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Opinion | Legislators should not ignore infrastructure, education and jobs just because it is an election year

Craig Ford

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By Rep. Craig Ford

The legislative session began this week and, by all accounts, it’s expected to be an uneventful year. The only goal lawmakers seem to have is to pass the budgets and go home.

But there is a lot of work that can and ought to be done instead of just kicking the can down the road for the next legislature.

Beyond the typical budget issues, there’s a lot of unfinished business involving our infrastructure, healthcare, education and jobs that we need to address – and all of these issues go hand-in-hand.

If we want to create jobs, we have to have a healthy and educated workforce. At the same time, we have to have the infrastructure that can meet the needs of the businesses we want to recruit.

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Traffic congestion and roads and bridges that are in bad condition make it harder for us to recruit industry. Traffic congestion makes it difficult for employees and customers to even get in and out of the parking lots and shopping centers, while damaged roads and bridges cost businesses gas money and vehicle maintenance costs. These problems turn business leaders off and can cost us opportunities to bring new industry to our area.

That’s why I have pushed so hard – and secured a commitment from the governor – for the I-759 extension. It’s also why I continue to fight for funding to finish widening Hwy 411 connecting Etowah and Cherokee counties, and for other projects like the Southside Bridge and widening Hwy 77 in Attalla.

Education is another critical part of job creation and industrial recruitment. Businesses need to know that the local workforce has the skills needed to do the jobs they want to bring, and more and more that means workers with computer and trade skills.

There is a major deficit in our state between the need for workers who can weld or work with electrical and plumbing systems and those who actually have the skill set to do those jobs. That deficit also exists with technological and computer skills that are becoming increasingly important in today’s work environment. That’s why increasing funding for pre-k, computer and career technical programs should be one of our highest priorities in this legislative session.

Healthcare is another issue that might play a bigger role this year because of the uncertainty coming out of Washington, D.C. Even if you have private health insurance or don’t have kids, you should still care about Medicaid and the national Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Let me explain why.

It’s not just about the 83,000 kids who get their healthcare directly from the CHIP program, or the additional 70,000 who have healthcare through Medicaid but funded by CHIP. What it’s really about is their doctors and local hospitals.

If CHIP doesn’t pay for those kids, then doctors and hospitals don’t get paid. And if they don’t get paid, they can’t stay in business. That’s why we have lost 10 hospitals (mostly in rural Alabama) since 2010, and nearly lost an 11th hospital last year in the governor’s own hometown.

Doctors and hospitals going out of business affects everyone, including the majority of us who have private health insurance. And the loss of – or risk of losing – local doctors and hospitals can obviously make a community less attractive to the industries we are trying to recruit.

Similarly, addressing the opioid crisis is also important because businesses don’t want to hire people who can’t pass a drug test.

So bringing jobs and industry to Etowah, Cherokee and DeKalb Counties will require more than just tax incentives and land development. Those things are obviously important, and we do need to be smarter about the way we do them – especially the land development (What we don’t want is to waste millions upon millions of dollars on developing land and then not bringing any businesses to that location).

But we can’t rely just on tax breaks and land development. We have to offer the whole package if we want to be competitive. That means improving education and making sure our curriculum is meeting the actual needs of the businesses we are trying to bring here. It also means making sure our roads and bridges are safe, and that traffic flows smoothly. And it means that we have to have a workforce that is not only trained and motivated, but also healthy enough to do the jobs that business want to bring.

It’s tempting for legislators to simply pass the budgets and go home. But if that’s all we do this year then we won’t be doing our jobs.

Rep. Craig Ford represents Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives. He served as the House Minority Leader from 2010-2016.

 

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Opinion | School boards are choosing systems over students by calling for scholarship repeal

Rachel Blackmon Bryars

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Boards representing three of the state’s largest public school systems – Mobile, Baldwin and Montgomery counties – recently passed resolutions calling for a repeal of Alabama’s landmark tax credit scholarships for low income families.

They claim that the small yet popular program created in 2013 by the Alabama Accountability Act has “caused harm to the financial wellbeing” of their cash-strapped systems.

But is this accurate?

Truth is, Alabama is now collecting more money to educate fewer students. Overall, the statewide education budget has grown since the scholarships were first offered. Meanwhile, enrollment has steadily decreased over the past five years, reports Al.com.

