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Alabama editorial roundup

March 13, 2019

Recent editorials from Alabama newspapers:

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March 13

The TimesDaily of Florence on a newly passed gas tax:

Shoals-area drivers will start paying an additional 6 cents for every gallon of gasoline they pump into their vehicles effective Oct. 1, thanks to a gas tax bill state lawmakers approved in a special session called by Gov. Kay Ivey.

In a grand show of bipartisanship, the 10 cents per gallon tax cleared the Senate by a 28-6 vote on Tuesday and was rushed to Ivey’s desk for her signature.

The House approved the tax measure by an 84-20 vote on Friday, setting the stage for the Senate’s rubber stamp vote on Tuesday.

Only three local lawmakers voted against the proposal — Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia; and the area’s two freshmen representatives — Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, and Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals.

Voting in favor of the tax were Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, and Reps. Phillip Pettus, R-Green Hill, and Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville.

The 10-cent tax will be implemented in three stages: a 6-cent tax will go into effect Oct.1 of this year; then an additional 2 cents will be added Oct. 1, 2020, and another 2 cents will be added on Oct. 1, 2021.

But here’s the kicker no one wanted to emphasize much: The bill contains an indexing factor that goes into effect in 2023 that allows the state to increase or decrease the tax an additional 1 cent every two years based on construction costs. Since construction costs rarely decrease, that means the state’s gas tax could go up another penny every two years starting in 2023.

It’s that indexing feature that was the deal breaker for Sen. Stutts and Rep. Sorrell.

... Cities and counties will be the immediate benefactors as the funds they receive can be quickly used for small-scale paving projects and bridge repairs. But the additional funds won’t make for quick fixes to major state highway issues because of the longer time spans required for the planning and design, right-of-way purchases, and extended construction schedules necessary for those projects.

When the House passed its gas tax measure on Friday, House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said ”. our children will see the benefits of what we’ve done.” That succinctly sums up the broad impact of this tax measure.

Here’s the breakdown for how the $80 million per year the tax will generate will be disbursed: The state will get 66.67 percent of the tax revenue for the Alabama Department of Transportation. Counties get 25 percent of the revenue, and the remaining 8.33 percent goes to municipalities.

...

According to a fact sheet released by the governor prior to the special session, the cost of the entire 10-cent gas tax increase to the average Alabama driver will be $55 per year, or $4.58 per month. That figure was based on a study by the Alabama Transportation Institute based on 12,000 miles per year at 22 mpg.

The signing of the gas tax law ends the special session. Lawmakers will take a week’s break before reconvening March 19 for the start of the regular session.

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March 11

The Gadsden Times on Harper Lee and “To Kill a Mockingbird”:

Fifty-nine years after its publication, “To Kill a Mockingbird” remains a ubiquitous presence in the literary and entertainment realms. It’s become a controversial one as well.

Harper Lee’s novel that deals with coming of age amid racial injustice in Depression-era Alabama continues to sell more than a million copies a year in more than 40 different languages, according to a 2015 story in the New York Times.

A Fortune magazine story at the time of Lee’s death in 2016 reported that she earned $9,000 a day in royalties from the book.

Schools across the U.S., if not the world, require students to read “Mockingbird,” a mainstay on “Books to Read Before You Die” lists. Its most compelling character, Atticus Finch, modeled after Lee’s father (as the book is modeled after her childhood), has become a prototypical hero, helped by Gregory Peck’s memorable, Academy Award-winning performance in the 1962 film adaptation.

However, the pedestal on which Lee and “Mockingbird” rest has made the controversies more glaring and jarring.

There were Lee’s legal battles in 2013 with her former agent a over the copyright to “Mockingbird,” and in 2014 with the Monroe County Museum based in the old courthouse in her hometown of Monroeville (considered the model for the book’s fictional “Maycomb”) over royalties from souvenir sales and the museum’s use of the book’s title in its web address.

There was the 2015 publication of another Lee novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” which her attorney claimed to have discovered in a safe deposit box. It was written before “Mockingbird” — some observers consider it a first draft — and although it sold well, (1.1 million copies in the first week), there were questions about its timing (and Lee’s relationship with her attorney) and outrage over its version of Atticus Finch being much less racially enlightened.

