Tag Archives: Statehouse

Alabama Teachers: The Past as Prologue

We were strolling around our neighborhood and walked past the house we called “The House of the Standing Man.” We called it that because when we moved here, this old guy was always standing in the driveway next to his car like he was about to go somewhere, or had just arrived from somewhere. He never moved. He just stood there by the car, never returning our friendly “hellos.” He was in perpetual transition, frozen next to his car, never fully arrived or departed.

This went on for a few years, until we stopped seeing him. We wondered if he had some sort of dementia and had finally been whisked away to some assisted living facility by some son or daughter or grandchild. Shortly thereafter, piles of stuff started appearing on the curb — massive, heaping piles of boxes and bags. There were pieces of furniture, but also the accumulated debris that must be cleaned out at the end of someone’s life. For weeks now, new piles have appeared and vanished. They are rained on, get moldy, and are picked over by various roving trash pickers. We never stop to examine the piles. Until today. A newspaper caught our eye, peeking out from one of the unsightly mounds.

It is part of the February 5, 1969, edition of the Montgomery Advertiser. As we read the editorial page out loud on the way home, we came across a letter to the editor under the section, “Tell It To Old Grandma.” We have noted before how hilarious we think it is that people once called our newspaper Grandma Advertiser. Anyway, the letter merits sharing with you in full because it reads like it could have been written today. And although it was written over 40 years ago, it needs to have also been written today. Here’s hoping that teachers across the state are writing similar letters today.

Dear Editor,

I am one of those controversial, intimidated creatures who serve as whipping boys for frustrated parents, fearful politicians, and self-serving private-interest groups. I am a teacher.

At least, I once believed that I was a teacher. I have even had the unmitigated gall, on occasion, to think that I might perhaps be a “dedicated” teacher.

Why do I now wonder if I am really a teacher? The answer lies not only in the impossible demands that are made upon teachers, but also the coals of fire that are repeatedly heaped upon their heads. I, like many other teachers, am demoralized.

For example, I find it intolerable that teachers should be expected to genuflect, hat-in-hand, and beg, “Please Mr. Legislator, throw me a crumb! See what a great job I’m doing.” Yes, we teachers must “sell the public” (I’ve heard that expression quite often lately) on the needs of education.

Why must we “sell the public?” Are the members of the Legislature incapable of rising (just once) above the politically expedient course of action?

If they, the legislators, are awaiting a consensus (a great word among politicians — consensus), I have news for them. The rank and file of their public couldn’t care less! I would delight in a deluge of letters proving my disillusionment to be wrong, but I simply don’t expect those letters; nor do I expect any great shift of public opinion on behalf of education — for Coffee County, my home county, only a few months ago, for the third time in the last ten years, defeated a proposed five-mill tax for the Coffee County school system.

A shift in opinion, therefore, will not occur because the public wants a good educational system only if this system costs no additional money, an impossible condition.

I can understand the public’s aversion to additional taxes. I, too, am a victim of taxation and inflation — inflation of everything except my paycheck. I, too, can understand the feeling that is prevalent today: “If the federal government is going to run our schools, let the federal government pay for them.” Granted that the federal government is running them, but it is not paying for them.

These bitter facts notwithstanding, one additional fact must be faced: that the future of our schools and of our state is at stake. If our legislators fail to act, they must face the resulting alternatives — not only face them, but also bear the responsibility for them.

These alternatives are quite obvious: disruptive, heart-breaking teacher strikes or increased exodus of teachers to neighboring, higher-paying states, both alternatives being destructive for our children and our state.

I call upon our Governor and our Legislature to forget political expediency; upon our rural and urban areas to forgo rural-urban bickering; upon our universities, colleges, junior colleges, and State Department of Education to cease their sickening wrangling over who gets the biggest slice of the meager pie.

Remember the forgotten member of the team, the overworked, overloaded, underpaid elementary-secondary teacher, who, after all, is the great heart of any education system. Could the universities and colleges, the State Department of Education, and yes, even the Legislature itself, exist without this much-ignored, often-scorned, always-maligned creature!

Mrs. Bryant Steele,
New Brockton, Alabama

About Your Taxes

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the statehouse here in Montgomery, where Alabama’s Legislature hurts our state does its business. Among the various points made in my post were some barbed comments about how the building is a run-down piece of crap that wasn’t even designed to be a statehouse and has, over the years, been allowed to deteriorate, with repairs being done as a series of patchwork and half-assed efforts. In short, it is a dump that limits citizen access to the workings of democracy.

The reason why there are plastic tarps hanging from the ceilings of the halls of the statehouse, collecting vile-colored drippings, is that the state is broke. We have reached the point, as a state, where the reactionary hatred for taxes (and corresponding distrust of all government) has struck bone. By that I mean that we, as citizens, also mostly enjoy having a government to provide services to us. And those services cost money. And the taxes are how the government gets the money to pay for the services. And if I weren’t fatally depressed about the overwhelming stupidity of the populace, I wouldn’t have to be talking in such an elementary way to what is obviously an enlightened and educated blog readership. Paternalistic and condescending? No way!

