Sweet Home Politics

Wednesday, December 13th, 2017   |   Español

Author Archives: Tray Smith

  1. When Intolerance Costs Money

    Leave a Comment

    After years of being harassed by the wacko bird contingent of Alabama politics at both the state and local level, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, Alabama’s only federally-recognized Indian tribe, is now hoping to develop gaming operations on its Florida property.

    Earlier this week, Band Chairman Buford Rolin sent Florida Gov. Rick Scott a letter asking for a compact to establish a tribe-operated Class III gaming facility one mile south of the Alabama line, near its existing casino in Atmore, Ala., Gov. Scott quickly agreed to a meeting.

    Federal law allows electronic bingo at the tribe’s Alabama casinos, but to offer Class III options like table games or slot machines, the tribe needs a compact with the state. Such compacts typically enable the state to collect a portion of the revenue the games produce. Florida’s existing agreement with the Seminole tribe, for example, has produced $1 billion in revenue since it went into effect six years ago.

    Alabama’s elected officials, though, have shown no interest in forming such a compact despite the revenue it could generate. Instead, they have attempted time and again to destroy the tribe’s existing Alabama gaming operations, and time and again they have been rebuffed by the federal government.

    Now, the Poarch Band is asking Florida for permission to do there what it can’t do here – offer gaming choices that will create more jobs and produce substantial revenue.

    Personal judgments about gambling aside, what is the logic of prohibiting an Indian tribe from offering table games and slot machines on one side of the state line if they can do so on the other? Indian gaming opponents sincerely concerned about potential negative consequences surely wouldn’t support a policy that, without minimizing those consequences for us, confers all the benefits of gaming on Florida. Isn’t Alabama already losing enough revenue to casinos in Mississippi and lotteries in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee?

    Not according to rabid Indian gaming opponents like state Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, who recently went so far as to exclude Tribal property from proposed legislation legalizing Sunday alcohol sales in Wetumpka, equating the Poarch Band with a business wanting “to expand its privilege to profit from the sale of alcohol in my county.”

    So much for “this land is your land, this land is my land.”

    Paul Bechman, a Republican state house member, objected to the proposal because it was blatantly discriminatory toward the tribe, and Taylor’s petty antics eventually killed the entire effort. For crusaders like Taylor, even local alcohol sales legislation provides an opportunity for political grandstanding if it can be made into a debate about what really makes them uncomfortable – the almost universally accepted idea that Indian tribes should be afforded a significant degree of autonomy in governing their own reservations. The issue is no longer opposition to gaming in Alabama, but instead an inability to acknowledge that tribal territory is not, actually, Alabama.

    Taylor may be the loudest and crudest opponent of the Poarch Band’s sovereignty, but unfortunately he is not alone in the Alabama Republican Party. Our state’s sole Indian tribe, after all, has received a better reception from the Tea Party-backed, conservative Republican governor of Florida than it has ever received from Republican officials in this state. Unlike Alabama’s leaders, Gov. Scott is at least willing to discuss compacts that could produce significant revenue and employ hundreds of people.

    Gov. Scott is just one of many Republicans who has supported Indian tribes and Indian gaming. The federal legislation regulating Indian gaming was signed by Ronald Reagan and sponsored by Sen. John McCain, a later Republican presidential candidate himself. Indian gaming furthers conservative policy objectives because it reduces poverty on Indian reservations and in surrounding communities through economic development and job creation, lightening the burden on publicly funded anti-poverty programs. Tribal compacts also give states an option for allowing revenue-generating casinos while severely limiting the number of places where they can be built, providing a potential compromise between proponents and opponents of legalized gaming.

    Alabama needs more Republicans like Rep. Beckman fighting to reaffirm the party’s proud history on this issue. Otherwise, the Republican message will be obscured by shrill ideologues who bristle at the very idea of a prosperous, sovereign Indian tribe generously contributing to surrounding communities and the state.

    Their intolerance could cost Alabama a lot of money.

  2. Obamacare Should Encourage More Work, Not Less

    Leave a Comment

    A new argument emerged in the debate over President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) last week after the Congressional Budget Office projected that Americans will work about two million fewer jobs in 2017 as a result of the healthcare reform law.

    Understanding that report is essential to understanding the potential impact of the ACA.

