Monday, November 30, 2015

Alabama's education budget must take care of all Alabama's schools

Parents always emphasized the importance of investing time and money in a quality education. They teach you can lose money, material items, and but you can never lose your education.

That's why families put their children's education at the top of their family budget every year: making sure they have the tools to succeed and the resources to pursue higher education.

As a legislator, I try to do the same for the children of Alabama. It's our job to manage the state's money, as tight as the budget may be, to ensure our children have a shot at success.

So the question always boils down to "what is a child's education worth?" How much should we budget for books and teachers and increasing technology in the classrooms?

It's never an easy debate and there are always differences in priorities among members of the Legislature, but one thing shouldn't be up for debate: educating a child who lives in Greene or Perry or Bullock Counties is worth just as much as educating a child in Jefferson or Montgomery Counties.

Because of the way our education budgets work, the state provides funds that are supplemented by the local school district. This is why, even if state funds are appropriated evenly, children in affluent communities have more education dollars spent in their schools than communities who can't afford to provide as much revenue. It creates an inherent disparity in our school systems, but a solution requires revisiting our entire funding mechanism for education, which won't happen any time soon.

What we can do, however, is guarantee that all schools have the resources to succeed before providing millions to develop new schools and establish charter schools.

This year, $9.6 million was spread among 48 school systems, with schools getting approximately $34,000 for each new teacher they hired. However one school outside of Montgomery, Pike Road, received a whopping $2.3 million with $85,000 per new staff member.

As legislators, we are called to look out for our districts but also to represent the interests of the entire state.

I don't understand how we're representing all the teachers who haven't received a raise since the Republicans took office by allocating 250% more money for teachers in one school district than in the other 48.

I don't understand how we're representing all the students who are using worn-out text books and being asked to buy paper towels for the classroom when we're giving one school district $2.3 million and asking the other 48 districts to split $9.6 million.

Education is certainly something worth investing in heavily, but any good investor knows to diversify the portfolio. It's time to invest in all of Alabama's teachers and every single Alabama student.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Thanksgiving is a time to pause and reflect about the kind of America we want to be

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American tradition--a time to join together with friends and family to celebrate the gifts we've been given. As we move forward into the holiday season, I think it's especially poignant that we stop and say thank you for our blessings.

Many of us know the story of the first Thanksgiving. Pilgrims came to America from Europe, struggling to survive in the New World. Some historians cite religious freedom as their major motive while others point to economic concerns, yet regardless of their motives, they made it to America and put down roots that would last for centuries.

When we think about the Thanksgiving story, we think about the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag sitting down to a feast to celebrate a successful harvest. We see cultures blending, barriers breaking down, and friends being made out of strangers.

Now we all know that the real story isn't quite so romantic, but we can't escape this notion that Thanksgiving is a time of coming together, sharing in plenty, and breaking down the barriers between people and cultures.

This is why I find it so ironically heartbreaking that, on the eve of such a sacred holiday in America, State Governors and members of Congress are calling for America to lock her doors and throw away the keys.

Many people, driven by fear and anger, are willing to shut the door and say that America is no longer the land of the free and the home of the brave, despite that same door being opened to our own families. This land is my land; this land is your land--unless you're one of the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

We are being called to make a decision about the kind of nation we want to be: the shining city on a hill or a walled-off land with a "No Trespassing" sign.

I'm personally grateful to live in a nation that opens its doors to those in need and offers a safe place of refuge for those going through trials and tribulations most of us could never imagine.

After all, Thanksgiving is a moment to pause and reflect leading into the holiday season--and I can think of very special political refugee who was told there was no room at the inn.

Monday, November 16, 2015

National Guard armory closings reveal priorities

This week, our hearts went out to the victims of tragedies in Paris and Beirut. Americans stood in solidarity with the victims of these horrific attacks and committed ourselves to continue working to prevent these attacks at home and abroad.

At the heart of the conversation about dealing with terrorism, extremism, and ISIS has been a conversation about Syrian refugees and their role in our nation.

Many have argued it's time to shut down our borders to prevent bad people from coming in with those looking for safety, while others have quoted the lines etched onto the Statue of Liberty: "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Regardless of how you personally feel about Syrian refugees or immigrants in general, we can all agree that we don't want to see an attack occur on American soil, particularly here in Alabama.

In this effort, Governor Bentley has vowed to close Alabama's borders to Syrian refugees and block any attempts to relocate refugees into Alabama through the federal placement programs.

Unfortunately, it seems to me the Governor's attempt to keep our state safe is merely a half-hearted, knee-jerk reaction to a hot button political issue.

The truth is that the federal placement program isn't bringing Syrian refugees into Alabama en masse, and it never will. A processing center in Mobile was approved by the State Department, yet they have not placed a single refugee within Alabama borders. A similar facility in Louisiana has only processed 14 refugees.

Typically, the state has a system in place to respond to large-scale disasters: the National Guard. They are at the discretion of the Governor and can be used to secure any situation from natural disasters to riots.

While our Governor is saying he wants to keep us safe, he's allowing our National Guard Armories to close or consolidate, meaning our first-responders are less capable of managing a large-scale disaster on Alabama soil.

Six of Alabama's armories are scheduled to close due to funding shortfalls, and another 15 are scheduled to be closed and consolidated.

While these armories usually require a 50/50 funding split between federal and state dollars, Alabama has only been willing to fund $16 million to match the $126 million in federal funds to support our National Guard.

I've said it before, and I will continue to say it: our budgets are signs of our priorities.

