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Wednesday, December 13th, 2017   |   Español

Author Archives: Michael Hansen

  1. Unsolicited Advice for Rep. Mike Rogers

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    U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Saks) is urging the U.S. House to pass H.R. 3826, a bill that would roll back regulation of carbon dioxide pollution, the primary greenhouse gas (GHG) emitted in burning coal. The so-called “Electricity Security and Affordability Act” is an effort by congressional Republicans to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from ever having any authority to control the carbon pollution coming from coal-fired power plants.

    Carbon dioxide pollution is a driver of climate change. Additionally, carbon emissions have a direct effect on health and well-being. A Stanford University scientist found in a state-of-the-art study that globally, “upward of 20,000 air-pollution-related deaths per year per degree Celsius may be due to this greenhouse gas.” There are economic risks associated with carbon pollution as well. Analysts say that without reducing GHG emissions, we’ll pay for it in the long-term in the form of higher food prices, water scarcity, decreased water quality, property damage, loss of wildlife, ecological damage, higher insurance premiums, infrastructure damage, lost revenue, loss of wetlands, and heat related illness.

    You may or may not be aware, but the EPA has been working on these new rules to regulate GHG for a while now. Environmentalists and climate scientists are hoping for strong new regulations on future power plants that will severely curb carbon pollution. Conservatives are flailing to stop implementation of such rules, decrying them as evidence of a “war on coal.”

    According to ALGOP PR Central, Rogers claimed in calling for passage of H.R. 3826, “As the president’s War on Coal continues, we will almost certainly see increased electricity bills … the last thing we need is the Obama Administration enforcing unachievable electricity production rules that ultimately take more money out of the pockets of East Alabama families and discourage the creation and retention of good-paying Alabama jobs.”

    That’s nonsense. As was widely reported in 2013, Alabama Power customers already pay some of the highest bills in the nation. Strike that item off Rogers’ list of complaints. As for the coal jobs shout out, Rogers must have missed a key statement from the state’s largest monopoly last year: Alabama Power, according to its own spokesperson, doesn’t plan to build any new power plants in the state until at least 2030. Meanwhile, the company plans to convert or has already converted several existing units from coal to a mix of natural gas and coal. It’s not a war on coal, it’s about business.

    Natural gas is now competitive with coal for electricity generation and has fewer environmental and health risks associated with it. (It is important to acknowledge here that there are legitimate concerns about fracking, among other issues with natural gas, but that’s another discussion.)

    Additionally, clean, renewable energy (e.g., wind and solar) is increasingly affordable and reliable. Innovation in the “green energy” sector has already been an economic boom for many regions across the globe, and we have similar potential here in Alabama. “Jobs, jobs, jobs!” as Twinkle Cavanaugh might say, had she not already been bribed by the coal industry not to.

    So what’s up with Roger’s urgency on a bill that will get approval from neither the Democrat-controlled Senate nor President Obama? Money.

    Top Donors to Rep Mike Rogers

    According to OpenSecrets.org, some of the top donors to Rogers since 2002 include Southern Company, the parent company of Alabama Power, arguably the most powerful institution in Alabama politics; Balch & Bingham, a law firm which represents and lobbies for Alabama Power; Drummond Company (one of Alabama’s most profitable companies, with $5 billion in revenues); and Jim Wilson & Associates, a real estate development firm with ties to the University of Alabama that coincidentally owns Galleria Towers, where Walter Energy is headquartered.

    Speaking of money, let’s take a deeper dive.

    —Rep. Rogers makes $174,000 per year as a congressman. His net worth is estimated to be up to $3,465,000.

    —Walter J. Scheller, III, CEO of Walter energy, reportedly earns $2,615,052 per year.

    —Charles McCrary, outgoing CEO of Alabama Power, made $8,045,613 in 2012.

    —Thomas Fanning, CEO of Southern Company, was compensated $13,035,348 in 2012.

    —Garry Neil Drummond, CEO of Drummond Co., is widely perceived to be a bully billionaire.

    —The median household income in AL-District 3 in 2009 was $37,501.

    My guess is that the average Alabama family would happily support reducing carbon emissions coming from future power plants if they knew the economic, health and environmental price of doing nothing. Perhaps Rogers should stop misleading Alabamians about good policy and instead work to bring new jobs and renewed economic growth to Alabama in the form of modern, clean energy.

