Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day is more than saying, "Thank You"

Today, we're taking a day out of our busy lives to remember those who fought to protect the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. From our inception as a nation, men and women have gone to war and fought at home, because they believed in protecting one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.

I'm eternally grateful for all the men and women who have served and those who continue to serve. For those brave individuals and families who put everything on the line to protect our rights and freedoms, there is no way to fully say thank you. There's no expression of gratitude immense enough to match the sacrifices you have been willing to make.

As an elected official, I think about the cost of Democracy often. I think about what America would look like without free and open elections, and about where we would be without the Constitution and the rights that protect us. I think about people who don't vote, and about the people who gave their lives so that others could.

I owe my ability to go to Montgomery and do the people's work to the men and women who have protected my right to speak the consensus of my district and protected the peoples' rights to cast their votes. And I remember that each day I walk into the House of Representatives. I have a duty, not just to my district and to the state of Alabama, but to the men and women in the armed services who paved the way for me to be where I am.

Which is why I find it abhorrent that my fellow legislators have allowed 17 veterans' services centers to close across Alabama since 2012, and have passed a budget that would close those centers in Lamar, Pickens and Greene counties. We should be making our veterans' needs a priority, from medical care to housing assistance. These aren't entitlement programs, they're obligations to repay a debt that we owe as a society in exchange for their sacrifices.

In a state with the highest per capita rate of veterans--420,000 people totaling almost nine percent of Alabama residents--I find it egregious that lawmakers would cut services for the very men and women who fought to allow them to stand in that chamber and introduce the legislation to do so.

Being thankful for our armed services isn't just about attending a program and mentioning them in our prayers on Memorial Day. It's about taking the time out in all that we do to remember who made it possible, and paying it back when we have the opportunity. It's about remembering the hard sacrifices that allow us the advantages of living in the United States of America.

So for the next 365 days, until it's Memorial Day again, don't forget to remember.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Hard-lined stances aren't leadership: It's time to work together

When we started this legislative session, the budget crisis loomed heavy over the State House. We all knew that we would need to fill a $700 million gap, but nobody knew how it would get done.

In the past months, several solutions have been tossed around among those in leadership. We could cut the budget across the board, but how do we expect state agencies to function with no resources? We could raise taxes, but would we raise them for corporations or for working families? We could legalize a state lottery and gambling, but how do we set the parameters? We could expand Medicaid, accept federal funding and reduce the burden on our own budgets, but how do we do that and still fight Obama?

The truth is that there are strengths and drawbacks to every plan. There's no silver bullet and there's no plan that makes everyone happy. That's where leadership comes in. Well, that's where leadership should come in.

Instead, we've seen House Republicans in leadership take hard-line stances on their budget priorities--they have refused to work with the Governor, refused to work with Senate Republicans, and of course, refused to work with Democrats.

Why would they? House Republican leadership must know best.

But now, the House is poised to vote on a general fund budget that cuts the state budget across the board, regardless of the governor's plans to veto it. Their budget will seriously threaten state agencies and services for the constituents they claim to represent, but it's their plan and they're sticking to it.

If the governor keeps his promise and vetoes the budget, we're headed into a special session--another legislative session that will cost the state additional money for one reason: failure to compromise.

If our only choices are drastically cut budget or go to a special session, I'll be back in Montgomery to work this thing out. But I would have much rather been able to use our time wisely to work together and find solutions, rather than taking strict, no-compromise positions on the budget.

The fact of the matter is that the Republicans are in charge. We can only vote on the bills the Republicans allow out of committee, and they won't let Democrats' bills come up for a vote. So we have to look to them when we talk about leadership, because there is nothing the Democrats can do to move the marker or offer our own plans into the process.

But in 136 years of Democratic leadership, when we did get to offer our own plans, we never allowed the government to shut down over bickering in our own Party.

Monday, May 11, 2015

For Republicans, leadership isn't all it's cracked up to be

If you've been following the legislature over the past few weeks, it's pretty clear that the Republicans are stuck. They have a supermajority in both chambers--meaning they can do anything they want--yet they can't seem to agree on how to get Alabama out of a tremendous financial crisis.

