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.