Anyway, it’s not just the influence of the childish “guv’mint is bad” tea party folks that has caused this failure to comprehend the merits of a government that, say, inspects our food and provides roads for us to drive on. It’s also an instinct that pre-dates the rise of the Taxes Enough Already crowd. It’s the “Git Off My Land” suspicion of outsiders, a resentment of federal courts that used force to end institutional racial segregation, and it’s the naive belief that it’s good social policy to let rich people do whatever the hell they want because you might one day be rich too (even though you won’t).

People also don’t seem to understand that the services they like come from taxes. Nevermind the tiny fraction of simpletons who add Libertarian gloss to their lockstep Republican party ideology, grasping for some sort of intellectual aplomb to accompany their basic desire to be a selfish asshole. No, I’m talking about people who believe that “the market,” will not, in fact, keep poison out of the river or ensure that child laborers aren’t mangled by industrial machines. I’m talking about people who like Medicare, but still hate the idea of Government-Run Health Careā„¢.

All of which is a didactic way of introducing the fact that I went to get my driver’s license renewed the other day and left work a good two hours before the DMV was scheduled to close. I took time off from my paying job to drive across town because, not only do I not want to get a ticket for having an expired license (fear of law enforcement), but also because I actually think there should be minimum standards of competence for people authorized to operate super-dangerous motor vehicles on the highways that we all use while drunkenly texting. Public safety? Yes, a compelling governmental interest. Anarcho-libertarians beware.

And what did I find upon arriving at the DMV, some two hours before they were scheduled to close their doors? An official standing out front sticking a sign on the door saying that they weren’t letting anyone else in because the line was already so long. They were done taking new customers for the day.

Photo taken around 3 p.m.

So this is the kind of thing that we get in a state where we refuse to tax property at a reasonable rate. Alabama could double property taxes and still be the lowest in the nation. We could not possibly bend over far enough for giant corporations, handing out tax breaks as if they were party favors. We allow LLC companies to deduct all of their federal income tax paid from the state income tax they owe. We brag about the fact that we pay the lowest taxes in the nation.

And what do we get for it? We get failing services. We get courts that are shutting down for entire days out of the week because they aren’t sufficiently funded. We get education budgets slashed, a process we call “proration.” We get fewer State Troopers, fewer restaurant inspections, immorally overcrowded prisons, worse health care for poor people, worse child care for poor people, worse everything for poor people. And we get a DMV that isn’t sufficiently staffed to take customers, administer driving tests, and renew driver’s licenses during normal business hours. We get a backwards collective celebration of “fend for yourself” futility, a nationally-embarrassing gutting of public structures, and a total disregard for the common good.

Go get your driver’s license renewed. Get turned away. Return to sit in line for hours, killing your day. Wait for the cops to come when you have a car wreck. Get sick from a rarely-inspected restaurant. Witness a forest fire caused by a crippled forestry service. Wish for a functioning system of public transportation. Bemoan the admissions costs and status of the facilities at our state parks.

And when you do, think about our tax system.

If You Go: The Statehouse

People that actually care

What: It’s possible that you are so intellectually lazy that you have written off all politics under one of the many convenient cliches: “All politicians are all the same,” or “The whole system is corrupt, man.” Or it may well be that in our society of celebrated distraction, you’ve just decided that politics are boring … or more boring than, say, watching movies, dithering around on Facebook, or slaving over your part-time job so that you don’t get fired like your friends did, resulting in you losing your already-limited ability to put food on the table, pay for child care, or put gas in the car.

And if none of the above applies to you, you might well somewhat care that living in Montgomery means that you leave in the same town as the state’s seat of government. That’s right! That thing what governs ya! That means that part of your hometown pride is sharing a city with a right fancy Governor’s Mansion, a very nice Supreme Court building, and the most shameful of the three branches’ headquarters, a Legislature, a.k.a. the Statehouse.

Where: 11 South Union Street. You know that nice building called “the capitol,” with the scenic dome and everything? Well, that’s not it. If you go in there, you might get a nice tour of some historic (and largely empty) rooms, but that’s a post for another day.

No, we’re actually talking about the building across the street, which is sort of non-descript. It’s a big white box, built in 1963 for the state highway department. The Legislature abandoned the old capitol in the 1986 and has been over in this adapted setting ever since. While it’s certainly better than the historic old capitol building, what with creaking balconies and highly-questionable efficiency on things like utilities, the current set-up is also far from ideal.

You name it, and it’s probably a problem: Parking? Difficult, especially if you need to be there longer than a two hour meter will allow. Space in the hallways? Very crowded, especially if someone is having a special event or lobby day. Space for press conferences? Very sketchy. Most are confined to a sort of awkward pit built in front of the main entrance to the building. Accessibility so the public can attend legislative committee hearings, where true democracy can be displayed as citizen input is voiced? Oh, hell no.

Notice the scenic dark fluid collecting in the plastic ceiling tarp hanging in the committee room. Lovely.

Another democracy tarp hanging in the hallway of the Senate offices on the seventh floor.

