Monday, June 6, 2016

We can do big things if we do them together

On June 4, 1968, California voters went to the polls and resoundingly supported a man who has been regarded as an icon of their generation: Robert F. Kennedy. Only four hours after the polls closed, Kennedy declared victory and addressed his supporters. As he made his way out of the ballroom, he was shot and fatally wounded.

On the anniversary of his death and the eve of the California primary, I can't help but think about the legacy "Bobby" left, summarized succinctly in one of his most famous quotes: “The purpose of life is to contribute in some way to making things better.”

After college, I came home to Selma with the intention of making things better. I wanted to help move my hometown forward and make a difference for the next generation. It's said often that we stand on the shoulders of giants, and I wanted to come back to work hard and make proud those whose shoulders on which I stand.

Through my six years in the Legislature, I've realized that making a difference doesn't always come about through policy or sweeping political change. Sometimes it comes about in small increments, in "ripples of hope" as Bobby Kennedy called it, that combine to create an irrefutable strength that creates a legacy for a generation.

As we move forward boldly into the 21st Century, the possibilities for our generation's legacy are endless. Do we want to work to build quality education for all children? Do we want to work for revitalization of our city centers? Do we want to build a stronger community for our children to grow up?

We can do all of these things, but we can't do any of them alone.

We can work together to build for the future by creating these tiny ripples of hope--by each of us doing our part to make our neighborhood better today than it was yesterday and by investing in ourselves, our neighbors, and our community.

We can do big, important things in Selma and across Alabama. We've never been shy about setting our eye on a mountain top and letting the world know we have a goal to achieve.

As Bobby said, "few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events."

Our work isn't over. I dare you to be a part of the change.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Republicans aren't practicing what they preach

As a member of the clergy, "practice what you preach" has a very literal meaning in my life. When I deliver a sermon or lead a Bible study, I'm called not just to be a messenger, but a teacher and example of the lessons set forth on Sundays. That's not to say I don't fall short, because we all fall short. But it is to say that I have an obligation to my parishioners not to lead a Bible study on Wednesday then go out and act like a fool on Friday.

Being a lawmaker is very similar. When I hold a town hall or write one of these articles, I have an obligation to my constituents not to say one thing in a stump speech and turn around and go to Montgomery and do something completely different.

It's called integrity. It's about standing by your values.

Unfortunately, all Alabama lawmakers don't feel compelled to stand by their values, leading me to wonder what their values actually are--are they the ones they plaster across campaign ads or the ones they vote in Montgomery? Are they the ones that condense down into nice talking points for voters, or are they bigger and more complex? Are they the values they practice, or the values they preach?

When the Republicans stormed the state house in 2010, they promised to pass sweeping ethics laws to bring an abrupt end to the corruption that entangled Montgomery for years. They were right- Montgomery was riddled with corruption and it needed to stop. But six short years later, we have a government that is gridlocked with corruption on a level we've never seen before. All three branches of government are actively being investigated for ethics violations, costing resources our government doesn't have to spare.

They preached cleaning up the corruption. They practiced magnifying the corruption.

Then they promised open and accountable government--their "handshake with Alabama" to pass conservative reforms and fight Obama. Governor Bentley campaigned on a mantle of transparency, and he was right--as Governor Bentley once said, "you ought to be willing to release everything to the American people.'' Yet we're now finding out that Governor Bentley has been using a private email server to circumvent Freedom of Information Act requests and that he asked his staff to sign confidentiality agreements to keep them from discussing the goings-on in the Governor's Office.

They preached increasing transparency. They practiced hiding their tracks.

The Republican supermajority promised us "smaller government" and freedom from the "overreaching federal government"--taglines that sold with Alabama voters. However, a new report by the Alabama Policy Institute shows that Alabama ranks number three most dependent on the Federal government, and that "dependency on the federal government has reached dangerously high levels" with Alabama being 50 percent more
dependent on the federal government than we were in 2004.

They preached freedom from Obama. They practiced cashing his checks.

Alabamians are smarter than these bait-and-switch tactics by GOP lawmakers. We know that doing the right thing means standing beside your word and that a handshake is more than just pleasantry. I believe we deserve men and women in Montgomery who understand that looking a voter in the eye and shaking hands means they have an obligation to practice what they preach.

Monday, May 16, 2016

We have no choice except a special session to fund Medicaid

The 2016 regular session is in the books, but for many politicos on Goat Hill, session seemed more like a rush to get out of school for the summer so we can get to the "fun stuff" in the coming months.

Unfortunately for most Alabamians, the trials and investigations don't impact their lives and communities the way the decisions made in the legislature do. For those people, the end of the legislative session meant they're left without solutions to their problems and without answers to their questions.

This is why we have no choice but to call a special session, and lawmakers have a duty to focus our time and work on finding real answers and solutions, not debating feel-good legislation or wasting time with political posturing.

Every facet of our state's budget is impacted when we don't fully fund Medicaid. Remember this is a program that only costs our state 30 percent of the total cost--the bulk of the funding comes from federal dollars--and failing to provide our portion can cause us to lose additional money.

When we fully fund Medicaid, our healthcare costs drop across the state because the amount of emergency room visits for uninsured individuals decreases, saving hospitals and patients money.

When we fully fund Medicaid, our jails and prisons feel less strained because patients who need mental health care are better able to receive the care they need, and are therefore less likely to find themselves dealing with police intervention resulting in jail or prison time.

When we fully fund Medicaid, our babies are born healthier and our children are able to grow stronger. Remember that one in three Alabama children is born on Medicaid. This program is critical for prenatal care for healthy mothers and babies.

