Saturday, April 30, 2016

Sam Fulwood III: At long last, a wrong righted for disenfranchised Virginians

  In a stunning demonstration of political propriety and fairness, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) used his executive authority last week to restore voting rights to 210,000 convicted felons who have lawfully served their time and parole obligations in the state. It was long overdue.

  Governor McAuliffe’s order effectively negated a century of mean-spirited and misguided laws, including felon disenfranchisement, that were set in place by Reconstruction-era lawmakers intent on denying African Americans the right to vote. While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated the once-onerous poll taxes and literacy laws written into the Virginia Constitution following the freeing of slaves at the end of the Civil War, laws forbidding felons from voting in the state survived—until McAuliffe, with a sweep of his pen, changed the law.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1507: Overcoming poverty of circumstances and spirit

  I know the power of poverty. It encases our hopes, our dreams, our spirits, and our lives so they can’t grow. I also know the power of escaping from poverty. I escaped, therefore, I understand how critical it is for us to extend a helping hand to those caught in the throes of poverty. I shared some of these facts in my brief remarks concerning poverty at the American Bar Association Conference on Poverty and Homelessness at Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma.

  I know poverty firsthand. I grew up in poverty. We were not just poor; we were “po.” At one point, 11 of us – nine children, a mother and a father – lived in a three-room house. I don’t mean a three bedroom house. I mean a kitchen, a middle room and a front room. There was no bathroom, no running water, and no electricity. The middle room did not have heat of any kind. With two beds in a small room, there was no space for a heater. In the cold of winter, we heated rocks and smoothing irons, wrapped cloth around them, and placed them under the covers to keep our feet warm. We were “po.” Yes, I know the experience of poverty.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Craig Ford: Throwing money at prisons won’t solve the problem

  This $800 million super prisons bill is the kind of thing people go to jail for; the kind of bill loaded with kickbacks for elected officials. And it won't even solve our problems in the prison system!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Steve Flowers: Inside the Statehouse: Alabama citizens deserve a lottery vote

  As the budget hearings began for the 2016 Alabama Legislative Session in January, the largest Powerball lottery sweepstakes in American history was playing out. It was one of the biggest news stories of the year.

  Legislators were hearing the same song, second verse, that they heard last year. The General Fund is about $200 million short. If the money is not found, we will lose $500 million in Medicaid federal matching dollars, most state highways will be without state troopers, and most counties - not just in the Black Belt - will be unable to grant or renew driver’s licenses. In addition, the federal courts will take over our prisons and more than likely release hundreds of convicts on the streets, and state employees will either be let go or have their take home pay cut again for the eighth straight year.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Darrio Melton: The prison bill is a bad investment

  As elected officials, looking for solutions to our state's problems is often a delicate balancing act. We have to determine the best way to use the resources we have while maximizing the benefit per dollar to the taxpayers. In the business community, this is called "return on investment."

  It's clear Gov. Robert Bentley didn't go to business school, because his $1.5 billion prison bill would get laughed out of a boardroom.

  Bentley wants to put $1.5 billion on the state's credit card so we can build new prisons. By the time the money comes due, we'll owe double the amount we borrowed.  Meanwhile, the Alabama Senate has voted not to repay the $437 million we borrowed back in 2012, and yet they want us to believe they'll make good on this $1.5 billion credit card bill for new prisons.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Michael Josephson: The disease of low expectations

  The serious damage done to our economy, social institutions, and personal relationships by widespread cheating and dishonesty is bad enough. But widespread acceptance of such behavior as inevitable threatens to make our future a lot worse. In effect, our culture is being infected by a disease: the disease of low expectations.

  The disease is manifested by the corrosive assumption that human nature can’t be expected to withstand pressures or temptations. In other words, when there’s a conflict between self-interest and moral principles, self-interest – in fact, short-term self-interest – will generally prevail.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Gene Policinski: Getting ‘SLAPP’d’ for getting involved — new protections considered

  Have you ever been SLAPP’d?

  SLAPP stands for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation,” and it’s a technique as old as lawsuits to stifle competition brought by the rapacious moguls of the early Industrial Age, and as modern as lawsuits against online critics.

