Progress and setbacks

Published 11:18 pm Thursday, December 31, 2015

The year drawing to a close this week brought both progress and setbacks on issues that affect Alabama residents, from economic growth to civil rights. Our thoughts on work that remains to be done:

CIVIL RIGHTS: Alabama proudly celebrated the 50th and 60th anniversaries of historic civil rights events this year, including the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. We hope the commemorations serve as an impetus for deeper discussion of race relations and an end to partisan attempts to suppress the minority vote in 2016.

EMPLOYMENT: Alabama’s unemployment rate fluctuated slightly over the past year and stands at 6 percent for November, the same as this time last year. That’s still above the national rate of 5 percent, Unemployment remains in double digits in the impoverished Black Belt. More aggressive economic development efforts to boost employment and kickstart the stalled economy are needed. Unwise cuts to state agencies that force layoffs of public sector workers also contribute to lackluster employment rates.

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GAMBLING: Casino gambling and a lottery aren’t a magic bullet to end Alabama’s budget woes. But Gov. Robert Bentley’s November executive order allowing for the reopening of VictoryLand will provide economically struggling Macon County with new tax revenue for schools and services and new jobs for the unemployed. Legislation to put a constitutional amendment to allow a lottery before voters died in on Goat Hill this year, but should be brought back in 2016 as one piece of broader action to resolve the perpetual shortfall in the General Fund.

PRISONS: The Legislature this year took a solid step forward in addressing Alabama’s prison crisis, passing a state task force’s recommendations on parole and probation that should ease overcrowding. Lawmakers also anteed up some extra money for the corrections system. More movement is needed in 2016 to prevent a potential federal takeover of state prisons. Plans to tackle the mental health component of overcrowding look promising, but won’t amount to much without more new revenue to support treatment for mentally ill or drug-addicted inmates.

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE: The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark June decision declaring same-sex marriage legal nationwide was a triumph for equal rights. Some Alabama officials, however, stubbornly seek to defy the ruling. In 2016, we hope to see bigoted attempts to undermine marriage equality nullified and state laws to provide equal workplace and marketplace protections for Alabama gays and lesbians put on the books.

VETERANS’ HEALTH: The saga of shoddy treatment for patients at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System in Montgomery and Tuskegee continues, with too little progress coming too slowly. The opening of the new Chantilly Parkway Veterans Administration clinic with some cutting-edge medical services is one bright improvement among otherwise still inadequate reforms. U.S. Rep. Martha Roby, R-Montgomery, should keep pushing next year for legislation to allow federal VA officials to take control of troubled medical facilities such as CAVHCS.

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