Friday, May 6, 2016

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1508: We get what we pay for

  “You may not get all you pay for, but you will certainly pay for all you get.” These words of wisdom were spoken by Frederick Douglass in 1857, some 159 years ago. For this Sketches, I hereby shorten this famous saying to, “We get what we pay for.”

  Alabama has the lowest per capita level of tax collection in the United States of America. According to the PARCA Report dated December 4, 2015, Alabama’s state and local taxes per person comes to $3,046. Some Alabamians are very proud of this ranking. All I can say is we get what we pay for.

  The Alabama Legislature passed a general fund budget with an $85 million dollar deficit in Medicaid. This will ultimately mean a $255 million reduction in Medicaid because the $85 million would be matched by a 2-1 ratio in federal dollars. Alabama already has the most meager Medicaid program in the country. In addition, there is a $750 million Medicaid grant to help with RCOs (Regional Care Organizations) that is conditional on Medicaid maintaining its current level of funding. We could lose a billion dollars ($255 million plus $750 million) because we raise too little revenue to fund government. All I can say is, we get what we pay for.

  Alabama raises $3,046 per year, per person through taxes. The average level of taxation per person - not the highest in the United States - is $4,599, more than 50 percent higher than Alabama. All the lowest funded states are in the South, and Alabama is the lowest of the lowest. Some of us are so proud of having the lowest taxes. We forget that the lowest taxes ultimately produce the lowest services. All I can say is, we get what we pay for.

  Alabama's prison system is a mess. It is woefully underfunded. There are 24,000 prisoners in spaces designed to hold about 13,000. There are far too few correctional officers doing the jobs that require many more. There are far too few parole officers when far more are needed. They are woefully understaffed. More critical, a great danger lurks in all this for every person who works or serves in the corrections system. In addition, there is a danger that the federal courts may take over Alabama’s correction system, costing a whole lot more. And all of this is because we have the lowest revenue in the country. All I can say is, we get what we pay for.

  We cannot fully fund the Alabama court system. It is underfunded by millions of dollars. Personnel for circuit clerks and other court-related entities have been cut and cut and cut. They have been cut beyond the fat, through the muscle and to the bone. All I can say is, we get what we pay for.

  Every area of Alabama government is greatly underfunded: infrastructure resulting in roads and bridges crumbling; public health resulting in more citizens being sick and dying; education resulting in children not having school books; mental health resulting in people dangerous to themselves walking the streets; law enforcement that requires years for justice to grind; and one-day-a-month driver’s license offices in 28 counties. So many of us run for office on a pledge of no new taxes. We promise to cut waste, increase efficiency, and provide more services. We promise fiscal miracles. We make having the lowest taxes into a religion. The reality, however, is a fiscal crisis every single year. All I can say is, we get what we pay for.

  Alabama’s tax collections are not just the lowest in the nation; they are also the most unfair. Just because we have the lowest taxes overall does not mean these are the lowest for everyone in Alabama. In fact, it doesn’t mean the lowest for most people. It means lowest for those high up on the economic ladder. For average citizens, the tax burden is much heavier. Alabama is one of only two states in the whole country that taxes groceries - which cover the most basic of human needs - the same as other items. Cars are taxed at half the sales tax rate. The sales tax burden falls most heavily on those who can least afford it. Alabama has the lowest property tax but the fourth highest sales tax. Alabama has property taxes that are the lowest for landowners and homeowners but very high sales taxes for those purchasing the basics of life. All I can say is, we get what we pay for.

  Alabama has one of the lowest thresholds for income taxes in the United States. In other words, those with low incomes in Alabama start paying income taxes on earnings that are untaxed in all other states. In addition, Alabama is just one of three states that allows federal income taxes to be deducted from state taxes. The federal tax almost wipes out state taxes for some. This amounts to a $500 million reduction in revenue each year. All of this hurts a lot because we cannot even provide basic services. All I can say is, we get what we pay for.

EPILOGUE – We love to get something for nothing or a lot for a little. It’s the "bargain" mentality. However, we must understand that everything that looks like a bargain is not a real bargain. Sometimes we pay little and get way less. That is what we are doing in Alabama. We are, as the old folks would say, being penny wise and pound foolish.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represents Senate District 23 in the Alabama Legislature.

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