  A section of the Communications Decency Act shields online sites from defamation suits and other kinds of civil actions over content posted by third parties — but not the people who post the material. Nearly one-half of states provide some protection against SLAPP lawsuits – some limited only to communication with the government – but a new U.S. House proposal, HR 2304, would add to those defenses, proponents say.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Three reasons why we should certify all paid tax preparers

  Filing taxes can be complicated. As a result, many people get help from tax preparers. According to IRS data, 81.2 million Americans paid tax preparers to help them complete their returns in 2011. Some of these paid preparers base their fee on a refund percentage or claim that they can provide larger refunds than their competitors.

  While one might assume that all paid tax preparers have special training that enables them to offer high-quality tax assistance—and an obligation to adhere to certain professional rules—neither is the case. In fact, the federal government currently lacks the authority to license or regulate most paid preparers.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1506: The squeeze of reality

  It was all coming to a head. I knew I would have to play a role. I did not expect to play the central role. I did not want to play any role. However, new realities moved in from several directions. Sometimes the squeeze of reality makes us do what we don’t want to do.

  It’s the Greene County gaming constitutional amendment, masquerading as a local constitutional amendment. It is not local and would have a far-reaching impact across the state. I had to step into a central role. Sometimes the squeeze of reality makes us do what we don’t want to do.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Craig Ford: The case for impeachment

  The House is supposed to vote this week on setting up a committee to investigate the charges for impeaching the governor. Impeachment is serious business, and I wanted to lay out the reasons why many of us in the Alabama Legislature are calling for the governor's impeachment:

  I’m not a lawyer, but I believe it’s important for those of us calling for the governor’s impeachment to make our case to the public and the legislature.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Steve Flowers: Inside the Statehouse: Alabama's Groundhog Day budget

  Some of you may have seen and remember the movie, Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray. In the comedy, Murray awakens on Groundhog Day and has the identical day that he had the previous year, similar to Yogi Berra’s colloquial saying of “déjà vu all over again.” Well, folks, this year’s legislative session began on Groundhog Day and it is déjà vu all over again. It is like it is last year again.

  Similar to the way realtors say, “it is location, location, location,” with Alabama government it is the General Fund, General Fund, General Fund. Several legislators optimistically predicted that they would have the budgets out by the middle of the session.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Darrio Melton: Republican lawmakers are blind to the problems facing Alabama

  Each year when the Alabama Legislature starts discussing the budget, the first items on the chopping block are always social services for our neediest neighbors. While legislators have turned a blind eye to $60,000 pay raises for staff and trips to Vegas in the state airplane, they've been quick to set their sights on these programs that they consider "wasteful spending."

  It's no secret that our budget is in trouble, but we absolutely must balance it wisely. When we look at these programs, it's important not to forget how heavily they're subsidized by federal dollars. For every dollar spent on Medicaid in Alabama, 30 cents comes from the state government. That's the equivalent of getting Medicaid on sale at 70 percent off.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Charles C. Haynes: Without LGBT rights, religious freedom fails

  Last week Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina scrambled to contain the damage caused by the passage of a state law limiting bathroom access for transgender people and eliminating local anti-discrimination ordinances based on sexual orientation.

  Under mounting pressure from civil liberties advocates and business interests, McCrory made what critics called cosmetic changes, notably issuing an executive order expanding the state’s employment policy for state workers to cover sexual orientation and gender identity.

  Opponents of the law say McCrory’s actions are too little, too late. Absent repeal of the legislation, North Carolina will likely face more boycotts, protests and pushback from businesses threatening to cancel investments in the state.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Blueprint for cutting poverty and expanding opportunity in America

  Many congressional Republicans—led by Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI)—have been talking a good game when it comes to tackling poverty. Speaker Ryan took an “anti-poverty tour,” released a white paper, and hosted a summit on poverty for the GOP presidential candidates along with Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) earlier this year. Most recently, Ryan announced the formation of a task force on poverty made up entirely of members of the House Republican caucus.

  Bipartisan interest in tackling poverty would certainly be a welcome development. Unfortunately, House majority leaders have not matched their new rhetoric with updated policies. The fiscal year 2017 House budget—which, once again, is a recipe for exacerbating poverty and inequality in America—provides a stark reminder of their priorities. While Speaker Ryan talks about his commitment to cut poverty, the House budget generates three-fifths of its spending cuts from programs that help low- and moderate-income Americans. If enacted, it would slash investments in nutrition assistance, tax credits for working families, child care, job training, education, health care, transportation, infrastructure, and more—all to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Craig Ford: Alabama's leaders have lost the benefit of the doubt

  State leaders shouldn't just talk about the 10 Commandments. They need to live them.

