INSIDE THE STATEHOUSE
By Steve Flowers
Alabama’s senior and premier political reporter, Phil Rawls, has retired. Phil spent 35 years reporting on Alabama politics for the Associated Press. He was simply the best. He was fair and accurate. His 40 years of covering the State Capitol made him easily the longest serving member of Alabama’s Capitol press corps.
Phil is a native of Covington County. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Alabama. We have been friends since our days together at the University. His departure leaves a real void in the day-to-day coverage of Alabama politics.
Even though the State’s General Fund appears to be on the brink of disaster, there could be a rainbow or two at the end of the tunnel. Congress may pass legislation that will require payment of sales tax on internet purchases and eventually we will reap a bonanza from BP on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This should not deter the legislature from acting on the acute problems that confront the General Fund. However, it could offer some comfort that relief may be on the way and it will be like manna from heaven.
Congress should move on federal legislation to require that internet sales must be taxed the same as in-store purchases as early as this year. Our congressional delegation appears to be on board in support of this measure. It is as much about fairness as it is about garnering the much-needed revenue for Alabama’s beleaguered General Fund budget. An online retail business should not have an inherent advantage over a local retailer due to their skirting the law and essentially robbing the state of taxes.
In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a business had to have a physical presence in the state in order to be required to collect state sales tax. However, in that decision the Court also stated that nothing prevents Congress from enacting legislation to correct this wrong. Hopefully, the federal legislation entitled, The Marketplace Fairness Act, will get some traction this year. If it passes Congress, it will mean about $125 to $150 million to the state’s General Fund. Hopefully, the new Republican majorities in Congress and the Senate will work to pass the appropriately named Marketplace Fairness Act.
Another congressional action also affects Alabama and the current Session’s budget plans. The very popular and successful Children’s Health Insurance Program covering 86,000 Alabama children is on course to run out of funds to operate in September. The uncertainty of the federal funding is creating an immense amount of uncertainty with the legislative budget leaders. Gov. Bentley is a tremendous fan of the CHIP program. He is one of 39 governors who have urged Congress to renew the program.
CHIP was created by Congress in 1997. It is a joint state/federal program that provides health insurance for children and families that earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private insurance. Alabama’s CHIP “All Kids” program has been one of the most successful in the nation. Alabama only has about 4% of its children uninsured, which is the lowest uninsured rate in the south and one of the lowest in the country. In Gov. Bentley’s letter to Congress he said, “Without CHIP many of our children would be uninsured. Through CHIP Congress has provided routine care and life-saving care for our children.”
The Alabama Education Association and Henry Mabry have parted ways after three short tumultuous years. The departure was effective March 31st. It leaves the once vaunted political organization without an Executive Director and lobbyist in the middle of a regular legislative session. Some would argue that the organization is no worse off for not having a lobbyist during legislative debate. The super majority GOP Legislature has made it their mission to dismantle the AEA’s political muscle over the past four years. It would have been hard for anybody to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Paul Hubbert.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column on Alabama politics appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.