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Opinion | A week of good news

Bradley Byrne

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There was much to celebrate this past week in Washington.

That sentence may surprise you if you just go off what you hear from the national news media, but the reality is we continue to get work done here in the People’s House.

To be clear, there is still work to be done, and that starts with passing funding necessary to secure the border and protect the American people. That said, I think it is worth pausing for a moment and reviewing the wins from this past week.

One of the biggest wins last week was passage of the 2018 Farm Bill.

As I have said before, our farmers and foresters are our future. I am pleased to have voted for this bipartisan legislation to better support our farmers in Alabama and throughout the country.

The 2018 Farm Bill will allow for improved crop protections and loan options for farmers, incentivize rural development, support animal disease prevention and management, and will continue our nation’s commitment to agriculture and farmers.

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I am especially pleased to see the substantial resources provided to improve rural broadband access to communities. Providing Internet access to people in rural Alabama is absolutely critical to economic development and the success of these communities in the 21st Century.

A few of the other provisions in the bill will greatly benefit the cotton and peanut growers here in Alabama; help maintain access to crop insurance through reduced premiums and waived fees; boost critical funding for feral swine control; and restore funding for trade promotion efforts in an attempt to keep pace with trading competitors around the world.

Most importantly, the 2018 Farm Bill will help equip and train the next generation of farmers both here in Alabama and throughout the United States. I was proud to support this bill, and I look forward to President Trump signing it into law.

Another piece of good news we received this week was the passage of a bill to help drain the Washington swamp.

The American people are sick of Congress being able to play under different rules than the rest of the country, and that must change.

That is why I am proud to be one of the leaders on the effort to reform the way sexual harassment claims are handled on Capitol Hill to increase transparency and accountability.

No longer will members of Congress be able to use taxpayer dollars to pay settlements for their own misconduct when it comes to sexual harassment. No longer will members of Congress be able to cover up their personal wrongdoings at the expense of the American people.

It was important for Congress to make this statement. With this legislation, we did the right thing. By doing the right thing, we not only do right by the people who work around us and for us, but we do right by the American people.

This has been a tough fight, but with these reforms we will make the Washington swamp a little less swampy and shine light on what is happening in the halls of Congress.

With this week of good news, it is also important to remember that the best news of all will be celebrated next week: a small baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.

This good news is the birth of our Savior, bringing God’s light directly into the world through His son.

It is easy to lose sight of the meaning of Christmas with all the bustle of daily life and routine. But this week, I challenge you to stop and remember what this season is about in preparation for the good news yet to come.

 

Guest Columnists

Opinion | Online sales tax collection: What does this really mean for Alabama’s municipalities?

Frank Brocato

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The steady increase in online sales over the past decade has triggered an alarming shift in consumer purchasing habits from shopping at local brick and mortar establishments (which support community-owned businesses) to buying via remote sellers.

The significant decrease in local sales and use tax collections make it more difficult for Alabama’s municipalities to provide basic services such as police and fire protection, road resurfacing, solid waste collection and disposal, educational funding and other essential services.

In fact, according to data from Adobe Digital Insights, which tracks 80 percent of online spending at America’s 100 largest retail websites, American shoppers spent a record $6.22 billion in 24 hours during Black Friday in 2018, which marks a 23.6 percent increase in dollars spent online compared with Black Friday 2017. The Friday after Thanksgiving this year was also the first day in history to see more than $2 billion in sales stemming from smartphones according to Adobe.

What is SSUT and how does it need to be adjusted?

In 2016, the State passed the Simplified Sellers Use Tax (SSUT) to allow sellers to voluntarily pay tax on sales that would otherwise be outside the municipal taxing authority under current law.

In 2018, the Alabama Legislature passed HB470 requiring marketplace facilitators – on-line malls – to collect and remit sales taxes from all vendors marketing their products through these platforms and limiting the sales tax collection discount for online retailers to one percent. HB 470 also enhanced the split of local governments’ SSUT revenues to 60 percent to cities and 40 percent to counties.