When we fully fund Medicaid, our education system is able to do more with less. Teachers are consistently asked to produce results in the classroom when the children they teach are sick or hungry or both. Medicaid allows parents to obtain care for children so they can get healthy faster and learn easier.

Medicaid funding affects all of us.

If the Governor is going to refuse to expand Medicaid and accept billions in federal funding to solve these problems with a stroke of a pen, then it's on us in the legislature to tackle the tough issues and find the difficult solutions to this problem. Whether the solution is a lottery or a tobacco tax or some combination of multiple plans, the one thing that is certain is that we must find a solution.

This special session must be extremely special: it might mark the first time the legislature has been able to compromise and put people over politics.

The people of Alabama are depending on it, and our budget can't get better without it. Let's get to work.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Poor leadership wastes time and costs taxpayers with countless special sessions

I would start this piece by talking about how the Legislature finally adjourned for 2016, but the past few years have shown that adjourning from session is really more of an intermission in the legislative process.

Over the past few years, the "regular session" has simply been "part one" to the circus of Republican leadership, because we know we're always coming back for at least one special session to finish what wasn't accomplished the first time.

Despite the super-majority's ability to bring bills up out of order and set the agenda for each day of session, remarkably little gets done during the regular session, and this past session was no different.

Thankfully, the chaos kept some bad legislation from becoming law, but the chaos and lack of leadership from the GOP prevented the Legislature from debating and deliberating the tough issues facing our state: our struggling Medicaid budget, our failing prison system, our underfunded education system, and the list goes on.

The fact remains that we typically have 8-9 months in between legislative sessions that we could use to meet, plan, and build consensus. We have plenty of time to bring people to the table to work out solutions to these issues and move forward into the legislative session with a plan and a purpose. At the least, we have plenty of time to find out where each of the 140 members of the Legislature stand on these issues to move closer to a consensus and avoid filibusters and stalling techniques.

Unfortunately, too many members of our government are preoccupied with their own personal problems to put the needs of the state first, and the tax payers are feeling the true weight of it.

Poor leadership in the Republican Party is costing our taxpayers millions to fund special sessions every year, when these issues could be avoided simply by bringing voices to the table, listening to where people stand, and planning ahead.

Too few people are willing to compromise and work towards a common ground goal that works for all Alabamians. There are too many people who call themselves leaders who would rather shut down the legislative process than concede that they might not have all the answers, or that their solution might not be the best solution.

We can work together and make decent plans into great plans. We can hear each other out and find common ground. We can work together towards solutions, not party-line bickering. That's what leadership is about.

Part one of the 2016 session is in the books, but a special session is looming around the corner. Let's take this opportunity to get it right.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The underlying message: Bentley believes prisons are the future of Alabama

Last week, the legislature voted to issue a bond for $800 million to build new, super-max style prisons in Alabama. When it's all said and done, this prison plan will cost our children and grandchildren nearly $1.5 billion--and when, or if, it finally gets paid back, these prisons will be 100 years old and in need of another $1.5 billion upgrade.

Republicans try to paint themselves as fiscally conservative, but this prison plan is anything but fiscally conservative. It's an irresponsible decision and evidence of poor leadership at all levels of our state's government.

When we talk about "bond initiatives," what we're really talking about is putting a problem on our credit card. Rather than make the tough decisions to raise extra revenue and save up the money in advance of a project, we're just going to postpone dealing with the financing.

Think of it like buying a car. When you prepare to buy a car, the best case scenario is that you've saved up enough money to pay cash and own the car outright. Sometimes that's not always completely manageable, and that's okay. What's not okay, though, is asking the bank to loan you $50,000 for a new Mercedes without any game plan for how you anticipate being able to make payments on the loan, or whether or not the new Mercedes is actually the best investment. Before you take out such a big loan, you need to make sure that your purchase is the best use of your money and that you're going to be able to make the payments each month. This is simple math that all families understand.

Yet our Governor and Legislature have approved an $800 million loan with no game plan for how they'll pay it back or any studies to determine whether it's actually a smart investment. Not only are we on the hook for this money, but our kids and our grandkids are, too.

If we're going to use bonds to raise revenue for big projects, we should look at the places it can have the most impact like infrastructure and education.

If we're going to put our kids on the hook to repay $1.5 billion, let's at least leave them with a project they can be proud of--safe roads and bridges, public transportation, broadband access in every school, quality learning environments.

Through this plan, the Governor has sent a strong message: we expect prisons to be the future of Alabama. He's given up on fixing mental health programs, creating expansive educational opportunities, rebuilding our communities and rehabilitating our people.

What an embarrassment.

Alabama can and will do more--but we must demand better. We must demand a brighter future for our children, not one saddled with debt and locked away in a state of the art super-max prison.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

We can look at the result or look at the cause: The prison bill is a bad investment

As elected officials, looking for solutions to our state's problems is often a delicate balancing act. We have to determine the best way to use the resources we have while maximizing the benefit per dollar to the taxpayers--in the business community, this is called Return on Investment.

It's clear Governor Bentley didn't go to business school, because his $1.5 prison bill would get laughed out of a boardroom.

Bentley wants to put $1.5 billion on the state's credit card so we can build new prisons. By the time the money comes due, we'll owe double the amount we borrowed. Meanwhile, the Senate just voted not to repay the $437 million we borrowed back in 2012--and they want us to believe they'll make good on this $1.5 billion credit card bill for the prisons.

