Monday, October 26, 2015

We aren't playing the victim or playing politics--We're standing up for our communities

Twentieth Century author Eric Hoffer once pointed out an illogical truth about humans: "People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them."

Such is true with the duality of our political perceptions in Alabama: we lament the Federal government's role while holding out our hand for more than $3 returned to our state for every dollar we send to Washington DC.

We talk about "welfare queens" and support legislation to cut food stamps for our neediest children, yet we never discuss the $13 billion in food stamp dollars that goes back into WalMart's coffers as it pays employees poverty-level wages that forces them to live off assistance programs in the first place.

We talk about hard work and the American Dream, yet we look down on working men and women doing what many believe to be menial jobs and we cut education funding so that children have fewer opportunities to rise to the top.

In Alabama, we do a lot of biting the hand that feeds us--we turn our noses up at the very programs, opportunities, and values that sustain our state while licking the boot that kicks us--looking to Conservative solutions for non-partisan problems.

That's why Governor Bentley is so confused that Democrats and rural Republicans are standing up against his absurd tax package that only takes more money out of the pockets of working men and women. He's trying to play politics, expecting Black Belt leadership to bend over and lick the boot that has kicked us for so long--so again I say, "No deal, Governor."

For five years, Governor Bentley and legislative leadership has had the opportunity to send jobs and industry to the Black Belt, an area where we badly need opportunities. Bentley has announced he has a program for broadband Internet expansion, and he could direct those initiatives to rural Alabama where they are most needed. There are ample opportunities to improve our children's educational opportunities and to provide means for workforce development, but it has often passed over our rural communities.

For five years, opportunity has not been afforded equally or adequately across all parts of Alabama, and for five years, my colleagues and I have worked hard to find solutions based in compromise.

We aren't playing the victim, and we certainly aren't playing politics. We're standing up for ourselves and our communities and asking that Montgomery understand what's fair is fair when it comes to governing this state.

For too long, the Black Belt has been last in boon and first in bust. We won't bite the hand that feeds us, but we certainly aren't about to lick the boot that's kicked us for so long.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Alabama needs solutions, not victim-blaming

While national and local leaders have condemned Governor Bentley's decision to close DMV offices around the state, Rep. Mike Ball has taken this opportunity to throw a punch at my community this week, claiming that we've "got some people who just wallow in being a victim," and that those people "enjoy being a victim" and "want everyone else to do everything for them."

Now Rep. Ball did say that he's met plenty of "innocent victims" in his law enforcement career and throughout his work in the Legislature--people who are looking for solutions and just need a little guidance. But those of us in the Black Belt? We're just being difficult. Or, at least, that's the story they want to tell.

Let's not forget that the Black Belt has persevered with a passion for our communities that is unparalleled in this state, despite being given every opportunity to fail. We have produced fearless trailblazers, timeless authors, iconic visionaries, brave military leaders and even a United States Vice President. And we could do and be so much more with a hand up--not a hand out--from our state leaders like you, Representative Ball.

Because when the state starts looking at an interstate project, there's no doubt that we'll complete I-22 through Northwest Alabama and I-465 through Northeast Alabama before I-85 ever gets a shot at running through Selma to drive commerce through the heart of the Black Belt.

And without a major interstate running through, new jobs projects look to North Alabama, regardless of how hard the Democrats work to bring those jobs here to Dallas and Wilcox and Perry Counties.

And without more, better-paying jobs, it's hard to discuss ending the cycle of poverty in rural areas by improving Alabama's education or workforce development or agricultural programs or literally any other program. When those conversations start, the Black Belt is almost always left out of the discussion.

I've written extensively about what I think we can do to improve access to necessary programs and grow the economy in the Black Belt, but those ideas fall on deaf ears in Montgomery. The people here don't see themselves as a victim, and we don't want you to see us that way, either. We just want you to know that we expect our state leaders to stand up for a better Alabama for the people in every region, not just in Huntsville or in Birmingham or in Gadsden or in Mobile. While we don't seem big and important to the Montgomery politicians, even Dr. Seuss knows a person's a person know matter how small.

While you're accusing us of playing the victim, remember how far we've come. Remember that there are people still in Selma today who were beaten bloody on the Bridge fifty years ago for the simple right to vote. We still have residents who remember the painful system of oppression that still weighs on our community every day--whether it's something broad and systemic like education or simply in the way the Governor turns his nose up about access to DMVs. And while no, none of our current Legislators are responsible for those horrible Jim Crow scars in our past, we are responsible to do everything within our power to redeem ourselves from our past and build a stronger future for years to come.

