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Opinion | One political rumor is true

Artur Davis

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Preparing to run for office means fending off rumors. No surprise that as I prepare to reenter Montgomery politics next year, I have gotten tips that “people are asking about your finances” and “do you have a tax problem?”

So, I am going to beat the rumor-mongers to the punch by telling you that even they get it right sometimes. I do owe back federal taxes for one year, 2015, and the amount, roughly $272,000, is almost double what my wife and I currently earn in wages. I had a large one-time surge in income because I cashed out four years of stock options I earned from serving on a corporate board of directors.

I spent those options on three big ticket items: unexpected family medical bills, paying the tax penalty from the stock sales and financing my race for Mayor of Montgomery. If I knew the tax code as well as I should have, I would have known that the $325,000 I paid the IRS was still not enough.

I am in debt because I made the fundamental error of calculating my own tax rate and getting the baseline wrong: I thought that a stock transaction would be taxed at a rate of 20 percent. In fact, if the stock is held for less than a year, it leaps to a much higher rate, in this case, nearly 40 percent.  A former member of the congressional tax writing committee should have known better: if I had more money in those days than the mid six figure congressional salary, I suspect I might have been more attuned to the specifics of what tax laws do to families. I was a pretty good congressman, but I should have known every nuance of the tax code I voted on revising numerous times.

The same ignorance about the difference in long and short-term capital gains spilled over into another blunder, not appreciating that every individual stock sale within the year triggered new taxes and new debt to the IRS.

My “do it yourself accounting” meant that the taxes I paid the federal government in 2016 were about $270,000 short, not a good place to be when it took another year to find work. For the last two years, we have survived on a rickety structure of dwindling savings, a blend of salary and consulting fees that have yet to exceed $100,000 annually, and my wife’s modest salary as a non-profit employee.  I have withdrawn virtually half of my retirement account to stay afloat during periods without work.

My tax lawyer and I have spent several years petitioning the IRS to accept payment plans, negotiated settlements, and we are still stuck in the maze of IRS bureaucracy.

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When you owe federal taxes, the government files a lien even if you are trying to work out a resolution, and it remains until the debt is paid. A lien is not a pretty thing to have sitting on your credit and it puts an anchor on any lottery you might win, or any property that you might sell.

But a lien doesn’t make a citizen a tax cheat or a tax dodger. Those slurs describe people who file false returns and try to hide their income from the government. Most liens are not a sign of irresponsibility.  They are a sign you are powerless to pay a bill that way exceeds your current means.

The sources spreading the rumors about my tax debt no doubt hope that a tax lien is toxic enough to be a disqualifier from political office.

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A year and a month from now, when Montgomery elects its next mayor, we will see.  I happen to believe that enduring a financial crisis, instead of closing the door, ought to make your service more informed and more sensitive. I have had an involuntary education in what it means to be a middle-aged man who lacks the capital to start his own business, the client base to attract a law firm, or the family wealth to ride a parent’s coattails. I have established I am no tax expert, but I put faith in the reality that Montgomery is full of folks who have struggled when our dreams and hopes didn’t come through. Perhaps a leader should know up close what that burden feels like.

At minimum, my tax fight ensures I can’t be another politician who cavalierly regards taxes as just the leveraging of other people’s money to wager on my good ideas. That awareness won’t intimidate me into taking an automatic no new taxes pledge, but it reinforces my caution about the reflex I hear these days in Montgomery that the real answer to our failing schools is “make them pay more taxes.”

I live first hand with the unfairness in our code, which for example taxes the royalties from the books a dozen congressmen write at a lower rate than the stock transactions millions of ordinary Americans make. I am dealing with the inequity of a tax law that does not adequately account for the current inability to pay. And while I left the Republican Party, they aren’t wrong when they say that the government takes too much of the money we earn.   

Stacy Abrams, who may become Georgia’s first black governor in November, is right when she says that her $200,000 of debt to credit cards and IRS liens should not block her ambition, or the aspirations of us mere mortals who are trying to recover from our personal recession. In this depressing political age, more of us flawed, imperfect, indebted mortals should step forward and own the lessons from spending time in the valley instead of running from them.