In an effort to address this increasingly challenging issue, the Alabama League of Municipalities formed an ongoing Digital Economy Task Force in 2017 to examine shifts in consumer shopping and develop solutions to prevent what could very well decimate our municipal budgets over the next few years. I am honored to serve on this task force and have participated in many SSUT discussions over the past year. Recognizing that there continues to be a discrepancy in sales tax rates between local brick and mortar and online sales, the League and we, as municipal officials representing our citizens, are now advocating for parity in the sales tax rates between local vendors and on-line retailers during the 2019 Legislative Session. We believe a nominal tax increase for online sales of 1% would lower the disadvantage to local stores, which are currently collecting and remitting more than online retailers, while adding millions of sales tax dollars back into our local economies. This will provide necessary tax revenue for police and fire protection

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as well as the many quality of life services our citizens not only expect but demand.

As the number of vendors remitting taxes via the SSUT portal increases, even with the 60/40 split between counties and municipalities, Hoover will continue to be at a disadvantage compared to its prominence in retail sales for the State of Alabama overall. Therefore, attempting to equalize the rates is definitely a positive step to making the playing field between online retailers and brick and mortar stores more equitable; however, the formula (by population) for tax distribution across municipalities should also be reconsidered by the Legislature. Making this change will increase the effectiveness of the SSUT in capturing the loss of revenues from online shopping for the City of Hoover as well as other municipal retail hubs throughout the state.

What does this mean for Alabama’s municipalities?

Speaking for my municipality, the increase in online retail sales has substantially impacted the City of Hoover’s sales tax collections. For the State of Alabama, in calendar year 2017, the Alabama Department of Revenue received over $66.7 million through its Simplified Sellers Use Tax (SSUT) program to be distributed to counties and municipalities across the state. During that time, Hoover represented 2.82 percent of the population formula for distribution and received only $471,400 of the total $16.7 million disbursement related to municipalities. However, Hoover represents a larger percent of retail sales compared with other municipalities in the state. Based on conservative 2012 census retail sales estimates, Hoover represents 5.14 percent of all retail sales across the state (compared with 2.82 percent of population). Thus, due to the SSUT formula being based on population, Hoover is collecting 45 percent less than if it was based on the estimated retail composition percentage.

In addition, if we applied the conservative 5.14 percent of all retail sales that Hoover represents to the SSUT calendar year 2017 tax basis of $834 million, it would represent $42.9 million of online sales applicable to Hoover, or $1.3 million in taxes (based on the 3 percent tax rate in effect during that time period). Under this scenario, Hoover is collecting only 37 percent of what would be due locally, when compared to the actual 2017 SSUT distribution. This differential for Hoover SSUT tax receipts will only increase due to the new requirement passed by the Alabama Legislature in Act 2018-539 that amends the Simplified Sellers Use Tax law.

As of January 1, 2019, marketplace facilitators having sales made into Alabama through the marketplace of $250,000 or more are required to register, collect and remit all marketplace sales, including those of marketplace sellers, or report such sales to the Alabama Department of Revenue and provide customer notifications. This is a positive change for municipalities that will result in more revenue collections; however, the disparity for Hoover will be even greater as SSUT collections grow. Consequently, as dollars spent online increase, under the current distribution methods, Hoover will continue to experience less revenue collections through the SSUT portal than it would likewise receive from our brick and mortar stores.

As the Legislature considers modifications to the SSUT program and the ramifications of our society moving to online sales, we are hopeful our state lawmakers will also carefully consider additional formulas and data points that recognize current retail hubs around the state. I am confident that local and state leaders can identify a measure and distribution method that will treat all Alabama’s municipalities fairly.

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Opinion | Four myths to dispel during Alabama School Choice Week

Rachel Blackmon Bryars

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Gov. Kay Ivey recently proclaimed this “Alabama School Choice Week” and thousands of families will celebrate reforms created by the Alabama Accountability Act, including scholarships so low-income parents can transfer their children from under-performing schools.

Critics of the program, however, will likely respond by repeating some of the many myths about the law.

