by House Minority Leader Craig Ford
Good Evening. I’m Craig Ford, and I am proud to represent the people of Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives.
Tonight, I have the honor of giving the Democratic response to the State of the State address.
We just heard the governor talk about the condition of our state. And to his credit, the governor and his administration have had to deal with some of the most difficult times Alabama has faced since the Great Depression.
But when we look at the results of their policies over the past three years, it’s clear that their strategy isn’t working.
We also heard the governor present a vision for our future.
We agree with the governor that our priorities should be to create more jobs, give every child in Alabama access to a quality education, make government as efficient and cost effective as possible, and to do these things without raising taxes or cutting essential government services.
But where Alabama Democrats and the Republican Supermajority in Montgomery disagree is on how we achieve these goals.
Let’s start with job creation.
Alabama’s economy has been on life support for far too long. In the last fiscal year, we only added 300 jobs to our economy.
Our job growth has been stagnant because we are losing jobs almost as fast as we can create them.
You have heard the governor talk about the state’s unemployment rate dropping. But that drop didn’t happen because we created jobs. The unemployment rate dropped because Alabamians are falling out of the workforce and are no longer being counted by the government.
Today, Alabama is ranked 49th in the country for job creation, and we are one of just five states to have our economy shrink over the past year.
Clearly, what we are doing is not working.
But the news isn’t all bad, and it’s not too late to get our economy back on track.
In November, we learned that as many as 4,000 skilled labor positions could become available in Southwest Alabama alone over the next year. And with more Alabamians of the baby boom generation preparing to enter retirement, there will be the potential for thousands of jobs opening in our economy in the coming years.
That is why it is essential that we invest in educating our workforce to do these jobs. Nobody works harder or has a better work ethic than the people of Alabama. But we have to give them the tools they need to be successful.
To do that, Democrats will propose a package of legislation that will provide more funding for workforce development training and scholarships for dual enrollment so that high school students can learn a trade or get a head start on their college degree.
Vocational training is essential to the future of our state. It can give those who can’t afford or are not interested in a four-year degree a chance to get the education and skills they need to get a good job and make their dreams come true.
Education and job creation go hand-in-hand. If we want to bring jobs to Alabama, we must have a workforce that is ready to do those jobs. That is why it is so important that every child in Alabama has access to a quality education.
But over the past three years, our public schools have been under constant attack by the Alabama legislature. And there has been no greater assault on our schools than what the Republicans call the Accountability Act.
The Accountability Act was sold to the public as a tool to give kids a choice in where they go to school. But fewer than half as many kids transferred schools this year under the Accountability Act than did the year before. In fact, only 52 kids in the entire state have transferred to a private school under the Accountability Act.
To pay for the tax credits provided by the Accountability Act, Republican legislators cut the state’s education budget this year by $40 million, which means that every public school in Alabama – from Madison and Marhsall Counties to Montgomery and Mobile – has lost funding regardless of how successful that school has been.
And even though only 52 kids qualified for the tax credits under the Accountability Act, our public schools still lost that $40 million this year because the Republicans in the Alabama legislature chose to cut that much from the budget regardless of how many kids would participate in the tax credits.
Now more than half of that $40 million has been given away, not as tax credits for the kids transferring schools, but as tax credits to corporations and people who donated to scholarship granting organizations, even though these organizations have no one to give their scholarships to.
The Accountability Act was written without input from a single teacher or school administrator, which makes about as much sense as refusing to talk to a doctor before treating an illness. Even the state’s Superintendent of Education – who is appointed by the governor – was kept in the dark while the Accountability Act was being written.
But educators were not the only ones left out. The public was also deceived.
Republican legislators knew the Accountability Act would not pass if the public knew what it would do to our schools and had a chance to contact their legislators before it could come up for a vote.
So state leaders waited until a non-controversial school flexibility bill was passed by the House and Senate, and then went behind closed doors away from the public and the media, and replaced that bill with the Accountability Act. Then they sent it back to the legislature where it was only debated for one hour before being voted into law.
For all these reasons and more, the Accountability Act has clearly been a failure. And that is why Democrats will propose legislation to repeal the Accountability Act and use the money that is leftover to expand the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative.
Our goal should be to improve schools, not to abandon them. Telling people to pack up and leave is not a solution, and it does nothing to help those kids who can’t leave.