 

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Opinion | Historic opportunity – Alabama’s chance to change abortion history

Amie Beth Shaver

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Alabama’s Constitution states that the sole purpose of Alabama’s government is to protect the life, liberty, and property, of its people. The State’s Constitution does not mince words—any variance from this mandate is nothing short of “usurpation and oppression.” Alabama’s statutes, courts and Constitution have made it clear that unborn children are people, no different under the law than those that are born. Because, in Alabama, the unborn are persons, they possess an inalienable right to life and are entitled to the protection of it.

Yet, abortion on demand continues without abatement in the state of Alabama. Every day, unborn babies—who have the same rights of all born people under the Alabama Constitution —are deprived of their right to life. In Alabama alone, over 6,000 abortions are performed each year. The horrific nature of these killings happens so often that it has become commonplace. We have been forced to live with the death of the innocent for so long that we have become numb and indifferent to the great and inexcusable injustice which stains the soul of our state. We must wake up and remember that the rights recognized by Alabama’s Constitution pertain to all of its people.

There is a new hope! There is a novel and strong 10th Amendment argument which does not conflict with or fall within the contemplation of the Roe decision—but it will likely rebalance or displace Roe’s power significantly. Roe declared the U.S. Constitution was silent regarding the rights of the unborn. The 10th Amendment, therefore, empowers the states to act where the Constitution is silent. Through this empowerment, a state can recognize and define the rights of the unborn within its borders. With both mother and child finally on an equal footing of rights, both mother and child can be justly protected.

This argument, at this very moment, is in front of the Supreme Court of Alabama.

On January 22, Helen Light—quietly and without fanfare—filed an emergency petition with our highest court. In it she asks the Court to acknowledge that the U.S. Constitution permits, and Alabama’s Constitution requires the protection of unborn children within our state. Further, she asks the Court to clarify the power and legal obligation of Governor Ivey and other officials named as Respondents, to uphold their duty and take immediate action.

The Alabama Supreme Court has discretion to hear petitions like Ms. Light’s. Normally, it would issue its decision to accept or decline a case within a few days. In this case, over four weeks have passed without an utterance from the Court. We believe that the Court is concerned with upholding the separation of powers, and struggles with the propriety of requiring Governor Ivey to take such a significant action to assert Alabama’s right to enforce its Constitution. Ms. Light’s petition asks the Court to walk the razor’s edge of upholding the purpose of our Constitution without fracturing the framework of it. There can be no more difficult a task asked of our judges.

We come here today to ask Governor Ivey to bring relief to the Court so it may act. By voluntarily stepping forward and asking the Court to hear the case, she can remove their conflict. Through this action, the separation of powers will be preserved, and the Court can freely hear Ms. Light’s case. And our Court should hear this case!

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If this argument is ultimately successful, it will not only change the face of abortion on demand in Alabama, but throughout the nation as well. Each state can follow the 10th Amendment path laid by Alabama to speak where Roe has declared the Constitution to be silent. Each state can elevate the legal status of its unborn citizens to protect their lives.
State by state, a change can be made until abortion on demand is a dark memory in
America’s past. All of this can be accomplished if our brave Governor steps forward to seize her moment in history. Certainly, there is a formidable cost each time America has protected the dignity of its forgotten people—yet we do it without regret because we are Americans. We will do what is right, regardless of the sacrifice, because that is who we are as a people. There is no doubt that our brave governor understands this well. No one that has achieved what she has done without pain and blood.

Governor Ivey is good, but she is also human. What we are asking her to do requires great courage and bravery on her part. However, it is a noble thing that we ask of her, and never in the history of our nation, can so many lives be saved with so little ink.

Governor Ivey, we love you. We will support you. We will stand by you. Please push back against the encroaching darkness, stand up for the lives of the innocent and ask the Court to hear this case!