Of these three systems in particular, each have received significant funding increases while two saw decreases in the number of students they served.

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According to an analysis of state budget data performed by Ryan Cantrell, a school choice advocate who helped craft the scholarship program:

·      Mobile’s share of state funding increased by nearly 8 percent since 2014 while its enrollment shrank by 6 percent from last year.
·      Montgomery’s funding has increased by 5 percent while its overall student population decreased by more than 7 percent.
·      And Baldwin’s share of state education dollars increased by a whopping 22.5 percent.

Even a rural system like Tallapoosa County, whose board also called for the scholarships to be repealed, has seen its funding grow by 7 percent while its enrollment shrank by nearly 4 percent since 2013, according to Warren Callaway, executive director of Scholarships For Kids.

As for the scholarships? The program represents only one-half of one percent of the state’s multi-billion-dollar education trust fund, which we just learned grew by $428 million, or nearly 7 percent, over last year, according to Al.com.

Still, some school system officials claim that keeping 99.5 percent of an ever-growing budget for business as usual isn’t enough.

They want it all.

“We’re tight. Things are short,” said Montgomery Public School Board member Melissa Snowden in a WSFA report. “You know we have a lot of needs and so every bit counts.”

We’ve heard from the school boards, but what do parents and students think of the scholarships?

Ask Mobile County resident and mother-of-five Alleane West.

“It was a relief that nobody would understand,” West said in an Alabama Opportunity Scholarship video about the program’s impact on her family. “You know, you’re a single mom with boys trying to not make them a statistic.”

West’s oldest son, Nick, used the scholarship to attend McGill-Toolen High School where his classmates named him “Most Likely to Succeed.” He earned a 32 on his ACT and a full scholarship to the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

“It is hard when you are a parent trying to raise men, and to keep them away as much as possible from what is really out there,” West said.

Ask a Montgomery County parent.

“When my son Carlos was in the fifth grade, he was constantly bullied and I wanted to desperately put him into a private school,” wrote Nyenya Webster in Alabama Daily News, adding that the scholarship “has been a lifesaver for my son.”

“He graduates in two years and is now considering college,” she said. “My son never talked about going to college before …”

And ask a parent in Baldwin County, where you’ll find no failing schools and relatively few scholarship recipients, but where bullying is still a painful reality like anywhere else.

“To witness what this opportunity has done for my son emotionally, has been the best experience I could have as a parent,” said Lauren Hunter, who pursued a scholarship when she learned what her son was enduring at his old school. She said he feels “safe” and has flourished in Catholic school.

Despite the successes that families have experienced, David Tarwater, who offered the resolution shortly before his term recently ended on the Baldwin County Board of Education, believes the program is “stealing money” from students.

“There’s no way to fix it,” he said in a Lagniappe article. “We’re asking for this thing to die and to die a quick death.”

But if this program dies, so may the dreams of thousands of low-income Alabamians who seek nothing more than to put their children in the best learning environment possible – a choice that higher incomes families have always had.

Remember the parable Nathan told King David? A rich man had a great many sheep, yet took a poor man’s only beloved lamb to feed a visitor.

Ask yourself: since Alabama public education gets the overwhelming lion’s share of a growing state budget, and low-income scholarship recipients get only one half of one percent … who is who in the parable?

Rachel Blackmon Bryars is a senior fellow at the Alabama Policy Institute. Contact her at [email protected]

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Opinion | Looking for a day or a person?

John W. Giles

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Are you looking for a particular day or are you looking for a person? Yes, Dec. 25 is Christmas; so after all of the gifts are opened and the living room is cleaned up, it is like; so what do we do now? Many do suffer a little from post-Christmas downheartedness and become a little visionless. Days come and go, but people are with us for a lifetime.

Christmas should be an exciting time of year and like the song says; “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” People seem to be kinder, a bit more charitable to the downtrodden and those in need; even Ole Ebenezer Scrooge has a changed heart and a sense of charity. Is it giving or receiving gifts, Christmas decorations, Christmas carols, Christmas bonuses from our job or a sense of expectation? I would suggest that it goes much deeper than the expectation of a day or material benefits, this unexplained expectation can be found buried deep in the treasures of the Season of Advent.