If we're going to borrow from our future to fund our present, I think the only solution is to invest those resources in our future.

When we see a spike in our prison population, as we have in Alabama, the problem isn't an increase in the number of people who can't tell right from wrong. There are systemic issues that are failing our communities which we must address.

Consider if your roof was leaking in your house. You could keep putting buckets all around, catching drips and emptying them as fast as they fill up, or you could climb up on the roof and stop the water from leaking.

That's where we are with our prisons: we're trying to stop a growing problem with patchwork solutions, never once looking at why the problem is growing in the first place.

Building more prisons is just adding more buckets to catch the water dripping into our house. It's time to fix the roof.

We can fix the roof by investing our money into schools instead of prisons. When children have the chance to learn, grow, and reach their full potential--and more importantly, to know they have potential--they make better decisions and are less likely to fall into a life of crime as they grow up. When you consider this stunning statistic: we determine the number of beds we will need in our prisons by third grade literacy rates, it's clear that educating our children well from an early age is a huge patch in the solution.

We can fix the roof by investing our money into our communities to ensure that hard work pays for men and women across this state. There is no denying that poverty and crime are linked--that is, higher rates of poverty in a community are linked to higher rates of domestic violence, higher rates of drug use, and higher rates of non-violent crimes like bad checks and fraud. When we provide opportunities in the communities that need it most, we can lower our poverty rates, promote healthy families, and decrease the need to turn to crime in the first place.

We fix the roof by investing in rehabilitation rather than retribution. Often people who commit crimes aren't malicious or vindictive--they're simply stuck. Rather than locking those people in jail and throwing away the keys, let's help them learn a trade, gain valuable life skills, and obtain the confidence necessary to stay on the right track. Especially as we see children starting down the wrong paths, we can help those young people find their passion and invest in their futures. Giving judges the flexibility to rehabilitate people rather than implement mandatory minimum sentences for offenders could go a long way.

We can fix the roof in so many ways that would be more worthwhile than new prisons. With this prison plan, we're asking our children to pay a credit card bill for a project that will directly impact their generation: let's give them a bill worth paying, rather than sticking them deeper in debt with a roof that still leaks.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Montgomery Republicans are blind to the problems facing Alabama

Each year when the Legislature starts discussing the budget, the first items on the chopping block are always social services for our neediest neighbors. While legislators have turned a blind eye to $60,000 pay raises for staff and trips to Vegas in the state airplane, they've been quick to set their sights on these programs that they consider "wasteful spending."

It's no secret that our budget is in trouble--but we absolutely must balance it wisely. When we look at these programs, it's important not to forget how heavily they're subsidized by federal dollars. For every dollar spent on Medicaid in Alabama, 30 cents comes from the state government. That's the equivalent of getting Medicaid on sale at 70 percent off.

The bigger picture that sets me back is the complete lack of understanding on the part of some of my fellow lawmakers. We have created a system in Alabama where, particularly in rural communities, our educational system is one of the worst in the country, decent-paying jobs are nearly impossible to come by, and hard work at minimum wage just doesn't cut it. At least one of these things has to improve if we expect our social service programs to become obsolete.

Many lawmakers in Montgomery have a mentality that families in poverty simply aren't trying hard enough, and that simply couldn't be further from the truth. Under this misconception, they bring bills to make it so food stamp recipients can't have cars and must perform a certain number of community service hours--neither of which will actually help people get good-paying jobs and get back on their feet. They seem to be of the belief that they can legislate people out of poverty by telling families who have fallen on hard times how they need to spend their time and money.

I think it's time for Mountain Brook politicians to stop pretending they know what's best for struggling families. Instead, listen to families who need these programs and hear what they have to say. Most of them will tell you they're ready to work hard; they just need a
hand up, not a hand out. They'll tell you they need better schools for their kids, so they can have more opportunities for success. They'll tell you they need industry and infrastructure to come to all corners of Alabama, especially the Black Belt, so jobs are available. They'll tell you they need an increase in the minimum wage so they can put food on the table and a roof over their heads. They'll tell you they need Medicaid funding so a common cold doesn't become a devastating illness.

But this isn't what Montgomery politicians want to hear because these policies don't sell well to the Trump electorate. So Republican politicians will continue to turn a blind eye to the problems facing too many Alabamians because these problems are neither easy nor convenient. But we can certainly count on them to reaffirm their Second Amendment Rights, again, because that'll surely be what turns this state around.

Monday, April 11, 2016

This is a rare political win-win for Governor Bentley

With all the chaos coming out of the Governor's Mansion in the past month, it's been easy to overlook the chaos coming out of the State House. While the Governor has been tied up in a scandal, the Legislature has continued to meet and vote on legislation, which has all subsequently made it to the Governor's desk.

One such piece of legislation is the General Fund budget. For the past few years, we've argued over whether we need more cuts or more funding, and the truthful answer is that we need a little bit of both. The Legislature doesn't have an appetite for new taxes, so the General Fund budget that made it to Bentley's desk underfunded Medicaid by around $85 million.

This underfunding means Medicaid patients may lose eye care, prescription drug coverage, and many other services on which they depend. Medicaid reform has been a key issue of the Bentley administration, as his background as a physician left him with a desire to reform our costly and broken system. Yet amidst the scandals in Montgomery, it's clear Bentley has lost all political capital.
When the budget with the $85 million Medicaid shortfall hit Bentley's desk, he vetoed it--just as he said he would. And the Legislature promptly overrode his veto--just as they said they would. It's clear that this $85 million shortfall is not only costing hundreds of Alabamians--mostly children--the care they need; it's also costing Bentley his key reform: Regional Care Organizations.
He's threatening to return the Legislature for a special session, but with impeachment threats looming, he might reconsider creating any additional legislative days on the calendar that could be used to bring articles of impeachment against him. It's clear the Legislature holds all the cards.
But Bentley has a card up his sleeve he hasn't played: Medicaid expansion.

