Tag: brett johnson

Session begins, Alabamians grit teeth

“It’s time we change course,” said Alabama Governor Robert Bentley in his 2015 State of the State address. “It’s time for a bold move.”

Lawmakers in the room were hoping the governor was laying out his agenda for a new golf course, not a course of tough legislative action.

Alabamians across the state are hoping Governor Bentley just wants us to show off bold moves on the dance floor, not moving cash from our pocket books to the state.

To the governor, to lawmakers and to all Alabamians I have to say: it’s time to grit your teeth. Because the course is going to be rough and the boldness of the Alabama legislature is yet to be tested and leaves us all wondering what changes lie ahead.

Governor Bentley proposed eight pieces of legislation that will, essentially raise taxes in Alabama. Many include bringing back or getting rid of old tax credits, but some are actually brand new tax increases.

In fact, two increases include a 2 percent increase on the tax collected from automobile sales and the other is a 3 percent increase on the tax paid when renting a vehicle in the state of Alabama.

The third new tax increase is an additional 82.5 cents per pack on cigarettes. The governor’s tax proposals will have combined estimated total new revenue of about $541 million. That’s $541 million more coming out of Alabamians’ pockets per year.

Gritting those teeth yet? Blood boiling yet? This is how the upcoming legislative session is going to go for lawmakers all across the state. Wondering, wishing, hoping, debating, crying, and begging for better solutions to the state’s problems.

In the legislature, it will be a knock-down, drag-out fight between those ‘no new taxes’ candidates (even though Bentley was one) and the ‘we need new revenue’ legislators. The legislative leadership have voiced skepticism over any new taxes, but at the same time they admit that our state is facing, at minimum, a $300 million budget shortfall – if not much more.

This is just the beginning of the many issues the legislature will be debating this year. Others include: charter schools, changes to the Alabama Accountability Act, same-sex marriage bills, the lottery, compacts with the Poarch Creek Indians – just to name a few.

I will do my best over the next few weeks to outline the hot issues and relevant topics taken up by our state’s lawmakers. I wish I could pain a picture of high hopes, but with polar opposite options of underfunded budgets or new taxes, it’s hard to do so.

The best I can say is keep your fingers crossed and grit your teeth. This legislative session is going to be a bumpy, but necessary ride!

Brett Johnson
Political Columnist

Republican tax hikes or the democratic lottery?

It’s like watching a mouse chase a cat. Alabama governor Robert Bentley, a Republican, has been stumping for weeks now making his case for higher taxes.

It seems like some kind of nightmare from a House of Cards episode, but it is real and it is happening in the most conservative state in the union. Most politicos have watched this for weeks now wondering when it will stop.

When will the governor realize that he is using the wrong script? When will his staffers yell: ‘No! No! We meant tax cuts!’ But it has not happened. In fact, it is so serious it is becoming a heated debate between the governor and legislative leaders in his own party.

The partisan GOP blog Yellowhammer News has even been blasting the governor for his proposals in recent weeks. One of their most damning headlines reads: “Awkward: Bentley pushes tax hikes while campaign site still promises ‘No New Taxes’.”

Yet, while Republican legislators decry his proposals, they openly admit dark days are not only ahead, but are here, when it comes to state budgets: particularly the General Fund which funds Medicaid, prisons, law enforcement and courts. All of this begs the question: is there a common-ground solution?

Alabama House Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford (D-Gadsden) says there is. For the fourth year, he is proposing an amendment to the Alabama constitution that will allow the people of Alabama to vote on a lottery. The difference is, this time he is offering two bills: one for the General Fund and one for the Education Trust Fund.

He says he made this change in hopes that the GOP-controlled legislature will consider a lottery as an option as opposed to the governor’s tax increases. Admittedly, this puts legislators between a proverbial rock and a hard place.

On one hand, you could support your governor’s tax increases and possibly lose your next bid for re-election. On the other, you could support a democratic lottery proposal even if you might be against gambling yourself (or at least to those who ask).