What is Advent? How does it relate to Christmas? Many expressions of Christianity throughout the world still use the ancient Liturgical calendar, which is a series of religious feasts and seasons celebrated year round. The early New Testament Church inherited many of these feasts and celebrations from ancient Jewish customs, traditions, ancestry, feasts and celebrated events between mankind and the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the Promise Land of Israel. The Christian Liturgical calendar begins each year with Advent, then Christmas, Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter, then Ordinary Time again and then it starts all over again.

The Latin word for Advent is adventus, which means arrival or appearance. Advent is the arrival of a notable person. It is also a season observed by many expressions of Christianity worldwide, which is a time of expectancy, anticipation, preparation for the Nativity of Jesus and also the return of Jesus known as the second coming. This Season begins four Sundays before Christmas. The Season of Christmas according to the Liturgical calendar begins on Christmas Eve and this year goes through January 13th which is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In reality, Christmas should not be just confined to one day. We will take a look at the Season of Christmas later on.

When we use computers, deeply embedded below the surface of our work on the screen is all of this code language written by computer experts that makes our software run. Deeply embedded into God’s plan and the core of our foundation during this time of year is an unwritten code for a time of expectancy, looking to the future with an excitement and the hope of better days ahead. The promise to the Old Testament prophets was a new King; redeemer of man’s sin was going to come, a Messiah, which means Christ in Greek.

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The New Testament story began when an engaged virgin named Mary was visited by an angel of the Lord named Gabriel. He startled her with a life changing message; she was chosen as the only woman on earth to conceive a child by the Holy Spirit and would bear a son and his name would be Emmanuel, which means, “God With US.” God later appeared to Joseph her husband in a dream and calmed his anxiety about her expecting a child outside of wedlock and told Joseph he would have a son and he shall be named Jesus and he would save his people from their sins. Talk about expectancy; Jesus, Emanuel, God with us was to be borne by a virgin and would be the redeemer or savior of the world. If we ever needed redemption in our life, here it is, as we wait with great expectation of the coming of the savior of the world.

Advent is also symbolized by the Advent wreath, which is a long standing Christian tradition that symbolizes the four weeks leading up to the coming of our savior. It started in Germany among German Lutherans in the 16th century. It is a horizontal wreath made from greenery with four candles which are lit one at the time each Sunday. The circular wreath symbolizes God’s infinite love for us and the greenery symbolizes the evergreen hope of eternal life. The candles lit each week are symbolic of the light of Christ: Week One – Hope, Week Two – Peace, Week Three – Joy and Week Four – Love. Generally all of the candles are the same color except on Week – Three, which is pink symbolizing Gaudete Sunday, which means in Latin to “rejoice” for he is almost here.

Advent is also a celebration of the expectancy of his second coming. For the redeemed, Advent is a time of prayer and fasting serving as a reminder of his nativity birth, but looking with great anticipation of his promised return.  While there are many biblical accounts citing this second coming, Jesus told the parable about the Ten Virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. The bible refers to the redeemed (saved) as the bride of Christ; so these Ten Virgins are symbolic of you and I and meeting the bridegroom in his second coming. Five were prudent and took additional oil with them and the other five were not prudent and did not have staying power, waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. When the announcement came that the bridegroom had arrived, five made it and five did not.

During this Season of Advent, let’s go deeper than the surface of a particular day, Christmas decorations, parades and gifts. Let’s be aware of those around us who need a touch, smile, encouragement, hand up or a note. Let’s also be givers and not takers. Traditionally over time, we have been encouraged to pray and fast, with the expectation of his arrival. Truefully speaking; the oil in the parable of the Ten Virgins is the Holy Spirit; so when we pray for others and fast our opportunities to help others will soar and our lamps will be filled to over flowing. The Holy Spirit is this deeply embedded code that urges us to be charitable, kind and sympathetic to others.

So this Season of Advent leading up to Christmas, try and recalibrate our thinking from a particular day to a particular person.

May God richly bless you and your family during this special Season of Advent.

 

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Opinion | Jo Bonner comes to Montgomery

Larry Lee

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Gov. Kay Ivey has just announced that former U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner is joining her staff as “senior advisor.” In my opinion, this is great news for the people of Alabama.

I have known Jo since 1982. And if I could sum him up in just one word, it would be GENUINE. What you see is what you get.