The Governor has made an issue of rural hospitals closing and Alabama children failing to get the care they need, yet he has one card left to play to remind the Legislature who the Chief Executive is and achieve the goals he's set out for his second term without allowing the Legislature to hamstring him. Governor Bentley has the authority to expand Medicaid and bring in millions of federal dollars to offset our struggling budget.

Is it about people or about power, Governor? In this case, you've finally got a win-win opportunity for both. You can help the people you were elected to lead while simultaneously grabbing the bit of power left under your control. This could make or break your second term and the legacy you leave for Alabama. Do what's right. Expand Medicaid.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Uncertainty is killing growth and hurting our communities

Over the past 5 years, Alabama has invested millions to bring businesses to our state. We have sent representatives around the world to declare Alabama "open for business" to recruit top-tier corporations into Alabama.

But if there's one thing any investor knows, it's that uncertainty is bad for business.

In the past two weeks, our "family values" Governor has shocked the nation by his inappropriate comments to a female staffer, allegations of misuse of his office and state funds, and further rumors about the implications of the firings at ALEA.

For potential investors and business owners who are looking to move to Alabama, this is exactly the type of uncertainty that will send them screaming for the hills.

When businesses choose not to invest in Alabama, that doesn't hurt the Governor or any other elected officials. It hurts the working families who depend on a better Alabama today than we had yesterday.

When businesses run from us, they run away with jobs in tow. Often, these are jobs for employees at all levels, from manufacturing to management, that would help bring our communities to full employment and produce an impact for years to come.

When businesses run, they also run away with a sizable economic impact. New businesses means construction, infrastructure, tax dollars, and more spending money in our communities. This brings about an overall economic impact on the community, even for those who aren't directly employed.

Yet potential businesses are looking at Alabama with leery eyes, wondering what scandal will break next. They're looking at competing offers with Governors who aren't on "resignation watch" and betting the odds on other states. And can we blame them?

Our state government has proven itself to be self-serving, at best, and rampantly corrupt, at worst. Yet our people continue to remain good-hearted, God-fearing men and women who just want a better Alabama.

For the sake of our people, we can't afford to lose economic development--especially in the Black Belt. I've said before, and I'll say it again: it's time for the circus to stop. Our government must put Alabama first or step aside and stop inhibiting good leaders from doing the jobs we were hired to do.

Monday, March 28, 2016

This isn't about an affair: It's about trust

As news of Governor Bentley's inappropriate relationship with a senior advisor rocked Montgomery last week, it seemed that the major issues in this story took a back seat to gossip about recordings and scandals.

This entire story hinges around one major point: the governor has not been honest with the people of Alabama.

As I said last week, the Governor's personal dealings are his personal business. The way he chooses to spend his personal time is between him, his family, and his God. But the way he chooses to carry out the duties of his office, that's between him and the people of this state.

Over the past week, we've heard some serious allegations thrown around on Goat Hill:did the Governor use his office or public money improperly? Did he ask former ALEA Secretary Spencer Collier to lie about the status of an investigation? Is Bentley's Senior Advisor breaking any ethics laws through her work in the Governor's office?

In each of these instances, we clearly have two (or more) sides of the story, and they aren't adding up. Which is leading the public and the pundits to wonder: who do we trust?

With inconsistent stories, there is no question that someone is lying--and the people shouldn't have to wonder if their Chief Executive is telling them the whole, true story.

As our Governor, Bentley is the one public servant that Alabamians look towards for a clear explanation of tough questions and strong leadership during difficult times. It's no secret that Alabama is facing plenty of troubles--a budget crisis, Medicaid collapse, overcrowded prisons, sub-par education, and the list goes on. Without a Governor who we can trust--and without a government we can trust--we can't even begin to address the growing list of problems facing our state, which now includes deep, systemic corruption.

As much as the media has sensationalized the rumors and evidence of an improper relationship, this isn't about the Governor's relationship with his adviser at all: it's about his relationship with the people of Alabama who thought they could count on his leadership.

Monday, March 21, 2016

What's really busting our budget?

Last week, a bill came through the Legislature that I thought had to be a mistake. Republican leadership was attempting to change the requirements for hardship assistance so that you can no longer qualify for short-term assistance programs if you have "assets."

And by "assets," they mean frivolous luxuries like a car.

Because in a state like Alabama, where public transportation is unhelpful at its best and non-existent at its worst, people surely don't need cars.

Without reliable transportation, people should have no trouble making it safely and presentably to a big job interview to eliminate their need for hardship assistance, right? It should be a piece of cake to get the kids to and from school on time to ensure their education doesn't suffer despite a financial hiccup, right?

This legislation is just another example showing that lawmakers aren't seeking to provide a hand up; they're putting their boot in the face of working class men and women and pulling the rungs from the very latter working families are trying to climb.

Not just in this bill, but in regressive tax increases, education cuts, and Medicaid troubles, it's clear the Republican super majority is out of touch with working families.

But if it could be made more clear: last week, a story broke that Governor Bentley had provided more than $70,000 raises to several of his key staffers. Not $70,000 in total raises--$70,000 per employee.