    The bellyaching about a (phony) war on coal is nothing more than disingenuous pandering by a man more accountable to corporate interests than his own constituents. Rogers needs to come clean about why he supports the Electricity Security and Affordability Act. Hell, it could even be his 2014 campaign slogan: “I do it for the money.” He’d be the most honest man in D.C.

    Updated at 10:12 a.m. March 6, 2014, to reflect that Drummond may or may not be the most profitable company in Alabama today — due to an international drop in coal prices. Drummond is a private company, so financial data is not readily available.

  2. Wake Up, Progressives!

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    Has anyone ever been more quotable — and right — than Martin Luther King, Jr.? For today’s column, I dip my bucket deep into the well of his wisdom.

    King once proclaimed, “When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative.”

    Woah, woah, woah! Who did this man think he was, drawing lines in the sand like that?

    Alabama lawmakers have been at it again in the 2014 legislative session, bringing up bad bill after bad bill. Look no further than the literally unbelievable debate over a bill to allow monuments of the Ten Commandments in state buildings last week. Been there, done that, kicked out the Chief Justice.

    According to Rep. DuWayne Bridges, “school shootings, patricide and matricide are due to the Ten Commandments not being displayed in schools and other government buildings.”

    Maybe that’s why Rep. Steve Hurst sponsored a bill that would force teachers to open the school day with a reading of Congressional prayers. Perhaps in conjunction with hanging the Ten Commandments in schools, regurgitating prayers hand-picked to match some teachers’ own worldview will stop bad things from happening. It’s self-evident, right? Right.

    Sen. Phil Williams is sponsoring a bill, SB12, that would ostensibly ban wind energy development in Alabama. Pulling in the most draconian specifics Williams could Google, the bill requires setbacks, or specific distances, more than eight times greater than those required for coal mining, and decibel levels which are on par with an empty room. Why? Because some unhinged activists in his district claim wind energy is not viable in Alabama, and therefore must be banned. The logic is that clean energy development is a threat to Alabama’s natural beauty and economic development, never mind that mining and burning coal pose legitimate threats to our drinking water, air and ecosystems. Talk about a red herring.

    Rep. Becky Nordgren successfully passed out of the House a bill that allows health care providers anywhere in the supply chain — doctors, nurses, nurses’ assistants, nursing home workers, pharmacists, pharmacy technicians — to decline to perform services based on sincerely held religious beliefs. It says that they cannot be held liable in any way for the repercussions of their refusal to do the job the swore a proverbial oath to do. (The Hippocratic Oath, if you were wondering.)

    Nordgren’s uses similar language as the “religious freedom” bills that have cropped up in Kansas, Tennessee, Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi and a number of other states. Nordgren’s bill relates to health care services defined in it, but there are notable similarities. Specifically, the pro-discrimination bills in other states generally say that businesses reserve the right to refuse service based on “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

    These bills are specifically in response to gay and lesbian customers who were refused service and subsequently sued the businesses for discrimination. While Nordgren’s health care bill pertains only to health care, we would be foolish not to wonder if the legislature will eventually take up a “religious freedom” bill that would codify legal discrimination. Mississippi’s upper chamber passed a version by a vote of 48-0. Zero! It’s as though our neighbor is daring us to match its backwardness. So don’t be surprised if a legislator tries to bring a similar bill in this session’s eleventh hour.

    I’ve only beat up on legislators thus far, but let’s not forget that Gov. Robert Bentley has long said he will not expand Medicaid in Alabama, which would create jobs — Bentley’s supposed top issue. Medicaid expansion would provide health insurance to hundreds of thousands of working poor in Alabama. Bentley, it should be noted, is a doctor. Apparently Dr. Bentley had his heart surgically removed, because the theme of his State of the State speech, which focused a great deal of time on Medicaid and Alabama’s abysmal poverty, was that poor folk just need to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, or something.

    Back to MLK’s magnificent declaration. There exists in Alabama no shortage of progressives, activists, and generally decent people who have a vested interest in economic development, jobs, clean energy, environmental protection and conservation, equality, fairness, health care access, social justice, and myriad other progressive causes.

