Monday, February 23, 2015

The measure of our state: It's time to increase the minimum wage

Last week, I announced that I'll continue the battle to increase Alabama's minimum wage. 

Last year, I sponsored HB279, which proposed increasing the minimum wage to $9.80 per hour over three years. This year, we're going to give the new Legislature another chance to allow the bill to come to the floor for a vote.

I think this is a very important conversation that we should be having as a state. That's why I'm proposing a two-phase process to increase the minimum wage: the members of the Legislature have to pass the bill to allow it on the ballot, and the people of Alabama have to vote for the amendment for it to go into effect.

Since last year, the minimum wage was on the ballot in four very Conservative states, and it passed by a wide margin in all four of them: in Arkansas by 30 points, in Nebraska by 24 points, in South Dakota by 10 points and in Alaska by 38 points.

Republicans and Democrats across the nation can recognize the need for an increase in the minimum wage. Wages have been stagnant while the cost of goods and services have increased, placing an even larger burden on working families.

This is a touchy issue for many people--and I've had plenty of them share their opinions with me in the past few days.

I've heard people dismiss the idea of a living wage, saying, "Minimum wage isn't supposed to be a living wage. It's supposed to be a starting point to work your way up." While many people do use minimum wage to work through college or to gain opportunities for advancement, the cycle of poverty is a hard grip to escape. If you can't pay the bills, its hard to focus in school or be healthy enough to do a good job at work. Talk to someone who's trying and they'll let you know just how tough it is.

I've heard people criticize single, working mothers, saying, "Maybe they should have become financially stable before having a family." Children are a blessing despite the terms under which they enter this world, and no child deserves to go without basic necessities because of those terms.

I've heard people say that an increase in the minimum wage will cost Alabama jobs. The truth is that it will create approximately 1,800 new jobs and add additional revenue to the state coffers through payroll and sales taxes. If you haven't heard, we desperately need the money.

We can't simply sit back and define ourselves in terms of how well our most successful people are doing without also considering those who strive for success but fall short every day. The measure of our state is not just the top one percent, but also the bottom one percent.

When we lift from the bottom, we empower everyone to provide for themselves and their families. In doing so, we all gain greater opportunities for success and work together to make sweet home Alabama a little sweeter for everyone.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

It's time for Alabama to Increase the Minimum Wage

Today, I announced my plans to pursue legislation that will raise Alabama's minimum wage. Right now, we are one of only five states in the nation that doesn't have a minimum wage on the books at all.

I introduced this bill last session, but it was unsuccessful. The Republican supermajority never even allowed it to come to a vote in the committee, and it certainly never had a chance to see the House floor. This year, I'm remaining hopeful about its chances.

Just this morning, WalMart announced that they are increasing employees' wages nationally. This is a big step by one of our country's largest retail employers.

According to Reuters, "Wal-Mart said on Thursday its hourly full-time and part-time workers will earn at least $9.00 an hour, or $1.75 above the current federal minimum wage, starting in April. Current employees will earn at least $10.00 an hour by Feb. 1, 2016."

My bill will increase the minimum wage in three stages to $9.80, then index it to cost of living. The bill is presented as a constitutional amendment, meaning it will simply ask the legislature to vote on putting the minimum wage on Alabama's ballot. To go into effect, it would require a majority vote of Alabama's voters, too.

This isn't designed as a government mandate. I want the legislation to go through a strict review process by both employees and employers before it is implemented.

In the 2014 election, minimum wage ballot initiatives were successful by large margins, even in deeply red states like Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska and South Dakota.

When we look at the number of working people who are working two jobs and still depending on social safety nets to get by, it's abhorrent. No one who works hard and plays by the rules should struggle to provide for their family in America.

Economic data has shown that a minimum wage of $9.80 would create 1,800 new jobs and give nearly half a million Alabamians a raise. Furthermore, one in three Alabama children live in a home that would be positively impacted by an increased minimum wage.

This is about rewarding hard work and passing those values on to the next generation. When children are raised in poverty, they don't perform as well in school and they become part of the cycle of poverty. This is a critical step to supporting families and breaking the cycle of poverty by giving all children a fair shot at the American Dream.

I'm flexible about finding a solution to increase the minimum wage that the Republican-controlled supermajority will be willing to bring to a vote. We can't keep kicking the can down the road on this issue, and I'm ready to show the leadership the state of Alabama needs.

Monday, February 16, 2015

It's about people: I'm excited to work with the Governor

The 2014 elections were bad. Not just bad because Democrats lost, but bad because the hyper-partisan attacks reached a new low. Any candidate who suggested finding a method to bring affordable, accessible health care to more Alabamians was attacked as a "Washington liberal who supports expanding Obamacare."

I have been a strong supporter of expanding Medicaid--maybe one of the most vocal supporters in the Alabama Legislature. Because the state is facing a $700 million budget hole, the federal dollars will help cushion that shortfall. Because of the rural hospitals closing across the state, expansion will ensure all Alabamians have access to local care. Because uninsured Alabamians impact all of us in the community, increased coverage rates will cause the cost of care to drop for everyone.

But Governor Bentley and other Republicans have been opposed to outright Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. I think some of them have reasonable, well-thought out reasons for this position. I think others are having a knee-jerk reaction to the President. Either way, we can't ignore the staggering statistic that 700 Alabamians will die each year that we avoid the problem.

This is why I'm exceptionally proud that Governor Bentley is working with legislators and medical professionals to find a compromise that will bring health care to more working Alabamians than ever before.