For working families, that's two year's worth of paychecks--as a raise on top of the nearly six-figure checks many are already making.

And they're expecting us to believe that working families on food stamps getting $100 per month are going to be the downfall of our state's budget.

I'm calling baloney. It's time to put the public back into public service and get the government back doing what it's intended to do. While we may not always agree on what that is, I think Alabama families will agree our tax dollars aren't intended for $70,000 raises.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Reform Rollback: We're running out of options for Medicaid

When Governor Bentley took office, I had high hopes that a doctor in the Governor's mansion would mean improvements for Alabama's health care. He had worked in the health care system, knew the pitfalls of Medicaid and Medicare, and would be able to see reform as a provider, patient, and policy-maker.

I have been a staunch supporter of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act--it will provide care for 300,000 Alabamians and bring in billions to stimulate our economy and protect rural hospitals. Governor Bentley, though, was adamant about not expanding a broken system. He wanted to implement reforms to fix Medicaid before we talked about expansion.

In 2012, Bentley set up a Health Care Task Force to figure out how best to reform Medicaid. The task force recommended and Bentley established new Regional Care Organizations, which Bentley called "progress in the way the Alabama Medicaid Agency operates, making it more effective and efficient." According to the Governor's office, "Alabama could receive up to $748 million in federal money over five years to help start and improve its RCO program."

This sweeping reform for Medicaid was set to go into effect October 1, 2016, but it looks like we're going back to the drawing board.

In yet another chapter of the ongoing power struggle between Republican Legislators and Governor Bentley, the Legislature has proposed a budget that under-funds Medicaid by $100 million, which will cost the state the ability to implement these RCOs and the $748 million in Federal grants to set them up.

To recap this Medicaid boondoggle: we are letting an estimated 600 people per year die due to lack of care coverage, preventing 300,000 Alabamians from obtaining affordable health care, allowing our rural hospitals to go bankrupt, and now we're going to roll back the clock on the reforms that would have made our broken system just a little less broken.

The Republicans have a super-majority in the Legislature. They control every statewide constitutional office. They have the ability to do exactly what they want, yet time and again we see that they aren't ready or able to lead.

Medicaid is the state's largest General Fund budget item, so we have no choice but to address the issue of Medicaid funding. Yet the Republicans are taking two steps backwards for every step forward because they don't know how to think strategically or lead effectively.

I'll support reforming a broken system, but I won't support feel-good legislation that never actually goes into effect. This bungled Medicaid budget is making it more and more clear: we're out of options. It's time to expand Medicaid any way we can get it.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Black Belt: Paving the Road to Success

It's no secret that the Black Belt is behind the times. Just take a drive South of Montgomery and you'll experience a time and place very different than the rest of Alabama. Families find ways to get by with little means, businesses struggle to provide sustainability for the community, the roads and bridges are dilapidated, and many of the communities look as if they're stuck in time.

Many people have wondered for a long time what we can do to help the Black Belt, including myself. Requests to the governor to bring more industry into the area have fallen on deaf ears. Pleas with the legislature to fully fund education for every child have been repeatedly voted down, attempts to expand I-85 all the way across to Jackson have been fruitless.

With each "no," myself and many others who call the Black Belt home are left wondering what we can do to help revitalize the community and boost economic activity for the region.

Right now, there are two major projects that could be great economic stimuli for the region and serve as a means to lay a stronger foundation from which to build in the future.

First, Dr. Bronner and RSA have teamed up with Alabama Black Belt Adventures to promote the region's diverse, natural habitat for hunters and fishermen. While many sportsmen travel out of state for hunting and fishing, it's important people in Alabama know that we have 11 million acres of wildlife right here in our own backyard.

As people travel to the Black Belt for hunting and fishing, they'll eat here, buy gasoline here, and do their shopping here, which will help boost our local economies.

The second project that would be critical for the Black Belt is the Historic Tax Credit program, which is up for consideration in the Legislature now. These tax credits provide incentives for investors who want to restore historic buildings--if you've been to Birmingham, the improvements to the Lyric Theater are a result of these incentives.

When we look at the Black Belt, Alabama History is on each and every corner. From historic churches to historic hotels, houses, and downtown squares, these revitalization dollars can help put a new, renovated face on these communities to make it easier for businesses and industries to move into the area.

I understand that Selma won't become Birmingham overnight, and I know that I don't want Selma to change the small-town charm and appeal we all love. I'm sure many people throughout the Black Belt feel the same way about their towns.

But I also know that I can't stand by and watch Black Belt families struggle to make ends meet because the state sends all of our economic development projects to North Alabama.

These projects can help lay the groundwork to building a bigger future for the Black Belt, and I'm hopeful that paving the road to success will ultimately yield results for our communities.

Monday, February 29, 2016

I'm with her, and I hope you are, too

Each time we go to the polls to vote, I think about how meaningful the opportunity is to cast a ballot for a candidate I truly believe in. When I think back about how far we've come--from jelly beans in a jar to bubbles in a bar of soap to billy clubs on a bridge--I can't help but view the right to vote as an obligation, not just a privilege.

That's why I'm voting for a candidate who will continue to build on the economic progress of President Obama. When President Bush left office, he left behind a mess. We were hemorrhaging jobs and facing the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression. President Obama turned America's economic climate around and set the record for the longest streak of private sector job growth.

America needs a fighter who understands our delicate economic balance and will work hard to make sure people at every level of employment are treated fairly and given an opportunity to succeed.