    Aren’t you tired of leaving these matters up to those who claim to know best? Aren’t you tired of trusting impotent lawmakers to take up the mantle of progress?

    If you’re not, allow me to splash a bit of cold water to your face: Democrats, now in the minority, controlled at least one chamber of the Alabama Legislature for 136 years. In Lincoln terms, that’s seven score and sixteen years. We didn’t get to where we are — at the bottom of the well-being barrel — overnight.

    It’s no longer acceptable to merely sit idly by and share sanctimonious Facebook posts, tweet snarky tweets and mumble snide comments under our breath. We progressives are right — on each and every issue enumerated here and many, many more. And we know it. Let’s leave it to those who are plainly on the wrong side of history to be conservative with their efforts. It’s time to be radical.

    It’s time for environmental justice organizations to join hands with racial justice organizations.

    It’s time for LGBT advocacy groups to march in lock-step with low-income advocates.

    It’s time for immigrant allies to join in song with clean energy activists.

    Together, activists among these seemingly disparate causes far outnumber the fringe elements that have long dominated Alabama politics. I promise. It may seem like they have the mob majority — but I’m certain they’re just louder than us.

    In North Carolina, such groups have held events dubbed “Moral Mondays,” where a diverse set of faces and voices at long last declare in unison that enough is enough — it’s time to move forward.

    Alabama’s history and present suggests we’re capable of that and then some. But somebody is going to have to step up and start doing, rather than just talking.

    I’ll shut up now.

  3. Time for Alabama to Defy Expectations

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    “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”

    That line comes from Alabamian Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s an indelible, pithy quote — intensely Southern both in syntax and in substance.

    Alabama and its neighbors have gotten a bad rap over the years for being hotbeds of oppression and having backwards public policy. It’s hard to argue that we haven’t earned that reputation, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

    When you get down to it, Alabamians are no different than our brothers and sisters across the United States. Deep in our bones we believe that we’re all in this thing called life together, and in the end, we treat people like, well, people.

    Don’t get me wrong, we have our work cut out for us in the South. Congressmen still think that gay people are a punchline. Our infamous chief justice is foolishly attempting to ban the freedom to marry via an unprecedented constitutional convention — with the support of some equally foolish state senators.

    But these men are not representative of Alabama. They are outliers. Mean, uncivilized outliers. They are politically ambitious, power-hungry opportunists hiding behind coded language — e.g., “traditional values” — to advance a discriminatory agenda.

    Dog-whistle politics may still drum up support in a GOP primary campaign, but Alabamians are sick and tired of falling behind in every metic other than football. The only thing these men (and women) do is suggest to the rest of the nation that the stereotypes are true and earned. To hell with what’s best for Alabamians.

    Since I moved to Alabama in 2008, I have had an overwhelmingly positive experience living openly and honestly as a gay man. In conversations with elected officials, business leaders, community organizers, advocates, activists and ordinary citizens alike, I sense an undeniable yearning for progress.

    Regardless of age, race, faith, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, Alabamians are aching to move this state forward, lightyears away from its reputation to become a welcoming and inclusive place for people of all stripes.

    We as a community must get off the sidelines and isolate those in power who hold us back. We must educate those in the middle about the struggles of marginalized communities: LGBT people, low-income neighborhoods, racial minorities, and immigrants, among others.

    Apathy is the biggest obstacle to change in Alabama politics, but it can be overcome when you get angry enough that people not only speak out, but ask others to do the same.

    It’s time to share your stories — loud and proud — with family and friends, at work and school, in local, regional, and national press.

    It’s time to send an audacious message to the bigoted relics of the past that we will not back down, that times have changed and that we are people too.

    It’s time to signal to those who want to see change that they need to get off the sidelines and step up to the plate.

    It’s time to defy the soft bigotry of low expectations placed on Alabama by the rest of the country.

    To remain silent only serves to empower people like Roy Moore, Mike Rogers, Bryan Taylor, Jerry Fielding, Twinkle Cavanaugh and others to keep on embarrassing the state you and I love.

    Ultimately, we’re all just folks. We want to live our lives free from hate, discrimination and prejudice; to leave a positive impact on the world; and to make it a more tolerant place for the generations that follow.

    I close with the words of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin: “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.”

    Who’s with me?

