Monday, March 30, 2015

We have to make sure women get the care they need

Expecting a child is one of the most exciting, terrifying and joyous time for a family. An expectant mother usually has a list of questions, plans and preparations to get ready for the big day, but whether she'll get the appropriate level of care at the hospital shouldn't have to be on the list with diapers and burp cloths.

But soon, expectant mothers in Alabama might have more to worry about than just bringing a new, healthy baby into the world.

Sixteen years ago, one Alabama family experienced a heartbreaking turn of events after the birth of their daughter. The mother, Rose Church, was released from the hospital 36 hours after giving birth, only to return with complications hours later, which later resulted in her death.

Her husband and daughter lobbied the Alabama Legislature to implement Rose's Law, which would guarantee women 48 hours in the hospital for normal deliveries and 96 hours for complicated deliveries.

Fast-forward to 2015: the very same OB-GYN, who treated Rose Church (and who was named in her wrongful death suit) is now a State Senator, and he's sponsoring legislation to repeal this law.

If Senator Stutts and his colleagues are successful, women can be discharged from the hospital regardless of their medical status--the decision will be made by insurance providers' payment schedules and available space in the hospitals.

Not to mention, labor and delivery centers are closing around the state. In 1980, every Alabama county but eight offered obstetrical services. In 2014, just 29 of Alabama's 67 counties offered labor and delivery services.

Many expectant mothers are driving 50 miles or more for delivery services, which increases rates of scheduled deliveries, a practice that has been discouraged by March of Dimes because it increases the risk of complications for both mother and baby.

The idea of someone kicking a new mother and newborn baby out of the hospital before she feels comfortably recovered is infuriating. I want all mothers and children to have the best care available, and I know most Alabama men feel the same.

Bringing healthy babies into the world isn't a Democratic priority or a Republican priority. Giving women the care they need to safely deliver children and recover from the process shouldn't be a partisan issue, either.

That's why we have to fight the repeal of Rose's law.

We have to make sure that all women have access to the care they need, and we have to look to women to make these decisions, not a legislature full of men who will never give birth.

Monday, March 23, 2015

It's time to tackle the tough issues, ALGOP

The Alabama Legislature has been in session for three weeks, and the people elected to represent you have been hard at work solving the big issues at hand.

Well, that's what the Republicans are saying.

The truth is, they're wasting legislative days and your tax dollars pushing issues that appeal to their base, but don't address real issues in this state.

And the truth is, we've got some big issues that need to be addressed. Without solutions to these major problems, Alabama is going to be in even deeper trouble.

Let's start first with the $700 million state budget shortfall. For years, Alabama has been borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, propping up the budget with a little borrowed from here and a little from there. Now the bills are coming due and we have to find a way to balance our state budget in a healthy way.

In the past four years, Republicans have addressed these shortfalls by shrinking the size of state government, costing thousands of jobs for people in communities across Alabama.

In addition to the state government budget problems, we have hospitals closing across Alabama, costing communities hundreds of jobs and limiting access to healthcare for the entire region.

And more about those jobs? The Alabama Legislature has fought tooth and nail to keep from addressing the issue of raising the minimum wage. While many of my colleagues will admit (off the record) they agree $7.25 is shameful, they will never publicly support hard-working people trying to make ends meet.

So where does that leave us? Finding reliable, innovative solutions to these problems will be the lynchpin of moving Alabama into the 21st century.

Yet the Republicans in Montgomery have spent three weeks arguing about the best way to kill a man on death row, and guaranteeing protection for pastors who don't want to perform certain weddings.

They've passed the "Truth in Salary Act" to make sure that educators can read their paychecks, but haven't bothered to put the actual dollars back into their paychecks that they've taken out in the past four years.

Because with all of our growth over the past four years, the truth is that Dallas County and the Black Belt are still far behind. The people in my district deserve the same attention and piece of mind as those in a Republican district.

We have real issues facing us here in Alabama--issues that affect all our families and need to be addressed.

We have to address the fact that a 40-hour work week doesn't earn enough money to put a roof over your head. We have to address the fact that working women only make 76 cents on the dollar compared to working men doing the same jobs.

These issues play into how our hardest working Alabamians are able to provide for their families, creating a backbone for our state's economy. But there are even more big issues beyond paycheck fairness.

We need to talk about labor and delivery centers closing across the state. We need to talk about the lack of state troopers to adequately protect our highways. We need to talk about improving our public schools and shutting down the school-to-prison pipeline and reforming our sentencing structures. There are big issues here that aren't easy to solve.

