Aug
24
2014

State Leaders Should Pledge Not To Combine The State’s Two Budgets

Alabama is definitely facing some major problems with our state budgets, and it’s time for state leaders to take these problems seriously and find real solutions. But combining the two budgets is not a real solution.

Our state leaders need to realize that simply taking money from one pile and moving it to another is not a good idea. Combining the budgets, or any other back door way to take money earmarked for our children’s education and fund other state programs, should be off the table. That is why I firmly believe it is time for Gov. Bentley and state legislators to sign a pledge promising they will not take money out of the Education Trust Fund to pay for services provided by the General Fund.

I will gladly sign this pledge, and I hope Gov. Bentley and others will as well. As state leaders, we need to promise that not one cent will be taken from the Education Trust Fund.

I know there has recently been some confusion over what exactly the Education Trust Fund is compared to the General Fund and why it might be dangerous to combine them. The Education Trust Fund exclusively funds all public education needs: from pre-k to higher education. It is the only major source of state funding for public education. Of course, the University of Alabama and Auburn University get monies from alumni donors and other sources, but, as institutions of public education, both receive a large portion of money to operate from the state. The General Fund is money that the state uses to pay for everything else, like the prison system and other government agencies and departments.

By taking money from the education budget to help fill in gaps with the general fund budget we are taking money from students of all ages. Essentially, we are robbing our children, be they 4 or 24, to help pay for things like prisons. While we have to fund our prisons, that funding should not come at the expense of our children’s quality of education.

State leaders have said it’s time to make some bold changes, and that all options are on the table. I say we should take a bold stand not to balance the budget on the backs of our children. Taking money from the Education Trust Fund should not be an option on the table. School dollars should go to schools. General fund dollars should go to the general fund programs.

Luckily, there are solutions to the General Fund budget’s problems. For example, entering into an agreement with the Poarch Creek Indians would allow us to generate millions of dollars for the General Fund without taking one cent from our schools. It’s very simple: in exchange for allowing the Indian gaming interests to expand their facilities, they would, in turn, pay a significant portion of their profits to the state in lieu of taxes (which they do not currently pay). In addition, this would help create new jobs and generate more tourism to our state.

Another solution, which I have always strongly supported, is the creation of a state lottery. By creating a lottery, we would be able to put money back into our schools instead of taking it out. As with the Indian gaming interests’ money, a state lottery wouldn’t be taking any money from earmarked places and shifting it around. Instead, a state lottery would create new revenue. And that is revenue Alabamians are already paying as they drive to other states to play the lottery instead of paying to play it here.

Taking money from our schools should never be on the table when trying to balance the state’s books. And I’m afraid what state leaders mean when they say “bold changes” is really just another way of saying “we’re about to do something we know the taxpayers aren’t going to like.” And as we saw with the Accountability Act, robbing our schools may be bold, but it certainly isn’t a change.

It’s time to be serious about solving our budget problems without raiding our schools’ budgets. I ask the governor and other state leaders to stand with me and make a promise to the people of Alabama that we will protect the Education Trust Fund and our children’s education. I’ll sign that pledge, and I hope I won’t be alone.

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

Aug
17
2014

The Jobs Problem Is Solvable

There’s no doubt we have a jobs problem in the state of Alabama. We are the only state in the country with a rising unemployment rate, which is now at 7 percent. Last year, the state created only 366 new jobs, and we are now ranked 49th in the country for job creation. By Gov. Bentley’s own measuring stick, we simply aren’t hitting the mark.

Recently, unfortunately, for almost every job created, a job was lost in Alabama. We bring in Golden Dragon and a possible 500 jobs from that over the next few years, but then we instantly lose International Paper and 1,000 jobs with it. We bring in Remington in Huntsville and nearly 2,000 jobs over the next few years, but ThyssenKrupp in Mobile goes up for sale and we lose 2,000 jobs.

We take one step forward and two steps back. In International Paper’s case, we didn’t just lose the jobs at the mill site. We also drastically hurt all the auxiliary companies that provided services IP needed to run the mill, and possibly cost jobs for Alabamians. And while our jobs loses are large and immediate, we have to remember the big job creation numbers, like Remington’s 2,000 jobs, aren’t available instantly. Those projections are over a period of years.

