Thursday, August 31, 2006

The greatest sport in the world is back

Starting the clock at kickoff? Letting it run before the first snap on a change of possession? Cutting halftime to 15 minutes? The NCAA has done its best to put a damper on my college football craving by senselessly tinkering with rules, but I still remain jacked up for this season, which starts in earnest tonight with South Carolina's visit to Mississippi State.

The national championship picture seems a little muddier this year than it often is. Last year's top contenders, Texas and USC, are back in the hunt, with Auburn, Notre Dame, and Ohio State also mentioned in the same breath. But all of those teams face major uncertainties: Texas and USC have some serious rebuilding to do in the backfield, Auburn has a history of crumpling under great expectations, and both Notre Dame and Ohio State have serious question marks on defense. West Virginia is in a lot of people's top five, but the Mountaineers' schedule is so soft that they can't afford to drop a game and may not be tested enough during the year to win a huge showdown even if they make it there. Quite simply, things are wide, wide open nationally.

Auburn is the widely acknowledged favorite in the SEC, but again, I just don't think the Tigers will live up to the hype. I also think LSU has the best talent in the conference. If I had to make a title game prediction, I'd go with the Bayou Bengals over Florida in a nail-biter. As for my beloved Crimson Tide, I'd love to see a 13th national championship to make up for the one we were robbed of 40 years ago, but realistically, I expect something like a 9-4 record and an appearance in the Cotton Bowl or Peach Bowl. At worst, the nonconference schedule is soft enough that anything below 7-5 would be cause for major alarm.

Kickoff is at hand. Enjoy the season, and Roll Tide to all.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Louisiana sure can use the money...

But Alabama can't afford to keep shipping its prison inmates there. The state sent 600 more prisoners to a private facility in Louisiana recently in a last-minute rush to comply with a state judge's order to eliminate the backlog of state prisoners in county jails. As Jefferson County's sheriff noted, though, the state has erased the problem before, only to see it return with a vengeance.

Alabama's new voluntary sentencing guidelines should trim the incarceration numbers a bit, but any long-term fix to the state's dangerously overcrowded corrections system will require either a large influx of money to build and staff more facilities or a reform of the sentencing laws that impose some of the stiffest penalties in the country on thousands of drug users every year.

Troy grabs himself a headline

When you're an attorney general candidate with vastly less experience than your opponent, you have to do what you can to try to convince voters to support you anyway. In incumbent AG Troy King's case, that something is the promotion of a three-piece package of tougher laws against child molesters.

The fact that the U.S. Supreme Court probably would find two of the three proposals -- executions in cases that don't involve a death and the ability to forbid defendants to be present as their accusers testify at trial -- to be unconstitutional seems almost beside the point. So does the fact that the Mobile County district attorney's office has prosecuted more than 500 such cases in the time that Democratic AG nominee John Tyson, Jr., has run the show. Tyson suggests a solution of his own: "What is needed is fully funded child advocacy centers around the state. That's where the protection for children really comes."

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A sobering anniversary

In some places, it's like Hurricane Katrina never left.

Alabama's Gulf Coast took a comparatively glancing blow from the hurricane one year ago, but Bayou la Batre still remains locked in a struggle for survival as residents of the Mobile County fishing town where 80 percent of damaged homes were uninsured try to find ways to rebuild and preserve their way of life.

To the west, Louisiana and Mississippi, which bore the brunt of the storm, are doing far worse. In New Orleans, which received the bulk of the media attention in the weeks after Katrina, many of the poor neighborhoods look little better now than they did when the floodwaters receded, and a great deal of the city's infrastructure is still down for the count. Less than half of the population is back, and some people fear many black residents never will return to the Big Easy. Furthermore, even if most New Orleanians go back, it's unclear that the levies will be strong enough to protect them if another Katrina-type storm strikes any time soon.

The story is, if anything, even more depressing in many remote areas of the two states. No hospitals or libraries are open today in Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish, and fewer than one in 10 of the public schools there are back in session. Meanwhile, areas of Mississippi's Gold Coast remain largely isolated and almost devoid of economic activity. As one volunteer matter-of-factly described the region, "it's been devastated, and it's desolate." Even half of the once-thriving casinos are still completely closed.

