30 Jan 2013
- Last Updated on Wednesday, 06 February 2013 20:00
- Published Date
By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—The Public Service Commission of Alabama is empowered with some very important responsibilities. However, it has generally worked in quiet anonymity.
This all changed with the January PSC meeting when Commissioner Terry Dunn called for formal hearings on the rates of Alabama’s utilities.
The motion by Dunn was rejected by Commissioners Cavanaugh and Jeremy Oden who favored keeping to the original unanimous vote in December to hold public hearings.
Since January, a tumultuous cloud of suspicion, accusation and nastiness has been played out in the press, in emails and in the halls of the PSC.
This action by Dunn has generated some very robust press for the once unknown republican commissioner. It has brought him a certain celebrity on the political left, among environmentalist and those who believe Alabama utility companies are making too much money. Among others, Dunn is being scorned as playing politics with the utility companies to raises his reelection hopes.
As with PSC President Twinkle Cavanaugh, “The Alabama Political Reporter” sat down with Commissioner Dunn to give him a opportunity to tell his side of the story.
However, Commissioner Dunn is a man of very few words and almost without exception, questions asked of Dunn were answered by his chief of staff David Roundtree. Roundtree for years was a reporter for the “Montgomery Advertiser,” he is also a holdover from the days when democrats controlled the PSC Commission. He served as spokesperson for Dr. Susan Parker, democrat who was considered one of the best commissioner to have ever served at the PSC.
Recently, Cavanaugh has said that public hearings were preferred over formal hearings because it gave the public more input into the process.
When asking Dunn about the reason for formal hearing and not the public ones that the commission had agreed on in December, Roundtree said, “A formal hearing is a public hearing, it doesn't get more public than that. Everybody comes to the table with an idea, and we don't discriminate.”
Dunn nodded his head in agreement with Roundtree’s statement.
Roundtree said that “the parties in the proceedings are most likely going to want to be represented by council so you are going to have lawyers representing some of the main parties, but in a formal proceeding a single customer can be a party, if they intervene all they have to do is request to intervene.”
Critics of the formal hearing process say that it is the very presence of legal council and sworn testimony that makes formal hearing less desirable than an informal one. Roundtree, however, indicated that this is the best method for getting to the heart of how rate increases or decreases should be considered. He said, “A formal proceeding is tantamount to a court proceeding, it is very much like a court proceeding.”
He says that in the formal proceeding there would be sworn testimony and written testimony presented with attorneys representing the parties. “It will be part of the record and all the other parties will look at it and they will then respond to it,” said Roundtree. “There will be a part of the proceedings where the staff can ask questions of the various parties and there will be opportunities for the parties to cross examine one another about the testimony that has been submitted.”
He did not seemed worried that environmental advocates like the Southern Environmental Law Center would highjack the proceedings as some have suggested.
Roundtree dismisses Cavanaugh’s and Oden’s call for informal hearing even though Dunn agreed with it earlier.
Roundtree said that he is concerned about there not being a formal record of the hearings.
At this point, Commissioner Dunn did more than nod agreement or say he agreed, with Roundtree.
He said, “That's what we are concerned about. To get at the ROE [Return on Equity] and get down to what makes the ROE work.”
Dunn said that the formal hearing with sworn testimony would allow all present to “get into it” determine what the ROE should be. “If you have no record then you have no way to break it down and see how the mechanism works, and see if it's fair,” said Dunn.
Recently, newspapers, editorials and blogs have erroneously reported that companies like Alabama Power receive 13 to 14.5 percent return on investment. This is not the case, and its reported incorrectly because of ignorance or worse. What the utility companies are given is a Return On Equity, ROE, which is greatly different than Return On Investment, ROI.
According to online research group Zacks.com, “Knowing the percentage of income a company makes on its equity helps you understand whether the company is profitable. Equity includes the original investment plus any money borrowed to fund company activities. A healthy company will show a rate of 20 percent ROE or more. This positive return indicates the company uses its money wisely.” ROE is what investors like Warren Buffett use to evaluated companies worth and stability. According to the formula used by the PSC, Alabama Power is allowed, not guaranteed, to make 13 to 14.5 percent on ROE (45 percent equity to 55 percent debt). When the 13 to 14.5 percent is applied to the 44 percent equity it returns 8 percent on ROE.
Roundtree says that Commissioner Dunn wants to “looks at the high points and makes sure the main criteria that come into play are still valid and good.” He says, “Maybe we adjust that equity ceiling a little and a little of the capital structure. It's just big picture sort of stuff.”
According to Roundtree, in 1983, Alabama Power was put under the formula for the first time, and the next year Alagasco and then Mobile Gas.
He contends that Alabama Power has not been reviewed since that time. Yet, it is the job of the commission to constantly evaluate the companies, which has just recently fallen under GOP jurisdiction.
Roundtree agrees that he and Dunn do not want to go back to the days before 1983 when every rate evaluation was handled by the courts. However, he says he and Dunn want court-style hearings going forward.
While we found Commissioner Dunn, polite and attentive during our meeting, he had very little to say but agree with his chief of staff.
31 Jul 2012
- Last Updated on Friday, 03 August 2012 14:28
- Published Date
By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—Alabama is faced with difficult times and the outcome of the special constitution vote will determine how much worse things will become.
“The bottom line is the money is there,” says Dr. Henry Marby executive secretary of the Alabama Teachers Association. The state is holding a special referendum to pass a constitutional amendment to allow the state to take money from the state’s savings account to fund Medicaid, the department of corrections and keep other vial services from collapse.
“The Lord provided Alabama with this money because we are given these natural resources and we get that money every year,” said Marby. “It doesn’t cost the taxpayers one dime because it is from oil and gas being severed out of the Gulf of Mexico or out of some southern counties that have wellheads.”
The money to be borrowed is a percentage of the royalties being paid by the oil and gas companies that operate in the state.
These are windfalls that started back in the 80s that Alabama has benefited from over the years and the chief beneficiary of that has been the state General Fund.
“People who don’t like taking it out of the savings the question to them would be, ‘Well, are willing to pay more out of your pocket?’” said Mabry. “The answer that I have heard is, no, people don’t want to pay more in taxes. So if they are unwilling to pay more in taxes and they want to keep the same services then the money has to come from somewhere.”
The big complaint by critics of the constitutional amendment is that there is not a provision in the amendment to pay the funds being taken off of the savings account.
“Money will continue to flow into the oil and gas fund so you will make up for that money in a 5-year period,” said Mabry. “We’ve got $2.8 billion in [the savings account], there now. After this constitutional amendment is passed and we go through and fund the General Fund and so forth, we will still end with the same $2.8 billion because the money will keep flowing.”
Mabry concedes that, “In 10 years will the fund will have more than it does today? No, it won’t. It will have $437 million less. But then, you will not have put at risk almost $1.5 billion of federal money, so it is an investment.”
Some opponents of the September constitutional amendment have likened it to Former Governor Bob Riley’s Amendment One.
According to Wikipedia, “In the first year of his administration, Riley proposed ‘Amendment One,’ which would have made swift changes to the state's tax system. The plan essentially consisted of income tax breaks for lower brackets, offset by various tax hikes on consumption, property and income from higher brackets. Part of the problem that this plan sought to address was the strong dependence the Alabama tax system placed upon sales tax, which makes the state budget dependent upon the economy in the state. The plan was estimated to yield an overall state revenue increase of $1.2 billion per year.”
The September constitutional amendment only does one thing and that is to allow the state to use a portion of the gas and oil royalties to keep the government solvent.
If the amendment does not pass it is estimated that six thousand prisoners will be released from state penal institutions. “You say 6,000 prisoners, that is 100 per county. Think about that, if you released 100 convicts in each county, that would be noticeable in some counties,” said Mabry.
Around $50,000 dollars will be used to fund Alabama’s corrections system. Alabama has the lowest per-inmate cost of all 50 states. However, Alabama’s prisons operate at almost 200 percent of capacity and are constantly under threat of a federal takeover.
“We are over capacity and everybody says, ‘So what, who cares, release prisoners.’ The problem is if they get out and then we have these situations like happened in Tuscaloosa, all of these shootings, what then?” says Mabry. “The whole point of having the Department of Corrections and the penitentiaries is to put the people that are unsafe to society away from society. So if people want those kind of characters out on the streets and more of them then I guess we don’t have to pay for the prisons.”
