Dec
16
2014

Should Montgomery Be The New Washington?

If there was ever any doubt about how politicians in Alabama feel about the federal government, just look at some of their campaign ads. During this past election, Alabama politicians spent millions of dollars on ads about how they would stand up to Washington and “fight Obama”. The phrase “federal overreach” is about as common now as hearing “Sweet Home Alabama” at an Alabama or Auburn football game.

But these same politicians who routinely blast the federal government are more than happy to accept millions from the federal government every single year, then they come to Montgomery and behave the exact same way that they criticize the politicians in Washington for.

For example, after all that campaign rhetoric about standing up to Washington, last week it was announced that the state would receive $17.5 million in federal grants for preschools. Now I don’t have a problem with the state taking money from the federal government. After all, that money is our tax dollars! But to those politicians I say: Don’t sit there and tell me about how you are going to stand up to Washington and then turn around and take all this federal money. Be consistent.

As of 2012, for every dollar we pay in federal taxes, the state receives $2.03 back. The truth is our state government is relying on the federal government to keep us from going under. And all these politicians are biting the hand that feeds them.

They want to vilify Washington because that’s easy to do, but they don’t want to turn away all that money. Instead of being upfront with the voters, the politicians in Montgomery want to have their cake and eat it, too, complaining about “federal overreach” all the way to the bank.

State leaders see a huge problem with federal overreach but what about state overreach with the counties? The state government overpowers the local governments on a regular basis. How many times have we had to vote statewide on a constitutional amendment that only affected one county or city?

And since every local bill that comes through the legislature has to have the entire local delegation sign off on it, instead of just having an up or down vote, many times passing a local bill is difficult.

For example, passing a bill to let the voters in Gadsden decide on Sunday sales of alcohol required every member of our delegation to sign off on the bill, which caused a delay in getting Sunday sales on the actual ballot. We almost could not even bring the bill up for a vote in the legislature, let alone allow the people it would affect to actually vote on it, because members of our legislative delegation made city elected leaders jump through multiple hoops before they were willing to sign the bill out of committee.

Sunday Sales is not the only example, or even the only recent example from Etowah County. We had similar issues come up when I introduced legislation creating the authority that is looking into bringing a sports complex to Etowah County.

Why should any county have to suffer or be denied the right to vote on an issue because of one politician who may not even represent the area but who is fighting the bill?

And another example of Montgomery’s overreach happened when they passed the Accountability Act. Legislators went behind closed doors and amended the original bill to include millions of dollars in new expenditures-which is why a state court ruled the Accountability Act unconstitutional. Regardless of whether you support the policy, no one can support the way in which this law was passed, and it is another clear example of Montgomery politicians behaving the same way the politicians in Washington do.

The politicians in Montgomery like to spend a lot of time complaining about the federal government. But they don’t hesitate to take millions of dollars in federal funding, and then they come to Montgomery and behave the exact same way the politicians in Washington do.

In Matthew 7:5 and in Luke 6:42, Jesus says before we can “remove the speck” from someone else’s eye we must first “take the log out of [our] own eye.” Maybe instead of trying to fight Washington from Montgomery, these politicians should first fight Montgomery from Montgomery.

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Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.

Dec
7
2014

Good Ideas Are Bigger Than Political Parties

Without question, the biggest issue facing our state legislature this spring will be funding our state budgets, and specifically addressing the crisis in the General Fund budget. While the Education Trust Fund is expected to be in decent shape, Gov. Bentley has projected a potential shortfall of anywhere between $250 million and $700 million in the General Fund budget.

Several solutions to this budget shortfall have been proposed. Last week, I announced my intentions to sponsor a state lottery, as well as a resolution calling on the governor to negotiate a compact with the Poarch Creek Indians. Both of these proposals have been suggested for years, mostly by Alabama Democrats. But in recent weeks, more and more Republicans have said they are considering these proposals.

Another solution that has been thrown out there is closing certain corporate tax loopholes. These loopholes have mostly only benefited out-of-state corporations, and are not given to Alabama businesses. For years, Democrats in the Alabama legislature have proposed closing these loopholes, but the legislature never brought these proposals up for consideration.