But while our jobs problem may seem insurmountable, it isn’t. It is a problem that we can solve, but not if we keep doing what we’ve been doing for the past four years.

Our current policies simply aren’t working, and it seems like the leadership in Montgomery is now out of ideas on how to fix this problem. The only idea Gov. Bentley has left is to take money from the education budget and use it to pay for incentives for big businesses. It’s like the old saying, “You’re simply robbing Peter to pay Paul.” This idea also sets a very dangerous precedent of taking money from the education budget to pay for anything besides education. Today it’s economic incentives. Next year, it may be prisons.

The governor isn’t alone on this idea. Our current legislative leaders have publicly said they want to look at combining the state’s two budgets. They cites shortfalls in the general fund budget, such as the prison system, as why this might be a solution to a lot of Alabama’s problems.

When you boil down all the political rhetoric, what our state leaders are proposing is to take our tax dollars away from our kids and give it to criminals and multinational corporations.

That’s not a solution. It’s a cop-out. Instead of taking money away from our children’s educations, we should be investing more into our children’s education. Alabama needs to invest in vocational training and pre-k programs. There will be an influx of jobs in the coming years as Baby Boomers retire. However, these jobs will be hard to fill if the next generation does not receive the necessary training: investing in vocational schools and trade programs is key.

We also need to look at economic development incentives, capitalizing on tourism and projects like a sports complex in Etowah County that could bring in millions of tourism dollars every year. Growing tourism and economic development incentives not only brings revenue to the county, but it also creates jobs.

We need to look at investing in our infrastructure, as we know this particular job creation plan has, historically, been a success. Building and improving roads, bridges and utilities not only creates jobs in the short term but also better facilitates business. It also gives skilled laborers a chance to provide the next generation with some on the job training. Real world experience is key to maintaining a solid workforce.

It is clear that our current Leadership is in over their heads when it comes to solving Alabama’s job problem. We need to send leaders to Montgomery who understand what programs will actually help middle class families: investing in public education and creating real jobs. We need representatives who understand that jobs and schools are not just issues to campaign on; they are real problems for Alabamians, and it’s time we solve them.

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

Aug
10
2014

A Statewide Lottery Could Help Solve Some Problems

Back when Gov. Bentley was campaigning in 2010, he made some bold statements. Statements such as: “I believe the people of Alabama need to decide at the ballot box on a YES or NO vote whether to allow gambling or abolish all forms of gambling.”

And Gov. Bentley and I were 100% in agreement. I firmly believe that we should let the people of Alabama decide the fate of a state lottery. This is something I’ve always believed: You can never go wrong when you trust the voters and let the people settle these kinds of issues.

We have been debating a state lottery in Alabama for decades. But Alabamians have still not actually had a chance to vote on the issue since 1999. Fifteen years is a long time. Too long of a time for an issue such as this to go without seeing another vote, especially considering the success neighboring states have had with a lottery as means to fund education.

Currently, Gov. Bentley has a proposal on the table to take money out of the education budget to fund tax breaks for out of state businesses. Instead of trying to grow out of state businesses, we should be looking to invest more into our school system. The last thing our schools need is less money. But with Gov. Bentley’s newest proposal, that’s exactly what would happen. And it would open the door to more and more raids on our school funding to prop up the general fund budget.

Instead, I believe we should be looking at a state lottery to help give our schools’ the revenue boost they desperately need. A state lottery could generate as much as $250 million a year for the state’s school systems, according to a report provided by the Legislative Fiscal Office during last year’s legislative session. In turn, that money could be used to fund scholarships for college or vocational training, increase funding for pre-k programs or meeting other financial needs within our schools.

And $250 million could be a low estimate! If you consider that, according to the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries, individual states got to keep a total of $19.4 billion out of $68.8 billion in nationwide lottery sales in 2012, then it is possible our estimates could be on the low end. And those figures are just for the powerball, and mega millions. They do not include scratch-offs or local lotteries.

But whatever the end amount may be, the thing to remember is that it’s essentially already available. It would require no additional taxes or tax increases, and would not short change other parts of the state’s various programs.

This is because we are already spending that money on the lottery. We are just playing it in different states.

