Make Alabama better: In this session, Legislature’s goal must be to improve the state
by The Anniston Star Editorial Board
Feb 04, 2013 | 3316 views |  0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Members of the House conduct business during their session at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery. Photo: Dave Martin/Associated Press
Members of the House conduct business during their session at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery. Photo: Dave Martin/Associated Press
Republicans in the Alabama House of Representatives have tabbed their agenda for the 2013 session “We Dare Defend Our Rights.”

That won’t do.

Instead, the entire Alabama Legislature — controlled in both chambers by the GOP — should adopt an agenda entitled, “We Dare Improve The State.” The time has come.

Today marks the opening of this year’s session. Lawmakers in both parties have a decision to make: Will they stick to entrenched policies that stunt the state’s growth and limit Alabamians’ potential, or will they, as we propose, dare to improve the state?

Here are our suggestions for the 2013 session:

THE WRITING ON THE WALL: Montgomery’s political class has no problem reading these words. The problem is that they seemingly fail to grasp the dire implications that 1-in-4 Alabama adults would have difficulty with them.

The functionally illiterate in Alabama represent a challenge few lawmakers have thus far been willing to tackle. The Legislature’s sideshow antics and red-meat posturing consume too much time. A reluctance to raise sufficient revenue means money is scarce to make fixes. All the while functionally illiterate Alabamians are a drag on their own standard of living as well as the state’s attempts to market itself to industry.

The 2013 session is a chance for the governor and the Legislature to tackle this problem with a plan to spend money and energy on this problem.

LOCKED UP: Alabama houses 31,000 inmates in prisons designed to hold 16,000. That’s 190 percent over capacity. When California’s prisons were similarly overcrowded, federal courts intervened and forced a massive reduction in inmates. Now is the time for Alabama to aggressively address prison overcrowding.

State lawmakers are responsible for this situation. They have been experts at putting people in jail while not anticipating the costs required to lock up these prisoners. This is wishful thinking — straining our penitentiaries with new bodies without planning for more space for these inmates. Law and order comes at a price. The Legislature must either be prepared to pay it or risk seeing a federal court order a mass release of prisoners.

SPECIAL (PRE-)K: Alabama’s heralded pre-kindergarten program is like the sports car few people get to drive: stored in the garage, only available for a select few fortunate enough to take it out for a spin.

Only 6 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds are enrolled in what’s considered to be one of the nation’s top pre-K programs. The reason is Alabama’s broken record — a Legislature that doesn’t fund it well enough to take its merits statewide.

State Rep. Jay Love, R-Montgomery, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is proposing an intriguing plan that would drastically increase pre-K funding in Alabama.

We’ve heard the stats; children who participate in pre-K programs often do better than do those whose first day in a classroom is their first day of kindergarten. The Legislature must find a way to make this worthwhile program more readily available throughout the state.

DUMP THE LAW: What’s the chance that the GOP-controlled Legislature, backed by the Republican governor, will repeal the state’s xenophobic illegal-immigration law? Probably somewhere close to the chance of snowfall in August.

Nevertheless, it has to be said: If lawmakers wanted to do something that improves Alabama — particularly its national image — it would remove the stain of this mean-spirited law and work instead to enact immigration policies that aren’t couched in such overt racial overtones.

A TAXING SITUATION: Alabama does it the wrong way. Percentage-wise, the state taxes rich people at a much lower rate than it does poor people. It gives the well-to-do an easy time and slaps those who have little with a tax bill that’s downright inhumane.

The truth hurts. Alabama’s upside-down system of taxation is a blight that must be resolved.

But don’t listen only to us. Last week, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, placed Alabama on its list of states with the most regressive tax systems. We’d love to disagree, but we wouldn’t dare.

The bottom fifth of earners in this state — those who make less than $16,000 annually — pay an average of 10.2 percent of their incomes in state and local income, property, sales and excise taxes. The middle fifth pays 9.6 percent. The top 1 percent, those who make an average of $900,000 annually, pay only 3.8 percent of their income. Put simply, the overall tax rate for lowest-income Alabamians is 2.5 times higher than the middle fifth and 2.7 times higher than the top 1 percent.

That is unacceptable. Alabama must do better than living under a sanctioned system that boosts the rich and saddles the poor with an unfair amount of fiscal burdens.
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