Now many Republican legislators and leaders have publicly said they are looking into the possibility of closing these loopholes.

I, for one, am glad to see our legislature take some of these issues more seriously. When Democrats first introduced these bills a couple of years ago, the Legislative Fiscal Office estimated that closing these loopholes could generate $60 million in new revenue. While that $60 million by itself won’t plug the hole in the budget, it would go a log way toward getting us there-especially if we successfully negotiate a compact with the Poarch Creek Indians.

I also strongly agree with Sen. Del Marsh, who said last week that, “We have to make sure the [tax] incentives we provide are actually creating new jobs.”

During the last legislative session, House Democrats introduced as a part of our platform the “Job Creation and Taxpayer Protection Act.” This bill would have required any businesses receiving a tax incentive from the state to commit to creating a number of jobs and keeping those jobs in the state for at least five years. If the business failed to create these jobs or did not maintain these jobs for five years, then the business would have been required to pay back the incentives it had received. This is known as a “clawback provision.”

Unfortunately, the “Job Creation and Taxpayer Protection Act” was never brought up for consideration-not even in committee. But after reading Sen. Marsh’s statement, I’m hopeful that maybe now the legislature will be more open to this Act or a similar bill.

The bottom line is that good ideas are bigger than political parties, and I am thrilled to see Republican legislators warming up to these proposals. Politics has become so partisan these days. And while it’s important to have competing visions and proposals in government, moderation is always preferable to extremism. Partisanship should never come at the expense of statesmanship. The problems our state is facing are big. It will take big ideas, and men and women who are big enough to overcome their differences, to solve them.

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Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.

Dec
2
2014

Rep. Craig Ford To Sponsor Lottery Bill, Resolution Urging Governor To Negotiate A Compact With Poarch Creek Indians

When our state legislature returns to Montgomery, legislators will have to take on a major problem: funding our state budgets.

There are no easy solutions to our budget problems. But there are simple solutions that can generate millions of dollars for our budgets and put us on a path to fiscal stability without raising income or property taxes, or other taxes on working Alabamians.

These simple solutions are not new; they have been a part of Alabama Democrats’ platform for years. One solution is entering into a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. The second solution is creating a statewide lottery.

And there’s good news: Governor Bentley and several state legislators have already said publicly that they are willing to consider these solutions.

The questions are: how much money can these two solutions generate, and how would we allocate those new funds? Last year, the Legislative Fiscal Office estimated that a state lottery could generate up to $250 million.

How much we can generate from a compact with the Poarch Creek Indians would depend on the arrangement that the governor negotiates, and only the governor can negotiate a compact with the Poarch Creek Indians. But according to the tribe’s annual report, in 2012, the gaming interests reported net earnings in the excess of $322 million. In states that have agreements with tribes operating gaming interests, the states typically received between 5 percent, 7 percent or 10 percent of all revenue. For Alabama that means a possible $32.2 million in new revenue!

That is why I will be introducing two pieces of legislation immediately in the next legislative session: a lottery bill and a resolution urging the governor to negotiate the compact with the Poarch Creek Indians.

My lottery bill will be the same bill I have introduced for the past several years. All the proceeds will go towards education and will be used to finance scholarships for kids to go to a university or community college. I do not believe lottery proceeds should be used for other government services.

It is past time we had a lottery in Alabama. Instead of watching our citizens play the lottery in neighboring states, watching potential money go right down the interstate with them, let’s keep them and that money here in Alabama.

Our children deserve a school system that is properly funded, filled with quality, caring teachers, good lunches and current textbooks. Unfortunately, all those things cost money that our state doesn’t have, which is a big problem.

With lottery funds propping up education, we can use the money from a compact with the Poarch Creeks to stabilize the General Fund budget.

Entering into a compact with the Poarch Band Creek Indians is very much a possibility. The vice chairman of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, Robert McGhee, recently told AL.com that the tribe was not only open to a compact, but was essentially waiting on Gov. Bentley to begin talks.