  4. Republicans Still Don’t Get It

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    Republicans still don’t get it. After Mitt Romney’s “shocking” defeat in the 2012 presidential election, the Grand Old Party rightly embarked on a rebranding campaign. The Republican candidate lost big among key demographics, including women, LGBT people, African-Americans and Hispanic voters.

    The Growth and Opportunity Project report — an effort to say what went wrong in 2012 and how to fix it — contained reform suggestions like taking on corporate welfare, talking differently about so-called “women’s issues,” tamping down anti-gay rhetoric, and tackling campaign finance and the outsized influence of special interest groups.

    If you watched the Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union, you would have heard platitudes in lieu of substance. As political consultant and pundit Jimmy Williams said, “Mrs. Rodgers … prayed for America, for the president and gave America a rebuttal with absolutely no policy positions. None, not a single specific policy position was introduced. She did tell America ‘we have plans to improve our education and training programs.’ … Well frankly, the last thing in the world I need is to be told I can dream.”

    The GOP got the tone and optics right with Rep. Cathy Rodgers McMorris, but there was no “there” there. The best thing that can be said about her earnest speech was that she did no harm. That’s not good enough.

  5. Southern Hospitality Should Extend to Our Politics

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    For the past couple of weeks, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed have been under fire in the national press for their response to the worse-than-expected winter weather that brought much of their state and Alabama to a halt. If not for the massive population of metro Atlanta, it’s very likely that Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and Birmingham Mayor William Bell would be the targets of the criticism.

    Much has been written about how unprepared the South is for such a storm, and a good bit of it has been wrapped in a gooey layer of smarm. Some Southerners have replied in kind with explanations and excuses. The bottom line is we were caught off-guard across the board — hundreds of kids and teachers spent the night in schools, thousands abandoned cars on street roads, highways and interstates, and who knows how many took shelter underneath their desk.

    But beyond all this finger-pointing and disaster-shaming lies a much more important story: the human spirit is good and it is resilient. In Alabama at least. Tales of Good Samaritans pushing, pulling, feeding and caring for complete strangers have overwhelmed my inboxes, news feeds, and newscasts. My heart grew three sizes this week.

    As Huntsville meteorologist Jason Simpson said in his blog post, “Hey There, Up North!”:

    And you know what else? We’ll be ready and willing to help you in any way we can. If you ever get stuck in the snow on some icy interstate someday, it might just be a good ol’ boy or girl from Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, or Tennessee that comes to your rescue.

    We’re always looking for a way to help others.

    Y’all come!

    Facebook groups were created to connect the stranded with warming stations and warm meals. Folks took to Twitter to help find people with medical emergencies hitch a ride.  When we saw people roaming the streets like something out of “The Walking Dead,” we opened our homes, our churches our offices … dare I say, our hearts?

    Or what about the doctor who walked six miles in freezing cold across ice-covered terrain to perform a life-saving brain operation on a patient at Trinity Medical Center.

    My friend and colleague, Ben Cooper, shared his moving experience on Facebook:

    “During my 13 hour endeavor to survive the unexpected weather, and find my way home as thousands of others, it was the people — humans — demonstrated by our community that helped rescue mothers with small children, pushing cars off the highways so that others may pass, people sharing limited resources of food and water, offering blankets to those on foot who walked miles to find shelter, and those who left the warmth of their own cars, offering comfort and aid to other stranded motorists.”

    I was listening to WBHM yesterday when Gov. Bentley was addressing media questions about the disaster. He called out these myriad stories and went on to dub these good men and women “snow angels.”

    All of this was going on while the rest of the nation was attuned to the President’s fifth State of the Union address. In this age of extreme divisiveness and rancorous ideological debates, we turned inward and helped our own. It was awe-inspiring.

    At the risk of sounding polyannaish, I think there’s a lesson to be learned in all this. That the ties that bind — humanity — are much stronger than those that divide. We should live by our own example and come together to solve the great political challenges facing Alabama. I’ve no doubt we could if we set our mind to it.

  6. Is Alabama’s Republican Party Evolving with Candidate’s Support for Gay Marriage?

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    On Tuesday night, hundreds of thousands of people tuned in to watch a debate on evolution between creationist Ken Ham and scientist Bill Nye, but it’s another evolution that caught my eye the next day. Matt Jenkins, a Republican candidate for Alabama’s 7th Congressional District, endorsed marriage equality. Publicly.

