May
4
2015

Our Legislature Thinks Brown Shrimp Are More Important Than People

When I first saw the list of bills we would be debating in the state House of Representative last Thursday, I thought it was a joke. The first bill up for debate was a bill to make brown shrimp the official state crustacean.

This is your state legislature’s priorities, folks. Not peoples’ lives or jobs, and certainly not being responsible with your tax dollars. Brown shrimp. That’s the priority. You just can’t make this stuff up!

I was the only legislator who voted against this bill. I voted against it because I wanted to make a point: why are we wasting time on fluff legislation like this instead of focusing on the real problems, like solving the budget crisis?

Now I love shrimp as much as anybody. But I don’t feel so strongly about shrimp that I think making it the official state crustacean should come before, say, passing a budget. Especially when the legislature only meets for a few meeting days out of the year.

Unless a special legislative session is called, the State Legislature is required to meet for 30 meeting days within 100 calendar days. Thursday was the eighteenth meeting day, which means we are now almost two-thirds of the way through the legislative session.

With so few days left, you would think that passing the budgets and finding a solution to the budget crisis would be a priority. But apparently, brown shrimp weigh more heavily on the Republican leaderships’ minds.

We’ve known since 2012 that a budget crisis was coming. That’s why the Republicans borrowed $437 million from the state’s savings account to get us through the last three years. But now that $437 million has run out. And since last November, Gov. Bentley has been warning legislators that something would have to be done.

There’s no excuse for us to be this far into the legislative session and still nowhere close to passing a General Fund budget or a solution to the budget crisis. And even if we somehow found $265 million dollars to keep us at current levels of funding, we would still be in a dangerous position.

Take, for example, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s current budget. Right now-without any of the proposed cuts-there are only six state troopers for the entire state patrolling the highways after midnight. Six! You read that correctly.

In fact, under current levels of funding, there are more sworn in law enforcement officers for the city of Montgomery than there are state troopers for the entire state. And for the troopers we do have, many of them are driving vehicles with more than 200,000 miles on them! If we pass the 30 percent budget cut that Republicans have proposed, we will have to lay off 100 state troopers, which would essentially close down state law enforcement.

Healthcare is another prime example. Since the Republicans took control in Montgomery, ten rural hospitals have closed. Today, of Alabama’s 54 rural counties, only 17 have OB/GYN services. That means tens of thousands of mothers have to travel as much as two or more hours to get their prenatal care and deliver their babies. Almost all of these closures are the result of cuts in Medicaid funding.

Another example is the state’s “Meals on Wheels” program. Under the proposed Republican budget cuts, funding for “Meals on Wheels” would be cut in half. If that happens, thousands of elderly Alabamians would go hungry and possibly starve to death.

Unfortunately, these examples only scratch the surface of what we could be facing.

Legislators have known these facts for months. Yet, here we are, eighteen days into the legislative session, and instead of voting on a budget or a solution to this crisis, we are voting on whether brown shrimp should be the official state crustacean.

In any other profession, this would be called malpractice. In the legislature, this is just another day at the office.

Come October, state law enforcement may no longer exist, only three cities may still be able to issue driver’s licenses, hospitals and doctors offices across the state may close their doors and thousands of Alabamians may no longer be able to eat, but at least the brown shrimp will be the official state crustacean.

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

Apr
26
2015

With Republican Lottery Bill Coming This Week, Maybe Democrats Won The 2014 Elections After All?

Late Saturday night, Inside Alabama Politics reported that Republicans in the Alabama Legislature will introduce their own gambling bill this week, which will include a lottery and authorization for a possible compact with the Poarch Creek Indians.

On the one hand, I’m glad to see Republicans embracing the Democratic Party’s legislative agenda. A lottery has been a part of Democrats’ platform for decades, and I’ve been proud to sponsor the lottery bill every year since I became Minority Leader.