Will the lottery and the compact solve all of our problems? Probably not. But they will make a huge and immediate impact on our budgets, infusing hundreds of millions of dollars into our schools and other critical government services. And that would also buy us time to grow our economy and make other tough decisions that can get our budgets back on track.

It’s time to close the gaps in the General Fund and Education Trust Fund budgets, and we can make a great start with these simple solutions that work (just look at our neighboring states). At the very least, we need to give the voters a chance to vote on a lottery and encourage the governor to open a dialogue with the Poarch Creek Indians to see what our possibilities are.

The bottom line is that, even if we weren’t in a bad situation with our budgets, it doesn’t make any sense to leave hundreds of millions of dollars on the table-especially when that money is being spent anyway. Alabamians are already spending their money at casinos and playing the lottery. So let’s make sure some of that money comes back to our state and gets put to good use helping our schools and other critical government services.

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Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.

Nov
24
2014

Protecting Our American Birthright

There are many things about this country that make us great: our economy, our military and our people, to name a few. But perhaps our greatest accomplishment has been democracy. Democracy is our most precious and cherished blessing, and it is the foundation of our freedom.

Before America, kings who had absolute power ruled nations. While there are still some nations that suffer under dictators and other oppressive regimes, democracy has taken over most of the world. And in this country, it has allowed our nation to thrive and grow to become the world’s only super power.

As Americans, we have a fundamental birthright to control our government and determine who serves as our leaders. For more than two centuries, men and women have risked and sacrificed their lives to protect that right.

But in one House district, District 89, more than 200 Alabamians were denied this basic right. Not intentionally or maliciously, but because of the convoluted manner in which our new legislative districts were drawn.

Our districts, which are now being reviewed by the US Supreme Court because of the questionable manner in which they were gerrymandered, have no shortage of faults. But there are two main arguments that have fueled the debate: the “packing” of black voters into certain districts and the division of “communities of interests.”

Since the Civil Rights movement, Alabama has drawn its legislative districts with the goal of ensuring that African Americans held roughly 27 percent of legislative seats. To achieve this goal, the districts were drawn as minority-majority districts, meaning the majority of voters were black.

But under our new district lines, the legislature took this a step further by “packing” the districts represented by African American legislators with as many black voters as possible. Legislators again claimed the purpose of this was to ensure that an African American would be elected to represent that district. But African Americans were already representing these districts at their previous levels. There was no need to add black voters to these districts.

Clearly, increasing the numbers of black voters in these districts was not meant to preserve the number of seats represented by black legislators, but to dilute the influence of black voters in other districts that are not minority-majority but had a large percentage of black voters.

The second argument, and the one that is most relevant to what happened in District 89, has been that these districts divide “communities of interest.” Communities of interests can include counties, cities and towns. But most importantly, the new districts split voting precincts.

Splitting these communities dilutes their voice in government. For example, the more times a county is divided the less influence it will have with a particular legislator. This also causes problems when trying to get local bills passed, since local bills have to be signed off on by every member of the delegation. The more divided the county, the more legislators who have to approve of the legislation, even if that legislator only has a small portion of that county in his or her district.

In House District 89, poll workers at one of the split precincts unintentionally gave the wrong ballot to more than 200 voters. But even though it was an honest mistake, that mistake now means that those 200 voters will have to spend the next four years with a representative they did not vote for.

Making this situation even worse, the difference between the candidates in this race is less than 100 votes. Meaning, the voters who received the wrong ballot could have completely altered the outcome.

Joel Lee Williams, the Democratic candidate in the race, now has the right to contest the election. Whatever his decision, myself and the members of the House Democratic Caucus, will stand behind him. Either way, this unfortunate situation is a perfect example of why we need to throw out these convoluted legislative districts and let an unbiased court draw new ones.

No one honestly expects legislators not to gerrymander the districts. But the way in which state leaders have done so with these districts has result in at least one instance of Alabamians losing their right to elect their own representative. And the truth is these new districts have created a system that dilutes the voices of thousands of Alabamians.

I am thankful the U.S. Supreme Court felt compelled to intervene. I hope the court will take into their consideration the election in House District 89. It is a perfect example of why we need to throw out these districts and go back to the drawing board.

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Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.