Williams: Education critical for state

Published 3:00 am Saturday, November 1, 2014

There are three things you should know about Joel Williams, the Democratic challenger for Alabama House of Representatives District 89.

“First, I’m a lawyer, and I’m so proud to be a lawyer,” Williams said this week. “When I was 9 years old, I wrote to Cumberland Law School for a flyer because I knew I wanted to go to school there … and you would have the benefit of having a legislator with legal skills.”

“Second, I’m ethical,” he said. “And I will never use this position for personal gain.” Williams, a longtime lawyer in Troy, said he makes his living through his law firm and wouldn’t seek to do so through the Legislature.

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And, third, he is analytical and a good communicator. “I can take a problem, analyze the parts, and fit it back together so we can find a solution,” he said. “I want to do this work. I actually think it would be fun to figure out a way to get our state on the path to being No. 1 in the nation in education …

“A lot of times what we’re talking about the Legislature is trying to achieve the average – the southern regional average or the national average. I think we can do better but in order to do better, we’ve got to send people up there with courage and resolve and who are willing to do better.”

Williams, who faces the long-time Republican incumbent Alan Boothe in Tuesday’s general election, said first ran for office some 16 years ago, when he and Boothe met in the Democratic primary for this same seat. Boothe won that primary and went on to the win the seat he’s held since then.

But Williams has never lost his interest in public service or in the process of state government. “And two things happened that pushed me over the edge and I said ‘that’s offensive, I can’t stand it anymore.’”

Those two things, Williams said, were Boothe’s votes to cut teacher pay and to raise legislative salaries – essentially giving himself a pay raise, and the Legislature’s passage of the Accountability Act, which Williams says does more to harm public education than help.

The Accountability Act has been widely criticized by many in education and by the Alabama Education Association, which is supporting Williams in his campaign. The Act sets aside up to $40 million of state funds each year to pay for students who are zoned for a failing public school to attend a private or parochial school.

“We have no failing schools in our districts,” Williams said. “So no child in our district can benefit from this, even though the act took away more than $200,000 in funding (from the Pike County and Troy City school systems.)”

Additionally, he said, “ If there was a ‘failing’ school, and you had 500 students in that school and one of those students choose to use the money to attend a private school, then you now have a failing school with 499 students – and you’ve exasperated the problem by taking away funding.”

Education is the key component of Williams’ platform. And he takes exception at the use of the term “failing” schools. “We don’t have any failing schools. We have failing parents who are sending their children to school unprepared and when something doesn’t work out they way they want they want to blame the schools …”

If elected, he said he would vote to repeal the Accountability Act and to restore the $40 million set-aside to the state education budget.

And he would work to increase teacher pay. “We have teachers leaving the profession every year who go into other businesses to make more money or who go to other states because they pay higher salaries,” he said.

“If we want to keep good teachers, we’re going to have to pay them.”

He’d also work for the implementation of a state-funded pre-K program, with certified teachers – an admittedly expensive program but one that Williams believes is firmly needed to improve the quality of education in state of Alabama.

And investing in education is necessary, he said. “It’s not a matter of raising taxes; it’s a matter of prioritizing spending … Do you know any winning football team that doesn’t have enough money? We are willing to put money and support into the things about which we are passionate, and I want us to be passionate about funding education.”

Williams has ideas on where to get the funding for education. First, by repealing the Accountability Act, lawmakers can return $40 million to the state education fund, he said. Second, by restructuring the tax code he believes lawmakers could keep an individual’s total tax burden level while funneling more of the tax revenue to the state and less to the federal government. He cites federal tax laws which allow taxpayers to deduct a portion of state income taxes paid during the year. “If we remove or lower the taxes on the portions of our state tax burden that don’t earn federal credit we can increase the amount that does earn federal credit, the individuals tax burden will be no greater but we can shift more of your dollars to Alabama instead of Washington.”

He also advocates reducing the amount of tax incentives given to foreign companies in guise of economic development, focusing instead on helping grow Alabama businesses and local small businesses. “We’ve got to stop giving away hundreds of millions of dollars trying to hit a home run (by recruiting major foreign businesses) and instead focus on hitting singles,” he said. “If we give $300 million in tax breaks and a company brings 300 jobs to our state, then we’ve just spend $1 million per job … and that’s not smart.”

Alabama, he said, has one of the lowest tax structures in the nation, but it’s not proving to be the panacea of economic growth. “If lower taxes are the bait to bring them here, then why aren’t they here?” he said, citing the fact that Alabama was the only state in the nation whose unemployment rate was higher in July 2014 than July 2013. “If lower taxes were the silver bullet, we’d be bulging at the seams.”

Williams said he believes the state generates adequate revenue for its needs, but lawmakers need to do a better job of prioritizing spending. “I’m not saying we need to raise taxes; I’m saying we need to have smarting spending … for example, don’t cut teacher pay and give the Legislature a raise.”

If elected, he said he would support a referendum to give voters the say on a proposed state lottery. “But then I would vote against (the lottery) personally,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to raise as much money as people think … it’s regressive … and when it doesn’t raise as much money as people think, then it becomes politically impossible to reform the tax structure.”

And, he said, he would not vote for any legislative pay raises. “In fact, I’d recommend making it minimum wage – 40 hours a week, for 52 weeks a year,” he said. “You’re not supposed to be going to the Legislature to make a living … and I make my living running my small business right here.”

He also advocates raising the minimum wage, incrementally. “It’s good business,” he said. “If you pay the people who work for you well, then they are good customers for you, for restaurants, for stores … it’s just smart business.”

Although he is running as a Democrat, Williams said he eschews the political labels often bandied about in campaigns, such as conservative or liberal. “Fiscally responsible … that’s the term I use now instead of ‘conservative,” he said. “I’m not going to adopt a label. If you ask me about an issue, I’ll substantively tell you where I stand on it.”

He said he supports gun rights – “I’m a hunter myself,” – and as a staunch pro-life Episcopalian he flew to Washington D.C. on year to participate in the March for Life.

“I grew up around here and I was raised just like everybody else around here,” he said. “Everybody wants a good job, wants to take care of their families … that’s substantive, that’s not a label.”