As far as I know, he is the same person he was when I met him 36 years ago. He has a moral compass that is steadfast and has always seen the light side of life–even when the joke is on him. Trust me, there are not many in the political world I would say this about.

He was just out of school at the University of Alabama and working on the campaign of my college classmate, Lt. Governor George McMillan, who was running for governor, in 1982. (And lost in a runoff to George Wallace.) Jo was working throughout the Wiregrass and was stationed in Dothan.

McMillan was having a rally in Dothan and that’s where Jo and I met. At some point that evening Jo asked where I was spending the night since I lived in Montgomery. I told him I had no plans and he graciously suggested that I spend the night with him since he had an available bed. I did.

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Years later when he was elected to Congress from Alabama’s First District, he sent me a note on his stationary and said something to the effect, “I will not forget the night we spent together in Dothan.”

He told me later with a hardy laugh that his secretary questioned what he said in the note and asked him if he was really going to send it.  He told her he was because it was true. How do you not appreciate that quality in a person?

When we studied 10 rural elementary schools in 2008, I was dumbfounded by the physical condition of Calcedever elementary in the north end of Mobile County. To call it deplorable was being too kind.

I got Jo to come visit the school and see firsthand. He did. And in each room he quickly told the students that he worked in Washington and if they were ever going to be there, he would help arrange a tour for them. A little blond guy in the first grade paid rapt attention and as soon as Jo said this, he quickly pulled out his pencil and asked, “What is your number?”

I nearly fell in the floor laughing.

Jo worked for Congressman Sonny Callahan of Mobile for 18 years. And when Sonny retired in 2002, Jo was elected to replace him. He stepped down in 2013 to take a position at the University of Alabama.

As we say in Red Level, “Kay, you done good.”

 

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Opinion | Down the home stretch

Bradley Byrne

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Some of the greatest sporting events in history have come down to the wire. Those bottom of the ninth, fourth and inches, double overtime plays are what stand out in our memories as the greatest successes or the worst defeats in sports history.

Similarly, we here in Washington are entering our own home stretch of the 115th Congress. It has been a long year filled with many victories for the people of Alabama, but there is still work to be done.

Next year, the game will change completely. With Democrats taking control of the House, things will be different.

Where bipartisan progress can be made, we must take advantage of it. Instead of being the “resistance,” we should be the loyal opposition. Loyal to the country but opposing policies and ideas that do not match up with our conservative values and beliefs.

I promise you two things that won’t change no matter who is in charge of the House: I will put Alabama’s priorities first, and I will support President Trump and his pro-America agenda.

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For now, the next two weeks will be like the bottom of the ninth in Washington. We still need to pass a Farm Bill that works for our Alabama farmers and foresters, ensure the national flood insurance program continues, pass a funding bill for the remaining portions of the federal government, and protect our Southern border.

As I have said before, our farmers are our future. Without the tireless efforts of farmers all across the nation, life as we know it would not exist. I am hopeful we can pass a strong Farm Bill by the end of the year to provide greater protections for Alabama farmers and ensure benefits for rural America.

The flood insurance program is very important for those of us in coastal Alabama, and I want to see the program reformed and strengthened in a way that protects our coastal communities. We cannot let the program expire, so I will be pushing hard to get the program reauthorized.

Similarly, we must work to fund the remainder of the federal government. We currently have around three-quarters of the government funded for next year, including the critical funding needed to rebuild our military. This was the first time in a decade that we have been able to reach this point on time and in a bipartisan way.

Now, we must address funding for agencies like the Department of Justice, Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Homeland Security. I want to see a funding bill that reflects the need to rein in wasteful spending while also supporting programs and projects important to Alabama.

It is imperative that any funding bill also help secure our southern border. It is clear that our immigration system is broken, and we must fix it. First, however, we must build President Donald Trump’s border wall and stem the flow of illegal immigration.

I have a solution to provide funding for the wall: the 50 Votes for the Wall Act. By using the budget reconciliation process, we can avoid Democrat obstruction in the Senate and secure the funds necessary to complete this task. I hope my colleagues will make the right decision for the country and bring my bill up for a vote.

These next two weeks will be the last play of a tough-fought game. As we near the goal line, I am committed to trying to get a few more wins for Alabama and America before the next Congress starts.

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Opinion | Legislators should not ignore infrastructure, education and jobs just because it is an election year

by Craig Ford Read Time: 4 min
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