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.