Setting legislative goals for 2013

By Craig FordBy Craig Ford

As legislators prepare to return to Montgomery on Feb. 5, we have to determine what issues will be our priorities in the coming legislative session. In the coming weeks, House Democrats will announce our official legislative agenda for the year. But today, I’d like to discuss what the legislature’s top priorities should be when we return to the capitol.

One of our top priorities has to be school security. To that end, Democrats will sponsor legislation to help provide armed resource officers in our schools to help keep our children safe. For school systems that still cannot afford a resource officer, Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow is working on developing a bill that will allow school administrators to choose some of their employees to train and qualify to become reserve police officers and sheriff’s deputies so that they will have the training to respond in situations like what happened at Sandy Hook last month.

Having resource officers on campus not only increases school security, as studies have shown that it reduces student absences and instances of fighting and bullying in schools. It also sends a message to our children that they are important and deserve protecting, just like the president or college football coaches who have armed guards.

Another priority should be to give our educators, state employees and retirees a long-overdue pay increase. The last time educators and state employees received a pay increase was in 2008. Since then, the cost-of-living has increased by 7.5 percent, while over the past two years they have had an additional 2.5 percent taken out of their paychecks to help pay for their health and retirement benefits.

Some have argued that educators’ pay and benefits are better than the household average for Alabama, and therefore they do not need a pay increase. But there are problems with that argument.

First, Alabama does not have any kind of incentive program to recruit or keep educators. We had the DROP program to help keep educators, but the Republican Supermajority in Montgomery ended that program, as well as many of the job security protections that were in place. So offering competitive compensation and benefits are the only tools we have to recruit and keep educators and state employees.

Second, support personnel do not make as money as teachers do, and they especially need a pay increase to keep up with the increased costs of living.

Third, while teachers make about $5,000 a year more than the average household income, they are actually making much less than equally educated and trained professionals. Only about 22 percent of Alabamians have a bachelor’s degree, which is required to become a public school teacher in Alabama. And in 2008, it was reported that the average college graduate makes about $20,000 a year more than the average high-school graduate. So an Alabama teacher making only $5,000 a year more than the average household is actually making much less than what other college graduates are making.

Without offering more competitive pay and benefits, many of these educators may leave the state or get out of education and find a better paying job elsewhere, and it will be our children who will suffer for it.

A third priority for 2013 should be to pay back with interest the money that was borrowed from the state’s rainy day account to help shore up funding for Medicaid. Not only do we need to replenish the account in case of another emergency, but the state also makes money off of the interest payments on the account. And like any savings account, those interest payments go up and down based on how much money is in the account. So we also need to replenish the account so that we can get those interest payments we rely on back to where they need to be.

The fourth and fifth priorities for 2013 are meant to raise revenue without raising taxes on Alabama’s families. This process can be done by rolling back certain tax loopholes that allow multinational corporations like ExxonMobil to pay little or even no state income taxes, which is unfair to small business owners and Alabama-based companies. We should also reconsider a state lottery. Alabama is one of only seven states that do not have a lottery, which fiscal experts estimate could generate  $250 million in new state revenue each year.

There are many other issues legislators need to address in the coming session, including job creation and economic development. But our priorities have to be making our schools safer, providing our children with the best education possible, and budgeting responsibly without raising taxes on Alabama’s families or cutting funding for education, Medicaid, and other critical government services. House Democrats look forward to working with Republicans to accomplish these goals.

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