    The report did not indicate that two million people would loose their jobs, but that, as a whole, the American people would work less. The CBO anticipates a large number of Americans will work fewer hours in response to the ACA, and a small number of people will quit working entirely. The net reduction will equal about 2 million jobs. As the CBO director said, the law creates a “disincentive to work.”

    Under the ACA, lower and middle-class Americans without health insurance will be eligible for subsidies to help them buy coverage, but those subsidies phase out as income increases. Some of those beneficiaries, then, will lose more than a dollar in government health insurance subsidies for every extra dollar they earn in pay. Instead of taking a promotion or working longer hours, the CBO projects those Americans will simply work less.

    The White House and liberal commentators argue that Americans working fewer hours may be a good thing, if that allows mothers to take time to be with children or gives older workers clinging to jobs the ability to retire without losing health insurance coverage.

    “This was one of the goals. To give people life, a healthy life, liberty to pursue their happiness. And that liberty is to not be job-locked, but to follow their passion,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said.

    Pelosi missed the point entirely, though. The CBO did not project that two million Americans would leave their jobs to “follow their passion.” The CBO projected two million Americans would drop out of the workforce.

    Undoubtedly, some of those Americans are the types of people the White House mentioned, but surely many of them are not. Medicare already exists to cover Americans over the age of 65, and a record number of Americans are currently on disability insurance. Many of those who stop working and obtain health insurance through the ACA will probably not come from either category.

    The more fundamental problem is that for every American who no longer works as much for health insurance, regardless of the reason, there is another American who has to work more. The government cannot just whim health insurance into existence for millions of people; it has to pay for it with tax revenue. People who drop out of the workforce as a result of the ACA are a double-whammy to the government: they aren’t working as much, so they are probably paying less in taxes, and they aren’t relying on their own insurance, instead depending on government subsidies.

    The ACA’s defenders are right to point out that these types of disincentives result from almost every type of government assistance program, but that’s exactly why this report is so concerning. The ACA isn’t the only government program that encourages people not to work, it’s just the newest. The cumulative impact these programs have on the poor, by making it financially unfeasible for them to accept a promotion or work toward career advancement, cannot be ignored.

    A universal healthcare tax credit, a concept endorsed by many conservative health policy thinkers included in John McCain’s 2008 health care proposal, would be a better way to expand coverage without discouraging work. Such a tax credit would be available in equal value to every taxpayer. Sure, any type of health insurance assistance will discourage some people from working. On the whole, though, public policy should seek to encourage people to work as much as possible.

    That’s a priority Democrats should share. It’s concerning that they don’t.

  3. Why the “American Dream” Doesn’t Reach Alabama’s Poor

    Leave a Comment

    Children born into lower income families in the South are less likely to climb the income ladder than poor children in any other part of the country, according to a major study released this month by Harvard and Berkley economists with The Equality of Opportunity Project. Using federal income tax records, the researchers looked at the income of US citizens born between 1980 and 1982, and compared it to the income their parents earned when they were children between the ages of 15 and 20.

    The study found that, on average, American children from the poorest families end up 30 percentiles lower on the income distribution scale than children from the richest families. That gap has been persistent over time, but its consequences have gotten worse. Income mobility has stabilized while income inequality has widened.

    Income mobility measures the likelihood a child will end up in a higher-income percentile than his or her parents; income inequality measures the disparity between high and low earners in a given year. That means even though lower income children are no more likely to remain poor today than they were in previous generations, there is a greater gap between rich and poor today.

    Why should we want income mobility to be higher? Income mobility goes to the core of our national identity — America as a place where background doesn’t shape destiny, where anything is possible for anyone. If that is true, we should expect a lot of our children to end up higher than their parents on the income distribution.

    The study shows some areas are doing much better than others. The researchers divided the nation into 741 “commuting zones,” counties grouped together because of commuting patterns. Of the 100 largest commuting zones, Mobile ranked 81 in income mobility, and Birmingham ranked 89. Of commuting zones in the state of Alabama, Jasper ranked the highest while Montgomery came in last.

    In Mobile, a child born to a family in the bottom fifth of income earners has a 5.1% chance of ending up in the top fifth himself. In Birmingham it is 5%, in Jasper, 8.7%, and in Montgomery, 3.3%. Nationwide, it is 8%, and in Salt Lake City, which placed first in income mobility in the U.S., that child would have a 10.8% chance of ending up in the top fifth.