According to Governor Bentley's comments last week, he is working with federal agencies to create a system of expansion in Alabama that will allow the state to set parameters on the program. Bentley's plan will still offer coverage to an additional 300,000 Alabamians, capturing the same benefit as expansion under ACA.

The expansion option that the Governor is offering isn't exactly what the Democrats want, and it isn't exactly what the Republicans want. Both sides are having to take steps towards the middle to find a solution with which we can all be happy.

At the end of the day, this isn't about the Republican plan or the Democratic plan. It's not about talking points or political rhetoric, winning and losing, us and them. It's about the people who need government to work. It's about people who are choosing between food and prescriptions, driving two hours to deliver a baby, and wondering if they can afford a life-saving procedure.

This is about the people of Alabama who need their leaders to come together and find solutions that work.

I'm proud that Governor Bentley is taking bold steps towards a plan that will work for everyone. I'm confident that he understands the dire implications of policy on working Alabamians, and that he is working to solve the monumental problems that we face as a state--I'm looking forward to working with him to bring health care to hard-working men and women across the state.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Prison Pop Quiz: We have a problem, Alabama

Pop quiz: Which country incarcerates more of its citizens than anywhere else in the world?

You're probably thinking China? North Korea? Iran? Russia?

Nope.  Here's a hint: It's the land of the free, ironically enough. The United States of America.

We have more American citizens sitting in prisons across the country right now than anywhere else in the world.  And those citizens in jail are disproportionately African American. 

I'm bringing this up again today because we're celebrating Black History month and the 50 year anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement.  We're embracing our progress: our past and our future, but we still have a long road ahead for our communities.

You see, the prison problem is inextricably linked to so many other issues our state and our nation face: unequal access to educational opportunity, skewed wealth distribution and systemic poverty, mandatory-minimum sentences, three-strikes laws, and the list could go on.

The prison problem in America is exactly as Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative said, "Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes."

Because of this, it has become a generational, self-fulfilling cycle so that now, one of every three Black men between the ages of 18 and 30 is in prison, in jail, on probation or on parole.

And studies have shown that this isn't always linked to a higher rate of crime among these demographics.  The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports drug usage is nearly equal among white and Black individuals.

And when it comes to prosecuting and sentencing, you can bet that Alabama leads the pack on issuing the death sentence. Even moreso if you're a Black defendent--then you can bet that your odds are higher that you'll receive the death penalty. In our state's history, 83% of the 757 people that have been executed by the state were Black.

EJI's Stevenson shared an anecdote from a conference in Germany, in which one of the German scholars stood up and said, "We don't have the death penalty in Germany. We can never have the death penalty in Germany. There's no way, with our history, that we could ever engage in the systematic killing of human beings."

Stevenson added, "What would it feel like to be living in a world where the nation-state of Germany was executing people, especially if they were disproportionately Jewish? I couldn't bear it."

But with all of our history here in America, we are executing people who are disproportionately Black and there is a shocking silence around this issue.

It's easy for some people to sit back and think that this doesn't concern you or your family. It's easy to push it back to the back of our minds and think of it as a problem that other people face. But for others across the state, this is a very real problem that needs to change.

That change will be long and slow if only those affected are the ones trying to end this injustice.  With 34% of the Black male population permanently disenfranchised from voting, change has to come from a state joining together to rise above and push forward.

Because this isn't just a Black problem. This isn't just a poor people's problem. This is our problem, Alabama. 

We have a prison system that is on the verge of federal takeover. We're spending billions each year on our ever-growing prison system; that money could go to pre-K for children or infrastructure improvements or a tax break for hard-working, middle-class families.

Whether you think this affects you or not, I'm here to tell you it does. In Alabama, we never forget that our state motto is "We Dare Defend our Rights"---and these rights are in exceptional need of defending right now.

Monday, February 2, 2015

What the Super Bowl teaches us about education

There has been a lot of controversy around the Patriots' appearance in Super Bowl XLIX. After their win in the AFC title game, "Deflate-Gate" broke, challenging the legality of their game balls. Some said that the Patriots broke the rules by under-inflating the balls, others said there was no way they could beat the Colts, regardless of ball inflation.

Football allegiances aside, this can give us a great deal of insight into our education system. 

As policymakers, we have to ask ourselves: Do resources matter in the classroom? Do resources make-or-break a student, or do the kids who want to succeed find a way, despite their surroundings?  

Since the Patriots prevailed in the Super Bowl, many people will probably say that they were able to win despite the inflation of the footballs, because they were well-coached and well-prepared.  That logic, translating into the classroom, would say that students who have a solid support system and a will to succeed are also able to do so.

But we're forgetting that the Seahawks are a well-funded team. They weren't playing with rocks on a dirt field--they had truly just as many opportunities to succeed as the Patriots. They have a good coach, good equipment and good work ethic.

Neither team got to the Super Bowl by determination alone. They had fantastic coaches and great support from the teams' ownership. They didn't have to practice in run-down facilities, or play without their helmets or other equipment. But every day in Alabama, we are asking thousands of children to go to school in buildings that need repair and to learn without current textbooks and limited access to technology. 

Yes, students have to be motivated just like the Patriots and the Seahawks, but those teams also had great coaches and modern equipment. Just like those teams, our children need the best teachers and better learning environments with current learning tools.

We can sit back and pretend that resources don't matter, but they do.  You can't buy success for children, but you can buy the resources they need to reach their goals.  

We have to protect our education dollars for our children and fully fund the programs that work to make Alabama's education system a Super-Bowl quality program.