Here are four you’ll probably hear:

Myth #1: Scholarships steal money from public schools

The Alabama Accountability Act “has directly siphoned more than $140 million from Alabama’s cash-strapped K-12 classrooms,” wrote the Alabama Education Association in a September 2018 edition of the teacher’s union magazine.

But public school systems aren’t actually losing money.

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They are now collecting more money to educate fewer students with the biggest budget in a decade. Overall, the state’s multi-billion dollar education trust fund has grown since the scholarships were first offered, even while enrollment has steadily decreased.

Last year alone, tax revenue that funds the education budget grew by nearly half a billion dollars – about three times as much as the scholarship program has spent in six years combined.

Also, it costs roughly $9,500 annually to educate a student in public school, according to budget data.

But it only costs about $6,500 to educate the same child in private school, which includes the costs of administering the scholarships, according to Warren Callaway, executive director of Scholarships For Kids, one of the largest scholarship granting organizations in the state, and a member of the recently formed Alabama Accountability Act Coalition.

“It’s a great deal for taxpayers,” Callaway said. “They’ve given us $146 million and we’ve provided $200 million in education. The cost of education is not fixed because [public schools] don’t have to educate the child we have taken off their hands.”

Myth #2: Even high performing schools that don’t have any students transferring out on scholarship still “lose money”

“The highest performing school districts lose revenue at the same rate as all other districts,” according to the teachers’ union article. “It does not matter if you have no failing schools in your district. It does not matter if you have no scholarship recipients in your district. All school systems are still penalized under the [program].”

Callaway says this is “bogus.”

“The AEA tells Mountain Brook City, arguably the best system in the state, that they’ve lost $834,956 due to the Accountability Act,” Callaway said. “That’s hogwash. They haven’t lost a dollar.”

Callaway examined state budget data showing Mountain Brook enrollment has largely been static, while state spending on students has gone up. In effect, they’ve received more money than years prior despite the AEA’s claims they’ve lost money.

Myth #3: A University of Alabama study proves school choice doesn’t work

A state-commissioned study conducted by the University of Alabama’s Institute for Social Science Research found that students using the scholarships performed about as well, on average, as their public school peers.

Critics believe this proves school choice doesn’t help students improve academically.

But advocates claim this indicates a huge achievement since research shows poverty strongly correlates with poor academic performance. The study showed low-income scholarship students often did better academically than their low-income public school counterparts.

“We’ve taken kids who you would predict would be on the bottom side of the bell curve of achievement and we’ve gotten them to the mean,” Callaway said. “I would put the headline of that study, instead of ‘They scored average, ho-hum,’ I would say ‘They scored average, exclamation point!’”

Myth #4: The program should be repealed because not all scholarship recipients are zoned for failing schools

Students zoned for failing schools are awarded the scholarships first, and any remaining funds are then given to other disadvantaged families in schools that are generally close to the bottom 6th percentile — the state’s definition of a failing school.

“Would you want to send your child to a 7th percentile school or an 8th percentile school?” Callaway asked. “The answer is no. Those are still low performing schools.”

Overall, there’s a lot about education besides school choice that Alabamians can celebrate this week.

Our recently released state report card revealed district and school improvement last year, with more As, Bs and Cs, and fewer Ds and Fs than the year before.

Our First Class Pre K program continues to succeed and draw national attention.

And Montgomery will open its first charter school this year.

None of these achievements, including school choice, would have happened without new ideas and reform.

“The Accountability Act wasn’t an initiative to take the place of public education, it was just intended to show there is an alternative way of doing things and to upset the status quo,” Callaway said.

No doubt the families celebrating their life-changing opportunity this week thank God that it did.

Rachel Blackmon Bryars is a senior fellow at the Alabama Policy Institute. Email her at [email protected] or connect with her on Instagram @rbryars.

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Opinion | Vengeance or mercy: Let’s kick ’em while they are down!

