By Larry Lee
We have all been told that one should never watch either legislation or sausage being made. Having grown up long ago on a south Alabama farm, I took part in more than a few “hog killins” and know all about making sausage.
I’ve also witnessed legislation being birthed in more than 40 years of visiting the Alabama legislature.
And speaking from first-hand knowledge, I’ll take the sausage making any day. This point has been driven home forcefully in the last few weeks as both House and Senate committees have debated amending the Alabama Accountability Act.
It has been nothing less that excruciatingly painful to listen as the truth was abused, twisted and just plain ignored by the proponents of this legislation.
Let me say that I understand being a legislator is difficult because you are bombarded by dozens of issues and being an expert on any and all is an impossibility. In addition, legislators have virtually no staff to research issues for them, give them briefings and pass along information.
By the same token, those sponsoring legislation are often not as aware of its nuances as you would hope they might be. Instead, they are depending on some special interest to give them sound guidance and good advice.
Still, this doesn’t make untruths any less untrue.
Senate Majority Leader Del Marsh is the sponsor of an accountability act amendment. He has been asked repeatedly if there is a relationship between the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, set up by former Governor Bob Riley, and a scholarship granting group in Florida known as Step Up For Students.
Each time he has said he is unaware of any. All non-profits must file a yearly 990 report with the IRS. The most recent such report by Step Up For Students clearly identifies the Riley SGO as a subsidiary of theirs. You find on page 46 of this report that the Florida organization is the “direct controlling entity” for the Riley SGO. Also, both the CEO and the CFO of Step Up For Students are two of the six Riley board members.
The accountability act allows all SGOs to retain five percent of their donations for administrative purposes. Senator Marsh says this is the lowest such rate in the country. But on page seven of the financial audit of the Florida group, dated 6-30-14, you find that their administrative charge is only three percent.
Senator Marsh’s amendment would allow Alabama SGOs to pay up to $10,000 for a scholarship for a high school student. He defends this as being a good steward of money because a limit is designated. But he fails to note that according to the Step Up For Students web site, their maximum scholarship is $5,272. Nor has he pointed out that the average state funding for all public school students is presently $5,828 each. So he is urging us to spend up to $4,175 more on a private school student than one in public school.
Presently, the cap on SGO contributions is $25 million. The senator would like to increase this to $30 million. (An SGO donor gets a dollar for dollar tax credit on their state tax liability for all money given an SGO up to a certain percentage. Each dollar contributed to an SGO is a dollar that does not go into the education trust fund. So a dollar that goes to an SGO is a dollar not available for public schools.)
In promoting his bill at a recent hearing before a House committee, Senator Marsh held his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart and told the committee, “We’re just talking about a small amount of money.”
I nearly fell out of my seat because where I come from $25-$30 million is not a “small amount of money.” I wonder if the good senator would care to tell a school librarian who has not had new books purchased by the state since 2008 that $25 million doesn’t count.
Let’s end where we started, back on the farm with the pigs. It is also said that you cannot put enough lipstick on a pig to cover up the fact that it is still a pig. The same is true of the accountability act and the proposed amendment, you just can’t put enough lipstick on it.