While they have spent millions of dollars to make right proper chambers for the House and Senate, what with big electronic boards showing who voted which way, etc., the building is still clearly not built for public access to observe the professional doings of their elected officials. They spent a lot to fix the place up after recent torrential rains recently flooded the entire parking garage and lower floor of the building, but really, until we fix our state’s broken tax system, we’ll keep applying layers of patches to this bad old building. There’s just no money (or political will) to do anything else.

So if you’re looking for the cool history tours, do the original Capitol, the White House of the Confederacy, the MLK church on Dexter, and places like that. Don’t expect anything special from the Statehouse. Heck, if you’ve got a visitor in town from out-of-state, a Statehouse tour might just leave you embarrassed.

Who: Bicameral, baby! If you live here in Alabama, you’ve got a Senator and a Representative. The House has 105 members and the Senate is a smaller body with 35 Senators. Without getting detailed about the demographics, both houses as comprised in 2011 are overwhelmingly male, incredibly white, 100 percent Christian, and protected by brand new Republican super-majorities, making compromise wholly unnecessary so long as party discipline prevails.

Why: Well, yeah. Why?

This sort of boils down to your level of cynicism about life, I guess. Do you want to go see some folks hash out the details of laws that many of them barely understand? It can be fun, I must admit. It’s free of charge and if you enjoy things like watching your two uncles argue about tractor parts or American Idol, you might well gain some enjoyment from watching someone from Marengo County argue with someone from Mobile about how best to gut public education or whether the tax breaks given to giant corporations should be massive or merely huge.

And in an actual plus for the “we should encourage people to want to observe their democracy” camp, there’s free wireless. So you can buy things on E-Bay during the many interminable pauses and intentional delays in the action.

And if you’ve given up on the whole premise of going to see civil servants build structures that enhance the common good, well, there’s always the raw entertainment factor. Steeped in the depressing probability of seeing something similar in the near future, here are 3 exciting moments you missed at the Statehouse:

1. The Lt. Governor urinates into a jug on the floor of the Senate. I honestly have no idea if this video is what it purports to be. But it’s an accepted fact that in 1999, Steve Windom responded to an attempt to strip the Lt. Gov’s power by refusing to leave his seat in the Senate. Trying to block the proposal, he just sat there afraid they’d do it as soon as he left the room. And so he humiliated the state and himself … and still lost the fight.

2. Speaking of fights, there’s always a chance you could see one. Sure, it’s less likely now that the GOP controls everything, but maybe that’ll just increase the rage among the relatively powerless Dems. And when that happens, and when tempers start to flare, well, anything can happen when you’re dealing with very proud, very dumb people. That was the scene when, in 2007, Sen. Charles Bishop decided to punch the Senate Rules Committee Chair in the face. Lowell Barron, receiver of the punch, allegedly called Bishop a “son of a bitch.” The lame scuffle was caught on camera and was replayed around the world, meaning that these two elderly jerks made losers of us all.

3. Montgomery’s own Alvin Holmes, who has unfairly been tarred by liberals and conservatives alike as a sort of clown, is actually an amazing and admirable man. He is extremely smart and a ferocious defender of justice. That said, he is also something of a loose cannon, meaning that if you go and watch him do his thing, you might see something like this. We love Rep. Holmes, both for what he does and for how he does it.

When: Here, your options are somewhat limited. You see, although the legislature does meet every year, they only do so for 30 working days. That translates to about 90 to 120 calendar days a year, but if you’re looking for actual floor debate, you’ve got a tiny window of time, somewhere between January and May or so. The tricky part is that the actual meeting time moves around, sometimes starting in January, sometimes in March, depending on what year of the four year cycle it is. So, the best bet is to pay attention.

New “security measures” require visitors to wear stickers. Because added regulations is how you put “constituents first.”

If you want to meet with your representative, the best thing to do is call their office and make an appointment. You’re probably looking at a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday if you want to see them at the Statehouse, although if they’re your rep, they’ll likely want to see you anytime (in theory) and are probably willing to meet you somewhere back home in the district to talk things over with you. At least, that’s how it ought to work.

The reality is that many of them want to spend as little time in Montgomery as possible, and would prefer to talk to you back home and not have you come and see their tiny offices and watch them “in action” on the floor of the chamber. Visitors will note that while many of the reps are busy on the floor of the chamber, many are also using their laptops to cruise Facebook and shop for suits.

And if you’re playing along at home, go here to both look up bills that might be of interest to you and also to listen in to live audio streaming of the action. It can be a little confusing at first if you don’t understand the procedures used, and more so if you’re not such a fanatic that you’ve come to recognize the voices of the folks speaking. But it’s a great window into what’s going on and we can’t commend enough the powers-that-be for providing this invaluable tool to the public.

Bottom Line: It’s great that citizens can see government in action. The Legislature likes to say that the Statehouse is “the peoples’ house,” meaning that it is the most accessible and responsive of the three branches of government. And to some extent, that is true.

But it’s also an increasingly insular world, where new security measures make it harder than ever to meet your representative, where most of the action happens behind closed doors and not on the public stage of the chamber floor.

A plaque on the first floor needs to be updated … but not by much. It’s mostly dudes up there.