John W. Giles

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A true economic, moral, social and constitutional conservative; DOES NOT RAISE TAXES.  Rumblings are emerging at every intersection that our Alabama Legislature, led by Republicans are discussing raising our gas tax.  You heard it, Republicans are talking about raising taxes.  There are generally three common denominators associated with the discussion of raising taxes.  As a rule of thumb, it is Democrats leading the discussion, secondly when revenues are down in a struggling economy, and finally when the economy is booming.  When our economic environment is stable, tax payers are lulled to sleep by this debate, and then wake up one day with this elephant sitting on them.  The question I hope to answer in this article is how did Republicans get themselves into this posture, and for mercy sakes, how does this become a legislative priority?  Let’s explore this together.  

While I support Trump, he opened the already cracked door in Alabama to this discussion of raising our gas tax.  Every year, you can always depend on the associations of Road and Bridge Builders, Civil Engineers, League of Municipalities, and County Commissioners to beat the drum for more road and bridge money.  There is always a manufactured crisis and they will show a dated picture of a dirty school bus crossing a bridge that looks fresh out of the movie “Deliverance.”  Frustrated by bureaucracies of airport services around the country, when Trump One would pull in, it triggered the President launching this notion of infrastructure improvement.  Trump was talking about tax cuts on one hand, which is a good thing and misfired in the message of raising taxes for infrastructure.  You have noticed he has throttled back on this concept after conservative groups who faithfully supported his candidacy, educated him that this is a Democrat issue for several reasons.  Nationally, the conversation of infrastructure is code that someone’s taxes are going up.  It also means union labor, which generally supports Democrats increase their campaign contributions, many hand outs with sweetheart deals, kickbacks, scandals and misappropriated funds over these large sums of money.  They always get your eye off the ball of the damaging attributes of raising taxes with side shows, shiny objects and of course creating a fabricated crisis.   

Ascend with me a little higher on the mountain so we can get a clear documented view of the current tax burden on the American taxpayer, it is ALARMING!  Taxpayers will spend more on local, state and federal taxes annually than they do on housing, food and clothing combined, approximately 20 percent more.  Another sobering thought is somewhere around April 19, 2019, taxpayers will earn enough money to pay for all local, state and federal budgets.  That is right; we work for four months free, and then only eight months for our families.  This four month period does not include fees, license and also factoring in the national deficit, which extends the break even point. 

Looking closer at Alabama, we rank 5th in the nation of having the highest local and state sales taxes.  That is right; our local and state sales tax rate is higher than California and New York.  In terms of high taxes for gasoline, Alabama ranks 37th, our neighbor Georgia is 20th and Pennsylvania is first.  In Alabama, when analyzing property tax, unemployment insurance tax, sales, individual income tax and corporate tax rates; we have an overall ranking in the U.S. at 32nd out of 50 states.  All of this is raw data collected and reported by the Tax Foundation, and I encourage everyone to confirm these findings.     

Today Alabamians pay a total of 41.31¢ in state and federal taxes on gasoline and a total of 46.29¢ on diesel.  The last time the legislature raised gasoline taxes was in 1992 when gas prices lowered to $1.13 a gallon.  The legislature raised the gas tax by 16¢ a gallon then and now the discussion ranges from 15¢ – 25¢.  Proponents who are pushing us for the tax increase will cite a 2015 American Society of Civil Engineers national study scoring Alabama with a D+ on our roads and bridges.  Two observations: one, while I have many good friends who are civil engineers, please keep in mind this industry segment embraces all gas tax increases, because it directly affects their income.  Secondly, by choice I live on a rural dirt road along with many cattle and poultry farmers, we also have school bus routes on these roads.  When it rains sure our roads are messy, but the county keeps them scraped and compromised bridges are replaced by priority.  Farmers can get their products to market and our school children get to school every day without a road or bridge incident.  

In summary to my friends in the legislature who are being noticeably swayed by the notion of raising gasoline taxes; please consider these observations.  You cannot have it both ways; it is an oxymoron to continue economic development news of record proportions of capital investments and new jobs created and earn the reputation of Republicans in control of all three branches of government raising taxes.  Economists predict a 2.44 percent increase in the rate of inflation in 2019, which will impact all of us at the cash register.  Alabamians join other Americans in finally beginning to emerge from one of the most grueling recessions in decades, feeling a huge reprieve in gas prices for the first time in years and seeing some relief in the tax cuts by Trump and Congress.  Are you going to show mercy and help people get back up on their feet or take the route of the school yard bully and kick-um while their down. 