But the third option, perhaps the worst of them all, is that you do nothing to solve the state’s budget issues and you go down in history as a do-nothing legislator comparable to the “Washington status quo” that you probably ran against in your election.

State leaders need to suck it up, sit down and come up with solid common sense solutions to the state’s budget problems. With the lottery polling upwards of 70 percent and tax increases not even a serious topic of discussion for most Alabamians, I say let the people vote!

It’s time for state leaders to come together and put the issue on the ballot for citizens to decide. From a self preservation perspective, you’d think letting voters make the decision to bring a lottery is much easier to digest than making the decision yourself to raise taxes on them without their input.

But, hey! In Alabama, there are mice chasing cats up and down Capitol Hill and all around the state. We just get to sit back and enjoy the show.

Brett Johnson
Political Columnist

Roy Moore’s stance in the courthouse door

Since last Monday, same-sex couples in Alabama have seen their hopes and dreams realized by being able to receive marriage licenses in their home state. However, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore has taken his stance against the issue by theoretically standing in the courthouse door.

As the state prepared over the weekend for a stay on a federal ruling against Alabama’s same-sex marriage ban to be lifted, Chief Justice Moore was preparing a decree for probate judges around the state to stand up against the ruling. Late Sunday night he announced his order to judges and media around the state.

Judge Moore ordered probate judges to refrain from issuing marriage licenses to samesex couples based on the fact that they are responsible for adhering to state law, not federal law.

Unfortunately Judge Moore’s order disregarded the U.S. Constitution, which explicitly places federal rulings as the law of the land.

Yet, his plea was adhered to by a handful of probate judges around the state. Early on Monday, most probate judges were denying same sex marriage licenses based on Judge Moore’s order.

By the end of the day, most probate judges had been pressured to begin issuing the licenses. In Calhoun County, the probate court denied couples their licenses citing and even handing out copies of Judge Moore’s order.

However, by Tuesday, Calhoun County’s probate court and others were issuing the licenses. Even in Etowah County, Moore’s home county, the probate courts were issuing licenses to samesex couples without question.

Moore has uniquely positioned himself at the center of this debate in Alabama. In fact, he is being compared to Alabama Governor George Wallace who stood in the schoolhouse door at University of Alabama in the 1950s in an attempt to block integration of state schools.

Now, looking back most Alabamians have realized the reality of Wallace’s actions at the time, and changed their minds. It is safe to say that in decades to come, history will look back on Moore’s attempt to defy federal rulings equally as out-of-touch with the scope of the realities of federalism.

Moore’s argument has been that the federal judge operated outside the extent of her authority when ruling against state law. However, as a constitutional judge she is tasked with making sure state laws adhere to the U.S. Constitution.

Many, including Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, wished the U.S. Supreme Court would rule on the issue and extend the stay on the federal judge’s ruling. However, on the same day that the stay was lifted, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the state’s request to extend it.

This, in effect, made the federal judge’s ruling the law of the land. As the highest court in the United States, the Supreme Court effectively said the ruling was fair based on their interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

In Moore’s defense, I am sure he believes that he is operating on the right side of the law, or at least of morality – and that argument can be made. However, in this nation, federal law always trumps state law, and Moore is limited in his ability to change that effect.

Brett Johnson
Political Columnist

How charter schools are impacting college tuition

Coming off an overwhelming victory in the 2014 election, leaders in the Alabama legislature are feeling more confident than ever in their ability to push forward their education agenda. Topping that list is allowing charter schools in Alabama.

Charter schools are publicly funded independent schools established by businesses or community groups under a charter with a local authority. Essentially, a private school funded by public money – by tax dollars.

Charter schools have come out of a growing ‘school choice’ movement, which promotes the idea that parents want more of a say in their child’s education. In fact, school choice was one of President Obama’s top education initiatives and campaign platform planks when he first ran for office.

Surprisingly enough, this leftist movement has made its way to Alabama and is being led by the Republican Party. Yes, they say politics makes for strange bedfellows. Nonetheless, after four years Alabama Republican leaders have been unable to pass charter schools legislation.