On the other hand, it’s a sad statement on the extreme partisanship in Montgomery. Even after Rep. Steve Clouse, the Republican chairman of the General Fund budget committee, signed on as a co-sponsor of my lottery bill, the Republican leadership in the legislature still couldn’t bear to support a Democrat’s bill. Instead, they will take my lottery bill and Rep. Thomas Jackson’s (D-Thomasville) resolution authorizing the governor to negotiate a compact with the Poarch Creek Indians, and combine them into one Senate bill just so they can say it’s a Republican bill instead of a Democrats’ bill.

This kind of behavior is downright childish and insulting to the taxpayers!

Before I introduced my lottery bill, I asked several Republicans, including all the members on the Ways and Means – General Fund committee, to co-sponsor my bill. I understand why most of them didn’t want their name attached to it, even though a majority of those I spoke with do support it. And I am more than happy to work with my Republican colleagues to amend my lottery bill to address their concerns.

This should not be a partisan issue. The lottery is supported by a majority of people in both Parties. It is a way to raise as much as $280 million annually and voluntarily in new revenue for the state without raising taxes. A compact would also be voluntary, and generate millions in new revenue. I think most people would agree they’d rather have a lottery and compact than more taxes. Political Party shouldn’t even enter into the equation!

But make no mistake: I support the lottery, regardless of who sponsors it or what political party they belong to. I haven’t had a chance to read the Republican bill yet, but I will most likely support it as long as it is a clean bill with no pork or other unexpected twists.

I just think it’s sad that our legislative leaders would pull a stunt like this, and even more sad if they think people aren’t going to see it for what it is.

But I’m not going to complain. I’m just glad the people may finally get a chance to vote on the lottery. And since the Republicans are embracing the Democrats’ legislative agenda, maybe Democrats didn’t lose the 2014 elections after all?

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

Apr
24
2015

Accountability Act? Or Bob Riley Bailout?

The day the Accountability Act was signed into law, legislative leaders said it would need to be revised. Three months later, Republican leaders offered their first “fix” bill, which expanded the tax credits for corporate donors.

Now, Republican legislators are pushing another “fix” bill that, once again, raises the cap. But this time, they are raising the cap to bailout former governor Bob Riley’s scholarship granting organization (SGO) because they can’t raise the money to pay for the scholarships they gave out. And most of those scholarships went to kids who were already in private schools.

We’ve heard this story before: the rich and powerful mismanage their finances and then want the government to bail them out. Sound familiar?

We are more than half way through the legislative session, and our legislative leaders can’t offer a single solution to solve the $700 million hole in the budget. But they have no problem coming up with a solution to bailout Bob Riley.

It’s amazing to see what is happening in the Alabama Legislature this year! There is a $700 million hole in the budget, and the Republican leadership starts the session by ignoring the crisis and instead pushing through an agenda that focuses on legislating morality. We are now halfway through the session and the only solution they have offered is a solution to bailout Bob Riley or risk admitting that the Accountability Act is a failure.

My district in Etowah County is a prime example of how the Accountability Act has failed. Gadsden has a failing school, and only one student has transferred out of that school and into a different, non-failing school. Most of the scholarships that these SGOs are granting, like the one run by Bob Riley, are for students already in private schools. Now it looks like they can’t even manage those.

The Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, which is run by Bob Riley, recently told AL.com that only about half of the available tax credits were reserved in 2014 because donors wanted to wait until the Alabama Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of the Accountability Act before they gave. Now, Sonya DiCarlo, a spokeswoman for the SGO, says that their organization has 2,800 scholarships to renew, which means they need more than $15 million.

That means Bob Riley’s SGO doesn’t have the money to grant the scholarships they already promised. And according to the provisions of the Accountability Act, Riley’s SGO would possibly default on the renewals if the money isn’t raised by May 1st.

Rather than admitting that they got greedy and gave out more scholarships than they could afford, Bob Riley’s SGO is asking the legislature to bail them out. And unfortunately, our state leaders have made this bailout a priority.
The new “fix” bill will raise the tax credit cap from $25 million to $30 million, and allow for some retroactive donations in the hopes that, through accounting gimmicks, Bob Riley’s SGO can be saved.