Katrina wrought unprecedented havoc on the Gulf Coast, and one year is hardly enough time to expect anything approaching a full recovery. Still, as we enter year two of the post-Katrina era, the widespread nature of the lingering struggles is a painful reminder that Mother Nature doesn't care whether you haggled over the design specifications or whether you finalized the evacuation plan or whether you wanted to take a vacation. Mother Nature marches to her own drummer, and she strikes whenever she's ready.

Katrina's enormity was apparent days before landfall, but despite that, some Gulf Coast residents chose to take their chances by trying to ride out the storm in their homes. Even if federal, state, and local politicians had given the very best prepatory and response efforts possible, some people, perhaps hundreds, still would have died. What has to haunt those officials, though -- and what should haunt all of us -- is the knowledge that many of the people who lost their lives in the wind and floodwaters and heat wanted out but couldn't escape. They were too old, too sick, too poor. They just weren't loud enough or powerful enough to be properly accounted for before the hurricane hit. Effectively, they were forgotten.

One year later, if we've learned nothing else from Katrina, we should learn never to forget again.

Monday, August 28, 2006

I hear there's a Bible verse about that...

Republican civil appeals court nominee Terri Willingham Thomas can't help who her father is. Unless something else comes to light, that should be all there is to say on that subject.

But who believes statistics?

When the White House took a position on a bill in 2005-06, all nine of Alabama's congressmen voted that way more than half the time. Unsurprisingly, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., sided with President Bush the most, breaking with him on only 4.23 percent of votes. Even the presumably most liberal member of the state's delegation, U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, backed Bush's position 54.76 percent of the time.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Only one cowboy on stage at a time, please

This year's televised hour-long gubernatorial debate will be held Oct. 30 in Montgomery, followed by 30-minute debates for lieutenant governor and attorney general. In what must be a rare (if not unprecedented) event, a former governor, Albert Brewer, will moderate the debate between nominees vying for his old job.

All of this, of course, gives rise to one inevitable question: What Halloween costumes should the candidates wear?

Yeah, he's gonna have to pass on that...

It was admirable of Gov. Bob Riley to reach across the aisle to gauge retired Gen. Wesley Clark's interest in the presidency of Auburn University, but something tells me Clark is interested in a slightly different kind of presidency.

The primary wasn't for naught after all

By a disturbingly close 95-87 margin, Alabama's Democratic Executive Committee voted today not to disqualify legislative nominee Patricia Todd arbitrarily because she didn't obey a dead-
letter party rule that no one has followed in almost 20 years. The vote to overturn a panel decision to strip her of the nomination means Todd, who has no Republican opponent, almost certainly will become the first openly gay legislator in state history.

Kathy of Birmingham Blues, as you would expect, has in-depth coverage of today's meeting, including her revelation that national Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean apparently was quite interested in the outcome of today's vote.

Friday, August 25, 2006

What in the hell is this?

An Alabama Democratic Party subcommittee voted Thursday to disqualify Patricia Todd from her legislative nomination because she didn't follow a dead letter party rule that no one -- and I mean literally no one -- has followed in almost 20 years.

You may remember Todd's name making the headlines last month when her 59-vote runoff victory put her in line to become the first openly gay legislator in state history. Her win was even more notable in that she is a white woman who prevailed in an Alabama district where most of the voters are black.

That's all in doubt now, thanks to an embarrassing and ludicrous subcommittee decision that is drawing national attention to the story's racial undertones. Unless the full Democratic committee stands ready to disqualify every single one of the party's nominees and concede control of every office in the state to the Republican Party, it would be wise to overrule the panel this weekend. It also would be wise to remove some detritus from the party rules to ensure that voters' decisions can't be overturned quite so easily.

Kathy of Birmingham Blues, a longtime Todd supporter, has been all over this story for weeks. Her extensive recap of Thursday's hearing is here, and she links to a statement from state Democratic Party chairman Joe Turnham here. Her site is your best bet for breaking news on this sad saga that refuses to end gracefully.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Fringe benefits

You can't call the University of Alabama's newly renovated Bryant Hall an athletic dormitory. After all, NCAA regulations don't allow schools to establish athletic dorms, defined as residence halls where more than half of the occupants are athletes.

