Warm Southern Breeze

"… there is no such thing as nothing."

Alabama’s inept governor & legislature are clueless on how to remedy problems. And in other news…

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Monday, March 12, 2012

English: Great Seal of The State of AlabamaFace it folks, Alabama MUST change its tax policy and law – something about which Alabamians have been warned for quite some time. It’s not as if we’ve never heard the idea or notion, for indeed, Alabama’s income tax assesses a heavier levy upon the poor than the wealthy, and many large corporate timberland-owners (Georgia Pacific, Weyerhauser, International Paper, Gulf States Paper, et al) pay little or nothing on their vast holdings by comparison to others.

As the issue of a potential shut-down of state services (the forensics lab in Huntsville) relates to criminal prosecution, I could imagine that a sharp attorney could move for dismissal of charges based upon delay of prosecution – which is a federal Constitutional issue – because the Sixth Amendment guarantees the accused the right to a speedy trial, among other aspects of prosecution.

And that issue – a violation of the Sixth Amendment – is one reason why I can imagine former UAH professor Amy Bishop – accused of murdering her colleagues – may have a federal case on her side, because the state of Alabama has virtually shut down all funding of public defense and defenders.

Just to remind the readers, the Sixth Amendment reads: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

And for those readers whom, for one reason or another, are not up to speed on the wranglings of Alabama politics, India Lynch vs. State of Alabama – the federal case in which Alabama’s tax policies were on trial – ended in October 2011, with a 854-page ruling in the state’s favor by His Honor, Judge Lynwood Smith in which existing tax structures & organization were found not to be unconstitutional. That story may be found here.

The front (western) elevation of the Alabama S...

Alabama State Capitol Building, Montgomery, AL

The background: Alabama’s state income tax kicks in for families that earn as little a $4,600. Mississippi starts at over $19,000. Alabamians with incomes under $13,000 pay 10.9 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes, while those who make over $229,000 pay just 4.1 percent. Alabama relies heavily on state sales tax, which runs as high as 11 percent and applies even to groceries and infant formula.

A primary reason Alabama’s poor pay so much is that large timber companies and megafarms pay so little. The state allows big landowners to value their land using ”current use” rules, which significantly underestimate its value. Then individuals are allowed to fully deduct the federal income taxes they pay from their state taxes, something few states allow, which is a boon for those in the top income brackets.

So yeah.

We’re very fouled up here in the heart of Dixie.

And while the GOP controls the Governor’s Office, State House & Senate and most all high-level state offices, there are no signs of progress toward equity or justice.

But read on to learn why…

Potential cuts for state forensics: ‘It’s going to impact everybody’s lives’

Published: Saturday, March 10, 2012, 10:55 AM

Marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines.

The evidence spans 18,000 different cases. And maybe by 2013, Lonnie Ginsberg hopes, the state will process most everything on those 12 shelves.

Maybe.

This is the uncertain world Ginsberg oversees in cash-strapped Alabama. The director of the Huntsville lab on Arcadia Circle, Ginsberg manages a complex he describes as overworked and understaffed – which is why some drugs confiscated by law enforcement may sit on a shelf for a year before being analyzed.

Given that scenario, Ginsberg is eager to talk about the state’s budget crunch, which has already seen the closure of three of the state’s seven forensic labs. Ginsberg fears Huntsville’s lab may be next.

“My fight is to keep this place open,” Ginsberg said. “Huntsville, Madison County being one of the quickest growing areas of the state, you’re really causing some problems if you decide to close this facility.”

The facility in the state’s second largest metro area provides death investigation service for 22 north Alabama counties. If there is a mystery on the cause of death in those counties – from Lamar to Lauderdale, from Jackson to Cleburne – the body comes to the Huntsville lab for autopsy.

If a toxicology report is necessary as part of the autopsy, that report is done in the Birmingham office. That will inevitably slow the signing of a death certificate by a doctor because the Birmingham office is about 1,500 toxicology cases behind.

Delaying the death certificate will mean delaying payment of life insurance.

“A lot of our autopsy results and death certificates are not issued until the toxicology results get back because the doctor is not going to speculate (on the cause of death),” Ginsberg said. “They are waiting on lab results. Until they sign off on cause of death, life insurance companies just aren’t going to pay. That’s the trickle-down effect right now.

“It’s going to impact everybody’s lives. They just don’t realize how much.”

The crux of Ginsberg’s concern comes over the hotly contested debate over the state’s 2013 budget. The budget proposed by Gov. Robert Bentley – which calls for tapping into reserves for the Education Trust Fund to bolster the sagging General Fund budget – includes level funding for the state forensics labs but has been ridiculed by state Legislators.

Ginsberg said he has talked with Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, about the need for level funding and “he doesn’t think that’s going to happen,” Ginsberg said.

The state forensics department has gone from cutting the fat, Ginsberg said, to cutting into the bone even before possible cuts for 2013. Since 2007, the state forensics budget has dropped 35 percent to $9.5 million in 2011, according to Ginsberg.

“If they don’t follow the governor’s recommendation (for the 2013 budget), there is going to be a dramatic impact to the citizens of this state,” Ginsberg said. “They don’t realize what’s coming. Their only option is borrowing into this Education Trust Fund.”

Indeed, lawmakers have spoken out harshly against Bentley’s plan and Ginsberg said he expected Bentley to call a special session to hammer out the budget issues. Legislators have vowed deeper cuts in an effort to make the budget work without raising taxes.

Ginsberg, however, looks around the Huntsville lab and wonders where more cuts could possibly be made.

Because of prior cuts, the Huntsville lab no longer assists police agencies in processing crime scenes. Police officers may spend hours waiting to inventory evidence to be processed at the lab as the workforce has shrunk from 223 in 2007 to 196, Ginsberg said.

Forensics no longer transports bodies for autopsies, leaving that duty to county coroners.

And because of evolving technology in law enforcement – such as duplicating DNA samples to create a sample large enough to make an identification – police are more conscious about getting forensics involved in cases.

“Police agencies utilize forensics more than they ever have because they know we can really help them,” Ginsberg said. “If anything is left behind at a scene, it’s coming here.”

Ultimately, the budget crunch could result in an innocent person sitting in jail while the evidence that could clear them waits in a backlog at a forensics lab.

“Everybody thinks DNA puts the bad guys away,” Ginsberg said. “But DNA also exonerates a lot of people. From a real practical standpoint, could there be somebody in Madison County sitting in jail accused of sexual assault that didn’t do it?

“The only way we’re going to know he didn’t do it is we’ve got to wait on that DNA work to come back. That’s powerful and I don’t think enough people realize it. We exonerate a lot of people that police think are the perpetrator and they weren’t.”

Follow me on Twitter @paul_gattis or email me at paul.gattis@htimes.com.

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This article may be found here: http://blog.al.com/breaking/2012/03/potential_cuts_for_state_foren.html

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