Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Countryman recently answered a candidate’s questionnaire sent by the Alabama Political Reporter.
APR: Alabama’s unemployment is at an all-time low, but there are still a lot of adult Alabamians who lack the skills and education to apply for most of the jobs that are coming. Do you have any ideas as to how to improve the employability of many adults in the current work force who are trapped in a cycle of minimum wage jobs?
Countryman: “First we have to take into consideration that Alabama’s current unemployment rate is slightly, if not totally, misleading. This is because the current administration is utilizing what’s known as a seasonally adjusted rate to factor the state’s unemployment, which lowers the unemployment rate below its actual rate. One of the best ways to tackle the problem of growing workforce that lacks the skills necessary to find better employment is through education. The struggle for financial security and industrial equality is nothing new, and we’ve seen this fall into the laps of each generation at some point. We can make the choice to either come up with innovative solutions to the problem, or we can attempt the same methods that we’ve been using for decades, but if it hadn’t worked yet then my money says that it probably won’t this go around either. To do the same things that we’ve done in the past, and yet expecting different results is the very definition of insanity. I propose that we start utilizing the expanding network of free education resources that are being offered by some of the nation’s top universities, and combine those resources with programs through the career centers around the state. Many of these universities offer free college educational courses in subjects ranging from computer programming to entry level skills for those entering the workforce in the clean renewable energy industry. And since many of the newer, and more competitive industries, are in the renewable energy industry we could tackle two problems at once. We can offer those who need to expand their job skills with the training and accountability system needed to get them to the point where they are able to become more financially secure, and at the same time bring a lot of new jobs into the state for the unemployed workers. Plus we can also combine my previous proposals with a basic college education or trade school training that is tuition free to those who are seeking more education to further their career opportunities. This has the potential, if implemented correctly, to drastically improve Alabama’s shortfalls in the workforce, and unemployment rates.”
APR: 267 people in Jefferson County died from drug overdoses last year and the state by some measures has the highest rate of prescriptions for opioids of any place in the world. What can be done to combat the growing opioid addiction rate in Alabama?
Countryman: “We need to start holding the pharmaceutical companies more accountable, tracking the prescriptions being dispensed by the information of the prescribing physicians and the information of the patients who are getting them filled.”
“I wish that there was an easy answer to this,” This has been one of the questions I have been asked most often as well. I believe that we have to look at the pharmaceutical companies first. Second we have to look at the doctors that are prescribing these medicines to patients.”
APR: Should the state raise the minimum age to buy a firearm to 21?
Countryman: “Absolutely. I am not advocating for the repeal of the 2nd amendment. I believe that the 2nd amendment guarantees that citizens have a right to defend themselves with the assisted use of a firearm, within reason of course, from anyone who shows the intent and ability to inflict deadly harm towards themselves or their families. However if an individual has to be 21 to purchase a handgun then that should be true for rifles as well. Exceptions to this law should be made for those who are active law enforcement and military personnel, who should be able to purchase rifles for personal use and target practice as it relates to their occupation.”
APR: “Alabama has the 2nd lowest life expectancy in the country (behind only Mississippi). In some Black belt counties it is as low as 68 (over 8 years below the national average). Is there anything state government can do to improve the health of the people of Alabama?”
Countryman: “Yes, Medicare for all is something that the we can do. Healthcare is a human right and should be available to everyone regardless of income level. The big question that people have is how will we fund healthcare reform and expansion in our state, but I will discuss this in detail latter on in the interview.”
APR: “Some candidates are touting the lottery as a solution to state government’s fiscal woes. Are you concerned that regular lottery players tend to be the poorest and least educated citizens thus increasing the tax burden on Alabama’s poorest citizens, who already bear a disproportionate burden of the state’s finances through high sales taxes, utility bill taxes, insurance taxes, cigarette taxes, and alcohol taxes?”
Countryman: “No, I don’t think that a lottery would do that. I am in favor of a state lottery but I believe that it can’t be the only solution we bring to the table. What would happen if a future administration overturns the lottery? We need to ensure that we aren’t hanging all our hopes on one plan, and one idea. It really is poor leadership to base any solution on just one idea. That is why I am presenting a variety of solutions, so that all we have to do is to place a rounded gear inside our economic machine. It works better than just leaving the wrench in it.”
APR: “There are only 11 counties in Alabama with 100,000 or more residents and 36 counties below 40,000 residents. 25 of those have less than 25,000 residents. What would you do as governor to encourage economic development in rural Alabama?”
Countryman: “By utilizing my economic growth plan, which is built on clean energy solutions, we would be able to use the money generated from the recycling industry to bring high speed Internet to the rural areas, rebuild the roads and start looking into updating public transportation. If Alabama was to recycle all of its recyclable waste we could generate upwards to $750,000,000 in excess revenue.”
APR: The state Legislature just passed the second largest education trust fund budget in history; but revenues going into the state general fund historically are lagging; which is causing chronic funding issues with prisons, Medicaid, mental health, the courts, ALEA and other state agencies. Do you favor combining the two?
Countryman: “No, I do not because it’s easier to keep track of where the money goes, and we need to keep the allocated funds already dedicated to education there. The additional revenue needed for the general fund can be found in other areas.”