But that's why we're called to lead--to serve--not to toe rigid party lines, tip-toe around the issues and pass feel-good legislation. We have to do the work we are called to do.

It's time to demand better, but demanding better starts with the people of Alabama. I'm going to keep fighting in Montgomery, but I need everyone to hold the Republicans' feet to the fire and put the pressure on to guarantee they allow us to tackle the tough issues.

It won't work unless we do it together.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Put your money where your mouth is: Take the $5 Minimum Wage Challenge

Over the weekend, I challenged my colleagues to live off $5 per day in an attempt to bring awareness to the difficulty of living off minimum wage. 

The math behind the challenge is simple: a minimum wage earner working 40 hours per week would have a base pay of $290.  After taxes, that amount would drop to approximately $231.00.  If we take national averages, we can assume the average family spends 13 to 17 percent of their household budget on food.  For a minimum wage earner, that's a mere $30 to $40 per week.

I'm prepared to live off $5 per day for the rest of the legislative session, and I hope my colleagues will join me. Yet, in the few days since we've launched this challenge, we've heard plenty of negative feedback:

One of the most popular arguments against an increase in the minimum wage is the claim that the minimum wage will cost Alabama jobs.  

The fact of the matter is that economic data has shown an increase in the minimum wage will create an estimated 1,800 new jobs for Alabama.  Yes, the critics are correct: it will increase the labor costs to businesses.  But it will also put more money in the pockets of consumers to spend at the very companies that often pay minimum wage, thus increasing the company's revenue to offset the cost of increased labor payments.

When a minimum wage earner makes a little more money, that worker doesn't put the money in an IRA.  They spend it on food, school supplies, household necessities and other consumer goods.  This puts money right back into the economy--into our businesses through purchases and into our schools and government via taxes.

Walmart knows this, which is why they're voluntarily increasing their employees' wages. Where do middle-to-low wage earners purchase the majority of their consumer goods? Walmart.  

We also hear people claim that "minimum wage isn't supposed to be a living wage--it's supposed to be a starting point for you to work your way up."  

I would love to see people work their way up from a minimum wage job, but it's entirely more difficult to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" if you're going to bed hungry and can't keep utility bills paid.  Minimum wage will always be a tight budget to support a family, but it should definitely be enough to support the one hard-working person who earns it.

The truth is that many of the same people who oppose an increase to the minimum wage are the same people who oppose social service programs to help offset the difference between a low minimum wage and affording basic needs.

We can't have it both ways.  We either need to reward hard work with fair pay, or we need to be comfortable with allowing the government to help people make ends meet.  

Through pushing this legislation over the past two years, I've met a lot of people who are adamantly opposed to increasing the minimum wage who have never had to support themselves from a minimum wage job. 

To those people, I encourage you to accept the minimum wage challenge and live off a $5 food budget each day.  

If you can't accept the challenge, at least have an honest, non-judgmental conversation with someone who is currently struggling to make ends meet.  If you talk to them, you'll realize that many of the hardest working people in Alabama are also the poorest--and it's time we give them a break. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Melton calls on fellow legislators to stand up for voting rights

SELMA, Ala.--Representative Darrio Melton (D-Selma) has announced that he will introduce legislation to expand voting rights in Alabama in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

"While the President and members of Congress came to the anniversary celebrations, we are left with no choice but to remember what has been dismantled. We have to ask ourselves: are we having a commemoration of progress or have we paid a visit to democracy while it's on life support?" Melton says.

In 2013, the US Supreme Court ruled to overturn portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that protected voters in areas with a history of discriminatory practices in election laws. The results can be felt in photo ID laws, gerrymandered district lines and changes to voter registration laws.

"Fifty years ago, the foot soldiers feared State Troopers with billy clubs at the foot of the bridge--now the obstruction has shifted from blue-uniformed Troopers to black-robed jurists and elected leaders who refuse to stand for the principles of our Democracy," Melton says.

To protect the progress made in Selma, Melton is introducing three bills relating to voting laws in Alabama.

Last year, the Alabama legislature shortened the amount of time available to register to vote from 10 days to 14 days prior to an election. This year, one representative is looking to extend the deadline to 30 days prior to an election.

Melton wants to counter their attempts with a bill to allow voters to register on any day the Board of Registrars holds office hours, including the day of an election.

"Many states across the nation allow same-day voter registration, and its shameful that a state with a history like ours puts up barriers to entry relating to voting," Melton said.

Furthermore, Melton is introducing legislation that allows voters to cast ballots by mail without providing a reason for doing so.