If our priority is to keep our state and our people safe from harm, we have to put our money where our mouths are. Whether it's a hurricane or a security threat, our National Guard is critical to our safety, and I would urge the Governor to work towards providing the state with this critical funding.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Open Letter to Governor Bentley

SELMA, Ala.--Representative Darrio Melton sent the following open letter to Governor Robert Bentley concerning the closure of Paul M. Grist State Park. Melton is eager to work with the Governor's office and Dallas County leadership to find a solution to maintain operations at this park. Anyone interested in discussing this issue is invited to join Representative Melton for a Telephone Town Hall Meeting on November 10 at 6:00 p.m. by signing up at

Governor Bentley:

I understand that the State of Alabama has been undergoing complicated financial obligations arising from years of poor budgeting decisions. I respect that you have worked to address these issues head on and to establish a more stable financial base for our state’s future.

However, I would like to urge you to reopen Paul M. Grist State Park, as the benefits that our state parks provide for our state vastly outweigh the cost to our General Fund Budget.

While our state needs to consider new methods of revenue to create a solvent General Fund budget, closing these parks has been a strictly political move to make a point to legislators like myself who won’t vote to raise regressive taxes on working families. This decision has come at a tremendous cost to the families who depend on these parks for learning and leisure, and I would urge you not to show political unrest towards the people who we both took an oath to represent.

I have been, and will continue to be, ready and willing to discuss options to secure additional revenue for our state’s budget; but I will not compromise on the values that I was elected to represent in Montgomery. I firmly believe there is a solution to this problem grounded in compromise--not in winners and losers but in give and take--to creatively work together towards an amicable resolution for all parties and all people involved.

That solution must include opening Paul M. Grist State Park and providing a generation of families and friends with the opportunity to grow and bond in God’s beautiful gift of nature. To close the doors on such a gift is not just a disservice to the people of Alabama, but to our state’s legacy of caring for Creation.

Dallas County Probate Judge Kimbrough Ballard has submitted a proposal to State Park Director Greg Lein. Judge Ballard and the County Commission has proposed that the state allow the county to take over the operation of the Paul M. Grist State Park until the state is financially able to resume operations. The leaders in Dallas County are flexible with the terms of operating the park, and we are eager to work with your office to make this transition. It is my understanding that equipment has been removed and moved to other parks that are fortunately still open. Such actions are sending an adverse and divisive message to the citizens of Dallas County. As a good show of faith, I am requesting that you allow the state's property to remain at Grist State Park and allow the County to assume the cost of daily operations until the State is able to resume control of the park.

Governor, I will continue to work with your office to address these budgetary issues in a manner that is financially solvent for our state’s future, and I hope you will continue to work with me by reopening Paul M. Grist State Park. We can only measure the greatness of our state by what we do for the most vulnerable and deserving areas. I believe we can demonstrate our greatness by working together to reopen Paul M. Grist State Park.

Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to working with you soon.


Darrio Melton

CC: Probate Judge Kimbrough Ballard
Director Greg Lein

Monday, November 2, 2015

I have your silver bullet, Governor

In politics and in life, there is seldom a "silver bullet" solution. Panaceas and cure-alls are typically the talk of snake oil salesmen, while public policy is frequently grounded in realms of give-and-take and cost-benefit analyses.

Alabama's budget crisis has been no different. There have been a number of solutions on the table, each with a costly drawback in exchange for a budget cure--except one.

Governor Bentley has tried to raise taxes on working families and chose to close DMVs and state parks as punishment when legislators on both sides of the aisle failed to comply with his requests.

The Republican Supermajority has tried to cut our way out of the problem, putting Alabama precariously on the cusp of going from small government to no government.

If we look at why the Republican Supermajority's plan won't work, we see the closest thing to a silver bullet option Alabama has available.

See, the bulk of Alabama's general fund budget goes two places: health care and prisons. Both of those services deal with more than dollars at the bottom line--they handily affect people's lives.

Currently, the federal government is offering Alabama $1.24 billion in federal spending within our borders if we would opt-in to the Medicaid Expansion program.

Reports show a single stroke of the Governor's pen authorizing this program could save 210 lives in 2016 and save the state $190 million in money we're currently spending to care for uninsured Alabamians.

To put this in perspective, Governor Bentley recently closed 31 Driver's License offices across the state to save a mere $100,000.

This $190 million in savings could be used to rebuild our roads and bridges, recruit industry to the Black Belt and rural Alabama, keep open state parks, or create small-business loans, which would provide quality jobs for Alabamians who are in desperate need of an opportunity to work, even beyond the 30,000 jobs that would be created in the healthcare industry.

With improved jobs, we see impacts that can't be effectively captured individually. We see families being lifted out of poverty and children performing better in school. We see recidivism rates decrease in our criminal justice system and we see an overall lower crime rate in our communities. We see a brighter future for Alabama shaping up quickly on the horizon, all with a single stroke of the Governor's pen.

While we as a state can afford to spend $2.2 million and millions more in tax credits to bring 200 jobs to North Alabama, the Governor refuses to consider accepting federal money to create 30,000 jobs and, more importantly, to save 217 lives.

The argument from the right is that the state will be expected to cover a portion of the costs in the next 10 years--that amount could range from $188 million to $217 million.

Don't let them fool you: we're saving $190 million simply by implementing the program. This means that we will, in fact, save money for the first 10 years, at which time we'll be budget neutral with the added benefits of the $1.24 billion from federal spending, 30,000 new jobs, 200 lives saved every year, economically advanced families, improved education, decreased crime rates, lowered prison and criminal justice costs, and a brighter future for all of Alabama.

No, Governor, it's not quite a silver bullet, but it's pretty close. It just takes one stroke of your pen to expand Medicaid. Let's do it.