But as The Crimson White reports today, the rules do, however, allow a dorm where 49 percent of the residents are football players, who will enjoy full-size beds, plasma-screen televisions in the lounges, and meals at a buffet featuring filet mignon and red snapper. (Non-athletes can eat there, too, if they pony up $17.95.)

So who are the other 51 percent? Engineering students, of course.

Giles flies solo

John Giles, president of Alabama's chapter of the Christian Coalition, has pulled the state group out of its national parent organization because -- of course -- it's becoming too liberal.

One might wonder how anyone could come to see an association that supports displays of religious imagery on public property and opposes gay rights, embryonic stem cell research, and abortion as "too liberal," but Giles has the proof. Not only did the national Christian Coalition support Gov. Bob Riley's 2003 tax package (which would have cut most poor Alabamians' taxes), but it also backs the idea of Net neutrality, the regulation of the Web to ensure that Internet service providers can't threaten website owners with lower-quality access if they don't pay for special treatment. It sounds harmless enough -- until you learn that those liberal liberals at support the plan, too.

Game, set, match. As has been established in countless campaign ads, everything in which anyone from believes, up to and including the heliocentric theory of the solar system, is hopelessly and irredeemably liberal and therefore bad.

So there.

They're gonna have to do work

It looks like the Alabama Legislature is going to have to decide who gets to vote next year after all.

The NAACP sued Secretary of State Nancy Worley last year, seeking an authoritative answer to the question of which felony convictions qualify as "crimes of moral turpitude" and thus deprive a person of voting rights. A district court dismissed the NAACP's federal lawsuit on procedural grounds in May, but a Jefferson County circuit judge weighed in on the state version Wednesday, ruling that all felons should be allowed to register unless and until the Legislature statutorily enumerates the crimes that involve moral turpitude.

The ruling will force lawmakers to patch a gaping hole in Alabama voting law, and one can only hope that they will be reasonable enough not to strip voting rights due to crimes like marijuana possession. As an interesting side note, the Voting Rights Act's preclearance provisions, much maligned by a handful of Southern congressmen, can receive partial credit for the fact that the judge won't immediately order the state to permit felon registration.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Heat has a way of getting to people

Unusual things tend to happen as the end of August approaches. Things like alligator hunts in Alabama. Things like a bunch of Elvis impersonators and hot air balloons appearing annually in a small north Alabama town to commemorate a UFO sighting. Things like astronomers considering whether to start calling the moon a planet. Things like scientific inquiry into the possibility of hobbit bones. Things like widespread relief when one particular August day comes and goes with no rumored cataclysms coming to pass.

Sometimes it's best just to stay inside in the air conditioning.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

I'd have had it with them, too

Just so you know, there really were a lot of snakes on that plane.

They learn so quickly

A 4-year-old Alabama girl's recent admonishment to her younger brother about his use of "bad words": "You can't say poopie, you can't say dang, and you can't say stupid, War Eagle, or Auburn."

It's not like it's our money anyway

The number of pork earmarks in congressional budgets has almost quadrupled since 1994, when the Republican Party, a.k.a. "the party of fiscal responsibility," took control of Congress. Last year's amount of pork spending was more than seven times the amount of Alabama's entire operating budget.

In a bipartisan trend, none of the nine members of Alabama's congressional delegation wanted to share a complete list of their spending requests with the (Mobile) Press-Register. For example, U.S. Reps. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, and Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, said they wanted to wait and see how Congress as a whole chose to approach the issue. Neither of the state's Republican U.S. senators was more forthcoming with the information; Jeff Sessions called the requests "private correspondence," while Richard Shelby opted for the term "personal correspondence."

For some reason, we needed a poll on this

People tend to take fewer leisure drives when gas costs more. Some of them buy more fuel-efficient cars, too. They also notice when oil companies make record profits.

I know I'm breathing easy

A federal district judge ruled Friday that the Coalition Provisional Authority -- you know, the agency that governed Iraq for much of 2003 and 2004 -- wasn't legally an arm of the U.S. government. That should make you feel better about the fact that the CPA couldn't account for billions of dollars.