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Amie Beth Dickinson Shaver, a resident of Birmingham, is an author, speaker and former Miss Alabama (’94)

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Opinion | Understanding the role of medical marijuana in the opioid crisis

Benjamin McMichael

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Last week, the Alabama Legislature took some of the first steps on SB165—a bill that would ultimately legalize medical cannabis in Alabama. This bill would move Alabama from the minority of states that continue to prohibit the prescribing of medical marijuana to the majority of states that do. While advocates and proponents of this bill have offered a number of arguments for and against the legalization of medical cannabis, a common thread has come to dominate much of the public debate over this bill. And that thread concerns the impact legalization of medical cannabis would have on the opioid crisis.

As the defining public health crisis of this generation, the opioid crisis has rightly been placed at the forefront of the medical cannabis conversation. In 2017, one American died of an opioid overdose every 11 minutes, and some estimates place the cost of the opioid crisis at over $500 billion. Alabama has not been immune from this crisis, and Blue Cross Blue Shield estimates that its Alabama members were more likely than others across the country to be on a long-duration opioid regime. Given the high stakes involved, the question of how medical cannabis legalization will affect the opioid crisis is obviously an important one.

In a study recently published in the Journal of Health Economics, two co-authors and I investigated the impact of medical cannabis access laws on opioid prescriptions across the country. In that study, we found strong and consistent evidence that enacting medical cannabis access laws reduces opioid prescriptions. In general, these laws decrease opioid prescriptions by 4.2 percent. While this may not, by itself, be enough to reverse the opioid crisis, reducing opioid prescriptions is an important step in addressing this crisis.

Our study was not the first to examine the impact of medical cannabis access laws on opioid prescriptions. However, the strength of our study lies not in its novelty, but in the data it analyzes. Instead of examining counts of opioid prescriptions among Medicare or Medicaid beneficiaries, we analyzed a dataset of over 1.5 billion individual opioid prescriptions across the country. This dataset included approximately 90 percent of all opioid prescriptions written in the United States between 2011 and 2018. And our data came from prescriptions paid for by commercial insurance, Medicaid, Medicare, other government assistance, and even cash.

With such rich data available in our study, we were able to obtain a clearer picture of the effect of medical cannabis access laws than has previously been possible. While we found that these laws reduced opioid prescriptions in general by 4.2 percent, they had larger impacts on certain groups. For example, medical cannabis access laws reduced opioid prescriptions to those with commercial insurance by 4.4 percent and to those with Medicaid by 5.2 percent.

These laws may reduce opioid prescriptions in various ways, and our study found suggestive evidence that one important way may be facilitating the substitution of cannabis for opioids in the treatment of pain. In addition to reducing the use of prescription opioids, our study revealed evidence that medical cannabis access laws also reduce NSAID prescriptions. NSAIDS are often found in common, over-the-counter pain medications. This reduction in another type of medication used in the treatment of pain suggests that the reduction in prescription opioids may be driven by a decreased need for pain treatment once individuals can access medical cannabis. And our results are consistent with the conclusion of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine which found “conclusive. . . evidence that cannabis. . . [is] effective. . . [f]or the treatment of chronic pain in adults.”

As the Alabama Legislature completes its task of debating whether to join the majority of states that allow access to medical cannabis, understanding the role of this law in the opioid crisis will be critically important.

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Opinion | Vote “yes” for better education

Jimmy Parnell

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Did you know Alabama’s schools are ranked 52nd in math and 49th in reading? This is unacceptable. Yes on Amendment 1 takes the first step toward improving our schools.

Gov. Kay Ivey has made it abundantly clear. Alabama’s failures in education are not the fault of students or our hardworking teachers, principals and superintendents. The problem is lack of stable, visionary leadership.

Our current system is not working. In Alabama, we’re used to winning. But in education, the state is consistently dead last. We wouldn’t tolerate this kind of performance from our coaches or business leaders, and we must not settle for mediocrity when it comes to our children’s future.

Alabama is one of only six states that still has an elected state school board, and this board has had five superintendents in the last four years.