We're ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work to build a better Alabama, and I would encourage anyone who doubts it to come visit and let me show you around so you can meet the people who call this their home.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

DMV closings put working families between a rock and a hard place

When you open up the pages of a national newspaper or turn to a major news network and see "Alabama," you can pretty much bet something has gone terribly wrong, and we are, once again, the butt of jokes nationwide. Over the past weeks, Alabama has made headlines from the New York Times to The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore for Governor Bentley's decision to close DMV offices across the state and the impact it will have on voting in upcoming elections.

Since Alabama now requires a photo ID to vote, closing the DMV offices will certainly have an adverse affect on voter turnout, particularly among low-income, rural voters.

But for me, this is about more than access to the polls. While we must do everything within our power to protect the right to vote, the impact is much more pressing for many Alabama families, and this push from Goat Hill has put working families between a rock and a hard place.

Let's rewind for a minute and remember how we got to this point. The Governor swore that he would close crucial state services if the Legislature didn't pass $541 million in new taxes. The Republicans brought a variety of plans to the table, mostly including cuts to the state budget and increases on taxes for working families. The Democrats countered with plans for revenue that would not put the burden on working families: Medicaid expansion, a state lottery, and closing corporate tax loopholes to enforce the laws that are already on the books.

The Republicans took each of these options off the table and forced Democrats to vote between raising taxes on working families or sending the Governor a budget that would threaten state services. I voted no on the increased taxes and voted no on the budget, but Democrats don't have enough votes to stop the will of the Republican supermajority.

They put two options on the table: increase taxes on working families or cut services for working families--essentially, vote for the rock or the hard place. It's the choice without a choice, and it's completely wrong for working men and women across this state.

This is known as a Hobson's Choice--famously incorporated in Henry Ford's Model T: "You can pick any color car, as long as it's Black."

The Legislature, particularly the Democrats, were given a similar choice: "We could vote for any budget solution, as long as it was the one that protected the wealthiest individuals and large corporations while pushing the burden onto working families."

The people didn't elect "take it or leave it" government. They elected representation to look out for their best interests--and it's in the best interests of Alabama families to have access to critical state services like a DMV.

In Alabama's most rural areas, where climbing out of poverty is harder than average due to slower economic growth, lower-performing schools and fewer opportunities for advancement, the last thing the state should do is throw one more obstacle into the mix. Whether driving, banking, writing a check or paying a utility bill, all Alabamians need access to Driver's Licenses, not just those in the most populous areas.

Monday, October 5, 2015

You can't run the state like a business—Voting isn't about the bottom line

Fifty years ago, American Democracy fundamentally shifted right here in Selma, Alabama.  As men and women from all walks of life joined together to march in solidarity for the precious principle of "one man, one vote," the nation watched and took note. What happened in Selma 50 years ago changed this nation--and what's happening in Alabama is rolling the clock back. 

The Selma to Montgomery march brought us the Voting Rights Act, which banned discriminatory voting practices and resulted in mass-enfranchisement of minorities across the nation, but especially across the South.

One of the most critical components of the Voting Rights Act was the pre-clearance provision--a requirement that areas with a history of discriminatory practices had to have any changes to voting laws approved by the Department of Justice to ensure they were fair.  Unfortunately, the Supreme Court overturned this provision in 2013--paving the way for states and municipalities to make any changes they deem appropriate.

Without pre-clearance, Alabama was free to enact legislation to require a photo ID in order to vote, making voting more difficult, especially for those in low-income, rural communities.  They've been able to push the voter registration deadline back and make it harder to vote absentee, all of which has a disproportionate impact on working families.

Now, Alabama has taken it a step further by closing 31 of the state's driver's license offices, leaving a large swath of the Black Belt without access to a DMV.

Now the Department of Public Safety is claiming that these closures are purely based on the populations of these counties and the volume of business done at the DMV--but these are state services, not a for-profit company.

The people who live in Hale County and Greene County and Perry County are just as important as the people who live in Jefferson, Mobile, Madison and Montgomery counties, and they deserve the same access to services--especially the services that guarantee the fundamental right to vote.

All families look forward to celebrating as children achieve milestones when they get their driving permits and licenses, and all drivers must get their licenses renewed every four years. 

The DMV lines are already long, but now they will be backed up even further in the counties that have DMV offices--imagine the expensive inconvenience of taking a day off work, leaving the children with a caretaker and driving 50 miles across the state, only to arrive and find out that there are no more appointments available for the day.

Today, the impact may only be an expired license and a potential ticket if you get cited.  But the primary election is right around the corner--and there's at least one special election in North Alabama coming up on December 8.  These closures have the potential for a tremendous impact on Alabama families and the Democracy that we fought so hard for on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  

Running the state isn't about making business decisions and cutting services where there isn't a sufficient Return on Investment--it's about providing services adequately to preserve liberty and justice for all.