Detective Kimble was unavailable for comment

As original statewide political coverage in small daily newspapers goes, Jasper's Daily Mountain Eagle is near the top of the list. In addition to a story on the Democratic legislative group that hasn't revealed its donors, the Eagle this week offered up a lengthy piece on Democratic attorney general nominee John Tyson, Jr., who heavily touts his initiative to try to save troubled kids from lives of crime and who also, incidentally, is the older brother of the bad guy in Kindergarten Cop.

We also get some lively quotes courtesy of the Eagle. Here's Tyson on why voters should oust incumbent AG Troy King: "[T]he top prosecutor's job in the state of Alabama is not the place to do on-
the-job training. We ought to start with somebody with on-the-job experience and go from there."

Tyson on the need for a pre-emptive approach to crime: "The truth of the matter is if you leave the peace of the community to cops and prosecutors, you're going to lose. Cops and prosecutors are always after the fact. It's too late after the bullet has gone."

Finally, Tyson on why he opted to campaign for AG in the first place: "My wife has been with me all the way. The children are grown and educated. The dog died last year. It's time for the Tysons to step out and run for statewide office."

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Fun with campaign finance

The Alabama Legislative Democratic Leadership Council has begun to pay thousands of dollars for advertisements to talk about the recently unveiled Democratic agenda. It also hasn't registered with the state as a political action committee.

You could say Alabama Republican Party chairwoman Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh -- yes, that's her real name -- is a bit upset about those facts, if by "a bit upset" you mean "issuing statements that the council may be violating state law." The council's co-
chairman, House Majority Leader Ken Guin, D-Carbon Hill, counters that the group is merely "educational" and doesn't have to disclose its donors because it hasn't endorsed any candidates. Should a GOP member choose to go that route, though, the fact that the council is directly associated with candidates could lead to some interesting, if perchance unsuccessful, legal arguments.

For the record, the Legislature last year considered passing a law to require public financial disclosures from groups that spend more than $1,000 to affect an election. The measure went down to defeat thanks in no small part to opposition from some members of Cavanaugh's own party, eager to protect the state Christian Coalition from revealing its funding sources for such things as "issue advocacy" voter guides.

And the beat goes on in Montgomery.

Just don't make me watch curling

I, for one, welcome our new Canadian search overlords.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Wait until they're named for corporate sponsors

We'll get the first serving of a heaping helping of "plutons" if astronomers vote next week to demote Pluto from planetary status and categorize it with giant asteroids and other sizable space rocks. We'll also get a fresh batch of incensed third-graders.

FISA lovers, the whole lot of you

What do you mean the Bush administration can't eavesdrop on any American it wants for as long as it wants without any judicial oversight? You dare to ask someone in the executive branch to go to the trouble of doing some paperwork after the fact to ensure compliance with the Fourth Amendment? Just who does this Fourth Amendment character think it is, anyway?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Payment plan

The most recent national minimum wage increase came almost a decade ago, when the hourly wage floor jumped from $4.25 to $5.15. I recall many gloom-and-doom warnings that the hike would result in massive job cuts and layoffs, but somehow, those dire prophecies never quite panned out in reality, partly because many jobs that pay minimum wage tend to be in service industries where the demand for workers is relatively steady.

The federal government hasn't touched the minimum wage since 1997, and even though states are free to require higher pay, Alabama is one of the six states that has no minimum wage law whatsoever. (Oddly enough, Kansas' statutory rate is lower than the national one.) With the cost of a gallon of gas now firmly above 50 percent of an hour's pay at minimum wage and other prices rising more quickly than most wages, Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley said Wednesday that she hopes to nip that trend in the bud. Baxley wants the state to enact a law to raise the minimum wage by at least $1, and if Congress continues its inaction, I'm OK with the Legislature taking the matter into its own hands next year.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Politicians never break a promise, right?

Legislative Democrats have unveiled a list of platforms that sound remarkably like the kind of promises that both major parties make every election year before the bipartisan support magically dissipates once most of the lawmakers receive four more years toward a state retirement. Not that I have any doubt that both sides really mean it this time, of course.