Every year, a large number of Alabamians travel to Tennessee, Georgia and Florida to play the lottery. Whether it be in the form of instant games, like small dollar scratch off tickets, or in the bigger dollar amounts like Mega Millions and Power Ball jackpots, Alabamians are playing the lottery. It’s not a question of if, but where.

By playing the games in other states, we are taking our money and helping to fund neighboring states education programs, like the Hope scholarship in Georgia: a program that helps Georgia high school students pay for college if they maintain a certain grade point average. But if Alabama had a state lottery, players would be reinvesting that money into our schools and students here at home.

I certainly understand why some people have moral objections to the lottery. And I don’t think you will find a single supporter of the lottery who will tell you they think it’s ok for a person to spend their family’s money on gambling. But by refusing to have a state lottery, we are not stopping or even slowing down gambling in Alabama. All we are doing is exporting our gamblers to other states and giving our money to those states to help pay for the betterment of their children’s education instead of our own children’s education.

It’s time for state leaders to listen to the voters and keep their promises to let the people-and not the politicians-decide the fate of a lottery.

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

Aug
3
2014

Why We Need To Start School Later

This week students and educators across the state will return to school. What makes this year different from the last two years is that they will be going back to school two weeks sooner than before.

In 2012, the Alabama legislature passed a school start date bill that gave schools more flexibility in setting their schedules and allowed summers to last a little longer. We passed this bill for two reasons. First, longer summers help tourism and allow local businesses to make more money as families are traveling. Second, a longer summer break is easier on families and increases school attendance during those critical first weeks back after the break.

It is crazy that we allowed this law to expire before we even took time to study the impact of a later school start date.

Research has shown that starting school earlier does absolutely nothing to improve test scores or help children learn. In fact, all we are doing by starting earlier is shifting around vacation days so that schools can have a fall break and longer holidays.

The reality is that longer summers are better for businesses, families and most importantly, the education of our children.

Families travel during the summer, not during the fall break. So having an extra week or two in the summer means more vacations to the beach and other tourism destinations like walking and riding trails, the Music Hall of Fame in Muscle Shoals, the various Civil Rights sites and museums throughout the state, and many more.

As the state sees an increase in the popularity of youth travel ball, which includes camps and tournaments, cities hosting these camps and tournaments see an economic boost, meaning people are traveling, staying in hotels, eating at local restaurants and shopping at local stores. All of these businesses benefit from a longer summer.

Fall break also has an impact on local businesses. Businesses often hire high school students to work during the summer. But they can’t hire someone to work for just one week during fall break. At the same time, when kids are home for fall break, they are either left home alone or one of their parents has to stay home with them, which means local businesses lose some of their employees during that week. If that parent is an hourly employee, then the family loses their income for those days. The business also suffers from losing an employee for one or more days, which in turn negatively impacts the economy.

Now let’s consider this from an education perspective. Summertime is a great opportunity for kids to engage in all sorts of beneficial extracurricular activities. Summer camps, family vacations, jobs and internships, all of these opportunities teach our kids valuable lessons and allow them to gain critical experiences or make a little extra money. Kids can’t participate in these activities during fall break or holidays.

Longer holidays and extra breaks interrupt the learning process for kids and forces teachers to have to spend more time reviewing and less time moving forward.

So what is the benefit of having a fall break or longer holidays?

Let’s not forget, the governor and state leaders have come out recently and said the state needs more revenue. I agree. But no one wants to raise taxes. The solution to our budget problems is more jobs and more business: when summer is extended, the gulf coast alone generated an additional $86 million in revenue.

Furthermore, starting school earlier costs the taxpayers more money. August and September are among the hottest months of the year. Running the power and having to air condition the schools those extra weeks costs the taxpayers more money but gives us no real benefit in terms of the quality of education we are providing.

Extending summer break is an issue that transcends politics. I was proud to sponsor this legislation in years past. But it took bi-partisan support to actually pass the bill. My friend and colleague, Randy Davis, a Republican from Daphne, sponsored the bill the year it was passed. He and I were able to bring Democrats and Republicans together to find a solution that benefits business, families and our children’s education.

If we want to be serious about improving our economy and improving the quality of education in this state, then we need to start by bringing back the school start date bill, and giving our children, families and businesses a longer summer. There’s no reason we can’t make this happen, and I look forward to working with leaders in both parties to make that happen.

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