    Jenkins is running against Terri Sewell in the most Democratic-leaning district in Alabama. Sewell won her seat in 2010 with more than 70% of the vote. She has never expressed support for same-sex marriage nor has she ever been much of a vocal supporter of the gay community except by association. That is, the “(D)” that follows her name on the ballot.

    By coming out, Jenkins made a bold move that could potentially alienate the very few conservative voters in the 7th District. The young conservative candidate made reference to the Golden Rule and the freedom of religion. He argued that marriage equality is a matter of equal protection guaranteed under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — precisely what the Supreme Court said in its landmark Windsor decision last June.

    Many sensible conservatives have made similar arguments in support of the freedom to marry. Former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman is one high-profile example. As Huntsman eloquently said, “There is nothing conservative about denying other Americans the ability to forge that same relationship with the person they love.”

    It’s something entirely different for an ambitious Republican in Alabama to come out swinging the way Jenkins did, especially in a race where the Democratic incumbent has said, “I think for me personally, I would be more in favor of civil unions than I would in favor of gay marriage.”

    Last year, Stephanie Petelos made national headlines when she came out in favor of marriage equality. The Alabama GOP attempted to remove Petelos from her role on the state steering committee, but it failed to do so.

    Supporting the freedom to marry for same-sex couples may not win him a lot of friends in the state Republican Party, but his press release has been all over my social media feeds today accompanied by praises like “wow!” and “bold!” and “good for you!”

    It’s about time the inevitable Republican evolution on equality showed up in Alabama. I may even pitch in a few bucks or volunteer for Jenkins’ long-shot campaign.

    Before I do that, Mr. Jenkins, what’s your position on Obamacare and the minimum wage?

  7. The State of Alabama Has a Leadership Problem

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    Last week, my Sweet Home Politics colleague, Kindred Motes, published one of our most popular columns to date: “The State of Alabama Has a PR Problem.” I loved it, and so did hundreds of others across the state, nation and globe. The essay was insightful, well-written and honest, tinged with hope and pride.

    It wasn’t entirely accurate, though. Alabama doesn’t have a PR problem; it has a leadership problem.

    I can sense the eye rolls now, the faint whisper of belly aching through the Interwebs: There he goes again, always the contrarian!

    Stick with me on this one. I’m a public relations professional by trade. I understand the PR conundrum facing the great state of Alabama. It’s real. But sticking with the corporate metaphor, if Alabama were viewed as a business, sensible stockholders would have revolted and fired the board and the C-suite long ago.

    You see, a PR department works with what you’ve got to influence perceptions between an organization and its stakeholders in a mutually beneficial way. It doesn’t hire and fire leadership; it doesn’t do R&D for new products; it doesn’t handle finances and accounting; and it doesn’t train employees on proper etiquette and protocol.

    Let’s take a look at Alabama’s leadership and product:

    We have a governor who uses dog-whistle politics to disguise his party’s unseemly disdain for the poor. Because talking points trump reality.

    We have an attorney general who refuses to stand up to the most powerful entity in the state, Alabama Power, in the interest of our pocketbooks. Because campaign contributions outweigh consumer advocacy.

    We have representatives who think Alabamians values rhetorical bullying over family. Because winning elections is more important than integrity.

    We have a minority party that can’t even manage to field legitimate candidates to at least force the majority party to engage in a thoughtful debate on real issues. Because of ineptitude.

    We have abundant corruption, a regressive tax system, lagging job growth, expanding waistlines, pervasive poverty, corporate welfare, dependency on fossil fuels, and on, and on, and on.

    Those are just a few of the most obvious examples of ways in which Alabama’s problem isn’t a perception problem at all. In fact, each of those failings in a corporate setting represents either failed leadership or a piss-poor product.

    It’s fun to paint PR people as shady operatives manipulating public opinion. And in a lot of cases, that’s entirely accurate. We’re like magicians hypnotizing the populace for our clients’ and our own interest.

    Harry Houdini, David Copperfield and David Blaine combined couldn’t pull off the magic trick required to fix Alabama’s perception problems.