  Being in leadership comes with a lot of responsibilities; one of those responsibilities is projecting a respectable image of the place you represent. Gov. Robert Bentley and our state leaders are the image of Alabama, and now, thanks to them, we have a serious image problem.

  In government, we have Democrats and Republicans. There are partisan issues, and that’s a good thing. We should have different visions and healthy debates. But at the end of the day, we are all Alabamians, and we all want what’s best for Alabama.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Survey shows presidential campaign leading to widespread fear, bullying in schools

  A survey of approximately 2,000 teachers by the Southern Poverty Law Center indicates that the presidential campaign is having a profoundly negative impact on schoolchildren across the country, according to a report released today.

  The report – The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on our Nation’s Schools – found that the campaign is producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom. Many students worry about being deported.

  Teachers also reported an increase in the bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1505: Right and wrong vs. Senate customs

  What do we do when we are caught between institutional customs and right and wrong? I am facing such a dilemma at this very moment. The institutional customs of the Alabama Senate says that one senator does not get involved in another senator’s local legislation except to vote yes or no. On its face, that is as clear as black and white.

  The issue is electronic bingo, which the Alabama Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down. If a bingo bill affects only one particular county, it is clear where customs stop and a question of right or wrong begins. When that is the case, there is no question to ask and no answer to make. That is as clear as black and white.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Darrio Melton: Medicaid expansion could help solve Alabama's budget crunch

  With all the chaos coming out of the Governor’s Mansion in the past month, it’s been easy to overlook the chaos coming out of the State House. While Gov. Robert Bentley has been tied up in a scandal, the Alabama Legislature has continued to meet and vote on legislation, which has all subsequently made it to the governor’s desk.

  One such piece of legislation is the General Fund budget. For the past few years, we’ve argued over whether we need more cuts or more funding, and the truthful answer is that we need a little bit of both. The legislature doesn’t have an appetite for new taxes, so the General Fund budget that made it to Bentley’s desk underfunds Medicaid by around $85 million.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Michael Josephson: Who am I to judge? – The ethics of moral judgments

  Almost every week someone indignantly attacks my integrity because I offended them with a real or perceived opinion they didn’t like. The underlying assumption is that stating an opinion on any controversial matter violates the sacred duty of neutrality.

  First, I’m a teacher and a commentator, not a judge or journalist. Although I strive mightily to be objective, I don’t feel obligated to be neutral. Objectivity implies impartiality, detachment, and independence in evaluating evidence; it doesn’t preclude expressing judgment.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Gene Policinski: ‘Rebooting’ journalism and a free press — 2.6 terabytes at a time

  The rising global furor over the trove of financial records and other documents contained in the Panama Papers also speaks to any number of Digital Age canards about journalism and a free press.

  Granted, none of the following have yet reached the status of “Aesop’s Fables” in common knowledge. But they go something like this: “News is dead.” Another: “Journalists don’t matter.” And a third: “Who needs the press — old mainstream or new online — when there’s the web and algorithms to edit it for us.”

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Michael Josephson: Teaching our children to be better than us

  Do parents have moral standing to impose standards on their children that they themselves did not follow when they were kids? Is it ever ethical for parents to lie to a child about their youthful experiences?

  These are important questions because it’s a parent’s duty to teach, enforce, advocate and model good behavior for their kids. Sure, it’d be easier if we never did anything we’re uncomfortable being honest about, but judgment and responsibilities grow as we mature. Good parenting would be impossible if we were disqualified from setting and demanding high standards of prudent and ethical behavior no matter how foolish we were as youngsters. Our duty to be a good model concerns the present, not the past.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Craig Ford: Sinner or saint?

  If this mess in Montgomery has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t assume that just because a person is a Republican they share your values. We have to look past the party labels and look at who is actually on the ballot:

  This has been a disheartening week for the state of Alabama. The news of Gov. Robert Bentley’s relationship with Rebekah Caldwell Mason has embarrassed our state on the national level, and become a distraction for the legislature at a time when lawmakers need to be focused on solving the state’s problems.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Joe Valenti: A secure retirement demands limiting conflicts of interest

  Can you trust your financial adviser? Many Americans aren’t so sure. Thanks to a recent announcement from the U.S. Department of Labor, however, the answer may soon be “yes.”