"This is about increasing access to the ballot box," Melton says. "To vote by mail currently, you have to sign an affidavit swearing that you have a valid excuse. You can't vote absentee if you have children and can't get a babysitter or if you're taking care of a sick loved one," Melton says.

Currently, an Alabama voter can only mail in an absentee ballot if they are sick, disabled, out of town, or working a shift of more than ten hours on Election Day.

"We have to account for people's lives in the political process, too," Melton says.

Lastly, Melton is introducing a bill to allow for "early vote," a practice already in place in many states across the country, to open the polls for five days leading up to Election Day.

Melton says that early vote would help prevent unforeseen circumstances from keeping people from the polls.

"Anything can happen to anyone, but everyone's vote should count," Melton says.

"These initiatives are small steps we can take to improve access to the ballot box across Alabama," Melton says.

While the Republican supermajority in the Legislature is working to make voting more difficult, Melton acknowledges that his bills have a long-shot to succeed, but that he still must try to push them forward.

Melton did say that he feels confident that some small strides can be made. He says that he is working closely with Secretary of State John Merrill, and members of both parties to develop bipartisan solutions to ensure that voter registration is easier for Alabamians across the state.

"We can't commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and not make any steps to keep marching forward," Melton says. "This is about bringing about change for the next 50 years.”

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Troopers are gone, but there's still obstruction at the foot of the bridge: We must march on

This weekend, my small hometown of Selma got a little more busy than usual. An estimated 80,000 people--including members of Congress and the President and First Family--came to pay tribute to the legacy of Selma.

As we gathered together at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, we talked about the last 50 years in America and the great strides we've made as a nation. But we also talked about the next 50 years and the work we have left to do.

The movement didn't end when the foot soldiers reached Montgomery. It didn't end when President Johnson declared before the nation, "We shall overcome," as he signed the Voting Rights Act. The movement didn't end when we elected the first Black president. The movement didn't end because the movement still exists today.

We have work to do. We have a legacy to continue and very large footprints to fill.

But together, we can do it. Together, we can work to stop the assaults on progress and move Alabama and the United States forward.

Right now, there are men and women trying to halt our strides towards progress. They may not be state troopers with billy clubs and tear gas, but their obstruction is equally destructive to the work we are called to do.

While Democrats are working to expand voting rights in Alabama, House Bill 104 is standing at the foot of the bridge with a bill to keep voters from registering to vote within one month of an election.

While we're trying to pass a bill to ensure hard work yields fair pay with a higher minimum wage, the Republican supermajority is standing at the foot of the bridge keeping the bill from coming up for a vote.

While we're trying to protect quality public education for every Alabama child, HB192 is standing at the foot of the bridge changing public funds into private profits.

While we're trying to build a better Alabama, House Republicans are standing at the foot of the bridge with the electric chair.

The march isn't over, and there is still work to be done, but very little of it will be able to move forward in the Legislature, with Democrats holding the fewest seats than in the past 140 years.

But with your help, we can keep marching on.

If there's one thing we learned from Bloody Sunday and Selma in 1965, it's that political numbers aren't necessary to bring about change. All we need are good people ready to stand together and build Alabama into something better than it was yesterday.

Today we have power at the ballot box, and we cannot take that for granted. But we also have power--in our communities, in our churches, in our schools, and in our own lives--to be voices for justice, modern-day foot soldiers for progress, and leaders for change.

So while we look back on 1965 and honor those who marched, it is now our turn to continue the legacy.

We cannot be content standing on the shoulders of giants and honoring the work of the past. We must, together, take up the burden and continue marching forward towards a more perfect union.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Democrats respond: Bentley's State of the State Address

Below are Representative Darrio Melton's remarks in response to Governor Bentley's 2015 State of the State Address:

Good evening, Alabama.  My name is Representative Darrio Melton, and tonight you’ve heard Governor Bentley’s proposals for our legislative session and the upcoming year. On behalf of fellow Democrats, both in the legislature and across the state, I’d like to respond to the Governor’s address.

This evening, you heard many good ideas, and the beginning of a conversation about how to address our state’s challenges.

This is a welcome change from the Governor’s office, a change in our politics and a reason for hope: Hope that we might govern toward a shared goal of building a better Alabama.  Hope that we might move away from petty corruption and a shallow pandering to special interests that have dominated Montgomery for too long.  Hope that we can redeem Alabama and move boldly into the 21st century.

The goal of democratically elected officials must be to move our state towards a future where hope is more than the promise of a politician, but where hope is felt in our homes and families--in the stability of a good job, in the certainty that our children are receiving a quality education, in the peace of mind that comes from access to health care.