  8. A Progressive Wish List for the State Legislature

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    This week, the Alabama Legislature begins its second week in the 2014 session, and the Republicans should run the show. The state GOP is poised in the House to pass its  “Commonsense Conservative” agenda, a set of nine bills dealing mostly with business and taxes (with one notable exception). Priority number one of the Republican legislative package is to avoid controversy during an election year so members have an easy-breezy time getting re-elected.

    But let’s imagine for a moment that this is not the final regular session of the quadrennium. I asked myself what measures I would like the legislature to take up in an ideal, progressive Alabama — a pipe dream, I know. This is nothing more than a mental exercise, but it’s one worth doing. Here are the top five I came up with.

    1. Untax Groceries

    It’s no secret that Alabama’s tax system is one of the most regressive in the nation, putting an unfair burden on the middle class and, especially, those living in poverty — roughly one-fifth of the state. The bottom 80% of Alabamians pay in the ballpark of 10% of their incomes on local and state taxes, while the top 1% only contribute about 4% of their incomes.

    According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, only “two states continue to apply their sales tax fully to food purchased for home consumption without providing any offsetting relief for low —and moderate—income families.” Alabama is one of the two. Getting rid of the 4% grocery tax would put money back into the pockets of hard-working families who could use a boost.

    2. Legalize Marijuana

    Rep. Patricia Todd (D-Birmingham) has presented several versions of a bill to allow medical marijuana in Alabama, but they haven’t gone anywhere … yet. This year, Todd is putting forward a narrower version called “Carly’s Law,” named after a 2-year-old child who suffers from a rare genetic disorder. The violent seizures can be treated with a specific extract, cannabidiol, from marijuana.

    Meanwhile, Colorado has fully legalized marijuana and sales so far have been sky high. Washington will implement their own legalization later this year. Yet, we in Alabama can’t even treat a rare disease with an oil extract because social conservatives have so effectively stigmatized the drug since Reagan’s so-called “War on Drugs.”

    The hard truth is enforcement of marijuana laws disproportionally affects minorities and low-income communities. The intention may not be racist, but the outcomes certainly are. It’s time to legalize marijuana and regulate it just like alcohol — a far more dangerous drug. We could certainly use the additional tax revenue.

    3. Integrated Resource Plan (IRP)

    The Alabama Public Service Commission was in the news a lot in 2013 — an odd thing even for those of us who get really excited about energy regulation. Why was the PSC on the cover of local papers several times this year? Well, it wasn’t because Commission President Twinkle Cavanaugh is a media-savvy policy wonk pushing for reforms. Certainly not.

    The PSC was plastered all over the papers because one of its members, Terry Dunn, called for the PSC to do its job and hold formal hearings about the rates the industries it regulates charge customers. Embedded in this chatter about rates is an underlying factoid: Alabama is one of very few states that does not require utilities to file a public Integrated Resource Plan — a document that details future energy needs and plans for each utility. Utilities do, however, provide the PSC with a private IRP and make a short summary document available.

    Some utility companies — I’m looking at you, Alabama Power — have very publicly opposed such scrutiny, claiming it would jeopardize their competitive advantage. (You know, because state-granted monopolies are super concerned with competition.) A public IRP would give Alabamians the chance to weigh in on decisions like where their electricity comes from and the pollution standards for plants that burn coal, for instance.

    4. Freedom to Marry

    Wouldn’t it be incredible if the Alabama Legislature shocked everyone and not only voted to repeal the law and constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, but went one step further by extending the freedom to marry to LGBT Alabamians? The Alabama I know and love has a “live and let live” attitude for the most part.

    We could shock the nation and send a big, sloppy kiss to Fortune 500 businesses, the vast majority of which support marriage equality and offer partner benefits to same-sex couples. Maybe then they’d be more likely to locate operations here in Alabama, currently home to a whopping one — one! — Fortune 500 company, which is Regions at No. 400. I can picture the houndstooth-themed “gay weddings” already.

    5. Expand Medicaid

    I’ve heard rumors that Gov. Robert Bentley intends to revisit Medicaid expansion once he is re-elected, but his public position is way too harsh. I doubt this to be true. His State of the State Address last week was a blistering indictment of entitlements and welfare and, by the transitive property, those who depend on a little government help to get by.