There were 2018 legal battles over keeping Lee’s will private (its contents were unsealed after a lawsuit by the New York Times) and with the producer of a current hit Broadway version of “Mockingbird” over the script adaptation (competing lawsuits ultimately were settled).

That producer in turn is bringing legal pressure to bar local theater groups that don’t meet specific requirements from using a previous stage adaptation of the play. (Theatre of Gadsden meets those requirements and will be presenting that version the next two weekends.)

Now there’s the voice of Lee herself — not from the beyond, but from a 1993 letter she wrote to a friend that is part of some personal effects that are up for auction.

Lee railed about her hometown and its relationship with “Mockingbird,” talking about how Monroeville had been taken over by “Snopeses.” (She was referring to the family of Mississippi nogoodniks created by William Faulkner in a series of novels.)

She said those folks were trying to turn her “into a tourist attraction like Graceland and Elvis Presley,” and with all the mockingbird references and images were “trying to drown me in their own bad taste, and are embarrassing me beyond endurance.”

That’s well-aimed and brutal, and probably a bit unfair to folks in Monroe County. We’re under no illusions about the lure of monetizing things, but we imagine folks there are legitimately pretty proud of Lee and her work. (Although she only moved back to her hometown full time in 2007 after suffering a stroke; she actually lived for 40 years in an apartment on 82nd Street in Manhattan.)

Still, those feelings shouldn’t be surprising given Lee’s reputation for desiring privacy, for bemoaning the hamster wheel that promoting and dealing with “Mockingbird” became in her eyes, and the general cantankerousness she displayed over the years.

And to those who might be offended — such is the danger of placing imperfect human beings, even talented ones, on pedestals instead of simply enjoying what they’ve given us. They can get knocked down too easily.

Online: https://www.gadsdentimes.com/

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March 10

The Decatur Daily on infrastructure funding:

For the last decade, lawmakers have been diverting $63 million a year in earmarked money from the Alabama Department of Transportation’s road and bridge responsibilities to state troopers and the Alabama Judicial System. The tortured logic justifying the diversion has been that state troopers patrol roads and that arrests on those roads are processed through the judicial system.

It was a sham born of budgetary desperation, and not many lawmakers defend it. One of the staunchest critics of the practice has been state Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and he has repeatedly raised the issue when asked whether he supports a gas tax increase that would funnel more earmarked road and bridge money to ALDOT. His point: The state is already ignoring mandates that require it to spend money on roads and bridges.

“That’s like putting more money in a bucket that leaks,” Orr said last month in expressing concerns about the gas tax increase. “Fix the leak first, which is the General Fund. Address that funding situation first.”

Correctly aware of the state’s desperate need for infrastructure improvements and determined the solution is a statewide increase in gas taxes, Gov. Kay Ivey decided she needed to address the concerns of Orr and like-minded lawmakers. In the upcoming budget, she said, she will plug half of the $63 million leak from ALDOT road money.

That’s a grand and welcome proposal, and at first glance a puzzling one given the perpetual austerity of the General Fund budget.

But then the governor explained how she would accomplish this financial wizardry.

Ivey proposes draining $30 million a year from the Education Trust Fund to cover the General Fund obligation of financing the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Ivey’s problem: Earmarked road money is being used inappropriately. Ivey’s solution: Plug the resulting gap by using earmarked education funds inappropriately.

The irony is rich.

Just as legislative raids on road and bridge funding have become routine, so have raids on the Education Trust Fund. That’s why $51 million a year in education money goes to the Department of Commerce, and why the Education Trust Fund also finances the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame and the state Department of Archives and History. Allocations for mental health and public health also come from the Education Trust Fund.

Sen. Tim Melson, vice-chair of the Senate education budget committee, said he understands Ivey’s rationale: healthy children learn better.

“I get it, but the bottom line is we set up two budgets, right or wrong, and need to avoid taking from one for the other,” Melson said.

Healthy children learn better, so designated education funds should pay for insurance. They also learn better if their parents are healthy, so should the Education Trust Fund be used to fund Medicaid? The Alabama Judicial System handles custody cases, so maybe that money should also come from the trust fund.

The solution to past raids on road and bridge funds can’t be a future raid on education funds. If structural problems with the General Fund prevent the state from covering necessary expenditures, then it’s time to confront those problems directly.

Online: https://www.decaturdaily.com