We find ourselves able to hope for a better future because we find ourselves on a firm footing, secure and able to work hard and prepare for tomorrow. The proposals in the governor’s speech tonight shared some of those values--and Democrats look forward to a practical collaboration and spirited, honest debate about our values in the year to come.

But we must temper our hope in the face of events of the past.  In the ways that our state and our citizens have been shortchanged for political gain by Governor Bentley and his allies in the Republican Party.

We face real challenges: Challenges created by self-serving leadership and a compulsion in the Republican Party to satisfy urges of their extremist base and prominent donors.  And those same members of the legislature have made it clear in the past weeks that they do not share our goals of progress, but that they intend to give the Alabama taxpayer more of the same shortsightedness that has been the hallmark of their party.

Not only do we have a budget shortfall to address, our prisons are on the verge of a federal takeover, our healthcare system is bankrupt, our teachers are struggling for resources and corruption is running rampant in the halls of the State House.

Despite Governor Bentley’s speech this evening, he bears some of this burden.  Doctor Bentley had been Governor for four years and served eight years in the legislature, yet told us that he was only made aware of the state’s budget crisis the day after his last election. As a legislator, and as a citizen of Alabama, I find that difficult to believe.

What is easy to believe is that the Governor and the rest of his party had to run a political campaign.  They knew that they’d be held accountable to voters--voters in Russellville and Lineville and Birmingham and Mobile.  And those voters didn’t want to hear that the Republican-controlled legislature, governorship and even Supreme Court had run us into the ground.

They didn’t want to tell voters that their promise--”More jobs, less government and no new taxes” had put our future at risk.  They didn’t want to be judged on their performance or held accountable for the damage they’d done.  So they hid it from the public.  As proud people, we should expect more from our leaders--from the people who claim to be public servants.

But regardless of the causes, we have an obligation to address our budget shortfall.  And as legislators, we owe it to the people of Alabama to do that in a manner that is consistent with our values and the values of our constituents.  

Tonight, we heard proposals from the Governor that begin to address that shortfall.  Many of those proposals are familiar to Democratic legislators because they share ideas that we’ve championed, reflect legislation that we’ve authored, and are consistent with the principles of the people who elected us.

Democrats consider it a sign of progress that Governor Bentley is no longer attempting to solve Alabama’s problems solely with the solutions proposed by his party. Fairness and equity have to be a cornerstone of any plan to increase revenue.  Those who have profited in our state should pay for the roads, the infrastructure, the schools and the hospitals that have helped sustain and grow their businesses. We should close corporate tax loopholes and level the playing field for taxpayers.  

Through collective reporting, we can ensure that our tax code is fairly enforced and that the multinational corporations that operate here and ship their profits overseas are treated the same as our small businesses--our Mom and Pop restaurants, our local manufacturing facilities, staffing companies and storage unit rental businesses--that keep their profits here in Alabama.  

The Governor’s willingness to embrace collective reporting tonight sustains our hope in collaboration.

My colleague, Representative Patricia Todd of Birmingham, has sponsored several pieces of legislation that would increase the tobacco tax.  Democrats believe that tobacco should be treated like every other luxury item in this state, such as alcohol and gambling.  

In addition to providing additional revenue, tobacco taxes reduce smoking and reduce future public health expenditures.  We look forward to the Governor working closely with Representative Todd and her allies on this issue.

But beyond those immediate patches, we have an opportunity to increase the equity in our tax system.  Sixty percent of Alabama families, all those making less than forty-seven thousand dollars per year, pay approximately ten percent of their income in state taxes.  Meanwhile, the wealthiest households in our state pay only half as much of their income in taxes.

As Democrats, we will never support any tax policies that place a heavier burden on working families while the wealthiest among us don’t share in the responsibility of sustaining our great state. As we demonstrate our commitment to strengthening our state’s financial position, our values dictate that we should also strengthen our ties to each other and our communities.  

Our charge as elected leaders and public servants is not simply to support bigger corporate profits--we encourage business development and growth so that we can be pro-family, so that our friends and neighbors can share in our prosperity.

It’s time to push aside the special interests and put working families first in Alabama.

As we stand on the heels of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, we are reminded of the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement: the battle for economic justice.  As Dr. King traveled the nation fifty years ago, he said that his dream had become a nightmare as he saw young men and women unable to find jobs or earn a fair wage.