Mabry expressed concern over the cuts that will occurs to senior services, “Are these people to be abandoned, what about what the bible teaches about, the least among us and widows and orphans?”
There is exasperation in his voice as he says, “You want to cut 500 people from having Meals-on-wheels every day? What are those elderly people going to do?”
He says he has many questions about the wisdom of some planned retooling of how the states elderly will be effected, “I have done some research on it because the former Medicaid commissioner kept talking about it saying, ‘We need to look at privatization, we need to look into these other federal home- and community-based waivers that help serve these people.’”
“What was happening was...” Mabry says as he moves to the blackboard again.
“We are spending something like $10,000 but we are going to save all of this money. We are spending $50,000 in the nursing home and we are going to spend $10,000 in this other thing. If you look at the breakdown on this $10,000 it is a home-health aide for 4 hours a day for 5 days, 2 frozen meals per day for 5 days.”
Mabry does not feel this is acceptable care for Alabama’s seniors, “The point was that the folks that are in the nursing home, they need to be in the nursing home because they can’t take care of themselves. And then you are going to leave them alone most of the time?”
This type of cost savings measure according to Mabry is fraught with pitfalls, “You’ve got some high schooler from one-half a day to 8 hours per day, then they are left by themselves for 2 days. You have got to have some level of independence about you. But if you have an incontinence problem or you can’t feed yourself you can’t be put in this situation.”
The home and community-based services waiver that the state applied for over a year ago would reduce the price of senior care but at what cost says Mabry.
“So, what are they going to do? Leave people to die? Obviously if you are just looking at the figures, looking at ways to save money sure you are going to save money but you are also putting people at risk of hurting themselves.”
08 Mar 2012
- Last Updated on Tuesday, 29 May 2012 13:41
- Published Date
By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
Since running for the Governor’s Office in 2010 Bradley Byrne has remained focused on the ideas he promoted during his campaign. Instead of giving up on his vision for Alabama Byrne along with others founded “Reform Alabama.” Byrne describes Reform Alabama as “Do Thank.” not a think tank. One of the areas that they group has been hard at work on is education.
Recently we spoke with Byrne about education and the ideas, methods and programs Reform Alabama has created. The following is part one of a two part series our interview with Mr. Byrne.
APR: OK, let’s talk about your motivation. Why spend most of your free time and your energy on education?
BB: The most important thing state government does is provide public education for people in K-12 through two-year colleges and four year colleges. That one thing the state government does is far more important than just about anything else in state government is called upon to do. Because education has such a tremendous impact, not just on your ability to develop the state economically, but also developing a good quality of life. It’s pretty easy to say, ‘Education, it needs to be a bond when you talk about state government.’ Of course for years, there were things that many of us talked about and wanted to do in education that just weren’t possible because the legislature just wouldn’t bring them up. For years it would take some of it talked about, but they couldn’t get to first base. Now with the (Republican, sic) new majority in the legislature, we have an opportunity to start looking at some reforms that have been bottled up for years; reforms that I think will have a pretty big impact throughout the state of Alabama. The motivation is both because we think education is the most important thing state government does, but also because we think have a new opportunity to work with the legislature with some things that have been battling in the state for a long time.
APR: Normally when we see candidates run for office and they’re not elected, they tend to go back in sort of hiding mode unless they have another office that they’re in. You have not taken to that track at all. Can you share a little bit about what your thinking was?
BB: Sure. Not long after the runoff was over, I got a very nice phone call from Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida. He encouraged me to stay involved and how he lost his first election for governor in Florida. He had put together a foundation after he lost and to push the policy goals that he had been pushing as a candidate, and he encouraged me to consider that. The more I considered it, and talked about it with friends, the board made sense. Because in my race, the important thing was not whether I got elected or not, the important thing was whether the policy objectives we were pushing whether they were instituted. If you approach things that way, that’s the way I approach them, the fact that I was defeated doesn’t mean the effort to try to get those policy objectives put into law. That goal is still there. So this, in one sense, is a continuation of things we were talking about during the campaign, mainly education reform.
APR: I think that everyone is looking at education reform. When your group, which I think you call a ‘do-tank’ and not a ‘think-tank’…
BYRNE: ‘Do-tank’, that’s right.
APR: When you put together this program what are the primary goals?
BYRNE: Well there are some things about children we cannot control in education. We cannot control who their parents are; what the parents do or don’t do for them; we can’t control what’s going on in their households. But what we can do is control the quality of what happens in the classroom. For quality instruction, which very quickly goes in to teachers and teaching methodology, etc., that is the big thing that we can have some control over. In fact we know what happens in other places, if you focus on that you can get amazing results even under difficult circumstances. What we’re focused on and all the things we’re talking about, is raising the overall quality of what we can do in the classroom.
APR: One of the things you mentioned in the blueprint is accountability. Can you give us some ideas, how are we to hold schools and teachers more accountable? What your thinking is on that.
BYRNE: For so long, the way we measured academic success was with regard to inputs: how much were we spending, how many books in the school library, do we have internet hook-up in the school, how many computers we had in school, etc. What we have not done, as we should have, is ‘OK the inputs are fine, but where are the results?’ Are we actually making sure that we are giving children a quality education? Are they getting it? Are they graduating from school, or graduating from school with high standards? Accountability in its truest sense is holding everyone responsible and accountable for the results, not just the inputs. Accountability is at its best is, are we graduating high percentage of our young people from high school and are we graduating them under high standards.
APR: One of the things that we often hear is, we are not putting enough money in education. What comes to my mind, by some of the studies that I’ve read, is there a correlation between the amount of dollars spent and actual success in educating? There are obviously other factors, but is there any correlation?
BYRNE: Money by itself doesn’t do anything, so if we throw money at any problem government gets involved in, particularly in education, if you just throw money at it you’re not going to get anything in return. If you’re going to spend money on something, you have to spend it on targeting things that work. A great example of that in Alabama is the Alabama Reading Initiative; we know it works. But if we spend that same amount of money on a different type of program or not as rigorous of a reading program, we wouldn’t have the same results. Sometimes we spend way too much time talking about money and not nearly enough time on where the money is going to be used for. In Alabama, even despite the recession, if you go back and look at how much money we spend on education in the state today versus what we spent 10 years ago, it is twice as much. There is some inflation during that time but not enough to say it’s been 100 percent. We’re spending more money today on education than we were 10 years ago. I think with improvement with the economy you will start to see funding climbing again for education, and increases in education budgets start again. People will say ‘Well this money is going to be used doing better things for education.’ But if they’re not targeted to things we know work, then it’s just more money we’re not getting anything from. Now the education system in Alabama has been hit very hard over the last four years, no question about that. You can’t keep suffering those kinds of cuts without some kind of effect. So I took account of the negative effects of education, the lack of funding, but if we’re only focused on the money we’re going to miss the things that really matter. Which is what is what really works in terms of education.
APR: Are you working with other groups, that have helped shape the blueprint for education reform in Alabama.
BYRNE: We have worked with Governor Bush’s foundation down in Florida; we actually were able to take, with the generosity of Governor Bush’s foundation, the legislative leadership to the National Education Reform Conference that Governor Bush’s foundation sponsored back in October. We had the Speaker, the President Pro Tem, their staff, some other legislative leaders on education at that conference with us. We have worked very closely with legislative leaders, the Speaker and the Pro Tem and their staff in putting this together. This is largely their view about things; we’re trying to reflect what they think in addition to what we all heard at the conference. We have also worked very closely with the Alabama Policy Institute, A+ Education Reform Organization and with the State’s Superintendent Organization. It’s been a lot of people, there’s no original idea in this thing. You’re exactly right when you said earlier it’s a ‘do-tank’ for Alabama; none of these are our ideas, we picked up on what the people have said and what the legislative leadership thinks, and what they think they can accomplish. We put together a plan that we think can pass and will work for the state of Alabama.
APR: We know that charter schools are going to be a big push with this Session. It’s on the Governor’s mind and the Speaker’s and the President Pro Tem and a host of other folks. Of course it goes back to the old question: why don’t we have school choice in Alabama. Those who oppose school choice argue that the most vulnerable, the most disadvantaged children will be left behind in the poor performing public schools and charter schools will make education worse for the poorest. Is there an answer to the critics?