  This week, the Department of Labor announced its final rule on conflicts of interest in retirement investment advice, also known as the fiduciary rule. Fiduciary is a five-syllable legal concept, but in practice, the intended effect of the rule is quite simple: All financial professionals selling retirement products will be legally required to act in the best interests of their clients rather than their own.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Darrio Melton: Uncertainty killing growth, hurting our communities

  Over the past five years, Alabama has invested millions of dollars to bring businesses to our state. We have sent representatives around the world to declare that Alabama is “open for business” to recruit top-tier corporations to locate in Alabama.

  But if there’s one thing any investor knows, it’s that uncertainty is bad for business.

  In the past two weeks, our “family values” governor has shocked the nation by his inappropriate comments to a female staffer, allegations of misuse of his office and state funds, and further rumors about the implications of the firings at the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Steve Flowers: Inside the Statehouse: Nothing illegal to see here

  In early 2009, Dr. Robert Bentley came to see me about his race for governor of Alabama. Bentley was finishing his second term in the Alabama House of Representatives and closing down his very successful dermatology practice in Tuscaloosa.

  I liked Bentley immediately and thought it was magnanimous that he would want to spend his retirement years as governor. I did not give him much of a chance and predicted he would run a respectable third in the race. He surprised everybody, however, probably even himself.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1504: Rising above the power and pervasiveness of sexism

  Sexism is pervasive. Sexism is powerful. Sexism comes in mnay forms. Sexism sometimes excludes outright. Sexism sometimes includes but limits. Sexism gives privileges with one hand and takes away with the other hand. Sexism pervades our thoughts, our actions and our language. Sexism comes in men and women, boys and girls. Sexism is so pervasive that I don’t know where to start. However, since March is Women’s History Month, I will explore several things that raised the specter of sexism during the last week of the month.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Sam Fulwood III: Poisonous rhetoric, then and now

  After a career spent cataloguing and commenting on the American political scene—nearly 30 years as a newspaper journalist and, more recently, as a public policy observer—I am rarely personally offended by anything that politicians say or do. But last week, two news stories exposed a level of political mendacity that set my heart racing and blood boiling.

  Even now, my anger has yet to abate after reading journalist Dan Baum’s April cover story in Harper’s Magazine. In that article, Baum quoted John Ehrlichman—a former aide to President Richard Nixon who served a year and half prison sentence for his role in the Watergate scandal—as saying the Nixon administration’s war on drugs campaign was deliberately designed to target black Americans.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Forfeiting the American Dream: How civil asset forfeiture exacerbates hardship for low-income communities

  In the United States, the basic tenet of the criminal justice system is that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty. However, over the past several decades, many thousands of people across the country have had their property seized by the government without being charged with a crime. Regardless of these individuals’ innocence, their cash, homes, cars, and personal property can be taken if law enforcement believes it was involved in a crime or if it is the proceeds of a crime.

  This practice, known as civil asset forfeiture, was established as a tool to dismantle criminal organizations. But over the past 30 years, the use—and in many cases abuse—of this practice has spiraled well beyond the purposes for which it was created. In recent years, civil asset forfeiture has come to create perverse incentives that can lead law enforcement agencies to seek profit over justice.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Craig Ford: Governor Bentley didn't just embarrass the state with his actions; he's also costing us jobs

  Since Gov. Robert Bentley’s relationship with Rebekah Mason became public last week, there have been calls for him to resign. Those calls have not come just because of his relationship with Rebekah Mason. Governor Bentley isn’t the first person in Montgomery to do what he did, and he probably won’t be the last.

  The reason Governor Bentley should resign is because of the people he hurt, the allegations against him, and the crippling effect he is now having on our ability to recruit jobs to Alabama.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Carolyn Davis: Advancing progressive religious liberty in 2016

  On March 23, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court took up Zubik v. Burwell. Supreme Court justices once again heard from those challenging the employer contraceptive coverage mandate in the Affordable Care Act, or ACA. The plaintiffs argue that the law violates their religious freedoms, even though the ACA allows them to avoid actually providing the insurance if they fill out a simple form. Zubik is an example of cynical efforts by extreme conservatives to exploit religion as a smokescreen for policies that discriminate and endanger the rights of Americans everywhere. It is a version of religious freedom that allows certain religious beliefs to trump the rights of others, cause harm, and allow one group to impose their religion on another. This bears little resemblance to the liberty our country’s founders intended.