Instead, we should invest in what we know works, like pre-k education, the Alabama Reading Initiative, and the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative. These programs are proven to work, and should be implemented in every school system in the state.
In addition to the Accountability Act, our schools have been hurt by the loss of more than 6,000 educators, including the loss of 2,000 teachers. This has demoralized our educators and led to overcrowding in our classrooms.
Alabama is also one of only seven states that does not have a state lottery to help fund education. Every year, Alabama loses more than $250 million to neighboring states that do have a lottery. It has been 15 years since the last time we had a vote on a state lottery, and I believe it is time we let the people decide this issue once and for all.
That is why I will be introducing legislation this year to create a lottery that will provide scholarships for students who maintain As and Bs in school, and will also provide a resource officer for every public school in the state.
There is nothing more important than our children’s safety, and putting a resource officer in every school is a big step in the right direction.
The governor has also talked about pay raises for educators. Our educators have not had a cost of living pay increase since 2007. Three years ago, Republican legislators voted to cut educators’ pay by two-and-a-half percent. Last year, the legislature gave some educators 2 percent back, though many educators and none of our state employees received any pay increase.
The result is that educators, state employees and retirees are still making less today than they were three years ago. That is why Democrats will push for a 6 percent pay increase for our educators, state employees and retirees.
The education budget will have enough money to afford these raises without having to raise additional revenue. However, the state’s general fund budget is in serious trouble.
The biggest issue in the general fund budget is the $100 million hole in the Medicaid budget. Alabama’s Medicaid program is one of the most efficient Medicaid programs in the country, but it is struggling to get by after significant cuts over the past three years.
Medicaid is critical to our economy and our healthcare industry. Seventy percent of payments to nursing homes come from Medicaid, while pediatricians and family doctors across the state depend on Medicaid to pay for vital services their patients rely on.
But for the past three years we have struggled to keep Medicaid from collapsing.
There are no simple or easy solutions to the shortfall in the general fund budget. But raising the cigarette tax by $1 will generate $230 million annually for the general fund budget. That funding would shore up the $100 million hole in Medicaid and still leave enough for the pay raise for state employees and retirees.
But even with that additional revenue, the General Fund budget will still be in trouble until our economy begins to turn around. That is why it is so important that our state government operate as efficiently as possible. But being efficient does not just mean making budget cuts.
Over the past three years, state leaders have made drastic cuts to our state budgets. Education funding has gone down by more than 20 percent, while the governor has claimed to save the state a billion dollars through budget cuts.
But these cuts are coming at a heavy cost to Alabama’s families. Of the billion dollars the governor claims to be saving the state, more than $872 million is being saved by eliminating thousands of jobs, by cutting pay and by reducing health and retirement benefits that thousands of families depend on.
The governor calls this “right-sizing” government. But how has this made the government more efficient or cost effective?
Rather than making government more efficient, these cuts are making government less efficient by overloading state agencies that no longer have the staff to meet the public’s needs. The result has been that our courts are backlogged, many of our roads and bridges are in desperate need of repair, and our law enforcement agencies and prosecutors are dangerously underfunded. And that’s just a few of the consequences from “right-sizing” government.
Four years ago, our state leaders were elected on a platform of change. A lot has certainly changed since then, but it has not been the change the voters were hoping for.
Job growth has been stagnant. Our public schools have been under constant attack. Every year our Medicaid program is in danger of collapsing. And our state leaders seem to be out of solutions.
But there is a way to get Alabama back on track. If we support our public schools and expand our vocational and workforce development training programs, we can give our workers and future generations the tools they need to get good paying jobs and achieve their dreams. This will also help us recruit more business to Alabama, and help existing businesses expand.
We must also dedicate ourselves to supporting our public schools instead of working against them. We need to treat our educators like professionals, instead of treating them like they are the enemy. We need to repeal the Accountability Act and put our tax dollars back into our schools where they belong.
Alabama is not where we want it to be. But we can get there. I encourage the governor and legislative leaders to use this legislative session as an opportunity to invest in the people of Alabama. We share the same goals. Let’s work together to achieve them.
Thank you for listening. May God bless you. May god bless America. And may God bless the great state of Alabama.
Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden. He has served as the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives since 201