BYRNE: It’s ridiculous. What happens with school choice, children who are presently locked away in schools that are not performing; those kids don’t have any chance right now. When you have school choice, you give them and their parents the opportunity to go find a better place for them to go to school and get a better education. We know charter schools work; they work in a lot of places around the country. If you want to see it, you really want to see it, go rent the movie “Waiting for Superman.” At the very end of that movie, it follows several families that are poor, I believe all are minorities, and are desperately trying to get their children into charter schools in various places around the country. The very end the camera shows those families when they find out whether they did or didn’t make it in the lottery to get the child to get into a charter school. You see the joy on the faces of the families who won the lottery and got their children into charter schools, and then you see the almost disconsolate view of the ones that don’t get in. It just rips your heart out, because they know those charter schools are the only hope for their child to get a quality education. Far from hurting poor children, charter schools and school choice help them. And that’s what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to give the children that don’t have opportunity that so many have in Alabama.
In part two we talk about digital learning and Byrne's vision for education in Alabama.
30 Jul 2012
- Last Updated on Friday, 03 August 2012 14:28
- Published Date
By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—Recently, talk radio, Facebook and Twitter were buzzing with accolade for a State Representative who wrote that we need to “cut the luxuries” out of state government including Medicaid.
When Dr. Henry Mabry was reminded of the legislators remarks he said, “What luxuries? Is that providing dialysis? Is that a luxury? I think the people receiving dialysis would beg to differ. Providing help for quadriplegics? I don’t think that is a luxury.”
Mabry points out that Alabama is dead last among all states when it comes to providing service to its citizens.
“We should be ashamed of that but that has traditionally not been the case,” said Mabry. “People don’t want to talk about this but state and local funding is 50th in the country out of all of the states.”
He takes issue with those who use what he sees as demagoguery to sell an idea such as cutting the fat or luxuries out of the budget.
“I would say we could go through a list of a thousand things, provided on the General Fund side that you would not consider luxuries by any stretch of the imagination,” says Mabry.
According to Mabry, Alabama sits at 23rd in population and has a median income that is in the middle when compared to other states, “It’s the basics. Alabama funds the basics and it doesn’t fund the basics well.”
He says that most of the services that are provided for Alabama’s poorest citizens is done in the form of healthcare, and even at that Alabama has the most barebones Medicaid system in the country.
“It is not honest to say, ‘We are going to do away with waste and fraud' when you are 50th,” Mabry said. “Waste and fraud is minuscule in Alabama’s programs.”
Last year the state received an award for its lack of fraud and its ability to keep it at bay.
Currently, the state provides around 250 thousand school children with school lunches.
“Is food a luxury?” he asks. “A hungry child is not going to learn. A sick child is not going to learn. Children with sick parents are going to have difficulties. There is a whole host of services provided by the state that have an influence on education, just as education has an influence on state services. Because if you don’t have an educated child and the child doesn’t learn at an early age, that child is going to be more susceptible to going in the path of being a criminal.”
Mabry acknowledge that there is a growing population of parents who, “have been derelict in their responsibilities.” He continues, “I’m not saying all parents, most parents do a good job but a lot of parents don’t do what they should.”
He make a case that there is a necessity to provide for the mental and physical health of Alabama’s children as well as looking out for their security.
“Somebody has to do all that if the parents aren’t willing to.”
He says that maybe that is what some might consider a luxury, “But we are providing for those children because their parents are unwilling to do their job. It may be a luxury for those parents but it is a necessity for those children.”
He says that we can offer these children a helping hand now or face the consequences that may come in the future, “You can pay for it now in the form of these services, or you can pay for it later when they are incarcerated.”
Mabry says it is time for more creative thinking, “How to squeeze more out of the turnip. Not from the waste and fraud because I think that is overdone, but trying to look at alternative funding.”
He says that when he was state finance director they looked at ways to acquire more federal dollars to cover services for the needy.
He cites mental health as an example of where more money might be obtained from the federal government without substantially increasing the state contribution.
“For instance, we’ve been looking at how to fix some of these schools that are not performing. You might have a class that has a lot of special needs children. You’ve got a large class size and then you’ve got say 5 kids that may be special needs, out of 20,” said Mabry. “Those 5 can’t be tended to by just one teacher and one aide. So if we had a couple of mental health workers in there maybe they could help keep those special needs children on track while at the same time all the other students get what they need so there attention is not taken away from them.” He says that during his tenure as finance director,”we did that in mental health and DHR, we successfully got a lot of additional federal dollars to meet state needs.”
Mabry knows that the state is going to have to continue contributing to Medicaid or risk losing the federal matching dollars, “That’s the whole thing about this is that they don’t talk about is here we provide $200 million per year out of this constitutional amendment. Well, if we don’t do the $200 million per year then we are losing $400 million a year in federal funds at least. So, why would we do that? It doesn’t make any sense.”
He says he grows tired of hearing people talk about cutting vital services as an answer to the state's problem. Being ranked 50th out of 50 states leaves us with little or nothing to cut.
“We could be in a situation where CMS tells us that we are out of compliance with our program, Mabry said. “Are we going to be stuck with no Medicaid program with a million people without healthcare needs being addressed? That’s a whole lot of people.”
He continues by pointing out that the that the hundreds of millions of dollars the state contributes to Medicaid actually becomes billions of dollars because of the multiplier effect. “If the constitutional amendment fails we are talking about $2 billion being sucked out of the economy when we have had a weak economy anyway for the last 6 years. It’s not the time to do that.”
In our next installment Dr. Mabry speaks about more fixes and the cost of prisons.
02 Mar 2012
- Last Updated on Tuesday, 29 May 2012 13:41
- Published Date
By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
In the final part of our interview with Governor Bentley he talks about his commitment to rebuilding Alabama's infrastructure and his vision for the future.
APR: For the upcoming session, any thoughts on your mind about what you are hoping to see come next?
BENTLEY: We have an agenda that that we are working on that we think is very important. There are four things that we want to do. Number one is we are going to create jobs in this state and what we got passed [Thursday] is just a part of it. So, we will have to work through those things. We are going to try to get our job creation bills out first.
Then there is an education component to our agenda. We would really like to see some targeted, limited charter schools to see how they work. But that is all, we are not trying to hurt public schools and we don't believe this will hurt public schools. I am a strong public school supporter. My children we to public schools, I went to public schools. I want them to be better, I want all schools to be better. So we are pushing that.
We have some other agendas, we want a lot of flexibility for all of our education systems. Not just charters but if people are doing well give them a little more flexibility. Let them come up with ideas. So we are for that.
We are for supporting our teachers, we really are. I want to give a tax credit to our teachers. If they spend money in their classroom, then let them get dollar for dollar back up to $300. All teachers do that so they need to get that money back.
So that was number two. Number three is the roads and bridges in the state, especially in the rural areas.
APR: There are some bad roads and bridges out there.
BENTLEY: There are. There are. We need to preserve what we have. And that is the first thing we need to concentrate on.
I met just this morning with my Department of Transportation director. We are devising the way we are going to do that with GARVEE Bonds.
I do want some input from the counties, I want them to have a little skin in the game. I don't think you ought to just give. Some can afford a little bit more than others.
These GARVEE bonds are really just future federal dollars that part of that will be used to pay off the bonds.
APR: Explaining that to the people is very important because it is a different type of bond.
BENTLEY: It is totally different. It is not going to cost any tax dollars except we are using the taxes that we already collect--we will be using some of the gasoline tax that we are already collecting to make some of the payment on the bonds. But if we go ahead and do it now and preserve those bridges and roads, we are actually saving because the inflation rate is going to be about six percent if we delay it and we can get the bonds at four percent.
Now, we are not talking about borrowing more money than we need. What we are going to do is work with the counties and we are going to get them to give us input on what they need in their county and the projects that they already have on the books that they would like to see done in their county. So, we are going to work closely with the counties and the county commissioners. Let them present those things to us and anything that they can do.
Now, we are going to make sure its right. That is why the Department of Transportation is involved, to make sure that the projects are done right. But anything that the county can do we are going to let them do it. If they can do it we want local people to do it.
APR: Well that does fit right in with making more jobs and economic development.
APR: Because if we don't have the infrastructure, you can not continue to build businesses without having the proper roads and bridges.
BENTLEY: We have what is called "posted bridges" in this state. In other words you can't drive heavy equipment or trucks or school buses across them. What we are doing with those, we are going to fix those first.