Alabama is built on an unspoken truth: a vision shared by generations.  From sharecroppers in the Shoals to steelworkers in Birmingham to shrimpers on the coast, one idea connects us despite all that divides us.  That idea is that hard work is the key to success. We have been taught that diligence and parity will yield opportunity and prosperity for ourselves and our families.

Yet fifty years after the Selma March, we still have a minimum wage that fails to reward hard work with fair pay.  Women are regularly paid less than men for doing the same work. Our educational system is imbalanced yielding inexplicable discrepancies in opportunity.

From a young age, Alabamians feel the effects. The wealthiest among us have opportunities to put their children into quality pre-K programs.  I’m glad the Governor has made pre-kindergarten a priority to help level the playing field: studies have shown it is one of the best things we can do to spread the opportunity for success to all corners of the state.

Yet as students move through public schools in Alabama, the educational opportunities in downtown Birmingham are very different from those Over the Mountain.  Public schools in Madison and Mountain Brook bare little resemblance to those in Marion or Marengo counties.

I fully believe that education is the key to the American Dream, and that every child--whether the son of a university trustee or the daughter of a janitor--deserves the same opportunity to build a better life through education.

We owe it to our children to make that dream an American reality.

Yet the Governor and Conservative leaders are now peddling the broken idea that charter schools are the solution--that we should abandon most of our children in order to save a few.  Charter schools represent nothing more than the abandonment of our most precious principles: fairness, equality of opportunity and rewarding hard work and exceptional performance.  The Democratic party will not stand for the funneling of public money to private institutions that undermine the health and trust of our communities.  

To Governor Bentley and his allies, we say no.  

What our education system deserves--and our obligation to our children requires--is nothing less than full and sufficient funding.  Funding that allows not just for existence, but for excellence.

I believe that we can build up Alabama to be first in more than just football.  

I believe that the values that unite us are stronger than the politics that divide us, and that we can--together--redeem the soul of Alabama and move her boldly into the twenty-first century.

Governor Bentley began a conversation tonight that, with the commitment of the other members of his party, can move our state forward.

But we cannot do it if we continue the practice of putting politics over people, maintaining rigid party lines in lieu of teamwork and compromise.

Yes, we have to work together to heal Alabama.  

It’s not about Democrats and Republicans; blacks and whites; men and women.  

It’s about the good, hard-working people of Alabama.  Its about our friends, our families, and our neighbors.

Together, we can redeem Alabama from the ghosts of our past, restore our faith in government and restore our faith in each other.  

Thank you for your time--may God bless you and may He continue to shed His grace on the United States and the State of Alabama.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Budget battles and the future of Alabama: It's time to lead

This week, elected leaders from all corners of Alabama will return to Montgomery to do the people's business in the State Legislature. We have some big issues to tackle together: a $700 million budget shortfall, a prison system on the verge of a federal takeover, a bankrupt healthcare system and suffering public schools.

These aren't just budget items and bill numbers--these are real issues that affect real families across the state. We can't afford for Montgomery politicians to play political games or seek self-serving interests any longer.

In November, the people of Alabama elected us to do better, not to continue pitching worn-out rhetoric. They elected us to lead.

I'm proud to see Governor Bentley stepping up to the plate and addressing our budget shortfall, and I'm especially proud to see that he's embracing many traditionally-Democratic ideas to do it. Addressing the budget issues will alleviate the tension in other areas, giving us the flexibility to pursue viable options over the next four years. It's a smart first step by the Governor.

However, Republicans in the Legislature have presented an agenda that makes it clear that they have no interest in wrestling with tough issues. While Democrats are working with the Governor to patch the budget hole and build a stable financial future, Republicans are making sure we can still use the electric chair.

Most Alabamians don't have to worry about being executed, but they do have to worry about sending their children to quality public schools and keeping gainful employment to provide for their families.

It's time for the Republicans to give the people who elected them more than partisan rhetoric aimed at non-existent problems. We need real solutions and real teamwork to build up Alabama for future generations.

But this teamwork must start with a clean slate. We've all heard the expression "one bad apple can ruin the whole bunch," and we're seeing the effects in the Alabama Legislature. There are good men and women on both sides of the aisle who are unable to step up and have a voice because of a select few who are prioritizing special interests and personal gain.

We must demand better.

I'm ready to come to the table and work alongside Governor Bentley to build a brighter future for Alabama, and I encourage my Republican colleagues to join us. its time to push aside those who don't have the best interests of Alabama at heart while we do the work we were elected to do.

When we walk onto the floor of the Alabama Legislature on Tuesday, we are no longer Republicans and Democrats, we're elected officials representing the people of Alabama. It's time we act like it.