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.