Now, we need to make sure that they are done correctly. That is why they need some oversight from our Department of Transportation. But, if they can do it themselves, obviously we are going to let them do it.
The fourth thing that we are really interested in, as far as our priorities, is we want to improve the healthcare of the people of this state, without invading into anybody's privacy.
We are the most obese state in this country, or close to it. We need to everything that we can to help improve people's lives.
It's like infant mortality, a lot of it comes from babies having babies and how we can change culture.
I think that we need to work a lot through our churches and try to help with unwed mothers and things like this that really causes a lot of the infant mortality rates that we have.
Trying to keep mothers from smoking. Eleven point two percent of the babies that are born in this state, their mothers smoked. The infant mortality rate on those is 13.1 per 1,000 compared to 8.1 per 1,000, if you don't smoke. So trying to get people to quit smoking, but just trying to make Alabama healthier.
What I am going to do is create a health alliance, not make government bigger, we are not trying to make a government entity. We are trying to streamline government and bring all of these entities together like the health department, medical schools, nursing schools.
We want to use tele-medicine to put specialty clinics out in the rural areas. I have these ideas on how to do that, that I think will really help do that in rural areas of the state--using nurse-practitioners.
Those are the four things that we are going to do.
Now, we have a problem right now with our budgets and we are working on that. I did present budget to the legislature. What was funny, I said, "I made the Republican Chairman mad, I mad the Democrats mad and I made AEA mad, so I must have done something right."
We actually presented a good budget and we did it without hurting the classroom. We took a small amount of money from higher ed, but not very much, 4 percent, then 2 percent from the two-year colleges. But the foundation program, which is K--12, was not changed at all.
So it was a good budget but it also allowed us to put some money over into the General Fund. It keeps us from letting prisoners out. If we cut it as much as they say we are going to cut, without using both budgets, without trying to combine them a little bit, we would let out 12,000 prisoners.
APR: When I was on the show with Dana, he brought up the fact that they had made disparaging comments about your budget, and that is wasn't going anywhere, and I said, "Don't dare count the governor out yet." I think you will get 90 percent of what you want.
BENTLEY: They are starting to soften a little bit. The legislators have not even looked at it. It is just the budget chairman. The education guys, they don't want anything done with education money. The General Fund people, they would all be happy with my budget. One of them said some disparaging things also, but he ought to have been one that was happy about it.
APR: Well, Texas combined their budgets some years ago and it worked.
BENTLEY: There are 47 states that have one budget. I know that it probably won't happen this year.
Without raising taxes, which I have vowed that we are not going to do, we are going to live within the money that the people send to Montgomery. I can tell you that people everyday out there in Alabama, they have to live within their means, and we are going to do the same thing in state government.
I am going to go this afternoon to meet with the editorial board at the 'Press-Register,' and I know one of the questions that they are going to ask me, "Well, Governor, why don't you raise the cigarette tax or why don't you raise the tax?" Well, I am not doing that. First of all, I promised the people that I wasn't going to do that and I am going to live up to my promise.
APR: Most conservative don't realize that is still raising taxes, do they?
BENTLEY: That's right. That's right. The other thing is, if you prop up that General Fund, you will never get anything done.
We wish the Governor every success and pray Godspeed, in all his efforts.
27 Jul 2012
- Last Updated on Sunday, 05 August 2012 17:04
- Published Date
By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—In the most recent issue of the AEA journal, Executive Secretary Dr. Henry Mabry informed members of the importance of supporting the September 18 constitutional amendment.
Recently, Dr. Mabry, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Alabama state budget, agreed to sit down with the “Alabama Political Reporter” to share his insight on the state’s financial dilemma as well as his thoughts on Medicaid and the impending constitutional amendment to fund critical services for the state.
“It was obvious at the beginning of the session that the General Fund was going to need more revenue, it was obvious last year, it’s the same every year,” Mabry began. “The Governor had proposed that the money to cover the General Fund shortfall come from the Education Trust Fund, we tried to work with legislators to come up with some alternatives to address the problem facing the state.”
Mabry points out that traditionally the General Fund has “lived hand-to-mouth because it doesn't have revenues that grow that much.” Over the years, the state legislature has passed some laws that have raised state revenues but not enough to even keep up with simple inflation.
“Take for instance drivers licenses, those costs have been stagnant since around 1983,” said Mabry. “The ABC board taxes have remained the same and the cigarette tax has actually declined over time.”
He says that because we have a general fund that relies on a “quilted patchwork of revenue sources that just don’t get the job done” the state will forever remain underfunded unless there are more revenues.
Healthcare expense make up a large portion of the General Fund expenses and the cost of healthcare does rise every year but the General Fund does not grow proportionally according to Mabry.
“Now, because the General Fund has remained mainly static, the resources have not grown to meet the demand,” says Mabry.
Mabry becomes passionate saying, “A million of our citizen are served by Medicaid. That is one million out of 4.8 million, that is a huge part of our population. Is that going to change? No it’s not, because our people are poor.” The emphasis on the word, “poor,” reverberates throughout the room, like the growl of a bear. The tone and facial expression seem to reveal something rarely witnessed in a policy discussion, he really cares.
“We are supporting this amendment because there is a responsibility to take care of the weakest among us,” said Mabry. “We want to see that those responsibilities are addressed.”
Mabry says that it is not just poor mothers and senior citizens that rely on Medicaid but that “many of our working people in Alabama are on Medicaid, people who work at places like Wal-Mart and other retail establishments. These are the people who are being helped.” He also says, “We have a barebones Medicaid program in our state, it is not like well-to-do people are being given free money.”
As he walks to a white board hanging on the wall of the conference room Mabry says, “There is a perception out there that Medicaid has gone through the roof, It hasn’t.”
He begins to draw a chart showing the growth of the general fund and Medicaid, “The cost of Medicaid has been about three percent per year,” he says, “but the general fund only grows by one or one and a half percent.” He keeps drawing lines and boxes to illustrate the problem...the numbers will never match...it starts to make sense...like a math problem once a professor draws it on the board. One percent growth on general fund...inflation 3 percent...medical inflation 8 percent...suddenly it is clear and he says, “So, you either have your revenues keep up or cut services.”
When asked why he thought that the state was unwilling to even raise modest fees or taxes Mabry says, “Maybe Grover Norquist and the whole idea of no tax pledge.”
Then something unexpected, “I was watch something with George H.W. Bush on it and he said, ‘Who the hell is Grover Norquist?’” It is a funny moment in an otherwise serious interview. Often referred to as the Dirty Harry of tax reform Norquist heads a group that gets politicians to sign pledges for no new taxes or his people brand them a tax-and-spend liberals.
Mabry laughs at his own joke and we go back to the serious problem facing Alabama.
In part two Mabry shares more of his reasons for supporting the September constitutional amendment and why many legislators fail to see the fiscal and human cost of this vote.
28 Feb 2012
- Last Updated on Tuesday, 29 May 2012 13:41
- Published Date
By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
On Monday we were given the opportunity to speak with the Alabama House Speaker, Mike Hubbard.
The Speaker talked about some of the success achieved so far in this years session and a few very important bills that will be introduced this week. He was also very candid about a number of items that are on his mind.
APR: Thank you Mr. Speaker for giving us some of your time today, I know you are very busy. If we could just revisit for a minute the jobs package that recently passed. It is becoming clear as we hear from folks around the state, even out in the rural communities, they’re starting to get a sense what this jobs package means to them. It will take a while for it to trickle down. But we know that this was something you really planned and shepherded through, any other thoughts on that?
