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Opinion | One political rumor is true

Artur Davis

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Preparing to run for office means fending off rumors. No surprise that as I prepare to reenter Montgomery politics next year, I have gotten tips that “people are asking about your finances” and “do you have a tax problem?”

So, I am going to beat the rumor-mongers to the punch by telling you that even they get it right sometimes. I do owe back federal taxes for one year, 2015, and the amount, roughly $272,000, is almost double what my wife and I currently earn in wages. I had a large one-time surge in income because I cashed out four years of stock options I earned from serving on a corporate board of directors.

I spent those options on three big ticket items: unexpected family medical bills, paying the tax penalty from the stock sales and financing my race for Mayor of Montgomery. If I knew the tax code as well as I should have, I would have known that the $325,000 I paid the IRS was still not enough.

I am in debt because I made the fundamental error of calculating my own tax rate and getting the baseline wrong: I thought that a stock transaction would be taxed at a rate of 20 percent. In fact, if the stock is held for less than a year, it leaps to a much higher rate, in this case, nearly 40 percent.  A former member of the congressional tax writing committee should have known better: if I had more money in those days than the mid six figure congressional salary, I suspect I might have been more attuned to the specifics of what tax laws do to families. I was a pretty good congressman, but I should have known every nuance of the tax code I voted on revising numerous times.

The same ignorance about the difference in long and short-term capital gains spilled over into another blunder, not appreciating that every individual stock sale within the year triggered new taxes and new debt to the IRS.

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My “do it yourself accounting” meant that the taxes I paid the federal government in 2016 were about $270,000 short, not a good place to be when it took another year to find work. For the last two years, we have survived on a rickety structure of dwindling savings, a blend of salary and consulting fees that have yet to exceed $100,000 annually, and my wife’s modest salary as a non-profit employee.  I have withdrawn virtually half of my retirement account to stay afloat during periods without work.

My tax lawyer and I have spent several years petitioning the IRS to accept payment plans, negotiated settlements, and we are still stuck in the maze of IRS bureaucracy.

When you owe federal taxes, the government files a lien even if you are trying to work out a resolution, and it remains until the debt is paid. A lien is not a pretty thing to have sitting on your credit and it puts an anchor on any lottery you might win, or any property that you might sell.

But a lien doesn’t make a citizen a tax cheat or a tax dodger. Those slurs describe people who file false returns and try to hide their income from the government. Most liens are not a sign of irresponsibility.  They are a sign you are powerless to pay a bill that way exceeds your current means.

The sources spreading the rumors about my tax debt no doubt hope that a tax lien is toxic enough to be a disqualifier from political office.

A year and a month from now, when Montgomery elects its next mayor, we will see.  I happen to believe that enduring a financial crisis, instead of closing the door, ought to make your service more informed and more sensitive. I have had an involuntary education in what it means to be a middle-aged man who lacks the capital to start his own business, the client base to attract a law firm, or the family wealth to ride a parent’s coattails. I have established I am no tax expert, but I put faith in the reality that Montgomery is full of folks who have struggled when our dreams and hopes didn’t come through. Perhaps a leader should know up close what that burden feels like.

At minimum, my tax fight ensures I can’t be another politician who cavalierly regards taxes as just the leveraging of other people’s money to wager on my good ideas. That awareness won’t intimidate me into taking an automatic no new taxes pledge, but it reinforces my caution about the reflex I hear these days in Montgomery that the real answer to our failing schools is “make them pay more taxes.”

I live first hand with the unfairness in our code, which for example taxes the royalties from the books a dozen congressmen write at a lower rate than the stock transactions millions of ordinary Americans make. I am dealing with the inequity of a tax law that does not adequately account for the current inability to pay. And while I left the Republican Party, they aren’t wrong when they say that the government takes too much of the money we earn.   

Stacy Abrams, who may become Georgia’s first black governor in November, is right when she says that her $200,000 of debt to credit cards and IRS liens should not block her ambition, or the aspirations of us mere mortals who are trying to recover from our personal recession. In this depressing political age, more of us flawed, imperfect, indebted mortals should step forward and own the lessons from spending time in the valley instead of running from them.

 

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | National Hunting and Fishing Day: Celebrating Alabama’s sportsmen and women

State Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh

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Saturday, September 22 is our nation’s 46th annual National Hunting and Fishing Day. As Co-Chair of the Alabama Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus and as a member of the 48-state National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses, I am proud to take time to celebrate the time-honored traditions of hunting and angling. I am also pleased to recognize the historical and ongoing contributions of our state’s original conservationists — sportsmen and sportswomen.

Alabama hunters and anglers are the primary source of conservation funding for the Yellowhammer State. Through the purchase of licenses, tags, and by paying self-imposed excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, archery equipment, fishing tackle, motorboat fuel, and other equipment, hunters and anglers drive conservation funding in Alabama and the United States, through the American System of Conservation Funding, a “user pays public benefits” System. Last year alone, this System, combined with hunting and fishing license sales, contributed over $47 million to fund state conservation efforts administered through the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). All Alabamians benefit from these funds through improved access to public lands, public shooting ranges, improved soil and water quality, habitat restoration, fish and wildlife research, private and public habitat management, hunter education, boat access area construction and many other DCNR projects funded through this System.

