Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Parks, DMVs close: Bentley owes Alabama an explanation

All we have is our word. We all hold to the old adage, your word is your bond. 

In April, Governor Bentley took to the media to lambaste lawmakers and threaten dire consequences if he didn't get $541 million in new revenue.  He outlined eight ways the state would suffer: state parks and driver's license offices would close, children will go hungry, elderly citizens will be kicked out of their nursing homes, and the list goes on.

"We're not trying to cry wolf," Bentley said. "If people say, 'Well, we hear this every year,' well, you know what? Let's quit saying it. Let's solve the problem once and for all."

Then the Governor said that we would need $300 million for the general fund to create a long-term solution--and for two special sessions, Legislators debated how to find that revenue.

Whether the methods to reach a solution were right or wrong, the Legislature reached a solution and put $166 million new dollars into the general fund--$86 million from new taxes and $80 million transferred from the Education Trust Fund through the Use Tax, matched with $154 million in additional budget cuts, freeing a total $320 million in funding for the General Fund.

Yet Bentley announced today that he is moving forward with his plans to close state parks and driver's license offices across Alabama, regardless of the new revenue in the General Fund Budget.

Governor Bentley, you owe us an explanation.  You stood at the podium and gave the people of Alabama your word, telling us that these tax increases were necessary to prevent closures.  But the closures are here, despite the $166 million new dollars in the General Fund Budget and $154 in budget cuts.  Why have you now gone back on your word? You got your money--with $20 million to spare--now it's time for you to uphold your end of the bargain and keep these important state services open. If the budget wasn't drafted to your satisfaction, you had the option to veto it.  It's unexplainable to resort to going back on your word.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Bentley dares to (selectively) defend his rights

"We dare defend our rights." The state motto has been flaunted by politicians across Montgomery to promote partisan agendas for years, however Governor Bentley is taking the motto a step further by asking the Alabama Supreme Court to determine whether certain parts of the state's General Fund budget are unconstitutional.

Bentley's camp is saying that the Constitution creates certain powers for the Executive Branch that the General Fund budget attacks. Bentley is daring to defend his rights as Chief Executive Officer of the State of Alabama by challenging those provisions in court.

Let's not forget that this is the same governor who has signed multiple pieces of blatantly unconstitutional legislation into law in the past five years--so the constitutional violations must be egregious for Bentley himself to ask the state's highest court for a ruling. Nope.

The provisions Bentley is challenging are all safeguards to protect the people of Alabama from harmful effects of poor leadership in Montgomery. One provision Bentley is attacking says that DMV offices must remain open across Alabama--to ensure that drivers can renew their licenses and to ensure that voters can get photo IDs that are now required by law. Another aspect Bentley is challenging says that cuts must be made on the administrative end before cuts could impact services provided to Alabama citizens--to ensure that people who depend on state services for health care or child care are insulated from cuts as long as possible.

Now don't get me wrong--I'm not defending this budget by any means. I'm unhappy with cuts to our classrooms and state employees while we leave billions in Medicaid Expansion money on the table. But I also don't support resorting to cheap political tricks to rewind the process. We'll continue the conversation and work on improving the budget next year.

Bentley, on the other hand, has no problem with political tricks. He never worried about unconstitutional laws at the same time he was bragging about saving the state over a billion dollars--mostly on the backs of working families who lost jobs and benefits. And he certainly didn't care about constitutionality when he thought it was good politics--like when he signed the Anti-Immigration Bill or rushed to sign the Alabama Accountability Act into law. But now that it's his own power that is being attacked, Bentley has suddenly found a new appreciation for the Constitution that he has so casually disregarded for the past 5 years at the taxpayers' expense.

Truly, Bentley didn't raise any of these concerns when the budget hit his desk--he simply raised his pen and signed. Now he's trying to find a loophole to bring the budget back for consideration or increase his own authority where he has none. If Bentley wanted to protect Executive authority, he should have started by using his veto to kick back a bad budget, returning it to the Legislature without his approval.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Bentley needs to put away his stick and worry about the people of Alabama

"Walk softly and carry a big stick.

President Teddy Roosevelt's nutshell-theory on foreign policy has become a common political expression, heard in historical context more often than seen used by political leadership.  The theory, of course, refers to the use of soft-power in difficult political situations--using words, strategic planning and diplomacy over hard-power tactics of military intervention, embargoes and sanctions.

While Roosevelt wasn't afraid to use military tactics, his diplomacy earned him a Nobel Peace Prize and respect among his peers in Washington.

Governor Bentley, however, seems to be preoccupied with his "big stick" strategies and they're backfiring left and right across Montgomery.  During the budget battle, it was no secret that Bentley was heavily invested in tax increases for the state, but lawmakers disagreed with his position and he refused to consider diplomatic solutions for compromise.

Democrats refused to support Bentley's tax package, not because we didn't believe the state needed new revenue, but because we refused to tax working families when there is free money on the table through expanding Medicaid and elective money on the table through an education lottery.