Speaker Hubbard: Yes, last year, I worked on the jobs commission. The whole purpose of that was to go and listen to people throughout the state of Alabama, not politicians, but the people who actually create jobs, the ones who run small businesses and are entrepreneurs. We wanted to find out what in state government we could do to help them. We got great feedback; it ranged from cutting through red tape, getting rid of unnecessary regulations that keep them from expanding, to incentives that we can provide that will cause them to look at creating jobs, rather than just remaining in a bunker mentality that people have been in, all over the country. I’m very proud of the package we came out with during this session; it was number one on our agenda. We told people in Alabama there was nothing more important than job creation and economic development. We followed through with it that was the first package of bills we passed through the House of Representatives that we sent up to the Senate. We still have some we are working on; one is to try to increase the film industry. Alabama is perfectly suited to really be a leader in that area, we’re just not competitive financially. So films have just not been made very much in Alabama, we just cannot compete with Georgia, New Mexico, Louisiana and other states that do provide these incentives. So we’re trying to get us in a position to where we are competitive. The folks who say we’re taking money away by offering incentives, they just don’t understand. Just like the other issue on the agenda, you know if you don’t have anything right now, then if you create something, you’re not taking away, you’re adding to. We’re all about trying to make the pie bigger. With Octavia Spencer winning the Oscar, she’s a Montgomery native and an Auburn University graduate, that’s a perfect time to be showcasing what we can do in the state of Alabama. With all the resources we have in Alabama, everything from mountains to beaches. We have the most beautiful scenery, more water than virtually any other state in the entire country. The opportunities are endless. We have the hard part, we have the places necessary. We just need to have the financial capability to compete and bring these people in. That’s a huge economic boom for the state of Alabama.
APR: You know, a lot of times people don’t understand the film industry, they tell you right up front its show “business.” If there’s no business incentive, they’ll take the show somewhere else.
Speaker Hubbard: That’s right. We just have to be competitive. In a perfect world, you can have the debate about whether you should have incentives and all of that. But in a perfect world, you wouldn’t need incentives. Everybody would just win based on what you can offer in terms of workforce and other issues, but that’s not the world we live in. It’s very competitive. Not only are we competing with our sister states in the Southeast, but we’re competing with other states around the country, and other countries. We have to be competitive. We have led the country over the last several years under Governor Riley’s leadership in economic development; we simply have to be in a position to do that. That’s why Governor Bentley was so adamant about his economic development incentive package and hopefully we can get that through the House.
APR: You’re to be commended on that. In the conservative mind, sometimes financial incentives just don’t look right. And in the liberal mind, they don’t want you to take any money away from any social programs. Yet we have to expand the base and compete in the real world. Sometimes I say conservatism is sort of a misshapen pearls, it can’t always be how we want it to be.
Speaker Hubbard: That’s right.
APR: One of the things I don’t think I’ve heard reported and it’s just something I’ve heard around and thought about. When you put together the various committees within the House, there’s a real fairness and balance there that I don’t think people are aware of. You could have done these committee assignments any way you wanted to, but there is real balance with representation.
Speaker Hubbard: Well, I really set out to do that, When we put the committees together, I wanted to be fair and done proportionately within terms of race and political party. I believe we’re fairer to the Democrats than they were to us, which was my goal to be honest with you. I wanted to be fairer. For instance, they had taken away Republican slots on the top three committees: the Ways & Means committees (two of them) and the Rules committee. I was the one that got kicked off Education Ways & Means. When we came into the leadership, I replaced the seats back on Education Ways & Means and General Fund Ways & Means, and Rules Committee. I placed the minority leader on Rules Committee and Education Ways & Means Committee. We have been fairer to them than they were to us.
APR: Well that’s something I think is under reported. Because you just don’t see that every day.
Speaker Hubbard: When Rep. Alan Harper switched parties a few weeks ago, he was in a white Democrat spot on Education Ways & Means, so I replaced him with a white Democrat. I’m trying to keep everything balanced and fair. I think you’ll see the bills we consider, they’re going to be fairly balanced. Now that doesn’t mean all other bills pass, but everybody is going to have the opportunity to have their bills heard. Having served in the minority for so long, I understand what it’s like to be in the minority and that probably helps me to understand the importance of the minority party.
APR: Speaking of Rep. Alan Harper, one of the things you are noted for, is your ability to bring money into the party. I don’t think that’s a secret that you have that ability and have had great success. In fundraising, you have a lot of conservative support around the state. You’ve supported a number of conservative legislators. Do you see any other Democrats that may be leaning towards the Republican party and thinking about switching sides?
Speaker Hubbard: You never say never. But I will tell you, I think any Democrat who would be a true conservative we would like in the party, have probably already switched. We don’t want to take people just because they want to get re-elected. We want people who really believe what we believe from a philosophical stand point. We want people who are philosophically aligned with us, and Alan definitely was and is. We are happy to have him. We’re not in a position where we have to take everybody. The others that are remaining, I don’t question whether their motives were did they believe in what Republicans believe. And that’s something we’re concerned about in 2014. More than likely, in a lot races, it will be over after the Republican primary. We have to be very conscious of the fact that the people, who have been in charge for so long, the special interest, the labor unions, the trial lawyers and whatnot. These people who represent special interests are not just going to roll over and pack their bags and go home, they’re going to try to run people in our primaries against our good conservative, pro-business members. We have to be in a position to defend that, and we will. It’s one of the things I’ve been working on, and raising money along with Governor Riley and President Pro Tem Marsh. We have to understand what the landscape is and understand where the battles will be and prepare accordingly.
APR: On that front, I know there are more battles ahead for you guys. The AEA certainly has put forth their best face to derail the jobs bill. They came up very weakened in the end.
Speaker Hubbard: Well it’s amazing to me; I just find it incredulous the battle they would pick would be over jobs. It’s just common sense we need to make the pie bigger, to have job growth. If we have growth, then the Education Trust Fund is going to get bigger, not smaller. That’s how it grew and grew in to what it is now, by the base getting bigger. It’s just amazing to me that all things to pick a fight on, it was a jobs bill. To me, that just doesn’t make a whole lot of political sense.
APR: Do you expect them (AEA) to come back on any other issues other than charter schools?
Speaker Hubbard: I don’t think so, but you never know. I’m sure they’ll fight charter schools because they’re for keeping the status quo. They don’t want any competition; they don’t want anybody to have a choice. At the end of the day, I believe it just proves the fact that they’re ultimate goal is to not educate kids. And that’s what our goal is: to provide quality education for every student in the state of Alabama who wants to attend a public school. We don’t think you should be forced to send your child to a failing school based on where you live or how much you make. You shouldn’t be forced, as a taxpayer, to send your child to a failing school. That’s just all about providing choices. I’m sure they will fight for the status quo, but my question will be ‘Well, you know insanity is defined by doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.’ The status quo in my opinion is just not an option.
APR: We have generational failures in some of our schools, which leads to higher crime in those communities and higher incarceration in those communities.
Speaker Hubbard: Right, it also costs taxpayer’s money.
APR: Right, we have to change it at the head and work down. One of the things that is on my mind, we have been looking into state retirement pension plan quite a bit. The shortfall there and how it is affecting the budget. It’s a massive strain on the budget. We have looked at the numbers and they certainly don’t reflect what we would expect out of a state pension fund, or any type of investment fund. Take a golf course in Ohatchee that lost $400,000 last year, it just doesn’t seem like we’ve been prudent with that fund. It’s putting a drain now on the entire system. Any comments on that?
Speaker Hubbard: We’re going to have to make some changes in the retirement benefits. There’s no doubt about it. Not for people who are already in the system and not the retired folks, but we simply have to make changes because we can’t sustain it. There’s more coming out than there’s going in. The investments obviously have not been what they need to be. We’re not the lone ranger here, this is happening in virtually all states. You have some liberal states like Massachusetts and New Jersey that are making changes to their public pension plans because they can’t afford them. They have bigger problems than we have. But you’re exactly right; we can’t continue to take almost a billion dollars out of the budget of taxpayers’ money to prop up their retirement system, of which the vast majority of Alabamians don’t participate in. It’s just not fair to ask taxpayers to pay that tab for a system they don’t benefit from. Most folks in Alabama don’t have retirement, if they do, it’s certainly not as lucrative and as liberal as the one the state of Alabama provides. We’re going to have to make some changes and we’re working with the RSA and with the Governor’s Office. I think everyone understands we can’t continue to do the same thing. To be honest, the politically convenient thing to do is to kick the can down the road that would be the easy thing to let someone else deal with it. But that would not be the responsible thing, if we’re looking to do what’s right, then we have to start making changes now to ensure the retirement system remains an ongoing entity.
APR: One of the things that, of course, conservatives expect out of this session, is you to do just those things. Do the hard things, rather than the easy things. Is it business, is it life experiences? How have you become so prepared to do these things, rather than as you say ‘kick the can down the road’? Are there things you can point to in your life that brought you to do the tough stuff first?