Amendment 1 gets politicians off the board and replaces them with nine commission members who will bring focus, innovation and accountability to Alabama’s K-12 education system. Our community college system transitioned to this model and has lifted itself out of the mire of scandal by refocusing on student achievement and preparedness.

Commission members will serve no more than two consecutive six-year terms and will be accountable to our elected state senators. They also are required to reflect the diversity of Alabama’s public school students.

Amendment 1 clearly outlines responsibilities for the commission: teacher certification, professional development, student assessment and accountability. In addition, it requires adoption of education standards to replace common core.  

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Amendment 1 does not take control away from local school boards, and it does not diminish the value of our teachers. To the contrary, Amendment 1 will help teachers, students and local schools by bringing strategic, productive leadership to education policy at the state level. 

Gov. Ivey said it best. “For us to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s opportunities, it is time we get serious: It’s time for creativity. It’s time for accountability. It’s time for stability.

“It’s time to vote YES for Amendment 1 on March 3rd!”

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Opinion | Alabama’s economic boom should be heard and felt across the state

Congressman Robert Aderholt

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When I was growing up in Haleyville, I can remember people in July and August saying, “it’s hotter’n blue blazes outside.”  Well, you could certainly describe America and Alabama’s current economic boom as being “hotter’n blue blazes.”  Alabama’s economy is scorching hot, with the lowest unemployment numbers in our state’s history.  One county economic development director told me that “if you want a job, you can find one right now.”

​I don’t doubt that’s true, but unfortunately it also depends on what part of the state you live in.   If you are willing and able to drive a couple of hours to and from work, then you certainly have many more options.  Our Defense and Space industries are experiencing tremendous growth. Agriculture is booming. Alabama is the nation’s second largest producer of poultry – and that’s a good thing.

But we can do even better. A lot of people can’t commute long distances every day to reach good jobs, so we’ve got bring the jobs to them. I believe we can bring high paying, quality jobs to every corner of the 4th District and Alabama and rural America as a whole.  We need to rebuild our essential manufacturing base – and that’s something that President Trump has focused on.

And to build upon that, we must prioritize building up our infrastructure. We must expand high speed internet to every square mile of the 4th District and North Alabama.  We must protect rural hospitals and clinics to make sure people everywhere have access to high quality healthcare. And we must ensure we have a highly trained work force with the skills employers are looking for.

During a recent visit to a locally owned business in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, I was told they have jobs available, but they can’t find candidates who can pass a drug test.  This is why I worked in Congress to allocate more than a billion dollars to fight the opioid epidemic.  A highly skilled workforce is essential, but we also need a workforce that isn’t dependent on illegal substances to get though the day.  Lack of employment and dependency on drugs is an evil and all-consuming cycle.  We can break that cycle.

We also need to make sure our trade policies are based on common sense.  We want to increase trade by eliminating unfair foreign trade policies.  President Trump did that in the U.S.- Mexico- Canadian (USMCA) trade deal, which opens more markets for American products and helps make America more competitive.  That makes a big difference for our farmers, manufacturers, businesses and for consumers.  We’ll have more opportunities for common-sense trade deals in the coming years.

​It’s also time for us to stop associating social status and class on whether someone has a four-year college degree.  Trust me, I know many people who have bachelors and master’s degrees that aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.  And at the same time, I’ve heard of people who have two-year welding degrees from colleges like Wallace State who are making money we normally associate with a doctor.

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Two-year associate degrees and high school vocational classes are just as valuable to our economic wellbeing than an economics degree from Harvard.  If someone aspires to achieve a four-year degree, that’s great, but they should never be celebrated more than the person who decides to open his own plumbing business.  This is why I’m so supportive of our state’s two-year college system and our vocational schools.

​Alabama has so much economic potential.  I hope you will join me in making sure we see this economic expansion continues in places like Huntsville, but also expands into places like Lamar, DeKalb and Fayette counties.  There’s no reason we shouldn’t all be able to take part in how hot the Alabama economy is right now.   As we also used to say in Haleyville, it’s 100 degrees in the shade!

 

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