- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Recent editorials from Alabama newspapers:

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Sept. 9

Decatur Daily on state’s tax and budgeting structure:

With the clock ticking down to the start of a new fiscal year Oct. 1, the Alabama Legislature has convened in Montgomery once again to try to hammer out a deal that will resolve the state’s budget woes.

After failing to reach any agreement during the Legislature’s regular session or during a subsequent special session, Gov. Robert Bentley and the Legislature’s Republican leadership are back for another crack at coming up with between roughly $200 million and $300 million in new tax revenue, spending cuts or a combination of the two.

Bentley remains adamant he’ll veto any budget that cuts essential services, while thus far Senate President Pro-Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, remains just as opposed to tax increases.

“Other than the cigarette tax, in terms of new revenue, I’ve not heard of anything else discussed that seems to have any legs on it,” Marsh said last week.

Like a soap opera villain, the cigarette tax already has died twice this year. Even if it lives again, it isn’t going to fill the hole in the state’s General Fund budget by itself.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, has said another option under discussion is to take money from a state savings account for education and to replace it later with money from the state’s share of the Gulf oil spill settlement. If lawmakers take that route, however, they will, once again, be relying on one-time windfalls for funding the day-to-day operations of state government, which is like relying on getting lucky at the racetrack every week to buy groceries.

For all lawmakers’ talk about the need for sweeping reforms, real reform of the state’s tax and budget structure seems just as elusive now as ever. The Legislature is on course to pass a ramshackle budget that Bentley will veto, only this time the Legislature will override Bentley’s veto and be done with it.

So, if the Legislature has no stomach for tax increases or real reform, how about, instead, a modest proposal that puts lawmakers’ “small government” credentials to the test?

Alabama could become the first state in the South to legalize marijuana. Sound like a bad idea? Could be, but the Legislature clearly has no interest in the many good ideas for budget reform.

Think about it. Alabama’s overcrowded jails and overburdened community corrections programs could be relieved of non-violent pot offenders. Marijuana already is the state’s No. 1 cash crop, ahead of cotton, according to The Associated Press. The state could get in on a nice stream of tax revenue. Colorado, one of two states to legalize recreational use of marijuana, has raised more than $150 million in marijuana excise tax revenue since 2012.

Legalized marijuana with the tax revenue funneled straight into the General Fund would be just the sort of recession-proof, growth tax law makers said they want.

There is an added bonus, too. At least two presidential candidates, Chris Christie and John Kasich, have said if elected they’ll go after states that legalize marijuana. So, legalizing pot also allows - at least potentially - Alabama lawmakers to do what they most love: pick a fight with the federal government. This fight they might even win.

There we have it: A modest proposal that raises no existing taxes and cuts no services.

If lawmakers don’t care for it, they can try something more radical, such as just fixing Alabama’s broken tax system so that we don’t repeat this exercise every single year.

Online:

https://www.decaturdaily.com/

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Sept. 4

The Gadsden (Alabama) Times on state’s breast milk bank:

Benefits of breast-feeding babies have been much publicized lately, partly thanks to high-profile advocates such as actress Alyssa Milano (“Charmed,” ”Mistresses”).

Tuesday, a ribbon-cutting took place in Birmingham for the Mother’s Milk Bank of Alabama, which collects breast milk from mothers, sterilizes it, then sends it to local hospitals for pre-term babies or those in neonatal intensive care units.

The Community Food Bank of Central Alabama and its leadership are serving in an advisory capacity and have helped secure grants. Before that, donated breast milk was sent to Texas for pasteurization and distribution through the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. MMBAL is a member of the organization, but donations made here will stay here.

Why does any of this matter?

Alabama has made steady strides in reducing infant mortality rates. In 2013, the most recent year for which information is available, the rate was 8.6 deaths per 1,000 live births. For perspective, it was 36.4 deaths per 1,000 in 1950.

Many factors have contributed to the improvements. Banking is merely one more tool to allow health-care providers and parents a way to provide the unique antibodies and nutrients found only in breast milk.

Lest anyone think this is some new-age, fad-of-the-day movement, consider these facts, from the MMBAL site:

- The first North American milk bank opened in Boston in 1908.

- Today, there are 18 milk banks across the United States and more than 159 in European countries.

- The Human Milk Banking Association of North America was founded in 1985 to establish standards for all North American milk bank practices, to encourage research, to spread awareness, to ensure adequate distribution, to coordinate with government agencies and to develop new banks.

- Milk banking has had no negative outcomes for 30 years and has gained in popularity as more and more people become aware of research that has confirmed its safety and benefits over other options.

Breast-feeding is a hot-button issue right now, but its benefits have been confirmed by science again and again. Banking milk is akin to banking blood and blood products.

Kudos to those who helped bring about this much-needed resource for Alabama’s mothers and babies.

To learn more, visit https://www.mmbal.org/.

Online:

https://www.gadsdentimes.com

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Sept. 8

The Montgomery Advertiser on funding the state’s prisons:

As legislators wrestle with the General Fund budget in a second special session, they must bear in mind not only the more politically palatable issues such as state troopers and Medicaid, but also the perpetually unpopular, but critically important, issue of prisons. Even though there is no political constituency for prisons, a great deal is at stake nonetheless.

The situation in Alabama’s prisons is grim. The system is at 185 percent of its designed capacity. Put more simply, it houses almost twice as many inmates as its facilities were built to handle. The implications of that must be understood.

Can a state really claim to operate a prison system that meets constitutional standards under such circumstances? That would be a tough argument to make in a federal court, which is where the state may well find itself - again - if the Legislature cannot muster the political will to address the prison problems.

This is far more than a question of inmate comfort. It’s a matter of safety - for the public, for corrections officers and for inmates. Prisons that are both seriously overcrowded and seriously understaffed are a serious safety concern.

As Prison Commissioner Jeff Dunn noted, a 5 percent cut in funding will force adjustments that will send overcrowding to 213 percent of capacity. It’s hard to imagine that federal court intervention would not follow.

“If we go over 200 percent capacity, you might as well go ahead and give away the keys to our system to a federal judge,” said Sen. Cam Ward, the Alabaster Republican who, to his credit, has taken on the lonely job of keeping the pressing prison issues before a Legislature and a citizenry that doesn’t like hearing about them.

Ward’s persistence led to a series of promising reforms that the Legislature enacted during this year’s regular session - enacted, but did not fund. Gov. Robert Bentley even testified before a congressional committee about them, despite the fact that the state has not appropriated any money to pay for them.

Those reforms will remain no more than sheets of paper until they are funded. Even though Ward says the first-year cost of the measures is a relatively small $16 million, a cut in prison funding will make even that modest initial investment impossible.

For decades, legislators have begrudged spending on prisons, despite the state’s responsibilities in this regard and despite the inevitable consequences of shirking those responsibilities. This cannot continue.

Online:

https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/

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