APR: Do you support Governor Ivey’s plan to sign a long-term lease with a private company that will build four new mega prisons and the state will then lease these new facilities from that corporation for ~$50 million a year going forward?
Countryman: “No. I think it’s a monumental waste of tax dollars. We have better options than that, and we just need to start thinking smart. There are cost effective ways to rehabilitate non-violent offenders that doesn’t involve having them locked up.”
APR: State Rep. Will Ainsworth introduced legislation which would allow teachers, who have taking firearms training, to carry guns in the classroom as a defense against school shooters. Do you support arming Alabama’s teachers?
Countryman: “No I do not, our teachers have enough responsibilities. There are much better and more creative and innovative ways to implement better security in our schools and as a matter of fact the solution is already there, Cellphones. Almost every student has a cellphone and right now they are thought of in a class room as an annoyance, we instead have them utilize their phones to study and do their class work on, in turn we turned a problem into a solution, the schools can also utilize the use of cell phones, Donated phones can be set up as I.P. cameras for security as well.”
APR: Certain facilities in Dothan, Shorter, Birmingham, Greene County, and Lowndes Countyoperated what they called electronic bingo; but the Alabama courts ultimately ruled that most of those games were actually a new form of gambling machine; which is banned by the constitution of Alabama. The Poarch band of Creek Indians (under the federal Indian gaming law) operate facilities that have machines similar to the ones that were ordered closed at the other establishments. Do you favor a constitutional amendment allowing existing dog tracks and bingo halls to operate “electronic bingo”; a broader constitutional amendment allowing gaming in any county where the commission supported it; or are you content with the status quo?
Countryman: “I lived in Houston County when a similar facility, as the ones you mentioned, called Country Crossing was in operation. I saw how the facility contributed to the local and regional economy firsthand. It was estimated that once every phase was completed that Country Crossing would have employed over 1500 people, created over 200 spinoff jobs and increased the tax revenue substantially. The first revenue check that Country Crossing paid out to Houston County on the revenue that their machines generated was 1.6 million dollars, and Houston County ended up with a surplus of 1.8 million dollars. It was established that Country Crossing would attract 2.5 million visitors each year. We also have some states which are similar to Alabama in demographics, where lottery is legal, showing statistics that less than 10 percent of those who purchase lottery tickets earn less than $24,000 a year, and with the greater majority of those who purchase lottery tickets were the middle and upper class. So given these findings I can certainly see the benefits that electronic bingo, dog tracks and lottery can have for the state and citizens when implemented correctly. I would be in favor of implementing an endorsement code on the back of an individual’s photo ID that indicates if a person is receiving EBT benefits. That way it will be more difficult for the individual to use EBT benefits to purchase lottery tickets or other gaming options. We could use this method at least until we are able to get the EBT system programed not to allow EBT to be used as a payment method for lotteries and such, similar to how we help prevent the purchase of alcoholic beverages using EBT.”
APR: The legislature is considering legislation that would allow state elected officials to ask the Alabama Ethics Commissioner for pre-clearance opinions to allow elected officials to take jobs and contracts that might otherwise be construed as violations of Alabama’s 2010 ethics law. State prosecutors have argued that the Ethics Commissioner does not have the authority to issue these “get out of jail free” opinions and that a letter from the Ethics Commissioner does not have legal standing. Is the Alabama Ethics Law too strict or does it need to be loosened?
Countryman: “The ethics laws in Alabama need to be rewritten from the ground up. There are one to many contradictory laws that make it confusing for the layman, and even equally confusing for some seasoned elected officials. This unfairly puts many elected officials at risk as their fate lays in the hands of other leaders and their interpretation of the ethics laws. One can simply look to Governor Sigelemans case for proof of that. Secondly the ethics laws need to be stricter and less vague. Currently there are way too many loopholes and poorly written laws that makes it all too easy for an elected official to get away with the unspeakable. We need to restore the citizen’s faith in government and at the same time have an ethics law that holds our elected officials accountable.”
APR: Alabama’s infrastructure is funded through fuel taxes; however as vehicles have gotten more fuel efficient that has resulted in some issues coming up with enough money to maintain roads and bridges across the state. Do you favor raising the fuel taxes?
Countryman: “No, because at this time it isn’t needed. Part of my economic growth plan is to bring more industry into the state that is in the clean renewable energy industry, and in the recycling industry. At present Alabama only recycles 10% of its consumer waste with 90% of its recyclable waste ending up in landfills. Currently Europe is using plastic waste as an alternative additive in asphalt road construction with great success. This method is up to 80% more affordable than traditional asphalt roads, lasts 300% longer and the introduction of plastic processing facilities in the state would generate up to 10,000 new jobs. These jobs would include those in the processing facilities, distribution centers, infrastructure jobs and other related positions that are a result of this industry. Plus in a 2015 study by the EPA we find that the recycling industry, and its related spinoff jobs, will generate over $500,000,000 annually in additional revenue for Alabama. So my plan has the capability to generate funds for infrastructure redevelopment, it creates jobs, it reduces the amount of waste in landfills, cleans our environment, provides clean energy solutions and it leaves enough of a surplus in the budget to help fund healthcare and our education system needs.”
The major party primaries are on June 5, 2018.