business. We need Washington to provide the funding to complete I-85. We need our Governor to point businesses and industries to the Black Belt. We need to continue talking to Internet and cell phone providers to get our digital connectivity strengthened.

This isn't a chicken-or-egg situation. It's a "We'll handle the chicken. You handle the eggs" type of situation. It's not either-or, its both together.

I'm ready to grow the Black Belt and expand opportunities in Rural Alabama, and I hope our leadership will stand beside me. Our time is now, Alabama--we can build a better state and grow into the 21st century.

Monday, June 22, 2015

It's a terrible tragedy, and we aren't doing enough to stop it

Last week, an armed gunman walked into a church in South Carolina and took nine innocent lives.
For the past few days, I've struggled with what to say and how to process this information. "It's a terrible tragedy" doesn't even come close to summarize the pain we are feeling as a nation. We know this script by now: a shooting occurs, gunman is caught, we learn about the shooter's dark past, we mourn our losses, we convict the guilty and we move on.
Until it happens again.

And the fact is, it happens too often. It was a "terrible tragedy" when two teenagers opened fire in a high school cafeteria in 1999. It was a "terrible tragedy" when a gunman killed 33 people at Virginia Tech in 2007. It was a "terrible tragedy" when 12 were killed and 58 injured in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and again when 20 children were killed in their classrooms in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. It was a "terrible tragedy" in the Navy Yard in 2013; it was a "terrible tragedy" in Charleston last week; and it will be a "terrible tragedy" again next time.

The truth is, it will happen again. And it will continue to happen because we're too afraid to do anything about it as a society.

We live in a country where we send troops to all corners of the globe to fight terrorism, but can't seem to find steps possible to prevent attacks by Americans on Americans here at home.

Take for example, early Monday morning in Kabul. Two were killed and 30 injured when a suicide car bomber and six gunmen launched an attack on the Afghan Parliament. The Taliban has taken credit for the attacks. According to The Guardian, "The attack raises new questions over Afghanistan ability to maintain security without Nato’s help."

The only difference between the attacks in Afghanistan and the attacks in America is that we've been trained to view the Taliban as our enemies, while the attackers here in America could be anyone's next door neighbor. We're undergoing Taliban-caliber terrorist attacks, yet it never raises any questions over America's ability to maintain security.

We have to demand better. We have to make the violence in our communities stop. That goes for anyone and everyone, regardless of race, religion or origin. It's time to heal America and demand safety for our families and our futures.

It's time to look at common sense gun reform. It's time to rebuild and repair our struggling mental health system. It's time to call and tell the authorities if you know someone who may be planning something, even if you think they might just be kidding. It's time for each of us to step up and do our part to make America the nation it was set out to be.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Connectivity is critical: The importance of wiring in rural Alabama

As we're looking forward to the future of Alabama, I can't help but continue to look at the way jobs and education are linked. Companies want to locate where there are quality schools and a well-trained workforce, and without that infrastructure our economic development plans for the state are useless.

Currently, 1.7 million Alabamians--35% of the state's population--do not have access to high-speed Internet access. That discrepancy is even worse when we compare urban and rural areas: 20 percent of the state's urban population is without access compared to 56 percent of the rural population.

As companies are looking to move to Alabama, we know they're going to be looking at our schools and our physical infrastructure, but are we considering the impact of our technological infrastructure?

Not only does the presence of high-speed internet impact the way companies are able to do business, but it impacts the way our teachers are able to instruct in the classrooms, by utilizing technology components to crete a workforce of highly-trained, tech-capable individuals.

We know without a doubt that the jobs of the future will require more than a working knowledge of computers--they will require full-immersion in the technological process, reflected in every component of the job.

Beyond training a workforce that's prepared for the job, access to fiber-provided high-speed internet is becoming an integral component for areas where the state is falling short.

With the ever growing demands of rural healthcare, we must have the infrastructure available to provide telemedicine services.

With our government becoming increasingly digital, we must ensure that our local governments have the ability to comply with that process.

With virtual public schools on the horizon, high-speed Internet access is a critical component to success for students across Alabama.

The fact of the matter is that Alabama has precious few dollars in our budget, and we have to make decisions about the best way to use them--but hardly any infrastructure investment would offer a return comparable to guaranteeing the spread of quality, affordable, high-speed Internet access across Alabama.

The Technology Era isn't going away, and the sooner we get Alabama on track with global expectations, the sooner we can continue to be a player in the national and global economies.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Republicans must start with the men in the mirror

Last week, the Alabama Legislature did something that no working Alabamian would ever consider: they left work before the job was done.

Under state law, the Legislature is allowed to meet 30 legislative days each year, however the Republican Supermajority chose to close the books and call it quits on day 29. This wouldn't be a big deal if they had finished their work early--if they had gotten the job done in less time, going home early would have only saved the state money. Instead, they left without a budget for the next year, which means the Governor has two choices: call back 140 legislators for a special session or let the government shut down in October.

The Republicans spent 29 days arguing about whether or not there was a revenue gap and finding ways to cut our way out of trouble, even when the Governor promised he would veto any budget that didn't include new revenue. When they sent Bentley a budget with drastic cuts across the board, he stuck to his word and vetoed the budget. The House chose to override the Governor's veto and the Senate adjourned before it was able to vote on overriding the veto.

This is why leaving early is a big deal: they could have spent the last day either overriding the Governor's veto or working with the governor to find a solution to the problem. Or at least run the clock out trying. Instead, they quit on the job and walked away, forcing the tax payers to pay for them to do this entire process over again in a special session.

The Republicans ran for office and were elected on platforms of fiscal responsibility--but quitting work before the job is done and failing to produce a budget are anything but fiscally responsible. And this time, there's nobody to blame but their own lack of leadership.

The Democrats haven't been the problem--we are at numbers so low that we have no ability to control any part of the legislative process.

The President hasn't been the problem--he has no bearing on the state of Alabama's ability to pass a budget.

The only boogieman the Republicans have left to blame is the one in the mirror--their own lack of leadership and failure to work together to find a solution to the problems facing Alabama.

Hopefully the Republicans will start with the men in the mirror, asking them to change their ways. No message could be any clearer--if they want to make Alabama a better place, they have to look at themselves and make a change.