On to the proposals. Among the indubitably good ideas are the proposals to require disclosure of every bit of lobbyist spending on lawmakers and to ban monetary transfers between political action committees, which constitute a shell game that renders impossible any chance of tracing the true origin of millions of campaign dollars. It's tough to know which lawmakers are on your side when you have no idea who's on their side.

The elimination of sales tax on food and medicine would be a great benefit for lower-income Alabamians and also would serve as a good first step toward repairing our regressive tax system. In addition, the suggestion of felony penalties for employers who repeatedly (and knowingly, as one would hope the law reads) hire illegal immigrants seems to be a reasonable response to an issue all too often approached with overblown hype and ugly rhetoric.

As for the other prongs of the Democratic agenda, the return to quadrennial property value assessments seems to be rooted more in considerations of partisanship than policy, while the "[r]ewrite the state constitution ... to say life is a gift from God" part reads like the transparent attempt to exploit religion for votes that it is. Meanwhile, the plan to require Bible literacy electives, rather than merely allowing them as is now the case, doubtless would be subject to costly constitutional challenges unless those lessons were incorporated into a broader mandatory comparative religion course. I was all for that idea last year, and I still am.

Goat Hill is now a schoolyard

Ah, finally, I get to see the word malediction in a newspaper headline. As for the actual news in the story, the president of Alabama's Christian Coalition, John Giles, said Tuesday that he won't respond to a, um, fiery request by state Rep. Alvin Holmes, D-Montgomery, to reveal the coalition's funding sources because Holmes never answers his questions. Also, he's liberal. So there.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Federal government logic

How dare you walk on that Cuban sand after doing four hours of mission work every day, Baptist church delegation! That sand is dirty and communist and not to be enabled in its toleration of dirty communism! Yes, indeed, a hefty fine is required here.

Now if you'll excuse us, we need to get back to meeting with Vietnamese officials and increasing our trade deficit with China.

The hunger for food stamps grows

More than 40 percent of Alabamians who could receive food stamps don't seek them, despite a 34.3 percent increase in the number of recipients since 2001. Those numbers place the state right at the national average for the percentage of eligible people who are registered and well below the national 45.3 percent five-
year jump (2000-05) in the total number of recipients. As prices continue to rise more quickly than most wages do across America, further increases in both numbers would not be very shocking.

Senior citizens, many of whom either are unaware of the program or dislike the idea of asking for such government assistance, are particularly underrepresented in the recipient pool. Needless to say, the 22-page application also doesn't much help matters. State officials, who pay half of the administrative cost and none of the benefit cost, hope to get the rate to 80 percent by decade's end.

Dante's map might be a little outdated, too

State Rep. Alvin Holmes, D-Montgomery, volunteered some explicit summer vacation advice Monday to Alabama's Christian Coalition president, John Giles. What Holmes forgot to provide, though, was the name of a reputable handbasket supplier that could offer travel packages at reasonable rates.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Scanlon question

Michael Scanlon wasn't yet a convicted felon when Gov. Bob Riley hired him as press secretary in the late 1990s. He also wasn't yet a felon when, as a lobbyist, he sent $50,000 of money from an Indian gambling client to a national Republican committee with the intent to help Riley get elected governor in 2002. And no one can prove that any of the $50,000 was among the $360,000 that the committee sent to Riley's campaign four days later.

None of these things will help Riley's image. But barring further revelations, they probably won't cause lasting damage, either.

You were saying something about civics?

Almost two-thirds of the 404 adult Alabamians polled by the University of South Alabama last week couldn't name their own congressman, and something tells me the results wouldn't be that much different in a national survey.

More rigorous civics education, anyone?

This could cause a PS-scene

Public Service Commissioners Jan Cook and Jim Sullivan (a Democrat and a Republican, respectively) would appear to need to answer a few questions about tens of thousands of dollars of their campaign money. And even though they haven't responded to the (Mobile) Press-Register's entreaties for a couple of months, some folks in Montgomery just might be able to get in touch.

So where should the questioning begin? Here's one possible starting point. And here's another, suggested by a member of a nonpartisan watchdog group: "The traditional expenses of a campaign for any office are for staff, yard signs, polling, and that sort of thing. Monthly trips to the grocery store (shown on Cook's reports) and the purchase of multiple vehicles (shown on Sullivan's reports) are not normal expenses, especially more than a year away from an election."