Speaker Hubbard: I guess it would be the business background, and the fact of the matter is, we now have a majority of folks in the House and the Senate who are business people. They think like business people, rather than educators or public employees and I think that’s important. The private sector is what drives the economy and what makes everything work. We have to start operating state government like a business, and I understand that it is a different animal. But you can certainly apply business principles and invest practices to make sure taxpayers money is spent wisely. At the end of the day, it’s just doing the right thing. It’s not that hard to know what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s not very difficult to look at something like the retirement system and say ‘Hey this thing is broken, unless we do something it’s going to be bankrupt, and a whole lot of people are going to get hurt at some point in time.’ So we have to make some changes and now is the time to do it. I tell people all the time, if you ever start making votes based on what’s best for you for re-election, then you need to quit. That’s not what we’re sent down there to do. Whenever you’re so dependent on that when you base your votes on re-election, then it’s time to get out. You need to do what’s right. I believe nine times out of 10, or even 10 times out of 10, if you do the right thing, everything is going to work out fine. The electorate is a lot more perceptive than you give them credit for.
APR: One of the things that we of course have witnessed with our Republic, capitalism has sustained it and made it work. Whenever we turn away from capitalist principles, we lose the notion of our freedoms and our liberties and the right to actually earn a living and own things. Capitalism works with our form of democracy, however strange that may seem to some, it works.
Speaker Hubbard: Absolutely. When we stray away from it, that’s when we start getting in trouble.
APR: Yes, absolutely. And these pension plans have moved far beyond what is wise from that view point.
Speaker Hubbard: Entitlement programs are living proof of that. When we start getting into the situation when the government needs to take care of everybody, that’s when it starts falling apart.
APR: There are a million other questions I’d like to ask you, but you’re a busy man. Is there anything else you would like to talk about?
Speaker Hubbard: I think that’s probably it. So far it’s been a good session; it’s been very productive for the jobs package. I look forward to the education reform and the efficiencies in state government that will be coming. Finally, legislative redistricting we plan to tackle in this regular session. It’s never been handled in a regular session before, but we intend to at least attempt to try to get it done. That’s our goal, to save the taxpayers from paying for us to go into special session. Like congressional redistricting, we anticipate in doing it in this regular session.
APR: The congressional redistricting went amazingly smooth. No challenges in court. Would you like to comment on that?
Speaker Hubbard: Well I’m very, very proud; it’s pretty historic that we were able to accomplish it. It went through the Justice Department without challenges and went into law. I’m hopeful we can do the same thing with legislative. I fully expect there to be some challenges, but as long as we follow the rules and don’t do things based on politics and do what’s fair and right, I believe then we will be successful again. It’s certainly our intent.
APR: I have to commend you on the efficiency in which things are running. We’re very happy to get bills and committee meetings calendar on Friday’s. It certainly helps those in our world to be prepared.
Speaker Hubbard: We’re all about transparency and openness so people know what’s going on and that there’s no surprises.
APR: Thank you so much for your time.
Speaker Hubbard: Thank you Bill.
28 Mar 2012
- Last Updated on Tuesday, 29 May 2012 13:41
- Published Date
By Susan Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
Senator J.T. "Jabo" Waggoner is a Birmingham native who is the current Majority Leader of the Senate. He is also Chairman of the Senate Rules, Confirmations and Local Legislation No. 2 Committees.
We spoke with Senator J.T "Jabo" Waggoner about his experience as a legislator and hopes for this legislative session.
APR: I wanted to talk to you about your experience as a senator in the state of Legislature, would you share with me some of the milestones you have been a part of here. For instance, when they are talking about the texting bill and you say, "I was here for seat belt laws. I was here for child restraints. I understand this, I know what I am talking about here."
What are some of your proud moments of legislation that you have been involved in over the years? And now as the senior senator, your thoughts on that.
WAGGONER: I was first elected in 1966, when I was 29 years old. I stayed in the House for 17 years up until, I guess, '83-'84.
The makeup of the legislature back in 1967 was all male, all white and all Democrat. I have seen a total transition from the way it was in those days to the way it is in 2012. We have a membership in the House and Senate that is really indicative of the population of Alabama. We have African-Americans, we have females, we have males, we have Republicans, we have Democrats, and that is the makeup of Alabama.
I have been in the Senate since 1990, 22 years, and I have always been in the minority until 2010. When I first got elected, there were very few Republicans in the Senate in the early 90s but through the years our membership has grown and grown and we are now what is called a "Super Majority," (when I say 'we' I am talking about the Republicans).
My colleagues in 2011 elected me as Majority Leader of the Alabama Senate. I have had honors and plaques and very nice things done for me through the years but I think that day in January of 2011, when my 21 Republican colleagues elected me as majority leader was my finest moment during my political career.
I was also named Chairman of the Confirmation Committee and I am Chairman of the Jefferson County Senate Delegation. Last year, in addition to those assignments, I am now Chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. That committee sets the agenda for every legislative day. It is a very important role. My responsibilities have just about doubled since I've been Chairman of the Rules Committee but it goes with the territory.
I have passed hundreds of bills during my career. I have sponsored many, many bills. I've co-sponsored a lot of bills.
The one that is my pet bill this year is to make illegal texting while driving. I was in the legislature when we passed the seat belt law and, of course, there was a lot of opposition. There were people saying, "Government should not be telling us that we have to wear a seat belt." Well, it took several years to convince a majority of the Legislature that it is all about saving lives. So, finally the seat belt law passed and there is no telling, through the years, how many lives that bill has saved.
Then a few years later, we passed a bill that required infants and children up to a certain age to be put in what is called 'a child restraint mechanism.' It is a car seat, is what it is. And, of course, we heard the same arguments as we did on the seat belt law that government should tell me I have to put my child in one of these car seats. Well, we finally passed that.
Well, here comes texting. Law enforcement personnel will tell you that it is very, very dangerous that while driving you are taking your eyes off of the road and you are texting a message to a friend or someone in your family. It has been introduced [to the Legislature] two or three years. It passes the House and gets tied up in the Senate and has failed to pass. We are hearing the same arguments. That it is "racial profiling" and "government shouldn't be telling me that I can't be texting while I drive if I want to. That is government interference."
But there is no telling how many accidents have happened through the years since we have had cell phones and the ability to text. Eventually, and hopefully this session, we will pass the texting bill. So that is just one of the bills that I am very interested in.
To look back over my career, I would say the most important bills, the ones that meant more to me personally is a bill that I sponsored several years ago. It was for children with problems. We called it the "Early Intervention Bill."
It is where you take children at an early age and you have several departments of state government that get involved in the early intervention of these special-needs children.
That bill does not effect a wide array of Alabama citizens but the people that take advantage of it, it means a lot to those people.
APR: How does it help them exactly?
WAGGONER: Well, there are several departments that go together: The Department of Education, the Mental Health Department and several others. They come together and take these special-needs children under their wings and give them advantages that previously they did not have. Previously, it was up to the parent to take care of these special-needs children.
Now the state of Alabama through early Intervention Rehab Services, which is another department that is involved, these kids get a lot of attention today, whereas 20 years ago they got no attention and no help from the state.
APR: They had their own trailer out behind the school that was their special schoolroom. That was all of the treatment that they received then.
WAGGONER: Yes, they were on their own. But, that one program that I sponsored and created has really meant a lot to me and those parents still come to see me, like this Kelly Rainer [referring to a picture] she comes by every year to talk about the Early Intervention Budget. So, I am very close to that family. I keep a picture [on my shelf] to remind me of that legislation.
It has been a rewarding experience through the years because you are put into a position to really help a lot of people. You know, my phone rings constantly. Some people are reasonable, some people are very nice, then you get some pretty rough customers to talk to every once in a while and that's okay. They are expressing their opinion to their elected official and they have the right and the authority to do that.
It has been a great experience. I am in my 39th year in this legislative arena. It has been a very rewarding experience and one that I wouldn't change for any other experience. I have really enjoyed it.
Of course, today, being in the majority, it is a lot more rewarding. I feel like I have more input and influence over this process than I did when I was in the minority for those many years.
APR: I have to say, the day you broke the filibuster, watching you was like watching a ballet from the gallery. I had never seen a filibuster. This is actually my first time being this involved in the government role and we are totally immersed in it. Watching you that day go in and invoke Cloture and start pushing those rules out of Rules Committee while Del Marsh and Cam Ward and all of the rest making sure that the microphones were occupied while Singleton was about to have a coronary, was a thing of beauty to watch your experience kick in and all of these other senators follow your lead, essentially, as if you were in a dance together.
