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September 18, What we learn from history is what we have not learned from history: Why we are where we are

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—On September 18, the people of Alabama will have to do the job their elected representative were not willing to do, balance the state’s General Fund Budget. This is not a choice between what is good and what is best, but what is bad and what is worse.

According to very serious people, if the September 18 constitutional amendment fails, Medicaid and the prison system of Alabama will experience  cascading failure. Lack of funding to Medicaid will have the most profound and devastating effect.

Alabama has the leanest Medicaid program in the nation, with few benefits, lowest payments to providers and the most stringent requirements for enrollment.

If anything, the Alabama Medicaid program is a model to those who want to downsize or do away with this so-called entitlement.

The blind, disabled, elderly and children are the prime recipients of Medicaid in Alabama.

Primarily, it is a program that provides a minimum safety net for those without the ability to provide for their personal care.

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Unborn children are the most cared for under Alabama’s Medicaid program, with over 50 percent of the babies born in this state are being brought into this world by doctors who are paid by Medicaid.

But even if we do not want to offer further help to the blind, disabled, elderly and children of our state, there is still some very good reasons to fund Medicaid, among them public health and economic development.

Medicaid funding is the underpinning of the healthcare delivery system of our state. Take away Medicaid dollars and hospital will close, doctors will leave and those with insurance will see more limited access to practices and procedures that may save their lives and the lives of their children. Add to that the fact that very few international companies will want to do business with a state that cannot fund even the basics and you can arrive at a plausible reason to fund Medicaid and prisons.

But even this is not enough to convince some to vote for the September 18 amendment.

We hear often the phrase, “we must live within our means.”

While, I understand the sentiment I have come to question if anyone knows what that really means.

A legislative body that gave almost as much time to what size beer bottle should be legal in the state as it did to the budget, cannot be believed to understand what are the needs of the state and what means we have to pay for them.

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President Pro Tem Senator Del Marsh has spent a considerable amount of time looking at government and how it might be made more efficient and cost effective.

Marsh and others are looking at what do we need, what can we afford and what it will take to reconcile the two.

Yet, history and a herd of sacred cows stand between living within our means and alienating the power base.

The power base being those big donors and powerful special interest that keep politicians in office.

It is said that, what we learn from history are the things we have not learned from history.

“Threatened by the growing political power of white tenant farmers, mill workers, miners, and blacks during the late nineteenth century, in 1901 two powerful interest groups, the planters (major landowners concentrated in the Black Belt) and the Big Mules (leaders of the state’s banks, railroads, and industries concentrated in urban areas) created Alabama’s 1901 Constitution,” this is history according Alabama Encyclopedia. “The Big Mules and their agricultural allies shared a need for a compliant, low‑wage labor force, low taxes, tax exemptions, and low levels of government spending in order to maintain their social and economic power.”

Does this sound familiar? It should, because this is our state’s history and nothing has changed other than cosmetics overhauls?

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Larded with lies, and covered like a hog in a wallow, the idea that Medicaid is the problem would be a joke if it were not so reprehensibly wrong.

For too many, politics is a land where facts are few and the mendacities many, a place where sloganeering poses as policy and policy is unknown but to a few.

For some the only real policy is power, the plan is to confuse, the message, obfuscate the real intent. To the end that citizens become like distressed swimmers who panic, sapping the strength they need to keep their heads above water until help arrives but help does not come and they drown believing in a government of the people, by the people and for the people, a trompe l’oeil as potent today as it was when Lincoln first spoke it.

Once again history speaks by way of the Alabama encyclopedia, “The [1901] Constitution also removed home rule from the counties and starved funding for public education by establishing an elaborate web of property tax caps that continue to allow the largest landowners, especially big timber corporations (many of which are headquartered out-of-state), to pay extremely low property taxes.

Constitutional amendments have also been necessary to create incentives to attract new business, thus complicating, delaying, and sometimes thwarting altogether badly needed economic development projects.

The fact that major portions of the state income tax law are embedded in the Constitution is the principal reason why Alabama continues to tax individuals and families who live below the federal poverty line. Rather than delegate the power over local property taxes to local governments and their residents, the constitution requires amendments for all local property tax increases. The result is that local property tax referendums passed by local residents may fail if they do not get a majority of the required statewide vote. One consequence of this provision is that local governments heavily rely on high sales taxes, which apply even to necessities such as groceries, to fund schools and meet other local needs. In addition to creating a volatile budget, over-reliance on sales taxes contributes greatly to the regressive tax burden experienced by poor and middle-class Alabamians and the chronic underfunding of most of Alabama’s school districts.”

It is not Alabama’s Medicaid or prison system that must be fixed but the very way we fund state government.

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Until there is a will to overhaul the very foundation of how the state does business, we will continue to ebb and flow with the wicked fortunes of fate.

Until, there is a commitment to lead, the frail among us like the blind, disabled, elderly and children will be the political footballs, tossed mercilessly to win political points.

Most of us wish it were not so, but the will to power, the desire to rule is greater than the will to do what is right.

So, we the people must decide, I pray we choose wisely.

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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