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Stop poking fun already

An internal investigation into the Auburn University classes "that required no attendance and minimal academic work" has found absolutely no wrongdoing whatsoever. Which means you really shouldn't laugh at pictures like this. So don't.

Won't someone please think of the attack ads?

I asked Monday who was ready for the attack ads to begin in this year's governor's race. Two days later, Alabama got an answer.

Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley repeatedly has assailed Gov. Bob Riley's record on the campaign trail in recent week, so I thought her side would be first out of the attack gate. But Riley surprised me Wednesday by firing the first televised salvo of what looks to be a vigorous attack ad season. The spot stays true to the template, complete with scoffing references to U.S. Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and John Kerry, D-Mass., and a derogatory mention of the word liberal, on average, every 4.3 seconds.

Baxley replied with a reminder of Riley's failed $1.2 billion tax plan: "Being called liberal by someone who proposed the largest tax increase in Alabama history is like being called fat by a hog." It should be noted here that Baxley voted for the package in 2003, but that was before a few more years of demonization finished their efforts to obliterate the memory that the plan actually would have reduced most people's tax burdens, so the prevailing meme must carry the rhetorical day.

The saddest part of the mudslinging is that both candidates have the ideas and ability to run positive, constructive campaigns if they choose. Riley's turn toward negative campaigning is particularly baffling and unfortunate, considering that he's way ahead in the polls and that, in all likelihood, he could coast to victory simply by relying on a pretty good record as governor.

But that's a risk Riley couldn't afford to take. After all, if he were able to win a statewide race with a purely upbeat campaign, other politicians might start getting the idea that they could, too. Just think of all the starving attack ads that would cause.

I'll go with magenta and turquoise

I've had my say before on the University of Alabama's lawsuit against football artist Daniel Moore, which finally has crawled (as is common) to the point at which both sides are demanding dismissal of the other party's claims. But The Birmingham News today points out something I had missed last year in the initial hue and cry over the case: The university's argument in the trademark infringement lawsuit is based in part on Moore's use of the colors crimson and white in his paintings.

Seriously. Here's the relevant passage: "As any football fan can attest, the university's crimson and white colors are well-known, and such combinations can be protected as distinctive."

Protect a color combination of your own in the comments.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

He probably doesn't want to answer that

U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman's loss to antiwar challenger Ned Lamont in the Connecticut primary Tuesday means the Democratic Party has handed over the reins to extreme leftist cut-and-runners, according to White House press secretary Tony Snow. The question then should arise whether the 60 percent of Americans who oppose the Iraq war, the 61 percent who want troop withdrawals to begin this year, and the 57 percent who back a timetable for withdrawal are to be considered extreme leftist cut-and-runners. Snow's response would be enlightening.

Mainly, someone needs to do the job

Much ado has been made lately of last week's federal court order transferring some of Secretary of State Nancy Worley's powers to Gov. Bob Riley. Most of it seems to be about nothing.

The latest flare-up came Tuesday, when U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, warned of "partisan colorations" in a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Earlier, the Alabama Democratic Party tried unsuccessfully to intervene in the Justice Department's lawsuit against the state for failure to set up a statewide voter registration database on time. The New York Times last week also devoted an editorial to excoriating the Bush administration for what the writers saw as a heavy-handed political move in an election year.

The partisanship concerns are understandable, given that Riley's appointment as special master came upon the recommendation of Republican AG Troy King's office. (What seemed to get lost in the red-blue hubbub, though, was the fact that the appointment went to the office of governor, meaning Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley would assume the role if she wins the race.) A nonpartisan appointee would have been the best way to negate the partisan bickering.

But the most important thing to keep in mind here is that Alabama still doesn't have the voter registration database it was required to have eight months ago. Worley didn't get the job done, and it's past time for someone to do it. If gubernatorial intervention with federal court oversight is what it takes, so be it.

Grains of salt

You'll hear state officials talk loudly and often about the fact that 87 percent of Alabama public schools were found to be making adequate progress under the No Child Left Behind Act in numbers released Monday. That's the understandable reaction to an admirable 53 percent jump in performance over the prior year.