WAGGONER: That is when we Clotured three or four times in one day, wasn't it?
APR: Yes, it was and it was wonderful to watch. What do you hope to accomplish this session?
WAGGONER: Today, [Thursday], was the 15th legislative day, and we are in [session] 30 [days], so we are half way. Of course we are taking Spring Break all of next week but we will come back April 3. We have some heavy lifting the last 15 days.
We have both budgets, the General Fund and the Education Trust Fund. The General Fund is in horrible condition, the education budget is fair.
Not like it used to be. We could survive with education but the General Fund is really an ongoing problem.
We have the immigration law to deal with, we have charter schools. We have several complicated, real controversial pieces of legislation that we have to deal with. Jobs bills.
We have a local issue in Jefferson county that is a high-profile situation.
We will be working some late nights the last 15 days of the session. We may be be here until the middle of May.
We start the budget process the week after we come back. The education budget will originate here in the Senate. The General Fund will originate in the House.
APR: Do you have any advice to young senators?
WAGGONER: I think that young senators really need to learn the rules of the Senate which is our Playbook, so to speak. We live or die by our rules. Some of them are very complicated and hard to understand but it is hard to survive out on the Senate Floor unless you have a reasonable knowledge of the rules under which we operate and by which we operate.
The new Republican senators that were elected in 2010 are bright and hardworking. They are here for all of the right reasons. They are fully involved. They are learning the rules. They are learning the process. In my opinion, the Republican legislators that have been elected in the House and Senate, I think this legislature is in good shape for the foreseeable future because of the bright, young, knowledgable, energetic guys that represent their districts in Alabama.
We would like to thank Senator Waggoner for taking time out of his very busy schedule to speak with us. We wish him much success and God speed.
21 Feb 2012
- Last Updated on Wednesday, 21 March 2012 16:47
- Published Date
By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
The following is the second part of an interview conducted with Rep. Chris England.
APR: One of the things that PARCA has done is a fairly exhaustive study where there is a overlay where they have schools that are failing and over that you look at the crime rate and it's higher. And then naturally, you look at the correctional institutions in that area and they are more heavily populated. So, there is no doubt that there is a correlation between poor education, crime and overcrowding of correctional facilities. So, it doesn't take a genius to figure out if we can fix one then the other two should improve. I just find that fascinating.
When I was a kid, I went to school in North Carolina, my dad worked there so I went to school there for a while. He help found some of the technical schools. It was available 20 years ago to go to a technical school in North Carolina. You could go to a technical school and learn welding or different jobs like that and kids that were not headed to college were able to go to those schools and, for the most part, find a trade and make a living.
What is your thoughts on that?
ENGLAND: Well, we lose kids earlier and earlier when they disengage from the school system for various reasons. We should probably get those kids at an earlier age and encourage them to pick up a trade. Instead of dropping out, you may actually fool a kid into graduating from high school because they look at is as, "I'm working. I'm making a living for myself and I have to use my education to do that." And who knows, they may actually graduate from high school and think, "Oh no, I really like this. I have my high school diploma, I can go on to college. But, we are not offering that kids enough of the options that are out there for whatever reason.
In African-American communities, for example, we have held onto the principle so long that you have got to go to college that we sacrificed, almost, a generation of kids. Some of the kids don't necessarily want to do a full regimented school day. They don't necessarily want to go to college. We can keep some of those kids from dropping out by encouraging them to look at an alternative track and before they know it they will graduate from high school with having a job and the ability to go to college.
APR: Well, I was talking to a retired electrical engineer the other day and we were talking about this issue, he said, "Some of the best electrical engineers that I ever worked with had other skills." He said that they went to school and they knew how to weld or how to do various things. They learned those things and saw they could accomplish things and they went on to college and became engineers and they were the best engineers. Many of them were kids that didn't think that they were going on to further education but because they became inspired and saw what they could accomplish that they did go on and do other things, I'm not going to say they were greater, but they did other things with their life.
ENGLAND: Most of the people that went on to four years of education and got a professional degree went on to end up with debt.
APR: That's true.
ENGLAND: If I could encourage a kid that is in school right now, "If school is a problem for you, you pick up a trade, you get out of school and you are working, you don't accrue the kind of debt that professional have to settle with their kind of career." So, I went through the same thing.
You know what's funny? You go home for the holidays and your family gets together, right? You've got the guy who comes home who got a trade making a ridiculous amount of money. Then you have the other guy who comes to the house that is a 37-year-old student, talking about, "I'm going to class, I'm going to school." The family, they look at they guy who didn't go to college who is making all of this money differently than the guy who is wasting all of this money in college because he didn't get a degree. It kind of fosters that idea that the trade that is making you all of this money is somehow inferior to the guy who has been in school all of his life and not doing anything but wasting money.
APR: That is amazing but it is true. I remember, when we lived in New York City, I put in my own hardwood floors in my apartment and a friend of mine came over and said, "You know how to do that?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Did you know you could make at least 1/2 million dollars a year doing that here doing that? And I know you don't make a 1/2 a million dollars a year."
ENGLAND: Yeah, how can you tell?
APR: Because I put in my own hardwood floors. But, a guy that knows how to lay hardwood floors in Manhattan is going to make a whole lot more money than a guy like me is ever going to make, you know.
ENGLAND: I tell you, it happens all the time. You look at a guy who is basically running his own business. He has his own license. He's a welder, he is running his own business and doing what the guy who stays in college for 50 years can't do and not willing to do. We look at those two folks differently because this guy didn't go to college.
APR: Yeah, so does the banker, he wants the guy that didn't go to college because he has got a lot of money in his bank. But that is very interesting and it is insightful.
APR: While we are just going on this, what are some of the things on your mind for the legislative session?
ENGLAND: I am actually looking forward to the charter school debate because I believe that through that debate, if it doesn't devolve into racial and socio-economic political-speak which is just a bunch of rhetoric, I am hoping through this debate we actually end up improving our public school system. We need to conduct a real analysis of where we are failing and how to fix it. I am assuming that through that personal debate, while we will have a bill, I don't necessarily think that the majority party is convinced on what kind of format it is going to be in. Though I think we will have a healthy debate about that.
We are also going to have to deal with the immigration bill, obviously. I have said it once and I will say it to anyone who will listen, I think this is the worst piece of legislation that I have ever seen in my entire life. You can't pigeonhole someone who says, "I am against that bill," is somehow for or supporting illegal immigration. Two different things. It is a bad piece of legislation. It's awful.
There are parts of it that contradict each other. Our poor Attorney General is getting the wrap because he has read the bill and legally knows that some of these things are impossible. He's got to fix it but somebody will take a stance against the federal government and allow their constituency to be collateral damage.
To me that is not fair to the people that elected you, one. And two, a leader is just as willing to give an idea as he is to change it. So, we are going to have to deal with immigration legislation and put it in a format, I know it is not going anywhere, unfortunately, but put it in a format that is practical, usable, and effective.
APR: I think that is what he was trying to do with that memo is to put that out there. But, he certainly has taken a lot of heat on that.
ENGLAND: But, he is bound too because there are parts of that legislation that are virtually unenforceable. If we are going to be in a lawsuit that is going to cost us millions and millions of dollars, yet it is better to try to figure out what is wrong with it and try to remove those elements of that lawsuit than to continue on knowing that you are going to lose on that issue.
APR: Well, I think that Luther Strange is a very smart man and I don't think he is foolish but he is in a box, for sure, in a lot of ways.
ENGLAND: I have read that bill backwards and forwards and I don't envy his position because that bill has now become an affront on the federal government. Anywhere that there seems to be some receding from the party line or backing away from affront here looks like we are giving up to the federal government. But, again, as a politician and elected official you can not let your constituency be collateral damage for an unneeded, unnecessary fight with the federal government. You just can't do it.
If you continue to go on and pretend that this bill is perfect you are being intellectually dishonest.
APR: Well, I am not convinced that the leadership thinks that it is perfect but it is polling well.
ENGLAND: But think about this, this is what gets me the most, two reasons. One, and primarily, you complain about the federal government's inactivity concerning immigration, right?