    Jasper and Troy both outperformed the national average, but like its southern neighbors, Alabama lags most of the rest of the country in income mobility. What makes the difference?

    The researchers identified five factors that correlated with areas with greater mobility: less segregation, less income inequality, better schools, greater social capital, and more stable families.

    The fact that segregation tends to correlate with lower income mobility helps explain why the South does so poorly; Southern cities are still much more likely to be segregated along racial lines. The study also found that upward mobility is higher in cities with less sprawl, measured by commute times for workers.

    To measure social capital, the researchers considered voter turnout, the percentage of residents who complete their Census, the percentage of residents who are religious, participation in community organization, and the violent crime rate.

    Family structure was the strongest predictor of upward mobility. Interestingly, children are more likely to have higher rates of social mobility not only when they have married parents, but also when they live in a community with fewer single parents. Apparently, they benefit when their friends have married parents, too.

    This research provides a wealth of new information for policymakers looking for ways to expand opportunity for children. For the right, the study provides even more evidence that family and civil society are critical in sustaining opportunity. For the left, it shows that income inequality and segregation tend to deprive kids of upward mobility. For both sides, it underscores the importance of good schools.

    Most significantly, for every community looking to improve upward mobility for children, this study shows that family, inclusivity, civil society and education are all good places to start.

  4. Why Not Both? Alabama Needs to Be a Two-Party State

    Comments Off on Why Not Both? Alabama Needs to Be a Two-Party State

    2010 was a euphoric year for Alabama Republicans, who took control of the state legislature and won every state office on the ballot that year. After a century and a half of Democratic government — which passed everything from Jim Crow laws to tenure protections for teachers convicted of sex crimes — it didn’t seem like a stretch to believe that Republicans could do better.

    Three years later, they haven’t quite met expectations, but then again, neither has President Obama. Republicans have governed Alabama through the aftermath of the Great Recession, so things have been understandably slow. On the whole, they have managed difficult budgets responsibly while steering the state toward calmer seas.

    At times, though, Republican leaders in Montgomery have strayed down ideological pursuits that seem disconnected from the interests of Alabama voters — oddly pursuing strongly anti-immigration legislation in a non-border state with little immigration, obsessing over gambling, insisting employees have the right to take a gun to work, and refusing to expand Medicaid even though the federal government has agreed to pick up nearly all of the costs.

    These endeavors have distracted their attention from no-nonsense reforms that have earned bipartisan support for and brought national attention to Republican legislatures and governors in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada and New Jersey. Republican politicians in those states, though, have something Alabama Republicans don’t: competition.

    Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker already had to fend off a Democratic-driven recall attempt in 2012, and he will face voters again this year. Democrats are targeting popular Ohio Gov. John Kasich this fall, along with Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett. In all-red Alabama, though, Gov. Robert Bentley’s sole Democratic opponent is a previously unsuccessful mayoral candidate from Fayette.

    Sure, Gov. Bentley will probably enjoy having a less tumultuous, intense, and uncertain re-election battle, and voters probably won’t miss the barrage of campaign ads. However, such competition is essential to our politics, and its absence is a disservice to Alabama residents.

    Alabama needs a strong and vibrant Democratic Party to contribute ideas for developing our economy and creating jobs, improving our schools, managing our infrastructure, protecting our environment, and distributing our tax burden. We need a Democratic Party that will bring attention to issues, people and places that Republicans may otherwise ignore. We need a Democratic Party that will make the Republican Party itself better, by challenging Republicans to be more responsive to the needs of their constituents.

    Imagine if Democrats in the legislature had been both able and willing to engage Republicans on education and worked to improve, rather than just derail, the Alabama Accountability Act? Or imagine how much more reluctant Bentley and Republicans would have been to pass their immigration reform plan if they suspected a credible Democratic political threat?

    Instead, the Democratic opposition in the legislature is shrill and ineffective. After their 2010 loss, Democrats in Alabama essentially disbanded and went home, leaving most of the playing field uncontested and giving Republicans unchecked political influence. Today, the party is split, disorganized and, increasingly, irrelevant. A strong state party first requires a strong gubernatorial candidate, and it doesn’t appear like the Democrats are going to field such a contender this year.