Hunting and angling are also a significant economic driver for our state. Alabama sportsmen and women spend roughly $2 billion per year on their outdoor pursuits, supporting nearly 40,000 jobs in the state and contributing over $165 million in state and local taxes.

Hunting produces countless benefits for our state’s conservation funding and economy, therefore it is important that Alabama sportsmen and women invest time and effort to encourage future participation by the next generation in these time-honored traditions. This effort to increase hunter participation is called recruitment, retention, and reactivation (R3) and over 450 individual R3 programs nationwide have had regional success. R3 programs, as well as many others, need your support and it’s going to take the involvement of every Alabama hunter, regardless of age, to ensure the future of the outdoor pursuits we celebrate on National Hunting and Fishing Day. Our hunting and angling heritage should not be taken for granted, and getting the next generation of Alabama’s sportsmen and women involved in the outdoors will help ensure the conservation of our abundant natural resources for the future.

More information on National Hunting and Fishing Day is available at www.NHFDay.org or on the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation website at www.congressionalsportsmen.org/policies/state/national-hunting-and-fishing-day

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Del Marsh, a Republican from Anniston, is the President Pro Tem of the Alabama State Senate.

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Opinion | Setting our funding priorities

Bradley Byrne

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I know this may be hard for you to believe, but there was a major, bipartisan victory in Congress last week that failed to gain any of the attention it deserved. I want to highlight some of the progress we made last week and explain why it should matter to those of us back in Alabama.

Last week, both the House and the Senate passed a funding bill that covered three very important parts of our government: military construction and veterans services, energy and water development, and Legislative Branch operations.

I am pleased to see us passing targeted funding bills instead of waiting until the last minute to pass a massive omnibus funding bill. Over the last few years, the House has been able to pass funding bills only to see the process stall out in the Senate.

Thankfully, since Alabama Senator Richard Shelby became Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the process has actually been moving again in the Senate. This has allowed us to focus on passing the smaller funding packages that are targeted toward our priorities.

So why is this funding bill important? Obviously funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is important for our state given the large number of veterans that call Alabama home. The bill includes the largest dollar amount in funding for the VA in our nation’s history. This means the VA will have the resources necessary to take care of our veterans, hire high-quality employees, and cut back on the claims backlog.

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There have been serious issues at the VA over the last few years, so I am pleased the funding bill dedicates more for the VA inspector general. This money will allow for stronger accountability at the VA as we work to make sure no veteran is left behind.

The bill also includes funding for military construction programs in Alabama and across the country. As we work to rebuild our nation’s military, we must not forget about our military infrastructure. This funding includes money set aside for military housing programs. If we are to retain the best and brightest in our military, we need to ensure they have first class facilities.

Next, the funding bill sets aside funding for the Army Corps of Engineers. Those of us in Southwest Alabama know the important work the Corps does on a daily basis to keep our waterways open and navigable. This is important to those of us who like to spend time on the water for recreational purposes, but it is especially important for our economy since so much of our commerce is conducted on waterways.

Just consider the Port of Mobile and the important commerce that goes in and out of that Port each day. Under this funding bill, the Corps will receive $7 billion for navigation projects, the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, and to help with flood prevention and restoration projects. This money is very important for our country, but especially important for our state.

Finally, the bill funds our nation’s nuclear security strategy by dedicating money to support our nation’s nuclear weapons and the Navy’s nuclear reactors. The bill sets aside money to ensure nuclear weapons do not fall into the wrong hands and funding to prevent against cyberattacks. Our national security must always be the top priority.

As you can see, this commonsense government funding bill is good for our country and Alabama.  I was pleased to see it pass the House on a strong vote of 377 to 20, and I hope we can keep up the positive momentum to continue getting the job done for the American people.

 

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Next Generation Alabama PAC

Randall Woodfin

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For the third consecutive year, the Alabama Crimson Tide sit atop of the Associated Press college football preseason poll. This ranking comes on the heels of celebrating the university’s fifth national title in 11 years and securing one of the nation’s top recruiting classes.

But building a winning program like Alabama is not easy. The team loses dozens of talented players to graduation and the NFL draft every year, and assistant coaches often leave the program for coveted opportunities with other universities. But thanks to the legendary coach Nick Saban and his next man up mantra, everyone affiliated with the program is adequately prepared and expected to successfully assume the role of the person before.

This is the type of culture and continuity that I long for in the Democratic Party, and wish to replicate in conservative states across the South – especially in Alabama.