The enthusiasm should be tempered, though, with a recognition that changes in the calculation method for 2005-06 -- most notably the award of half-credit for students whose ability to read and do math at grade level fell into the "close but no cigar" camp -- eased the path for schools to achieve their goals. (In fairness, the change makes some sense, considering that education is an ongoing process rather than a one-time, all-or-nothing affair.)

That's not even to mention the fact that NCLB allows individual states to decide what constitutes a passing grade in the first place. (Again, not necessarily a problem, given that education is historically a state-level function.) Of course, there's also the fact that we're measuring school success or failure based largely on standards from an act that pretty much guarantees that every school in the country will be in violation by 2014 unless the passing grade is whittled down to practically nothing, but we'll save that matter for another day.

Alabama schools' higher satisfaction of the NCLB standards is doubtless a good thing. But we must be careful not to treat standardized tests as the sole arbiter of school quality. There's more to education than knowing which bubble to darken.

Monday, August 07, 2006

A mantra for the 21st century

Ricky Bobby, fictional protagonist of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby: "If you ain't first, you're last."

David Bronner, real-life chief executive of the Retirement Systems of Alabama: "Second place, you might as well be in last place."

Plenty of sound and fury for your perusal

Democrats think they can expand their control of the Alabama Legislature this year. Republicans think they can win a majority in one or both houses. The end result will be four more years of something that resembles the status quo, probably with a handful of Republican pickups given the state's recent trend toward the GOP due largely to wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage.

Both state party chairmen allowed battle-ready rhetoric to flow like wine in a story in Sunday's (Mobile) Press-Register. GOP chairwoman Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh -- yes, that's her real name -- has offered to pay for national Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean's plane ticket to come to Alabama to campaign for Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, who looks in the mirror a lot.

Cavanaugh also makes liberal use of the "liberal Democrat" phraseology in criticisms of the Legislature. When pressed, though, she gave only one example of conservative legislation that Democrats stalled: the Unborn Victims Act, which apparently was "stalled" in the sense that it stayed in committee for a few weeks before being passed overwhelmingly by both parties. Cavanaugh, shockingly enough, couldn't point to any liberal legislation coming out of Goat Hill, saying only that Democrats "play games" in committees.

Democratic chairman Joe Turnham chimed in with a pair of quips in an effort to undermine Cavanaugh's strategy of offering the Republican Party as "a package deal." Turnham, part one: "Twinkle talks about Howard Dean, but she never talks about Tom DeLay or Duke Cunningham or Jack Abramoff." Turnham, part two: "If Republicans want to nationalize this election, they may die by the very sword they wield. If [Cavanaugh] wants to nationalize this election, she better be prepared to defend $3 gas prices, giving ports away to Arab countries, and record budget deficits."

Anyone ready for the new fall line of attack ads yet?

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Shake and bake

For once, the hype wasn't overblown: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is the funniest thing I've seen all year. Then again, any movie with cameos by both Elvis Costello and Mos Def pretty much has a lock on that honor. As an added bonus, John C. Reilly is such a good actor that he delivers a nuanced performance even amid the wickedly hilarious one-liners. Go see it.

Big buckin' chicken

I have no earthly idea what to make of this piece in today's (Mobile) Press-Register, but I do know it contains some of the most bizarre comments I've ever read: "Irvington has Ms. Billie's Quick Stop with the enormous, truck-mounted rooster that symbolizes fried chicken. And yet nobody's serving catfish and hush puppies on transvestites down there."

Everything old is new again

A few decades ago, it would have been unthinkable for Alabama's public schools to start back before Labor Day. But lately, due in large part to a desire to cram in as much book-learning as possible before the high-stakes standardized tests that politicians treat like the be-all and end-all of education, some systems barely wait for July to end before filling their classrooms anew.

Many state parents and teachers are fed up and are pushing the Legislature to bar local systems from beginning before at least mid-August. Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, has emerged as the point man on the plan, which, as he notes, would cut down on utility costs and help the tourism industry. One drawback, of course, would be the danger that longer summers could increase students' forgetfulness, but as a longtime teacher noted, the two months many students get off now is still plenty of time to forget things.