Republicans refused to support Bentley's tax package for a variety of reasons--some because they believed budget cuts would solve the problem and some because they promised their constituents no new taxes.

Regardless of the Party or reason, Bentley's plan to raise taxes went over Goat Hill like a lead balloon, and a large part of the blame rests on Bentley's failure to walk softly and carry a big stick.

Instead of working to find common ground and compromises on both sides of the aisle, he hardly allowed Democrats a seat at the table.  Instead of circumventing leadership and working with rank-and-file lawmakers to find solutions, he went to lobbyists for help.  Instead of considering the alternate solutions, he dug in his heels in support of bad policy with no support.

And now? Now he's threatening to pull project funding from districts with representatives who didn't support his tax package.

I've made my position on this matter clear all along: I've made it clear to Governor Bentley and clear to the people of my district.  I would never support tax increases on working families as long as there was Medicaid money on the table we refused to accept, large corporations were not paying their fair share, and we weren't putting a band-aid on deeply cut artery.

Rather than understanding that I'm voting for what's best for my district and working families across Alabama, Bentley is now trying to beat areas that did not support his regressive tax package with his big stick, punishing, in some cases, districts that are already suffering economically because the needs of this districts didn't line up with the needs of the Montgomery elite.

Governor Bentley, you are the governor of everyone who lives in this state--Christian or non-christian, Black or white, wealthy or working--and it's time you started acting like it.

Walk softly.  Treat the people of Alabama with the dignity and respect they deserve.  Bring people to the table and encourage creative, diverse viewpoints and solutions to problems.  Keep your stick put away.  We aren't the enemy, Governor.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Republicans need to spend half as much energy fixing the budget as they do overseeing local issues

This afternoon, House Republicans spent valuable time in the second special session discussing a matter of no importance to the legislative call: prohibiting municipalities from establishing or increasing their own minimum wage ordinances.

While the Ways and Means General Fund Budget Committee should be primarily concerned with drafting a state budget, the committee chair brought HB27, sponsored by Rep. Faulkner, in lieu of substantial budget bills. The bill was tabled for a vote on Thursday.

The bill is in response to a recent ordinance passed by the City of Birmingham increasing the minimum wage within Birmingham City Limits to $10.10 over the next two years.

"We worked closely with the Birmingham City Council and local business leaders to establish a wage that is fair to the people and the businesses within the city. These legislators weren't at the table for those discussions, so it isn't their right to come in and tell local government that they don't have the authority to do what's best for the people of their districts," said Le'Darius Hilliard, president of the Jefferson County Young Democrats and leader of the Birmingham initiative.

Representative Darrio Melton agrees. "We've been working on establishing a minimum wage on the state level for two years, and I'm proud to see the City of Birmingham moving in the right direction. This is a prime example of the supermajority running amok with power, overruling any decisions that don't fit with their special interests," Melton says.

The Birmingham ordinance is projected to provide a wage increase for 30,000-40,000 workers within the city, which should deliver a sizable economic boost.

"When families have more money in their pockets, they spend it at the grocery store and buying their children school supplies. These are families who are going to work every day--not asking for handouts. It's time to reward that hard work with fair pay," Melton says.

The legislature has until October 1 to pass a budget or risk massive state agency shutdowns that will obstruct basic government services like driver's license offices.

"The people should be outraged that the Republicans in the legislature are choosing to spend their time playing big-government instead of doing the work they were sent to Montgomery to do. It's time to pass a budget and leave the regular legislative work to the regular legislative sessions," Melton said.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Republicans missed the Labor Day memo about hard work

This Labor Day was a time for family and friends to come together and enjoy a day off in celebration of the American Labor Movement--the men and women who have worked hard to guarantee honest pay, safe working conditions, and fair treatment for the people who built this country.

The labor movement was never about getting something for nothing. It was about the honesty and dignity of a hard day's work.

Yet our legislative leadership is pushing Alabama into a second special session to do the job that they didn't get done in the regular session or in the first special session.

Imagine for a second telling your boss that you'll need to be paid to come to work on Saturday and Sunday to finish the work you weren't able to do on Thursday and Friday--and you'll expect pay for that weekend work. That's exactly what the Republican supermajorities are doing to the people of Alabama.

They had the opportunity to complete the tasks on time--but they chose to only bring up trivial bills instead of prioritizing a budget.

They have the option of considering new ideas the Democrats have put on the table to solve the budget crisis, but they've chosen to shut the door and only consider internal solutions from the good ol' boys club.

They have the option of bringing people to the table to help find a solution, but they have only offered seats to the inner circle of Republican leadership, who still can't seem to agree.

The fact is that Labor Day is a time to celebrate the American Dream and embrace American ingenuity--but it looks like the Republican supermajority has missed the memo.

They're refusing to open the door and consider options on the table, and the people of Alabama are paying the price for it. It's time to demand better, because we frankly don't have time for a third special session.

It's time to quit playing politics and prioritize the people of this state--and do the hard work the job requires.