Insight: 2014’s do’s and don’ts for the Alabama Legislature
by The Anniston Star Editorial Board
Jan 19, 2014 | 10128 views |  0 comments | 48 48 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Alabama Capitol in Montgomery. Photo: The Associated Press
The Alabama Capitol in Montgomery. Photo: The Associated Press
Last year’s regular session was not a shining moment for the much-maligned Alabama Legislature. One action defined the 2013 session — the covert passage of the Alabama Accountability Act.

Say what you will about the act’s policies regarding public education in the state. But the indelible image of that law — and the Republicans who ushered it through the Statehouse — is of controversial legislation veiled in secrecy, given scant debate and passed, in essence, in the dark of night, behind closed doors, by Republicans unwilling to allow either Democrats or voters a chance to weigh in.

The GOP power-brokers in Montgomery, most notably Sen. Del Marsh, of Anniston, and Rep. Mike Hubbard, of Auburn, hatched a plan that flaunted their party’s control of state government’s highest halls. Democrats were powerless to stop them. Gov. Robert Bentley, a staunch Republican himself, didn’t decry their actions.

The bill, which Bentley signed, became law — but has had few of the advantages or positive changes its Republican backers said it will. One of the law’s biggest selling points — that students in failing public schools would be able to move to better-performing schools — hasn’t materialized en masse. A significant number of private schools throughout the state have refused to take part in the program, citing a reluctance to accept government money that will also bring government oversight.

The Alabama Accountability Act, by almost any measure, is as much an educational failure as it is a symbol of the Legislature’s 2013 dysfunction. (The GOP-controlled Legislature’s decision to expand the places gun owners can legally have their weapons is a close second.)

That brings us to the 2014 regular session, which kicked off Tuesday. Our hopes, though not completely dim, are affected by last year’s efforts. It’s like what parents say to their teens: Don’t tell me you’re going to act better, show me. Words are cheap. Trust matters.

With that, here are The Anniston Star’s 2014 do’s and don’ts for the Alabama Legislature:

Do follow through on Gov. Bentley’s State of the State proposal to give K-12 teachers in Alabama public schools a 2 percent pay increase. Yes, Democrats and the teachers’ lobby will want more, which is understandable. But one of the larger problems with education in Alabama is the state’s struggles to keep some of the best and brightest teachers from fleeing to neighboring states for higher wages.

Don’t reprise the passage of the Alabama Accountability Act. As we’ve previously said, the manner in which Republicans pushed the ACA toward Bentley’s desk was a despicable show of underhanded politics. There’s no reason to expect Republicans not to try to remake the Statehouse and the laws it produces in their own image. There is, however, every reason to expect Republicans to operate in the open, with debate, and in fairness to Democrats and Alabama’s voters, some of which disagree with their ideology.

Do find the beginnings of a solution to Alabama’s chronic problem with its prisons system. The facts here are common knowledge: State government has historically funded its prisons as if both the inmates and the corrections officers are afterthoughts. That policy has delivered Alabama into the state it is today, prisons-wise. Alabama’s prisons are among the absolute worst in the United States in terms of funding and overcrowding. The prisons house nearly twice as many inmates as they were designed for. Allegations of abuse are common.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, is proposing the creation of a task force that would announce solutions sometime during the 2015 session. That’s the turtle approach. The Legislature should ramp up its efforts to properly fund the prisons during this session. While they are at it, lawmakers shouldn’t put off sentencing-reform that rehabilitates non-violent drug offenders without putting them behind bars.

Don’t even entertain ideas to pass gun laws that parrot gun-rights groups’ talking points and go against the strong opinions of law enforcers. Here’s the deal: There’s nothing wrong with owning rifles and shotguns for target shooting or hunting; legal handgun ownership is protected by the Second Amendment. But we’re still appalled that last year the Legislature bought in to the “President Obama is going to take away your guns” mythology and passed legislation that, among its provisions, allows Alabamians to legally have their handguns in their cars while they are at work. We hesitate to think what a further expansion of this sort of gun-ownership laws would look like.

Do listen to Rep. Craig Ford’s ideas on a state lottery. Given Alabama’s history with lottery debates, there’s no reason to believe Ford, D-Gadsden, will find many sympathetic ears in Montgomery. But if you boil away the ideology and consider the facts, there are real, undeniable reasons to consider Ford’s bill. Considering the state’s struggles with funding its public schools, anything that will create as much as $250 million annually for education, as Ford claims, is worth at least modest consideration.

Don’t abolish Common Core. We got a kick out of Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, who on the first day of this year’s session took part in a government-bashing party with Common Core opponents in Montgomery. Beason even derisively called those who support Common Core as “educrats” who are also all too willing to accept federal money for programs.

There’s no reason to waste ink retelling the many positive traits about Common Core. But there is a strong reason to implore the Legislature — especially those who may follow Beason’s misguided path — to see Common Core as positive influence on public education instead of a ludicrous example of socialism sent down from Washington.

Do consider the humanitarian issue that is rampant poverty in Alabama. Gov. Bentley, though short on real ideas, was right to discuss poverty in Alabama during his State of the State address Tuesday. But while he and others have spared no expense to label America’s “War on Poverty” a failure. Considering the depths of poverty in which thousands of Alabamians live in — including so many here in Calhoun County — isn’t it time the state wage its own War on Poverty? The answer is yes.

Don’t let the impending budget battles get in the way of needed discussions. Money, though perhaps the root of all evil, is necessary to keep the state and its government operating smoothly. Lawmakers already know the crafting the state’s budgets during this session will be an unpleasant task.

As such, Alabamians shouldn’t be surprised when the Legislature’s business bogs down into little more than partisan wrangling over money and spending. It happens every year. That said, what can’t happen is for other worthwhile legislation to sit unattended in committees throughout both chambers because so much time is spent on one recurring theme.

Our point: The Legislature faces tasks large and small, but all are important in their own way. Get them done.
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