Monday, December 28, 2015

We can't keep cutting our way out of a budget crisis

As we're moving into the New Year, Legislators are--once again--focused on old problems that have only been placated by patchwork solutions: namely, our state budget. The 2016 legislative session is right around the corner, and Republican leadership is wasting no time saying how this session is going to be exactly like the last one.

Remember the last one? The Republican supermajority's in-fighting sent us into two special sessions, spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars before we finally passed a make-shift budget.

The Republican leadership is already saying they're going to make more budget cuts rather than consider responsible, balanced solutions. I'm wondering what's left to cut.

When families sit down to make their household budget or when they need to tighten the belt and cut back due to a job loss or major expense, families know this much: there's only so much you can cut. You can downsize to a smaller house, but you have to have four walls and a roof. You can cut the grocery budget, but the kids still need three square meals a day. You can cut back in a lot of areas, but you can't just cut them out completely if you expect a family to function.

But that's exactly what the Supermajority has done in the State of Alabama: They've cut the textbooks out from under children's noses and still expected our teachers to teach; they've cut the driver's license offices out of rural areas and still expected voters to produce photo identification to vote; they've cut our court systems and prison programs and mental health services and still expected business as usual--its ridiculous!

We're at the limit of what we can cut and still survive as a functional government. Our schools are teetering at the bottom of the barrel nationally. Our driver's license office closings have prompted a federal investigation. Our court systems are clogged on the verge of unconstitutional, our prisons are on the verge of a federal takeover, and our mental health services are non-existent. Can you imagine what more cuts would do?

We must demand more from "Conservative" leadership.

Because just like in our families, leadership is about what's best for the whole family. It's about making decisions for long-term solvency, not just short-term solutions.

Budgeting for the state is no different: we need smart, solvent solutions that work for all Alabamians. And that certainly doesn't mean more budget cuts.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Even the Grinch understands the reason for the season

Amidst the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, sometimes it's difficult to stop and remember the spirit of the season is about one thing: giving.

It's easy to get caught up in the gifts and shopping and sales, making sure you've made your list and checked it twice and having to frantically run to the store for last minute items.

But the "giving" of Christmas is best summed up by a childhood favorite by Dr. Seuss, when the Grinch finally realizes that he can't take Christmas from Whoville: "What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!”

When we think about the Christmas story, we see two young parents, in need of a place to stay. The innkeeper gives them the only available space: a manger in the barn among the animals. We see magi from the East, the "Three Wise Men" traveling to bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the new child, and we see an angel professing the news of the gift to the world, saying, "unto you a child is born!"

You see, the first Christmas was nothing like the Christmas we know today. To quote the beloved Grinch again, "It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags!"

For too many families, the spirit of Christmas centers on what you get instead of what you give, despite so many opportunities to give love and kindness.

The holidays can certainly be a stressful time, but they don't have to be stressful at all. If we choose to approach the holidays, and our lives together in community with one another, from a place of giving, we may find so much more to be thankful for than we ever knew.

Whether it's something as simple as giving the young mother with the fussy baby your place in line at Wal-Mart or dropping some spare change in the Salvation Army bucket, we can all give a little more to create a better community together.

And when we give a little more and focus our hearts on making the world a little better for those around us, we may be surprised to find we also get a little more--more joy, more love, and more community this holiday season.

Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

Monday, December 14, 2015

There's one part of Wallace's legacy worth protecting: Our community colleges

While Governor George Wallace is best known for his stand in the schoolhouse door, he is also responsible for establishing a community college system that made a huge impact on rural and middle-income families.

Wallace wanted to be sure that a junior college education was within reach for every Alabama student to better prepare them for study at a four-year institution or enter the job market trained in a trade.

Fast forward 50 years and our junior college system is struggling to meet the needs of Alabama families.

Our community colleges, like all of Alabama's schools, are struggling to keep qualified instructors in the classrooms at pay far below what the private sector would offer. Instructors for programs like welding and electronics are leaving the community college system in favor of more lucrative private-sector jobs, leaving students with patchwork-solutions.

Unfortunately, the pay scale and funding for junior college professors is set by the state, so community college administrators' hands are tied: they can't offer increases in salary or implement development programs to supplement their budgets.

Meanwhile, the Alabama Community College System has a plan to combine several rural two-year colleges around the state to establish a regional community college program.

When Governor Wallace established the junior college program, he designed it so that no student would have to drive too far to obtain a quality education. Yet merging these programs while cutting the budgets creates a significant risk of our community colleges being neither quality nor accessible.

If we expect students to grow and achieve to provide for themselves and their families, it is our job to provide the resources for them to do so.

This means we absolutely must pay our instructors like the professionals they are so that our community colleges offer quality instruction, and we must keep the doors open to junior colleges across the state so that they are accessible to all students so we can move Alabama boldly forward.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Watch out for the second year of the quadrennium

Each year, the joke around the State House is that the best time to slip something in the law and not be held accountable by media and constituents was the second year of the quadrennium. By this point, media attention has usually shifted to the upcoming presidential election, and 2018 is far enough away that voters won't be looking ahead yet.

In 2012, the second year of the last quadrennium, the Republican Supermajority pushed through their infamously unconstitutional immigration bill, they pulled the teeth out of their signature ethics bill, and a dozen or so incentives to help businesses over families.

The 2016 legislative session is shaping up no differently.

Last week, House Clerk Jeff Woodard announced that the State has paid $62,500 to retain an Architecture firm for House chamber renovations. At a time when Governor Bentley is shutting down state parks and driver's license offices because our state is so strapped for cash.

Just last week, Governor Bentley settled a lawsuit with Planned Parenthood Southeast, paying them $51,000 in state tax dollars over a frivolous lawsuit to stop them from receiving an average $4,300 per year in Medicaid dollars.

Also last week, one State Representative instructed his constituents not to shop at any businesses with "brown people" behind the register because these "stores are owned by folk that send their profits back to their homeland and then in turn use these funds against our country." In case you missed it, small businesses fund families, not ISIS.

If the last week is any indicator, the 2016 legislative session is going to be one for the record books. We thought it couldn't get any worse than Scott Beason's 2012 immigration bill, but I have a feeling Sen. Beason's bill will look like friendly banter after what we may see in the upcoming session.

Keep your eyes open. Don't let the Republican supermajority slip anything past you in the second year of this quadrennium. Believe me, they'll try.