Since the day I finished third in the 12-boy race for attorney general at Alabama Boys State in 1958, I have wanted to be involved in public policy issues. I got that chance in 1963 when I moved from the mail room to become a full-fledged reporter at the daily newspaper in Florence. Later that year I found myself covering President Kennedy’s visit to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Tennessee Valley Authority and, in September, riding around all day with Gov. George Wallace, who was visiting the area during the North Alabama State Fair.
In that eventful year for me also came college graduation at Florence State College and the integration of my new alma mater in the early fall by a young man named Wendell Wilkie Gunn. Gunn followed Wallace’s unsuccessful “stand in the schoolhouse door” in Tuscaloosa to become the third black person to enroll at a public university in our state. His enrollment didn’t hit the radar screen until we ran a brief article with a photo. Nancy and I later had Gunn over for dinner at our apartment a few blocks from the campus, where I interviewed him and wrote a story that was carried nationally by The Associated Press. Gunn ended up in the 1980s working in the Reagan White House.
In 1966 I ran for the state Legislature and by 210 votes in a runoff lost to the North Alabama business agent of the electrical workers. I had always wanted to get involved in politics, but I am now glad I got it out of my system at the age of 25. Nonetheless I lobbied for the job of press secretary to the new governor, Lurleen Wallace, but military duty got in the way. By 1970 I had advanced to editor of the paper, now renamed The Times Daily. It was that same year that Tuscumbia lawyer Howell Heflin decided to seek the office of chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. He was elected and I came to Montgomery to work for him and the state courts.
It was one of the proudest moments in my life at the time. I would walk up Dexter Avenue and look at that magnificent Capitol building and want to do the best I could for the state of Alabama and I believe that is the same attitude most public employees have. Fortunately for me, I worked for good people who had the state’s best interests at heart and we accomplished good things for the administration of justice in Alabama.
This is why I am confused that our new leaders, particularly Republicans in the Legislature, want to tear down state workers and teachers by reducing and demonizing their benefits, particularly their pensions. In 2009 less than 3 percent (2.9 percent in Alabama) of all state and local government spending was for employer (that means government) pension obligations. In the most recent election I would estimate that a good majority of public workers in Alabama voted Republican or split their tickets. I will wager that after the current Republican-dominated Legislature finishes up its collective demeaning of public workers and teachers, that attitude will change.
There may be some waste, but for the most part these state workers and teachers most likely feel as honored as I did to serve our great state. And they will give up their share. Just ask them, representatives and senators. You don’t have to demand. But before you start tearing down public workers and teachers, take a look at raising some revenue to balance the budget instead of making cuts that will take the heat off you and place finding money for education and other services on city and county officials.
We all know public workers are the convenient scapegoats. It is certainly easier to go after the little guys and gals, calling them faceless bureaucrats, than to stand up and do what is right.
And what is right? Well, here’s a suggestion. In Mississippi, the median property tax is $468. That’s 0.47 percent of the median home value and 1 percent of the median income. In Alabama the median property tax is $383, next to the lowest in the nation. That’s 0.32 percent of the median home value and 0.72 percent of the median income.
Bringing us up to Mississippi would be a start, and dedicated to the right places, might even prevent proration. I’ll pay my share.