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.