We deserve a President who will stand strong and refuse to cave to opposition. We need someone who can make hard choices and understand the stakes in tough decisions--someone who will stand up for the people who make America great.

That's why I'm casting my vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Secretary Clinton understands that empty campaign promises are nothing if you don't have the ability to pass your policies in Congress. What sounds good on the campaign trail is going to be "dead on arrival" in Washington, and we deserve someone who will be honest about what she can accomplish and who will set reasonable, attainable goals for progress.

America understands there's no such thing as a free lunch, and I firmly believe Americans don't want hand outs--they want hand ups.

When it comes to putting someone in the White House, we're not just choosing the candidate with the best logo, the craftiest messaging, or the smartest soundbites. Celebrity endorsements and hashtags aside, we're choosing the next President of the United States of America. We're choosing the Commander in Chief of our military. We're choosing the person we trust to navigate our nation for four years of whatever the world deals us.

I'm choosing a candidate who has stood up for equality in education through her work with the Children's Defense Fund and as a co-founder of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

I'm choosing a candidate who lead a UN delegation to Beijing and proudly proclaimed for the world to hear, "women's rights are human rights."

I'm choosing a candidate who has served in the United States Senate, who has seen the ins and outs of the Executive Branch, who has fought to secure health insurance for children across America, who has sat in the situation room and made the hard choices, and who is easily the most qualified candidate for President America has seen in a generation.

Shattering the glass ceiling is just a bonus.

I'm with her, and I hope you are too. See you at the polls!

Put the personal attacks aside for the primary: We're still one Party

March 1 is right around the corner, and Alabama's primary races are heating up. We've seen contentious rhetoric in the presidential elections, but the same tone is trickling down to our local primaries and communities.

The primary process has received a lot of negativity, especially with how closely Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders are performing in early states. It's easy to sit back and throw rocks at the super-delegates and talk about "party insiders" when both candidates are campaigning for a job that is, by definition, a "party insider."

What people might forget is that the Democratic primary is the most democratic that it's ever been, and that speaks volumes about our Party and the way that we choose the top of the ticket.

Some readers may remember one of the biggest shake-ups in Democratic National Committee history, when a lady from Mississippi addressed the Credentials Committee to challenge Mississippi's all-white, all-male, anti-Civil Rights delegation to the DNC Convention in 1964. Fannie Lou Hamer chastised Party leadership for failing to give African Americans a seat at the table, saying her now-famous line, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." Four years later, the Democratic Party adopted a clause demanding equality of representation in state's delegations, which we still see in our delegate selection today.

Today, any Democrat can run to represent Alabama at the DNC, and many strong Democrats are on the ballot. The Alabama Democratic Party is encouraged to recruit delegates to make our delegation reflective of Alabama, especially so that young people and other under-represented groups are present in our delegation.

With only two candidates in the Democratic presidential race, it's easy to pull away into segments--to say "I'm with Her" or "I'm feelin' the Bern" and lose sight of the things that we all have in common and the values we all share. When we go to Philadelphia, we'll be going as one Democratic Party, and when we go to the polls in November, we'll be casting our votes for one Democratic candidate.

For eight years I have vehemently supported the President's policies in a deeply red state to little avail. But I'm fired up, and I'm ready to go four or eight more years in the White House with the next Democratic President, whoever he--or she--might be.

Monday, February 15, 2016

GOP Irony: Smaller government until we don't get our way

Chicken or Republican?
"More jobs. Less government." -Governor Robert Bentley

"Less regulation and a smaller government is better..." - Rep. David Faulkner

We've heard these lines before, time and time again, from Republican candidates promising smaller government and more local control when they're elected. Despite the campaign promises, the same Republicans whistle a different tune when they're the ones wielding the power in Montgomery. "Less regulation and a smaller government" quickly becomes "enough regulations and a big enough government to have it my way."

If you haven't been following the latest debate in Montgomery, Rep. David Faulkner (R-Mountain Brook) is sponsoring a bill to prevent cities from setting their own minimum wages and labor standards. Governor Bentley has promised to sign the bill into law when it reaches his desk.

Let me be clear: Rep. Faulkner is doing great work to reduce predatory lending and help lift communities out of poverty, but he is dead wrong on this issue.

While the City Council in Birmingham showed the leadership to take initiative and increase the minimum wage for Birmingham residents, our leadership in Montgomery is too chicken to even put the minimum wage up for a vote statewide.

They can offer any number of reasons as to why big government is better, but the truth is the GOP screams like they've been set on fire every time Washington strikes down an Alabama law, yet the same lawmakers have no problem striking down municipal ordinances. This bill contradicts every value the Republicans have ever run on, except one: profits over people.

Don't be mistaken. That's exactly what this is about: profits over people.

Alabama is one of only five states that doesn't have a minimum wage law on the books. There are some people who are perfectly happy with that, and some people who think we deserve better.

Regardless of where you stand, the higher governing authority should rest in one place: with the people, not Montgomery bureaucrats using government overreach. Let the people of Birmingham speak for themselves at the next city council elections, or let the people of Alabama speak for themselves in an an up or down vote on a statewide minimum wage. No matter how you slice it, Rep. Faulkner's bill is not what's best for Alabama families.

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Great State with the wrong funding

It's time to talk about how we fund the state of Alabama and get a few things straight. When we look to our state's funding mechanisms, money comes from three major areas and they're all three pretty dirty words: taxes, bonds, and the federal government.