    Bentley insists that he will not expand the state’s Medicaid program. Doing so would fill the coverage gap: providing health insurance to those just not-poor enough not to qualify yet poor enough not to be able to afford to purchase their own insurance. It’s one of the unintended consequences of the Affordable Care Act and the 2012 Supreme Court opinion that said states could not be forced to expand Medicaid. As a result, Alabama has the second highest coverage gap in the nation at 36%.

  9. Yahweh or the Highway

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    The title of this column is a nod to 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who once said, “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” In thinking about Alabama politics and movement conservatism generally — with all of its absolutism and sanctimony — Nitezsche’s assertion captivates me.

    Commonsense be Damned

    In December, the Alabama House Republican Caucus, led by Speaker Mike Hubbard, released its 2014 legislative priorities, calling it their “Commonsense Conservative” agenda. Most of the bills deal with business and taxes, an attempt at a controversy-free session to bolster their members’ reelection chances.

    One bill in particular — the Healthcare Rights of Conscience Act — should pique the interest of anyone with any semblance of commonsense. Rep. Becky Nordgren (R–Gadsden) is sponsoring the legislation that would make it illegal to “force” any health care worker to provide a service that violates their conscience. (The legislation comes straight from Americans United for Life, a anti-abortion Washington, D.C.-based interest group.)

    The bill, like all bills, is full of definitions. It’s not difficult to read between the legalese lines to see that Nordgren’s primary target is abortion. It’s a way for GOP legislators in an election year to shore up their pro-life, evangelical street cred. That the House Republican Caucus included this bill in its “commonsense” package speaks volumes. To suggest that doctors are somehow “forced” to provide abortions — and are subsequently sued if they refuse — is a lark.

    It’s all code: “conscience” is code for “my narrow interpretation of Christianity”; “healthcare services” is code for “pro-choice, anti-life liberal science”; “forced” means … who the hell knows? Commonsense be damned.

    We’re All Atheists About Most Gods

    I’m writing this essay in my suburban studio apartment on a Sunday morning light years away from a Christian church. Spiritually, at least. (There are something like a dozen churches less than three miles from my home.)

    It’s a bit trite to point out that in the South churches are breeding grounds for political ideology, manifesting in both campaign rhetoric and public policy. I don’t mind folks going to church and trying to better themselves, their families or their community. I do, however, mind when those folks think it’s at all appropriate to base public policy decisions on their own particular brand of faith.

    The famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins said, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” I’m in the “one god further” camp.

    I’ve often said it was harder for me to come out as an atheist in the Deep South than it was to come out as a gay man. As such, it is especially obnoxious to me when very narrow interpretations of personal faith are trumpeted as the right, the correct and the only way to make public policy.

    Dr. Frankenstein: Culture War POW?

    It’s important to note also that the Healthcare Rights of Conscious Act goes beyond your everyday pro-life lingo. It includes human cloning — huh? — and embryonic stem cell research —seriously? — in its litany of services healthcare professionals cannot be made to perform.

    What doctor is being forced to clone a human or conduct stem cell research? Are modern-day Dr. Frankensteins being held against their will, involuntarily assembling human clones? Are medical researchers compelled to seek out cures for illness, disease and disorder through the promises of stem cells?

    Never mind that the spirit of Becky’s Bill violates the sacred oath at the heart of all healthcare work.

    Never mind that the legislation is a solution in search of a problem.

    Never mind that legislating “conscience,” particularly in the arena of human health, is a Pandora’s Box of potent problems for public policy.

    Never mind that the core of conservatism is the notion that liberty comes foremost from minding your own damn business, government especially.

    Yahweh isn’t the only way

    The Healthcare Rights of Conscience Act is but one example of the ways in which politicians who use faith to make policy are misguided. Go back a few years to Judge Roy Moore’s war for the Ten Commandments in government, a relic of which is glued to the garage I walk through each day. Oklahoma just found out the hard way what can happen when states erect monuments to one faith.

    Keep the Ten Commandments Roy Moore Sticker

    It’s not just public policy where religious fundamentalism rears its ugly head either, it’s also deeply entrenched in campaign rhetoric, commentaries and political statements. For instance, Sen. Jerry Fielding (R–Sylacauga) plans to introduce a non-binding resolution in the new session to cheer on reality TV star Phil Robertson’s racist and homophobic views.