However, given no serious retaliation at the polls for the controversial Alabama Accountability Act, legislative leaders are setting the stage for a charter schools rerun this quadrennium. So what does that mean for college students, professors and staff?5

It could mean a dip into all of our bank accounts, depending on how the issue is handled. Essentially, charter schools are funded by a follow-the-kid strategy; meaning public funds are allocated to schools on a per-student basis.

This would mean if your sibling were in a public school and decided to attend a charter school instead, the money that would have been spent on their education at the public school would now go to the charter school instead. Most proponents will argue that this means no additional financial burden on education.

To quote Dwight Schrute: “False.” This theory relies on the idea that dollars spent in education are for just the student and the teacher. In reality, any new facility (charter school) is going to cost additional dollars to operate over what is currently being spent in a given school district.

Factor in support staff, custodians, bus drivers, coaches, secretaries, office staff, nutrition personnel, and those costs add up quick. By adding a new school to a district you essentially double the cost of educating a child.

This gives state leaders one of two options: increase the amount you spend per child or decrease the quality of education across the board by decreasing salaries and benefits for those involved in educating students.

Because Alabama can’t get much worse in education rankings, my guess is the state will find a way to increase K-12 expenditures. How do we do that without raising taxes? Cut higher education.

Legislators find it easier to justify cutting higher education funding to pay for k-12 funding because we pay tuition. They know that colleges can offset their losses by increasing tuition.

This is how college students fit into the charter school debate. This is how the hope of school choice now for a student in k-12 could ruin the possibility of higher education for that same student in the future.

We must seriously consider the consequences of stretching our few education dollars too thin in Alabama.

Brett Johnson
Political Columnist

Gay marriage rulings in Alabama

Ten years ago the Alabama Legislature, led by Democrats, proposed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Nine years ago, Alabama voters approved that amendment by an overwhelming majority.

Last week, a Bush-appointed federal judge in Mobile ruled against the state citing its ban on the recognition of gay marriage.

On Monday, the same judge ruled in another case that Alabama’s law violates the rights of those wishing to marry.

As you can imagine, this has caused heated debate among state leaders, politicos and really anyone with an opinion on the issue.

Early proponents of the rulings were under the impression that gay couples could receive marriage licenses as early as Monday.

“Not so fast,” said the Alabama Probate Judges Association. Al Agricola, an attorney for the association, said the ruling only applies to parties named in the case. Therefore, probate judges must “issue marriage licenses in accordance with Alabama law.”

Alabama’s Republican Attorney General Luther Strange has been fighting to appeal the rulings. In fact, the judge has agreed to ‘stay’, or place on hold, the ruling for two weeks; but she isn’t willing to wait forever.

“As long as a stay is in place, same-sex couples and their families remain in a state of limbo with respect to adoption, child care and custody, medical decisions, employment and health benefits, future tax implications, inheritance and many other rights associated with marriage,” wrote U.S. District Judge Callie Granade.

Alabama’s Republican Speaker of the House, currently facing 23 felony charges of corruption, also chimed in through a prepared statement. “It is outrageous when a single unelected and unaccountable federal judge can overturn the will of millions of Alabamians who stand firm in support of the Sanctity of Marriage Act,” said the Speaker.

On the other side, Alabama’s only openly gay lawmaker Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, supported the ruling saying she did not expect it so soon. After seeing heated opposition from other state lawmakers, Rep. Todd stated that she is prepared to ‘out’ her colleagues who are having extramarital affairs and who are making degrading statements about same-sex couples in light of the rulings.

The issue is a divisive one, with many different people from many different backgrounds, cultures and experiences viewing it in differing ways.

But, one thing is certain, as much as this is a human issue affecting real lives and real families; it is also a serious states’ rights issue. Less than a decade ago, it was deliberated and agreed upon by both parties and by voters.

Now, a federal judge with the stroke of a pen has overturned the will of the people in the name of equality under the law.

Federalism is defined as “the distribution of power between a central authority and the constituent units.” By that definition, it seems this issue is one that will be decided in the central authority’s courts, not the constituent unit’s legislature.

Brett Johnson
Political Columnist