    Even Republicans and Bentley supporters should be concerned; those of us who don’t want another Democratic governor should at least want a Democrat to run for governor. Otherwise, Gov. Bentley is going be re-elected without having to defend his record, answer difficult questions about the decisions he has made, or lay out a compelling vision for the future of the state — a challenging process that every governor wanting a second term should endure. That challenge ideally produces better second-term governors.

    The two-party system requires two parties to work. Unfortunately, Alabama seems to have seamlessly transformed from a one-party Democratic state into a one-party Republican state. Maybe one day we’ll have them both at once.

  5. When Will Alabama Catch Up on Pot and Same-Sex Marriage?

    Leave a Comment

    More than 1,000 gay couples have been married in Utah over the last month, following a federal court decision striking down the state’s gay-marriage ban. Meanwhile, neighboring Colorado has gone up in smoke, with people from around the country flocking to celebrate the opening of the nation’s first legal pot stores.

    The New Year hasn’t been quite as exciting here in the Southeast, but surely there are more than a few Alabamians who see Utah and Colorado in the news and wonder if gay marriage and legal marijuana will ever be more than a pipe dream in our state.

    We may have earned our reputation as the last state to experiment with social change, but our history suggests that, in time, we tend to follow the rest of the country. The Jim Crow era was long and ugly, but the Civil Rights Movement finally came along and successfully ended segregation. Several Alabama counties outlawed alcohol long past the end of prohibition, but today only one out of our 67 counties is completely dry.

    Granted, change happens faster when the federal government mandates it and sends the National Guard to enforce it, as it did during the Civil Rights Movement. It can take much longer when a majority of the voters of the state, or even the voters of individual municipalities, have to approve a referendum to revise existing law, as has been the case with alcohol.

    In both cases, though, Alabama ended up following the other states for issues such as women’s suffrage, the legal drinking age and the lower voting age. In every instance, events occurring in some states eventually affected all of them, including ours. There is no reason to assume the same won’t be true with gay marriage and marijuana.

    The U.S. Supreme Court has already struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and could void all state gay marriage bans this year. That would still require every state to recognize and license gay marriages, however. If the Court refrains from taking such a drastic step, the marriage debate will continue state by state until either every state legalizes gay marriage or the Court revisits the issue in the future.

    While it is hard to imagine a majority of Alabamians voting for gay marriage if a referendum were held today, public opinion is shifting fast. Recent campaigns in Maine and Maryland show it is possible to change public attitudes on the issue and pass gay marriage democratically without relying on judicial fiat.

    Courts won’t play a role in marijuana legalization, but the voting public is increasingly receptive to the idea. A CNN/ORC International poll released last week showed 55% of Americans support legalizing marijuana, while only 44% are opposed. Two-thirds of respondents between 18 and 34 said marijuana should be legal, as did half of respondents between 50 and 64. Even in the South, where marijuana legalization was the least popular, 48% of respondents supported it.

    These numbers represent a dramatic increase from 25 years ago, when support for legalizing marijuana nationwide stood at just 16%.

    As other states follow Colorado in experimenting with new marijuana laws, Alabamians should be paying close attention. The advantage of being the last to show up to every party is getting feedback from the people already there, so we can make sure the whole ordeal is really worth our time and commitment before we make our fashionably late appearance.

    If people see that states with reformed drug laws are able to reduce arrests and incarceration, generate economic activity and tax revenue, and protect public safety, they will support similar laws in their states. If, on the other hand, recreational marijuana leads to chaos, people in other states can choose different options. They may instead seek to trade the harsh consequences of current policies for smarter strategies to reduce drug abuse.

    Alabamians will be able to consider the experiences of the other states when we decide whether we should follow their lead.

    Sure, Alabama hasn’t always made the best decisions as a state. Every year, we send our own residents to spend millions gambling and supporting education in all four of our neighboring states while our sole Indian tribe is treated like an organized crime syndicate for operating casinos on sovereign land. Even if Alabama never legalizes marijuana, Alabamians will probably be able to buy it in a few years when they cross the state line on their way to fetch a few lotto tickets.

    Smuggling a gay marriage across state lines would be more problematic, but our history shows changes once considered impossible often come to seem inevitable and even obvious. That may not be reassuring to couples currently barred from getting married, or even potheads trying to light up before watching the latest installation of “The Hobbit,” but it shouldn’t be reassuring for their political opponents, either.

    There are greener pastures ahead, indeed.