Last week, Governor Bentley rolled out his "Great State 2019 Plan" proposing to take big steps towards pre-k for all children, offer free community college, expand broadband access, and do away with our old, worn-out prisons and build new, state of the art "super-prisons"

Now, if all of this sounds familiar, that's because these are policies the Democrats have been pushing for several years. The Governor agrees with Democrats that these issues need resolutions, but we have big differences in how we'll pay for it all.

That's why we need to talk about funding, and we need to look at the three places we get money to operate our state government.

Governor Bentley is proposing a bond initiative of $700-$800 million to put his prison plan into action, but it's important Alabamians know that a "bond initiative" is really just a fancy way of saying "put it on the credit card."

Now think back to last legislative session--and the two special sessions that followed--when Republicans couldn't agree on a method to pull the state out of a financial hole. We managed to patch part of the $700 million hole, but couldn't generate enough funding to fill it, causing the Governor to erroneously order Driver's License offices and state parks to close around the state.

Now that we're just below the limit on our credit card, Bentley is urging us to max it out again and raise the limit! This just doesn't seem fiscally responsible.

Regardless of the funding mechanism, Bentley is right that we have to address these problems--struggling schools, crowded prisons, and a depressed Black Belt must be on the table. So let's look at our other funding mechanisms, starting with Federal funding.

While Bentley is promising tax credits to rural doctors, we can push healthcare in rural areas forward with the stroke of a pen through Medicaid expansion. This would bring in $3.63 billion in federal funding, 15,100 jobs and $2.6 billion in increased economic activity through 2017 at no cost to Alabama, while the state is only obligated to pay 10 percent of the costs after 2020.

Somehow the Republicans expect us to believe this influx of federal tax dollars is off the table because we aren't sure how we'll pay our portion in a few years, yet a $700 million bond initiative won't be a problem to pay back.

We can't look at bonds until we accept the money already on the table, and we can't look at raising taxes until we exhaust our elective revenue streams.

That's why the Democrats have put forth a platform that can achieve all of the goals the Governor wants to achieve, but without borrowing from our future to fund our present. Shut down the bond initiatives. Accept Medicaid funding for expansion. Create a lottery to balance the budgets. That's your Great State 2019 Plan. Let's get to work.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The clock is running out to fight Obama

If you've turned on a TV lately, you might have caught Senator Richard Shelby's latest TV ads, the ones of him driving a Ford Explorer through the Alabama country roads and talking about how he fights Obama in Washington every day. Sound familiar?

Senator Shelby isn't the only Alabama politician who prioritizes fighting President Obama, and the sentiment is echoed loudly and frequently throughout the State Legislature. The sentiment also creates problems when it comes to fixing our budget woes and putting Alabama back on track for a successful future.

Take for example our funding crisis. Republicans are now looking at a state lottery and even full-fledged gaming to bring new revenue into our state. They're hoping you'll overlook the fact that Democrats have been bringing lottery bills for the past seven years. They're hoping you won't notice that their "fiscally Conservative" plans are just to rehash ideas Democrats have championed, probably since the polls show that a majority of Alabamians are ready to bring a lottery to Alabama.

The Alabama Republicans hope you won't notice that they're leaning left on the lottery, as long as they keep sticking it to Obama, who--by the way--won't be President this time next year.

By opting out of "Obamacare" and rejecting billions in Medicaid expansion dollars, we are putting our rural hospitals at risk and blocking care for 600,000 Alabamians. The impact reaches to all areas of our healthcare sector, even those families with private insurance policies.

It makes no sense. The logic completely escapes me as to how the GOP can embrace the Democrats' ideas on one hand while completely rejecting another simply because it's the Democrats' idea.

Oh yeah, Obama hasn't come out in support of an Alabama lottery.

Both of these solutions--Medicaid expansion and an education lottery, can help to shore up our budgets and put Alabama back on track for growth and expansion. Yet the partisan optics are allowing the Republicans to explore one option while completely rejecting another, simply because they want to be able to say they're "fighting Obama" when primary season rolls back around.

Let me be clear: neither party has a monopoly on good ideas, but it's our job as leaders to look at the options on the table and do what's best for the people we represent. We weren't elected to block out ideas and shut down debate to protect our credentials for our next election--we were elected to do a job for the people of Alabama for the term we've already earned.

If we expect to dig Alabama out of this budget hole, we can't pick and choose which ideas we embrace based on poll numbers and partisan bickering. After all, this is the last legislative session our friends in the GOP can "fight Obama" before it's time to come up with real reasons why they can't consider good policies like expanding Medicaid.

Monday, January 18, 2016

What you can do to keep Dr. King's legacy alive

This week, we took a day out of our schedules to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was a tireless advocate for socioeconomic justice and equal rights at a time of tremendous upheaval in our nation's history. Dr. King shared his dream with America and empowered us to continue moving the bar forward, never accepting less than fair and equal representation for all people.

Yet in 2016, almost 50 years after Dr. King's death, we still face tremendous socioeconomic and political disparities in our state and in our nation.

We have a prison system that incarcerates Black men at a rate six times that which it incarcerates white men. We have an economic system that pays women 77 cents for every dollar men earn doing the same job, and that rate is even less for women of color. We have a system of public education that offers access and opportunity to children from wealthy families while leaving children from low-income families far behind their peers.

Dr. King warned us about all of this, and he told us that we have the responsibility to fix it. We're working hard in the Legislature, but we have to do more--and the best way we can do that is by empowering underrepresented groups to seek public office and speak for those who need a voice.

As Dr. King told us, "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." There are good people across this state who have a passion for public service who feel disenfranchised from the political process.