Friday, August 04, 2006

In fairness, they have to show something

As I noted earlier this week, Alabama and Florida have been competing to avoid television coverage for their football season openers, which would require that their games be played in the peak heat of an early September day for the broadcast formerly known as the Jefferson-Pilot game of the week.

After a brief stalemate, it now appears both schools will get their way. Lincoln Financial Sports -- like JP, but with a much catchier name -- will open its conference package with the sought-after showdown between Georgia and Western Kentucky. Given the marquee value of a matchup between the defending SEC champion and some I-AA team, at least five people from outside those two states are sure to watch with rapt attention.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Guess which one will get priority

Pay no attention to the governor behind the curtain

Yep, if we don't move our presidential primaries (even farther) back to January, the major contenders will simply ignore Alabama and focus entirely on New Hampshire and South Carolina and other such places. Except, of course, for Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who apparently missed that memo while he was speaking at a Democratic fundraiser in Birmingham on Wednesday.

And there were no more problems ever again

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., finally got the Senate to approve his 370 miles of fencing and 461 miles of vehicle barriers on the Mexican border Wednesday. The House already likes the idea.

And a great one it is. For a mere $1.8 billion (or more), we can be assured that no illegal immigrants ever again will climb over the obstacles, or tunnel under them, or go around them, or hide in the back of an inbound truck, or hop aboard an inbound boat or plane, or overstay their visas. Especially not with jobs still readily available on the sly from employers who play the odds that they won't be caught, and that even if they are, they probably won't have to pay too heavy of a financial penalty.

Guess they missed Fifth Avenue

By this time next year, the venerable Parisian department stores will be a thing of the past. Also, the Saks, Inc., headquarters will hightail it from Birmingham to New York, meaning the Magic City's number of Fortune 500 companies will have dropped from six to one in the last five years if the AmSouth-Regions Bank merger is approved. As you'd expect, hundreds of jobs could be lost.

But hey, on the plus side, we have a back-to-school sales tax holiday coming up this weekend, so you can feel better by saving a few cents on each purchase of pencils and folders and whatnot.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

And it's only early August

Sure, the meat of this story in today's Huntsville Times is that Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley thinks Gov. Bob Riley hasn't done enough to meet public schools' needs for more supplies and teachers. But I choose to focus on the more transcendent theme for now: Baxley has been a quote machine lately. For proof, just check a sampling of her remarks during a speech in the Rocket City on Tuesday.
  • On Riley's criticisms of Alabama Education Association lobbyist Paul Hubbert: "Somebody needs to tell him that Paul Hubbert is not on the ballot."
  • On how she works really, really hard, y'all: "When I look in that mirror -- and you can look at my makeup and tell I spend a lot of time in the mirror -- I have to be able to say, 'I did my best.'"
Yep, it's Governor Cowboy Boots vs. Wiregrass Farm Girl. The debates should be a sight to see.

Up from the money pit

I supported the concept of appointing Alabama's appellate judges and holding retention elections around this time last year. I still do, for reasons you can read here. The Alabama Bar Association president now predicts a legislator will introduce a bill to enable a constitutional amendment along those lines in March. That means the appointment idea, almost a century old, finally may get a serious hearing on Goat Hill.

Whether the measure can escape the Legislature alive is another matter. Barring a mathematical miracle, Democrats will keep a majority in both houses, but their numerical edge probably will shrink this fall as Republicans pick off a few seats in conservative districts. The GOP's infatuation with judicial elections right now -- the party holds all nine Supreme Court seats and all but one on the intermediate appellate courts -- doubtless will inspire fiery resistance to their elimination, perhaps even the sort that shuts down legislative business for weeks on end. (The partisan greed isn't unilateral, of course. Democrats had the chance to change the system for decades, but they weren't so hot on the appointment idea back when they dominated court elections.)

Alabama's judges' liberation from the money chase is overdue. The ABA plan is a good way to achieve that goal while still giving the public the last word on whether the black robes stay in office.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Tiaras are serious business

Yes, in fact, a federal lawsuit was filed in Alabama recently over the outcome of a university beauty pageant. Why do you ask?