When the Republicans "stormed the State House" in 2010, they promised fiscal responsibility. They promised lower taxes and more jobs and smaller government. Then just two years later, they brought everyone in Alabama to the polls to vote on borrowing $437 million from savings to keep the state's budget solvent. When the people allowed them to borrow the money, the deal was clear: they would repay the money within three years.

Yet the Republicans watched two more years and another election roll by without addressing the crisis at hand. Rather than tackle the elephant in the room, they chose to kick the can down the road and pretend there wasn't a problem facing our state.

Now, the deadline is here and the Republicans can't even agree on a plan!

Look at last week, for example. The House Republicans have a tax package that Senate Republicans have promised is dead-on-arrival. One bill in that tax package--the tax on lube oils--came through committee on Wednesday failed when it came to a vote. Thursday, the committee brought the bill up for another vote and allowed the bill to go to the House floor.

Now why are the Republicans having to strong-arm this bill through the process? For starters, it's a 5,960 percent tax increase on lube oils--a component used in manufacturing, farm equipment and even in the motor oil in your car. This plan would increase the tax per barrel from around $3.30 to as much as $200--and that increase will be passed on to the consumer through higher produce prices and more expensive oil changes.

Whether this bill makes it through the process or not, it highlights something very important about the Republican plan: they don't have one.

They're trying to piecemeal a plan to cobble together the money needed to keep the government from shutting down--and they can't agree on how to solve it.

While they all marched to the beat of the same drum during election season--"small government, pro-business, no new taxes"--and now they're having to face the fact that leadership and tough decisions don't fit into soundbites and talking points.

It's easy to say what sounds good on the campaign trail, but the voters deserve better than hearing one thing in November and seeing something different in May. I think the people of this state deserve genuine leadership--people who aren't afraid to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work, not pull the wool over our eyes and hope we don't notice.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Republicans embrace Democrats' plans to solve budget crisis

The Republicans have taken a long, hard look at the state of affairs in Alabama, and they've decided they only have two options: they can fold on their campaign promises and raise taxes or they can call the Democrats' plans and look at a lottery.

It looks like they're going "all-in" on the lottery and gaming in Alabama, taking consistent revenue streams off the table in favor of a lottery and casino-style gaming in the state.

Now, I've never truly been sold on the idea of a lottery for Alabama. I understand that it will generate more revenue for the state for education or to shore up the general fund, but the lottery is generally sustained by people who can't afford to play the lottery. While casino-style gambling may be a great component of tourism and job creation, what will it do to our local communities that build around that lifestyle?

But regardless of these reservations, nobody forces you to play the lottery or put money in a slot machine--it's a purely elective revenue measure. And let's face it, we need revenue.

But the kicker here is that Democrats have been pushing a lottery for years and the Republicans have said "no way." If you've been following the budget story, you'll know that part of the crisis is a result of borrowing money from the oil and gas funds to balance the budget in past years---if they had been willing to consider a Democrat's idea five years ago, we might not be in this pinch.

But the Republicans have driven us right to the edge of the cliff and left us with few options. They've cut state government down to its bare bones and screamed about its inefficiency while understaffed and underfunded. They've pulled every penny out of our education budget for experimental projects when we can't even adequately fund the schools we already have. They've refused to consider expanding Medicaid and accepting the influx of $14.4 billion federal Medicaid dollars (and another $7 billion in hospital reimbursements). I'd talk about our prisons, but that's an entirely new opinion piece.

My point is this: The Republicans have let the state get into a devastating financial mess because they didn't want to consider that a Democrat's idea might be a real solution to a real problem. And now that they're out of other options, they're slapping a Republican's name on the bill and pretending like they thought of it.

Now, when I was in school, putting your name on someone else's work was considered cheating. But if having a Republican's name on a Democrat's bill will get us moving in the right direction, so be it.

This is an example of the lack of partisan cooperation that makes it impossible for Montgomery to function. If one side of the aisle had a monopoly on being right, there would probably only be one side of the aisle.

It's time for those in charge to quit playing partisan politics and put the best interests of the people of Alabama first. There are good bills coming from my Democratic peers, and they deserve weight and consideration, before it's too late and without putting a Republican's name on them.