Thursday, February 03, 2005

Surely you didn't think I'd forget

"Hey," you say, "this national politics stuff is fine and dandy, but where's the love for Alabama? He hasn't written a single thing about the State of the State address or the new legislative session!"

First of all, Alabama politics wonk who exists solely as a literary device, thank you for your patience. I meant to preview the legislative session earlier this week, but other things got in the way. Besides, our state's esteemed lawmakers usually don't actually do their jobs until the last few days of the session, if at all.

Regardless, mythical wonk, your wait is over, because I'm about to make things right for you. Since the soundbite format worked so well for the State of the Union post, I'll use it again.

No new taxes: Gov. Bob Riley pushed a $1.2 billion tax plan in 2003 to try to raise the additional revenue that Alabama will eventually need to provide services at more than the most minimal level. Voters shot it down. Now Riley has reversed course, introducing the widely praised SMART budgeting program (an acronym for "smart, measurable, accountable, responsive, and transparent") and heavily emphasizing accountable spending.

As a Government Performance Project survey showed earlier this week, Montgomery's fiscal management has been abysmal for a long time, so I'm glad Riley is keeping a more watchful eye over spending than his predecessors. Alabama will eventually need more money for its services to compete on an equal footing with those in other states, but with anti-tax sentiment so high right now, Riley is right to focus on belt-tightening.

Downright shameful: Homophobia has become contagious lately, and Alabama legislators are infected. A legislative committee Wednesday approved a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, even though state law already prohibits the practice. Instead of listening to gay constituents who begged them not to perpetuate hate, lawmakers have decided that discrimination is a great idea and now are kicking around the political football of when to hold the statewide vote on it.

Even worse, the measure's sponsor is Rep. Yusuf Salaam, D-Selma, who is the only Muslim in the Legislature. You'd think he would have a little more sympathy for victims of senseless bigotry.

Who needs book learnin'?: Paul Hubbert is doing his very best to ensure that Republicans take control of the Legislature. How else can you explain the fact that the head of the Alabama Education Association is vowing publicly to fight tooth-and-nail against an education proposal that fully funds the Alabama Reading Initiative, offers money for distance-learning technology for rural schools, and gives teachers a raise?

Riley's plan to make up for the General Fund's shortfalls by moving the education-related costs of a few programs into the Education Trust Fund makes sense, and it likely would foreclose the need to raise taxes or slash the budgets of already cash-strapped programs. Hubbert, while well-meaning, isn't exactly renowned for his sensible approach to monetary shortfalls.

Follow the money: Ever try to figure out who donated to a legislator's campaign? You often can't, and it's thanks to rapid-fire transfers among political action committees that make the funds almost impossible to trace to their source. A bill by Rep. Jeff McLaughlin, D-Guntersville, would be a good start down the road to transparency in the electoral process.

Try, try again: There's no question that we have to pass an amendment to get discriminatory, segregation-era language out of the state Constitution. Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who never met a piece of granite he didn't like, led a demagogic and, unfortunately, successful campaign last year to lead voters to believe the measure was a backdoor way for judges to raise taxes. Now the proposed amendment is back, and black legislators are determined that it include a provision repealing language that says Alabamians have no right to public education.

The language was added in 1956 as a response to Brown v. Board of Education, and it was the part of the proposal that Moore twisted for his own purposes, whatever they may be. Black lawmakers are right to insist that the segregation-era provision be repealed. A sensible compromise would be to tack on a disclaimer that the amendment shall not be construed to give anyone other than legislators the power to order a tax increase.

Bring it home: County commissions are pushing for home-rule measures to allow local governments to exercise control over junkyards, trash, nuisances, and animals. You know, all of the things that county commissions can already manage in states without a constitution that pushes micromanagement over the brink of insanity. If there's any common sense left in Montgomery, this plan should soar through the Legislature.

Of course, that's a big "if."


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