ENGLAND: But then you pass a bill that is totally dependent on the federal government's help. So, then when it fails, you just created another reason why the federal government isn't doing its job in this situation, but you knew that before you started. Why do you need another example to prove what you already knew? The only thing you have generated now is a million dollar bill in legal fees. I'm a lawyer, I don't have a problem with that. I mean lawyers need money.
But, when you knew before this started that the federal government wasn't going to help you in this regard. You take this cause all you are going to do is cost your self a lot of loss, a lot of heartache, a lot of problems.
And two, we took the premise from the very beginning that--we wrote into the legislation that you cannot use race, nationality, origin to enforce it, right?
ENGLAND: But what is the premise for being here illegally? You are not from here.
So, how do you tell a police officer that you can't use a person's race, or nationality, or origin to enforce it when that is the whole idea? "You're not from here." So, you are putting them in a situation where they can't necessarily enforce the law without violating it and if you don't enforce it you can get sued.
There is a part of the bill that is a call to action any state official fully support and enforce immigration in the state of Alabama. On the other hand, some people can be arrested for obstructing governmental operations.
So, you have got a situation where, the bill, there are parts of it that cannot be enforced but if you don't enforce it you can be arrested, prosecuted and sued. You've go to address those inconsistencies. You've got to.
But, there are about a million of them in there.
We turned a traffic ticket for not having a driver's license into an arrest. In anybody's mind that is a great thing. That is a great way to enforce our new illegal immigration statute--if you don't have a driver's license, we'll take you in. Well, your citizenship and your driver's license don't have anything to do with each other. They are mutually exclusive.
You could be a person that has been here for three years on an expired visa and have a legitimate driver's license. But you could also be an American citizen who has been here for 50 years and have a suspended or revoked license but we are still going to have to take you in because it is not valid. Now, what kind of sense does that make?
APR: Well, not much. Our country has very lax rules about driver's licenses, passports, and just papers in general because Americans don't want to be questioned or restricted. We have had a bad history of all kinds of profiling. It doesn't fit our makeup to want to have to carry around a bunch of identification. For those of us who have travelled broadly in the world, we realize there are places where you better have your identification. If you are going to go to Israel you better have your stuff handy.
I understand it is a double-edged sword here. When my wife and I came back here, for several years we had parents that were in failing health, and that is the real reason we came back initially, we actually farmed. We have a farm that we inherited. It's been there 100 years. We worked with a lot of migrant workers and Hispanics that were probably not here legally. Now, we did not employe any of them but knew then from just farming. The people we knew were very good people, hard-working folks, the kind of people that we would welcome in our community or welcome in our churches and in our country, but, then there are folks, like population in general, there is criminal elements.
It's a terrible situation that has been allowed to be created because, in my mind, people wanted cheaper labor, they wanted folks that would do the job for less, and, therefore, we have allowed this to go on without addressing the situation because it is politically unsavory.
Reagan signed amnesty. But nothing was done to come up with better H1 visa programs or migrant worker programs, so it has fallen on the states like Alabama to say, "Well, the federal government won't do anything, we are going to do something." And then you go to places like Albertville where people feel like their culture has been taken over and they have lost control of their ancestry…
ENGLAND: That is where the chicken plant is, right? Isn't that guy that runs that plant actually going to pick up those folks and bring them back?
ENGLAND: Okay, so who sounds like who is at fault here? Look, if we continue to turn a blind eye to it. But, I guarantee you that those folks wouldn't be here if the opportunity wasn't made available for them.
APR: Oh, absolutely. And I under stand that. I mean, it's business that wants relatively cheap labor. If you go to Chandler Mountain where the raise millions of tomatoes, I've been there. I couldn't weather a day out there picking tomatoes like that. I know that these folks are much more determined than I am and they don't get paid well.
ENGLAND: And, again, it's going to be a never-ending cycle. One of the things that we talked about, and it was laughed at, but it's true, if you really wanted to deal with our problem, and that is presuming that you believe that there is a legitimate problem that requires this Medieval form of legislation, you could say, "Okay, you are working, it's just that we want you to understand that you have broken our law." Why don't we come up with a process, since you are here, that is very similar to what you would have to go through to have came in the right way. That would create the opportunity for you to become an American citizen--not amnesty--but you are going to have to work for the citizenship. That means you pay a fine, you give up your personal information (fingerprints, DNA, or whatever). You are required to learn english and so forth, right?
ENGLAND: Then give you a certain amount of time to get that done. After that period of time, if you haven't done it , you are a trespasser. Let's put it in very blunt terms. You are a trespasser and then that creates a cause of action against you that we can prosecute to send you home.
But it doesn't make sense that you came up with an arbitrary standard, that now, starting today, you are a trespasser even though you have been here for 25 years. We encouraged you to be here, we gave you a job, we let you work. We even let you build a family around what we gave you and now, all of a sudden, we're going to turn and say, "Well, you are here illegally and we've got to send you back."
It's not fair. It makes us look awful and it kind of undermines a large part of our agricultural economy. But, again, we are having these conversations about reforming the law not because there are parts of it that are just wrong, legally wrong. We are having this conversation because business interests are pushing back and saying, "Look, we can't deal with these regulations."
So, now it is time to begin the process of revamping it, not because it makes sense or helps all of our government agencies but because business folks are telling the people who passed it, "We can't deal with the regulations."
Ultimately, our international relationships weren't that good when two auto executives from Toyota and Mercedes were arrested for not having a driver's license. There is no other way to look at that. So, on the same face as that we are taking a step back and we are going to look at it and see if we can't prevent that from happening, again.
APR: I guess, I could say, once again, it is intellectual dishonesty, as you were talking about before, the constituents on some level want this type of tough immigration and it sounds good in political-speak, but then the reality of no one wants to pay $10 a pound for tomatoes…
There are 30 welding jobs in Guntersville today that are unfilled because 30 people that knew how to weld left the area. So, it's a terrible dilemma. One that is not easily fixed. Then there is the moral component that says that we are to love our neighbor and that this is the land of opportunity. We encouraged you to come here, and now we are saying, well, we didn't encourage that many of you to come here.
ENGLAND: It starts in the very beginning, they cross the border…I have watched about a million Republican debates now, and of course, the subject of immigration is involved because they put the statement out there, "Don't go too far with it." Then they test it to see how it played to their base so the comments evolve as we go through debates.
It was interesting, the last time I heard Newt Gingrich, he was basically talking about a guest worker program. The other two gentlemen, Santorum and Mitt Romney, said, "Well, we are going to send them home first."
Sounds great. If you are all about this illegal immigration then sending them home first sounds right, put them in the back of the line. Who's going to pay for that? How it that going to happen.
Wouldn't it save us more money, effort and time if we approached the population that we are talking about and give them the opportunity.
Now, if you are going to commit criminal offenses, you are going to be out of here anyway. If you are going to wrap up yourself in law enforcement and they are going to get you out of here.
But, on the other hand, if you have been here for 25 years and never been in trouble and all you have ever done is go to work everyday, why would we want to send you home so you can start over in that arbitrary process that may take three or four years to complete? It doesn't make any common sense but it sounds great.
APR: I do not pretend to have answers on this. I wrote that in an editorial and my email box filled up with folks that said they did.
ENGLAND: If it takes longer than 30 seconds to explain, it's a lost cause.
APR: Unfortunately, I am not big on the electorate, I am sort of with the Churchills of the world, spend just five minutes with the average voter and you just won't think that much of democracy anymore. But, I have friends that say our collective thinking is stronger than our individual intellect. I'm not sure that I buy that either, but I am one of those over-educated people.
ENGLAND: I have a Facebook page. I have Twitter feeds. But the best thing you can do is to have a legitimate conversation with someone. It's only taking their information and gleaning their argument from what they see on TV or what they read in the newspaper.
Ultimately, that is where your message has to be, that's where the rubber meets the road, that's where your message has to be. But, it's amazing that basic application of common sense sometimes makes the conversation shorter and you get to resolution versus people who just talk to placate to what they think people want to hear.
You would be surprised at times, somebody may disagree with you will end up having a better conversation if you just say what you think.
APR: I think you are absolutely right and that is why I have ventured forward on what I call, they are not interviews, they are having conversations.
We greatly appreciate Rep. England sharing his wisdom and insight. We expect to hear a lot more from him as the months and years progress. We wish him all the best as he serves the people of Alabama.