    The resolution is not a defense of the First Amendment. No, it is a defense of what Robertson said, claiming his infamous “Bible-based” slurs are in keeping with Alabama values. While Alabama does have a long history of being anti-gay and anti-black — and frequently anti-anything other than white Protestant men — that’s not the Alabama I work to help pick itself up from its proverbial bootstraps.

    The frank reality is that Robertson’s words and Fielding’s resolution, both purported to be inspired by their faith, are but caterwauling from a shrinking ruling class. Their values are anti-family and an embarrassment to the vast majority of Christians who believe in love and compassion, dignity and respect.

    I happily concede that there is no one right, correct, or only way. But in order for us to self-govern in a responsible and progressive way, Alabama needs leaders who embrace diversity and uplift inclusiveness, not ones who endeavor to force their personal religious views on us and certainly not ones whose priority it is to sanctify intolerance.

    Just imagine what these same people will do when they’re not worried about a having a controversy-free legislative session in an election-year.

  10. War on Coal, a Red Herring at Best

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    This past year, several right-wing groups — Yellowhammer News, Jobkeeper Alliance, Alabama Coal Association, Eagle Forum, Alabama Free Market Alliance, and the Alabama Policy Institute to name a few — relentlessly attacked environmental, health and consumer advocacy organizations in an attempt to discredit their calls for transparency from the Alabama Public Service Commission.

    They took special care to paint Commissioner Terry Dunn as an environmentalist and a liberal simply because he asked for formal public hearings into the rates of Alabama Power, Alagasco and Mobile Gas. Almost every other state has formal hearings, but Alabama has avoided them for 30-plus years now.

    They threw out names like “wacko” and “liberal” and “enviro,” often in that order, as if to suggest that anyone who believes in environmental protection and governmental transparency are outrageous. This false populism is nothing more than propaganda circulated by powerful interests so as to maintain the status quo. And there’s nothing conservative about opaque government, name-calling, monopolies or pollution.

    That is, these conservative front groups care more about strengthening their own stranglehold on privilege than they do about making sure our government works for all of us.

    Reporter-turned-private-investigator Eddie Curran has done extensive research into these groups and their suspiciously coordinated activities. (As a journalist, Curran did investigative reporting across the political spectrum, including former Gov. Don Siegelman, Alabama Power, the state legislature, and Matrix founder Joe Perkins. He knows when he’s onto something.)

    They’re more invested in Alabama Power’s power than Alabamians’ pocketbooks. They care more about protecting certain industries’ right to pollute our air and water than in protecting our health and planet.

    Coal industry lobbyist George Barber bemoans the fact that these “wacko liberal enviro” organizations were involved in the PSC hearings at all, suggesting shady goings on. After all, why would groups whose mission it is to conserve the planet, protect public health, and look out for the little guy be involved in a process where utility rates are set and energy decisions made? Barber claimed it was all about a “war on coal,” a red herring at best.

    What Barber and the coal industry won’t tell you is that the decline in coal jobs began 30-plus years ago during the Reagan presidency. And coal production, though fairly stable in that same period, has not grown because of increased competition from natural gas and clean energy like wind and solar.

    The coal industry is producing similar amounts of coal today as it was in the 1980s, yet doing so with fewer jobs thanks to increased productivity, new methods of extraction (e.g., mountain top removal) and new technology.

    If you want to blame someone for the decline in coal industry jobs, blame the coal industry. If you want to blame someone for decreasing demand for coal, blame the free market.

    But don’t blame organizations whose mission it is to ensure we have cleaner, healthier air. And certainly don’t assign blame to groups looking out for those without the means to help themselves.

    Instead of pouring time, money, and mental capital into a phony “war on coal” propaganda campaign, industry leaders should work with consumer advocacy organizations to create a strategic plan that will benefit Alabamians’ pocketbooks and Alabama’s economy.

    Instead of complaining about a so-called hidden agenda — hiding in plain sight — leaders in the energy industry should work with health advocacy organizations to reduce toxic pollution of all kinds.

    A renewed focus on clean energy will create new, safer jobs that don’t dirty our air, fleece our bank accounts, and fill our lungs with carcinogens. Let’s have that conversation and leave this campaign of misinformation to polluted gutters where it belongs.