Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Craig Ford: Our legislature thinks brown shrimp are more important than people

  When I first saw the list of bills we would be debating in the Alabama House of Representative last Thursday, I thought it was a joke. The first bill up for debate was a bill to make brown shrimp the official state crustacean.

  This is your state legislature's priorities, folks. Not peoples’ lives or jobs, and certainly not being responsible with your tax dollars... brown shrimp. That's the priority. You just can't make this stuff up!

  I was the only legislator who voted against this bill. I voted against it because I wanted to make a point: why are we wasting time on fluff legislation like this instead of focusing on the real problems, like solving the budget crisis?

  Now I love shrimp as much as anybody. But I don’t feel so strongly about shrimp that I think making it the official state crustacean should come before, say, passing a budget. Especially when the legislature only meets for a few days out of the year.

  Unless a special legislative session is called, the legislature is required to meet for 30 meeting days within 100 calendar days. Thursday was the eighteenth meeting day, which means we are now almost two-thirds of the way through the legislative session.

  With so few days left, you would think that passing the budgets and finding a solution to the budget crisis would be a priority. But apparently, brown shrimp weigh more heavily on the Republican leadership's minds.

  We’ve known since 2012 that a budget crisis was coming. That’s why the Republicans borrowed $437 million from the state’s savings account to get us through the last three years. But now that $437 million has run out. And since last November, Governor Robert Bentley has been warning legislators that something would have to be done.

  There’s no excuse for us to be this far into the legislative session and still nowhere close to passing a General Fund budget or a solution to the budget crisis. And even if we somehow found $265 million dollars to keep us at current levels of funding, we would still be in a dangerous position.

  Take, for example, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s current budget. Right now-without any of the proposed cuts-there are only six state troopers for the entire state patrolling the highways after midnight. Six! You read that correctly.

  In fact, under current levels of funding, there are more law enforcement officers for the City of Montgomery than there are state troopers for the entire state. And for the troopers we do have, many of them are driving vehicles with more than 200,000 miles on them! If we pass the 30 percent budget cut that Republicans have proposed, we will have to lay off 100 state troopers, which would essentially close down state law enforcement.

  Healthcare is another prime example. Since the Republicans took control in Montgomery, ten rural hospitals have closed. Today, of Alabama’s 54 rural counties, only 17 have OB/GYN services. That means tens of thousands of mothers have to travel as much as two or more hours to get their prenatal care and deliver their babies. Almost all of these closures are the result of cuts in Medicaid funding.

  Another example is the state’s “Meals on Wheels” program. Under the proposed Republican budget cuts, funding for “Meals on Wheels” would be cut in half. If that happens, thousands of elderly Alabamians would go hungry and possibly starve to death.

  Unfortunately, these examples only scratch the surface of what we could be facing.

  Legislators have known these facts for months. Yet, here we are, eighteen days into the legislative session, and instead of voting on a budget or a solution to this crisis, we are voting on whether brown shrimp should be the official state crustacean.

  In any other profession, this would be called malpractice. In the legislature, this is just another day at the office.

  Come October, state law enforcement may no longer exist, only three cities may still be able to issue driver’s licenses, hospitals and doctors offices across the state may close their doors, and thousands of Alabamians may no longer be able to eat, but at least the brown shrimp will be the official state crustacean.

  About the author: Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden representing District 28 and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.

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