- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Recent editorials from Alabama newspapers:

Feb. 16

Dothan (Ala.) Eagle on constitutional reform:

The Alabama Legislature seems hell-bent on constitutional reform. That phrase should be welcome news to reform advocates who have spent years working to have our state’s antiquated 1901 constitution replaced with a document that rights the myriad wrongs in the century-old constitution.

However, you can never be sure with a legislative body that sees bingo as gambling and hopes to return teacher-led prayer to the classroom as “congressional studies.” It’s not the Alabama constitution it’s trying to amend. It’s the U.S. Constitution.

Last week, the Alabama House passed a resolution calling on Congress to convene a state-led convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limiting the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and implementing term limits on federal elected officials.

“The federal government under the Obama administration has become a rabid beast that oversteps its authority with regularity,” Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton, told The Associated Press.

It’s ironic that the legislature would demand such changes of the federal government when it operates relatively free of the same expectations. Fiscal restraint? Pork projects alone suggest our state house needs some order. Limiting power and jurisdiction? A good start would be having the legislature grant home rule to the state’s 67 counties, turning loose of power concentrated in Montgomery by the 1901 Alabama Constitution. Term limits for federal officials? Please; Alabama lawmakers have no term limits and can sit in their public office as long as the voters will re-elect them.

Amending the U.S. Constitution is tough. It’s only happened 27 times, and the first 10 - the Bill of Rights - were adopted in one fell swoop. And it’s never been amended with the process Johnson’s resolution proposes - a Constitutional Convention under Article V of the U.S. Constitution.

By contrast, the Alabama Constitution of 1901 is some 40 times longer than the U.S. Constitution, and has more than 800 amendments. Grassroots efforts to mount a state constitutional convention have failed to gain traction with lawmakers, although the legislature is considering revision to some portions of the massive document. But even a no-brainer like removing racist language couldn’t move smoothly, as some were concerned that doing so might leave the impression that the state was responsible for educating its youth.

Before our legislative body puts its energy into partisan saber-rattling with the federal government, it should turn its attention to the weaknesses of our state government. There’s more than enough there to keep them busy.

Online:

http://www.dothaneagle.com

___

Feb. 17

The Daily Home, Talladega, Ala., on the dual enrollment bill:

Alabama’s House of Representatives passed a dual enrollment bill last week 100-0 - a noteworthy accomplishment that makes you think the other side didn’t show up. Actually there were five representatives who, for one reason or another, did not vote, but in a rare show of unity both Democrats and Republicans in Montgomery wanted this bill to pass.

The governor had already requested funding for dual enrollment in the Education Trust Fund Budget he recommended. A new program, the original request was for $20 million. The governor recommended $6 million.

The bill still has to pass the Senate before going to the governor’s desk, but the slam dunk from the House suggests it has a good chance of making it through.

The bill would create up to $10 million in scholarships funded by donations, with donors getting up to a 50 percent tax credit. It also allows up to 80 percent of the funds to be directed by the donor to specific programs and to specific two-year schools.

The intent of the bill seems to be consistent with the State Department of Education’s Plan 2020, with its goal of producing “College and Career Ready” graduates.

The dual enrollment bill would enable high school students to graduate ready for good-paying skills such as welding and aircraft engine repair, and to potentially finish school with a high school diploma, an associate’s degree, and a technical certificate in a marketable job skill all at the same time.

Dual enrollment is gaining in popularity nationwide. Programs are offered in 47 states and the District of Columbia, and the Education Commission of the States tracks policies and have noted many have been modified in recent years to improve delivery and quality.

Results suggest dual enrollment students are more likely to meet college readiness benchmarks, have higher grades in college and earn their college degrees. Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard said the dropout rate had dropped dramatically in other states.

Since the program relies on donations, there’s no guarantee the $10 million will be reached. That number was chosen to limit the amount of money the Education Trust Fund could lose. The 50 percent tax credit would come off the top of money earmarked for education. Still, the bill would provide two dollars for education for each dollar lost. The main difference would be that the donor could be directing 80 percent of those dollars, instead of elected officials.

Five million dollars is a lot of money. But consider that our state’s proposed education budged for 2014-2015 is $5.991 billion. Billion with a ‘B’. Five million is less than a tenth of one percent.

Still there have been some concerns expressed about the bill.

House Minority Leader Craig Ford said the $5 million allocated for liability coverage for teachers could be removed from the budget. He argues first that teachers already have liability coverage either through their union or local school boards, or both, and second that another bill that just passed the House would provide statutory immunity for teachers and state employees while performing their jobs. If that bill becomes law, there would be no need for additional liability coverage.

The AEA has also expressed concerns about the provision allowing donors to direct where the funds are spent, raising concerns about fairness and equity in the distribution of state tax money. Some programs could boom while others go lacking, creating an uneven opportunity for training in different parts of the state.

Those are valid concerns, and we suspect we haven’t heard the last of them.

But we think the House Democrats made the right choice in voting for the bill in spite of those concerns. If the proposal becomes law, and we think it should, there will still be opportunities for fine-tuning its provisions in the future if needed.

The bottom line: with this bill House members voted for a brighter future for a number of Alabama’s high school students.

Online:

http://www.dailyhome.com

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Feb. 21

Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser on Sen. Gerald Dial’s tax swap:

Alabama plainly needs reform of its taxation system, but reform cannot be defined as removing one bad policy only to replace it with another one.

That’s the problem with a measure by state Sen. Gerald Dial to eliminate the state sales tax on food.

That is a worthy goal and one we have advocated enacting for years. Most other states don’t levy sales taxes on food or levy the taxes at a lower rate than for other items. These taxes hit the poorest of us the hardest, as lower-income Alabamians of necessity spend more of their income on food.

Dial’s bill creates relief in one place, but then takes it away elsewhere. His proposal phases out the state sales tax on food over three years, but raises the general state sales tax from 4 percent to 5 percent. While Alabamians would save some money on food purchases, they would pay more in taxes for almost everything else.

That means higher costs for clothing, school supplies, detergent and various other products needed to sustain a household. We aren’t talking about luxury items here. In Montgomery, that would kick the total sales tax rate on non-food items to 11 percent.

Dial is right about one thing, however. The state cannot afford to eliminate the sales tax on food and simply forfeit the revenue. That would represent about a $300 million hit that the state budgets cannot absorb.

There’s little disagreement over removing the sales tax on food; the sticking point has been how to replace the lost revenue.

As in years past, there is another bill before the Legislature that addresses the issue in a fair manner, far more equitably than Dial’s legislation.

The bill by Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, eliminates the state sales tax on food, but covers the revenue loss by doing something virtually every other state does - ending the state income tax deduction for federal income taxes. That deduction does nothing for the poor, but does benefit higher-income Alabamians. Even without the deduction, Alabama’s income taxes would still be low. The state income tax rate would not change.

Sales taxes are regressive, but income taxes are progressive.

Put simply, those who make more pay more, although it would not be a great deal more under this bill.

Dial’s bill swaps one bad policy for another. Knight’s legislation is a much fairer approach than Dial’s bill offers and represents real tax reform in our state.

Online:

http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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