As mayor of the largest, most progressive city in Alabama, my role encompasses more than just serving as Birmingham’s chief executive. I am also obligated to fight for issues that I don’t control, but directly affect families in my community. These issues range from affordable healthcare, high-quality early childhood education, and inclusive economic policies that move communities like Ensley and Collegeville forward.

Effective advocacy demands that I bring a distinct voice and consideration to shaping the future for Democrats in my state.  To that end, I am proud to present “Next Generation Alabama” as a tool to cultivate progressive leadership in every corner of the state.

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NextGen Alabama is an Alabama political action committee focused solely on building the Democratic bench in Alabama. We will create our own next (wo)man up mentality in state and local elections across Alabama, supporting talented candidates and passionate campaigns that truly make a difference.

Too many times, Democrats execute campaign strategies that fail to leave behind a grassroots infrastructure that will position the party for future success. We do not register nearly enough new voters or engage infrequent voters. Nor do we invest nearly enough in voter contact data, or develop the campaign operatives and volunteers that other races can leverage down the road.

NextGen Alabama seeks to modify this antiquated approach to Democratic campaigning by focusing on movement building and longevity. We must meet voters in their communities, on their doorsteps and in their churches. That is the only way Democrats will be able to flip conservative states in the South.

We will only invest in nontraditional campaigns that prioritize grassroots organizing and voter contact. And we will only support progressive candidates that are unapologetic about engaging directly with our base and infrequent voters – the kinds of voters who can unlock the chokehold that Republicans have had on Alabama for far too long.

NextGen Alabama is not meant to challenge the Democratic State Party.  If anything, the Democratic Party of Alabama will be our partner in progress. The depth of our challenges in Alabama deserve an all-hands-on-deck strategy. Birmingham deserves to play a leading role in fashioning the future for Democrats in the state, and NextGen will be the platform for doing so.

Think about it. Our values and common decency are currently under assault. Republican leadership in Washington and Montgomery continue to put the profits of millionaires and large corporations before the interests of average families like those I serve in Birmingham. But we can’t change Washington or Montgomery if we don’t first rethink the pipeline of men and women that we send there.

I urge fellow Southern Democratic mayors, particularly in conservative states, to capitalize on your platform. Building our personal brand is not enough, we must build our party and elect the right people who will support the policies that affect the quality of life of our residents.

If you find yourself – like me – representing a blue island in a sea of red, you have an obligation to change the tide for the communities you serve.

Sparking Democratic enthusiasm in your own city will no longer suffice. Democrats across the state need your energy and resources.

Remember, dynasties and winning programs aren’t created overnight. They are only created when individuals are committed to a cause greater than themselves. We all have a role to play, and NextGen Alabama is just getting started.

 

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Opinion | Alabamians need an Ethics Commission that will enforce the laws

Secretary of State John Merrill

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I am disappointed to find myself, once again, in a position to ask what purpose the Alabama Ethics Commission serves to the people of this state. To whom are the elected officials or those seeking public office to look to for ethical political leadership? The people of Alabama need an Ethics Commission that will enforce the laws and regulations it is charged with enforcing, with consistency.

When campaigns file their fundraising disclosures with the Secretary of State’s office, they are required to file on a given date no later than 11:59 p.m. When candidates and political action committees (PACs) fail to file these reports in a timely manner, the law requires the Secretary of State’s Office to issue a civil penalty based on the amount of contributions and expenditures from that reporting period. In the event that a candidate or PAC wishes to appeal the penalty, the Secretary of State’s office is required to send those requests to the Alabama Ethics Commission, allowing members of the Commission to determine whether the penalty should be upheld or not.

At three previous Ethics Commission meetings, in February, April and June of 2018, the commission waived fines on 12 appeals that were filed outside the 14-day window allowed by law.

However, during the Commission’s meeting on Sept. 5, they declined to hear cases filed outside the 14-day window, saying they didn’t have jurisdiction and declining to rule on whether that penalty would stand — despite having previously done so previously 12 times in 2018.

It the position of the Secretary of State’s Office that these specific matters were improperly set aside and should be reinstated by the Commission. And, in spite of a request from counsel for the Ethics Commission, the Secretary of State’s Office will continue to adhere to the requirements of state law which clearly establishes the Commission as the sole body with authority to overturn a penalty issued for a campaign or political action committee filing a financial disclosure form after the due date.

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Previously, Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton stated, “the commissioners reviewed those files and discussed them in detail before our meeting. So they reviewed every one of them as they have for every meeting.” If that is true, then why have they just now become aware of these appeal date issues? Each appeal delivered to the Alabama Ethics Commission is delivered as a file which includes each file that was not timely filed and a copy of the date the appeal was filed.

The Code of Alabama directs the Secretary of State’s Office to work in conjunction with the Alabama Ethics Commission to administer the Fair Campaign Practices Act. Therefore, without communication and cooperation between our agencies, as well as the commission’s consistent application of the laws and rules established by the Legislature, the FCPA does not work.

 

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Opinion | One political rumor is true

by Artur Davis Read Time: 5 min
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