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.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Statement regarding proposal to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge

Below is Representative Melton's statement on the matter:

This is not only a matter for the people of Selma to decide together, but it's bigger than just us. This is more of a global decision considering positions from those of various ages as well as economical and social backgrounds. I understand the historical irony of the bridge being named after a former U.S. Senator, member of the Confederate, and Klan leader, but what was birthed on that bridge has become a world symbol of Democracy and the Voting Rights Movement, and that is a beautiful testimony. We have no choice but to embrace, not erase, our history and heritage as a city. While the bridge carries memories of division, it also holds promises of hope and freedom. Currently it symbolizes our opportunity to move into the future with a new perspective of inclusion. There is no reason to hastily change what has become the cradle of Democracy.

Add your comment below to join the conversation.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Fiscally Conservative doesn't mean slash and burn

This week, legislators return to Montgomery for the last week of the legislative session, but the rumor around the State House is that legislators aren't home free. The Governor has promised from the beginning of the legislative session that he will veto a budget that doesn't include new revenue to support the general fund, yet the Alabama Legislature has sent the governor a budget that only offers extreme cuts across the board.
If the Governor holds true to his word, he'll veto the budget and send the legislature into a special session later this summer.

Now the entire time, the Republicans have promised smaller government and no new taxes, however Alabama is at a crossroads where these two promises are mutually exclusive and a decision must be made: do we want smaller government or do we want no new taxes?

The first choice is smaller government, which is what I think the Republican supermajorities are trying to accomplish by recklessly slashing funding for state programs. But the truth is, there are two types of programs we're putting in danger.

The first type are programs like the Department of Conservation that maintains our state parks, the Historical Commission that preserves our state landmarks and historical registries, and Forever Wild that maintains public forests and wildlife areas. Nobody wants to see these go, but smaller government means smaller government.

The second type of programs being cut are far more detrimental to the state of Alabama and will ultimately result in far bigger government--programs like our Department of Corrections, Department of Mental Health, Department of Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention, Medicaid and more. These programs are already struggling and have an intertwined effect on all Alabamians' lives.

Take our prison system, for example--it's already on the verge of a federal takeover and will almost certainly fall under the control of the federal government if we cut their budget even further. Look at the Department of Mental Health--with even less funding, we run the risk of putting patients back onto the street or placing a bigger strain on our prison and healthcare systems. If mental health patients are on the streets, we will depend more heavily on law enforcement, which we're also cutting in the new state budget.

Not to mention, we will lose programs that receive matching federal funds like the Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Health--cutting these programs means that we lose twice the funding we strike from our budget: we lose the state dollars that we cut and we lose the matching Federal funds that help keep the programs solvent. Without these programs, we'll see the strain shifted to other state programs, which we've seen can't bear the burden of added demands.

So, it looks like smaller government just may not be the answer for Alabama. The next option that the Republicans have promised is "no new taxes."

Unfortunately, Alabama has needed new taxes for years, and this is a problem that the Republican supermajority has failed to address for five years in leadership. Let's not forget, the Republicans have the votes to do anything they want--they can tell dissenting voices to sit down and be quiet, and they can push through any legislation they see fit.

Republicans in 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions knew the ends weren't going to meet, but they kicked the can down the road and tried to cut their way out of the problem. Then we had to borrow $437.4 million from savings and they pinky promised the voters they would put it back. We were told that prisons would open the doors and hospitals would kick out elderly patients if we didn't allow the state to borrow money from our savings accounts to balance the budget. Now, it's time to put it back.

I agree with Governor Bentley when he says "the most conservative thing you can do is pay your bills." When the voters allowed the state to borrow that money, it was part of the agreement that it would be paid back. But now that it's time to make the hard choices, the Republicans want to keep trying to cut our way out of the problem, putting critical programs at risk.

The supermajority ran for and won elections on promises that they would be fiscally conservative for the state of Alabama. But fiscally conservative isn't recklessly cutting and cutting without regard for the consequences or other options.

Hopefully we can enter a special session and take a more level-headed, realistic approach to the state budget. We can find a way to generate new revenue for the state without putting the burden on the backs of our hardest working families and we can preserve and protect the state programs that matter most to Alabama.

After all, good government isn't a partisan issue--it's about working together to find solutions that work.