How do we expect things to change when the Office of the President of the United States has historically been 98 percent white and 100 percent male? Our Supreme Court is 78 percent white and two-thirds male. In Congress? Only 19 percent are women, despite the fact that women make up roughly half the US population. For people of color, the statistics are worse: only 8 percent of members of Congress are African American and only 7 percent are Hispanic or Latino. The average age of Representatives in the House is 57, and in the Senate it's 62.

The numbers are shameful, and the American people need better representation in all levels of government, because the American people are not entirely comprised of 60-year-old white males. We all succeed when we bring a diversity of perspectives to the table: our cultural, racial, socio-economical and personal histories make us who we are--the American people.

So consider this me formally asking our women, young people, and people of color: Run for office.

Speak up for the people who need your voice, because the voices of those who wish to hold back progress ring louder in your silence. Speak up because you know that our children shouldn't be measured by where they come from, but where they want to go. Speak up because our wives deserve equal pay for equal work and our sons deserve a future outside of a prison fence.

The time is always right to do what is right, and it's time to speak up and keep moving towards Dr. King's dream.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Our teachers shouldn't be on the chopping block to fix the state's problems

We have a lot of issues on our plate for the upcoming legislative session, and we've talked a lot about many of the critical issues: our state's budget crisis, lack of Medicaid expansion, prison overcrowding, jobs, and so on.

As we're moving closer to the 2016 session, rumors are beginning to circulate about several legislators' plans to revisit teacher tenure and bring No Child Left Behind back to Alabama.

I won't pretend that Alabama's education system needs an overhaul. Our public schools work very well for a select few, but are terribly broken for most of our kids. There are a lot of ways we can fix this, from making sure our education budget is linked to secure and stable funding, creating technical training programs at our high schools, establishing statewide qualified pre-k programs, and so much more.

One way we absolutely cannot fix this is by attacking our teachers.

Aside from parents, teachers spend more time with our children than anyone else. Outside of family, teachers have the largest impact on teaching our children right from wrong, good from bad, motivating their dreams and assuaging their fears. I can think back over my life and point to several key teachers who made me the person I am today, and I'm sure everyone else can, too.

Yet too many in Montgomery see these people as part of the problem, not part of the solution. Rather than asking our teachers, those on the front-lines every day, how we can improve education, they're looking to reform tenure and tell our teachers how to teach--insisting they teach to the requirements of the test, rather than teach to the requirements of our children

Could you imagine your frustration if policymakers in Montgomery started passing legislation and regulations to tell you how to do the day-to-day aspects of your job? It would be overbearing, and perhaps that's why we're losing so many talented teachers to the private sector.

No two children in this state are exactly alike: no two children come from the same circumstances or learn in the same way or have the same hopes and dreams for their future. Asking our teachers to fit all of these children into a cookie-cutter standardized test in order to get paid is not just unfair, it's a disservice to our children. Teachers undergo years of schooling to learn how to teach to the student, to recognize problems as they arise, and to make sure all children are getting a quality education.

Nobody knows how to teach our children better than our educators, and I think it's time we let them do their jobs and pay them like the professionals they are. That absolutely doesn't mean undermining their strategies and undercutting their paychecks. Because our children deserve better, our teachers deserve better. Let's find solutions to the problems that face Alabama without throwing our teachers under the school bus.

Monday, January 4, 2016

We can do better than old solutions to old problems: Let's look at public transportation

The 2016 legislative session is right around the corner, and the Republican Supermajority is already divided on the best approach to the budget blunder: increasing taxes or cutting services.

Last session, many legislators considered an increase in the gasoline tax as a way to shore up the general fund, knowing the state's share of the gas tax goes exclusively to road and bridge maintenance.

While Alabama has a tremendous need for road and bridge improvements--nearly 25 percent of our current roads are considered to be in dangerous condition--and that gas tax revenue has been dropping in recent years due to more fuel-efficient vehicles, we must look at ways to solve these problems while also priming Alabama for a 21st century economy.

The truth is that a gas tax will hit low-income, rural families harder than those who live in metro areas. Selma residents routinely drive the 100-mile round-trip to Montgomery every day for work. An hour commute during the work-week isn't unheard of in many parts of our state.

So while we consider increasing the gas tax, we should consider finding a way to build Alabama for the future, rather than pulling more money out of people's pockets today to fund past projects that have fallen into disrepair. We'll never get ahead if we're constantly trying to play catch up, which is exactly what our budget blunder is all about.

Alabama is one of only a few states in the nation that offers no state support for public transportation, meaning there is no way to get from city to city, and that our municipalities are tasked with funding the metro transportation systems we do have in our larger cities.

If we were able to utilize some gas tax revenue to help develop a quality, statewide public transportation system, it would provide a low-cost method for people in rural areas to get to work, to the doctor, or to school in our bigger cities. It could connect areas like the Black Belt, which don't even have an interstate system passing through, and allow economic development into these areas for more job opportunities and economic expansion in the areas we need it most. Not to mention, the decrease in daily traffic on our roads will cut down on the need for future repairs, allowing us to use our road and bridge money for timely maintenance instead of always being one step behind.

Most importantly, developing a public transportation system would create hundreds--if not thousands--of jobs for those tasked with building the transportation system, providing the materials, and designing, engineering, and maintaining the program.

Our opportunities here in Alabama are endless, and I strongly believe we can do big, important things when we set our mind to building a stronger future for this state. Most importantly, we can't be afraid to be bold and break out of the way things have always been done to try new solutions to our ongoing problems.