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Leadership yielding to raising taxes is a very weak solution; very weak.  It is hard work and you have to break a sweat to dig in and drill down into the pork barrel waste, middle man handouts, huge contracts, tough negotiations, cost overruns, and in some cases the temptation to raid the public trust.  You can’t embrace the President’s tax cuts on one hand and raise taxes on the other; that friend is a forked tongue and will not pass the public smell test.  We all know that opportunist borrowed the President’s infrastructure message, revved up the RPM’s and popped the clutch, but there is another page in the Trump book you might consider.  How about the Air Force One, Jerusalem Embassy and the F-35 negotiations that saved billions.  

I suggest you throttle back on the Democrat infrastructure talking points and get into some hand to hand combat like the President did with these powerful companies and emerge with some huge savings for your fellow Alabamians.  Republicans are supposed to be noted for solutions, tough leadership and making one dollar do the work of three.  Raising taxes is a visible sign of weakness and has the Democrats DNA all over it.  We just buried a Republican U.S. President that once made a campaign promise on no new taxes and said, “Read my lips,” then during his administration raised taxes and he was defeated by Clinton.  

Are you going to show MERCY and help your fellow Alabamian’s with a hand up after twelve hard years; or are you going to show VENGEANCE and kick-um while they are down and the price of gas is a record low to mask the pain?

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Opinion | The sanctity of life

Bradley Byrne

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I am proudly pro-life. Millions of Americans are as well.

The sanctity of human life is immeasurable, and the countless Americans who feel the same way should not have their voices silenced or their opinions rebuked in the mistaken claim of freedom of choice.

Since I have been in Congress, I have consistently stood up for the unborn, and I continue to stand up for life. I am proud of the hundreds of Alabamians, most of them young people, who this past weekend took a stand for life in our nation’s Capital as part of the annual March for Life.

Those who support pro-life causes support American values, allowing all the opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Too often I have seen the national main stream media cover the handful of counter protesters who come to speak out against those taking a stand, rather than cover the thousands of people on the side of life.

Why is it that it is so untenable to the Democrat party and those on the far left to want every unborn child to have the same fighting chance at life as they received?

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Since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, nearly 61 million abortions have been carried out in the United States. That is absolutely unacceptable.

I remain dedicated to doing everything I can to ensure we defund Planned Parenthood, permanently end taxpayer funding of abortion, overturn Roe, and ensure all lives are protected.

As a Christian, I believe that we are all created in the image of God. As children of God, from the moment of conception, God’s breath of life resides in us. To abort an unborn child is as much the ending of life as any other form of murder.

Already in 2019, I have taken action on several pro-life initiatives.

As I have done every Congress since I was elected by the people of Southwest Alabama, I have joined the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, a group of House Members who advocate for life in Washington.

Additionally, I have signed on to key legislation to protect the unborn.

One of the bills I have cosponsored is the Defund Planned Parenthood Act of 2019, which would place a one-year moratorium on federal funding to Planned Parenthood and increase funding to community health centers that do not perform abortions but provide more comprehensive care.

I have also cosponsored the Heart Beat Protection Act, which bans abortion after a detectible heartbeat; the Life at Conception Act, which defines that human life begins at conception; and the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA), which prohibits sex-selective abortions while protecting women upon whom sex-selective abortions have been performed.

And just last Friday, President Trump agreed to support our stance outlined in a letter I signed, asking him to veto any funding bill that weakens pro-life protections and any bill that weakens federal pro-life policy.

There is a verse that is well known to many parents and grandparents, and the message is clear: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)

God has a plan for all of us in life, and he knew that plan even before we were formed. Life begins at conception. God’s plan for us is something we can never know fully, and it is something that no one should ever snuff out.

I will continue to stand for life, for God’s plan for our lives, and for the incredible gift that is a child.

 

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Opinion | A week of good news

by Bradley Byrne Read Time: 3 min
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