The numbers are in, and they don’t paint a pretty picture. SGO’s like Bob Riley’s are more interested in helping kids who are already in private schools than they are in helping kids in failing schools. And now they can’t even do that!

Bob Riley’s SGO is on life support, and he needs a government bailout to keep him from going under. Unfortunately, legislative leaders have chosen to make bailing out Bob Riley their legislative priority-even over solving the budget crisis.

Members of the Legislature need to focus on what’s important this session: fixing the budget crisis and making Alabama a better place to live, work and play. We don’t need to be worrying about how to bail out Bob Riley and other failing SGOs that don’t serve the majority of Alabama’s students who actually need help.

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

Apr
13
2015

A Big Step Forward For The Lottery And A Bipartisan Solution To The Budget Crisis

It isn’t often these days that you see Democrats and Republicans agreeing on major policies. But that’s exactly what began to happen last week.

It is no secret that our General Fund budget is in desperate shape. The proposed budget cuts that were released the other week would gut our government to the point that it could shut down, which would have devastating affects on families throughout the state.

But that outcome can be avoided if Democrats and Republicans are able to work together to help fix the very real budget problem. That is why it is so encouraging that the Chair of the Ways and Means—General Fund Committee, Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, has co-sponsored the lottery bill that would help put funds back into Medicaid.

I’ve said for a long time that the budget problem is very serious; in fact, it’s a crisis! It will take Democrats and Republicans working together to fix this crisis, and what happened last week shows that we’ve started making progress.

There are many legislators on both sides of the aisle who see the value in letting the people of Alabama vote on a lottery. They may not be willing to sponsor the legislation and put their name on it, but they see that a change must be made and are willing to let the people vote on the issue. They see that closing ten hospitals in rural communities over the last three years because Medicaid doesn’t have the funding to keep their doors open isn’t a way to serve the people.

The closing of these hospitals has two implications on Alabamians, CEO of Coosa Valley Medical Center Glenn Sisk has said. He told AL.com last year that these closings are a public health issue, in addition to a financial one. More and more people use the ER as a primary care doctor, and when you close the hospital…well, there goes the ER. There goes some people’s primary care doctor. Sadly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Medicaid is a crucial part of our state’s healthcare system. The holes in the General Fund budget aren’t just closing ten rural hospitals, but also closing the doors of OB/GYN clinics. Currently less than half of our counties—32 out of 67, have such clinics, leaving thousands of mothers across the state with no local way of receiving prenatal or deliver care.

Without a sound health-care infrastructure we cannot recruit industry to our state. We need to change the current tide, and we have an option to fill that hole in the General Fund budget by bringing a statewide lottery to a vote.

Medicaid and prisons are, by far, the two biggest expenditures in the budget and something has to be done to protect their funding. A statewide lottery has the potential to generate up to $280 million each year for Medicaid alone. That would free up a large portion of the General Fund for other programs, such as law enforcement benefits or meals on wheels for the elderly, which currently stands to lose half its budget if we pass the version of the General Fund that was released to the public the other week.

A statewide lottery is a way to fill in the gaps without losing important programs, and it does so in a voluntary way.

And if we don’t use the lottery for the General Fund, we could still pass a lottery that puts the money in a scholarship fund like they do in Georgia.

Georgia dedicates its lottery funding to its HOPE scholarship, which gives qualified students assistance to attend eligible in-state colleges, universities and technical schools. Since its creation, the Georgia lottery has raised $8 billion in scholarship funds and more than 1.6 million scholarships provided, according to the Georgia lottery’s website. $8 billion in scholarship funds without costing unwilling tax payers a dime.

The reality is our state budget is in a hole so big we simply cannot cut our way out of it. The only solution is more revenue. Before we raise taxes on working families, let’s look at voluntary revenue streams like the lottery, a tobacco tax increase and a compact with the Poarch Creek Indians.

If Democrats and Republicans continue to come together, we can fix this problem and avoid a government shutdown without massive tax increases. But if we don’t pass a lottery now, then it will be tax increases this year and we will be right back here in the same position next year.

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