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Interview, Part 2: Representative Ed Henry on Taxes, Shrinking Government, and Prisons

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

APR: I have been studying prisons quite a bit and I have a better understanding than I did a few months ago. We are in another predicament there where we want to keep people in jail and we want to be tough on crime but we have got to let somebody out of jail or get some type of alternative program because we are not willing to spend money to build more jails.

HENRY: Exactly and I am not going to raise taxes.

APR: You bring up an issue and this has always bothered me, when we hear people make pledges that they are not going to raise taxes. Then the first thing we see is someone like Henry Mabry when he said that we need to increase revenue, he said that we need raise it by a sin tax. That is still raising taxes in my book.

ed_henryHENRY: It is. All of those are taxes. Right now the AEA line is “close corporate loopholes.” And they are wanting to do it [raise taxes ]on Lowe’s, Walmart, Home Depot. The line that I heard today was, “Well, they’re not going anywhere. Raise their taxes.” It is almost extortion. “We know you are not going to leave so we have got you.” But who ends up paying that tax? The citizen that goes in there to buy the product because all of those entities are going to roll the tax into their price.

Anytime an entity says that they are going to charge a corporation, they are going to slice and dice, you know that is how government works, they isolate this group and say, “Well we are going to tax them but we are not going to tax you. You don’t have to worry about it. We are only taxing those guys. Well, those guys can’t muster enough support to fight off attacks but then when it comes around at some point they will isolate all of us to do whatever they want.

So for that matter I am just absolutely opposed to growing government any more. I want to shrink it. I want to get rid of duplication.

APR: One of the things that we have been trying  do is to look at the various budgets with a pencil, just like we would our household budget and say, “Can we afford this and can we afford that?” Is there ever any kind of sensible approach that might occur with the state’s budget?

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HENRY: No. Not like that. Not to that degree. It is never that straightforward. We don’t get a full breakdown. We just kind of get the big picture.

I got aggravated two days ago when I tried to find out what the tobacco tax breakdown is. All they would give me was, “It’s $137 million annually that we bring in and that it goes out to certain entities. Well, I wanted to know how it was earmarked. I want to know when that $137 million comes in, what goes where and what percentage? I had to get forceful and basically threaten to cut budgets. I said, “Look, I have to vote on your budget. If you can’t give me answers then I have to assume that your office is obsolete.”

APR: That is a good way of putting it.

HENRY: Well, what else am I supposed to do. “Well, sir, it is just not available to the public.” Well I am not the public but it should be [available to the public].

I got it and what I found was basically 60 percent of the taxes raised on tobacco goes to Medicaid, which I think is a good thing really. I think 100 percent of it should go to some type of healthcare.

APR: Right. The public has been led to believe that is what it is going to.

HENRY: But is doesn’t. It goes to parks, it goes to mental health and then a large portion of it goes into the General Fund to be eaten by everything. Some 61 percent but it is probably closer to 50 percent because there is some stuff that comes out of that 61 percent, you know, all of that fuzzy math that happens in government. About $70 million annually goes back into Medicaid. The other $60 million is split up throughout the General Fund.

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But it was aggravating that they wouldn’t tell me that. Here are these government bureaucrats that are supposed to be working for the people but they don’t want to share information with the people.

My biggest disappointment has been how strong the bureaucracy of government really is. A couple of us were told when we got to the State House, and we were talking about reducing staff, and reducing this and reducing that. A person that has been there a long time, he chuckled and he said, “Y’all can try to do all of this but I have seen a lot of y’all come and go.” And there is some truth to that. The government is the strongest special interest group that lobbies in Montgomery. That is crazy. Here they are working the system for themselves.

APR: I know there is a lot of duplication and these offices are so entrenched you can’t do anything to get rid of it.

HENRY: Almost. Virtually impossible. Each one of these duplicated departments is going to have a department head. They are going to have a massive staff underneath them. In order to consolidate those divisions, people are going to have to get laid off.  And it is virtually impossible to downsize government even though everybody knows it needs to be done.

I’m hopeful. I am hopeful that we are going to tackle some of that this year.

APR: It’s just institutionalized error. You know what I mean?

HENRY: Senator Del Marsh with the help of  a group of students from Auburn University.Have identified graphically the series of duplication within our state government and our intent is to downsize and remove some of these duplications.

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APR: Well, he is a very smart businessman and a very smart man in general. He certainly has the intelligence to do that it’s just can he rally the troops to do that?

HENRY: That’s exactly right. There are a few of us that are hardcore that are with him. I will be willing to go to the mat for downsizing government. That was one of the main things that I ran on. The fact that our government had become such a beast that it had begun to feed itself and we had better get under control or we were going to lose it.

APR: Well, that is why I believe, at least people like Susan and me, that fought hard to make sure there were conservatives in the government. We believe that if we don’t get control of this government, somehow, that it is a threat to our freedom and the American dream. I mean the state government is the only place that we have control anymore. We don’t have any control over Washington.

HENRY: That’s right. I campaigned on that too. I said, “We can only affect things that happen in Alabama and Alabama has to be able to stand up and draw a line in the sand and say, ‘This is us. The federal government can not come into our state and do x, y, z,’”

APR: Well, that is one of the big fears about this prison deal because if we hit 200 percent the federal government will come in and mandate what we have to do. And there won’t be any saying, “We can’t pay for it.” And Mr. Mabry saying, “Well, you can’t have my money.” We are going to have to take somebody’s money.

HENRY: That’s it exactly. I am not looking forward to what is going to come down with that. The only way I see out of that is to look at alternitive sentencing and let people out of jail which is not going to make the public happy.

APR: Susan helped start some of these homes for women were non-violent offenders. You know, you’ve always got problems, but they were able to take 20 or 30 women over a year’s period and get them some job training and get them to work. Very few of them went back to jail. But it is being selective. There are a lot more criminals than there are people that can be helped because we are dealing with human nature. You are not going to change human nature.

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HENRY: But there are a lot of people out there, where if there is an opportunity they will turn it around and change. I don’t think our current prison system really gives them that option. It’s a mess, that’s for sure. Just about like everything else the government touches.

APR: Well, if it’s not a mess now, give it to the government and it will be. You’re like me, we don’t have trust in the government but you are working in it and I am working in it too because we want to see it be better.

HENRY: There is a line in the State Constitution, and I think it may be Section 35–but I can’t remember–but it defines the role of government in Alabama and it say that the sole purpose and only legitimate end to government is for to provide the enjoyment and protection of life, liberty, and property. Anything else is usurpation and oppression. That is in our State Constitution.

I have been fighting with people wanting home-rule and to re-write the State Constitution. What do you think the odds of a statement like that getting into a new constitution are?

APR: Sadly, pretty slim, I would think.

HENRY: I would think so too. And while we have diverted away from that over the years, as long as it is still in there is a hope that we could get back to that small of a government.

In our next conversation with Rep. Henry, he speaks more about downsizing government, opportunities for the future and his hopes for the up coming session. 

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Bill Britt
Written By

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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