Alabama Forward: Five points for state reform

Published 1:36 pm Wednesday, April 23, 2003

By Staff
Jonathan McElvy
BNI News Service
(Editor's Note: This is the third story in a series addressing Alabama's fiscal crisis and how government officials are tightening the state's financial belt through massive and immediate agency cuts. The series also details efforts to rewrite the state's 1901 Constitution and how officials hope to offset a $500 million shortfall in revenues.)
The adjectives sound like descriptors for a Middle Eastern rogue regime: sordid, convoluted, incoherent, laughable and flawed.
Yet those are the way a noted educator and Alabama's own governor view the document that dictates state law.
Behind only former Secretary of State Jim Bennett, Thomson has become possibly the most knowledgeable source on the constitution.
We need to "have a cleaner version of what is now a pretty messy, convoluted and incoherent document," he said.
Those hardly are kind words about the basis of law for Alabamians, and they fit well with the adjectives Gov. Bob Riley uses when talking about the constitution.
When Riley ran for governor last year, he distributed a booklet called "A Plan for Change." After a chapter pledging to add more accountability to state government, Riley delved into what he considered the second most pressing need in Alabama.
Upon taking office in January, Riley wasted no time addressing the constitutional crisis in Alabama. He appointed a "Citizens' Constitution Commission" in early February and gave them 120 days to make recommendations on changes that could streamline state government procedures.
Of the endless number of changes possible for Alabama's constitution, Riley asked the commission to study five specific areas: home rule, earmarking, a line-item veto for the governor, a supermajority requirement to pass tax bills and recompilation of the constitution.
Home Rule
In Alabama's system of government - thanks solely to the restrictive language of the constitution - local governments have little control over decisions that affect only their counties.
For instance, Limestone County apparently had a problem with the disposal of dead farm animals. That didn't mean Limestone County Commissioners could address the problem at the regularly scheduled meeting, though. The issue needed the Alabama Legislature's help, and eventually, a constitutional amendment.
That's why Amendment 482 of the Alabama Constitution grants Limestone County the power to dispose of dead farm animals and to excavate human graves.
That's what Riley dubs "laughable."
There's more to the home rule dilemma than dead farm animals, though.
If local decisions were taken out of the hands of Alabama legislators, citizens would have more control over issues that directly affect them.
The process of setting aside state revenues for specific projects n also known as earmarking -- can be as simple or complex as one chooses to make it.
In simple terms, Alabama specifies the use of revenue more than any other state in the union. While all other 49 states earmark an average of 22 cents for every dollar of revenue, Alabama earmarks a whopping 92 cents on the dollar. That means our government has the flexibility to spend only 8 percent of the revenue it takes in – all other revenue is immediately appropriated to a specific agency once it is collected.
Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, is considered the state's most powerful lobbyist. He has problems with Riley's plan to end earmarking. For education leaders, unearmarking tax dollars could lead to less revenue for education.
Riley has pledged to take nothing from education funding, and in fact, the governor has said he's only interested in unearmarking new revenue the state will gain - possibly through tax increases.
Line-Item Veto
Accountability isn't just a word that applies to earmarking. One of the reforms Riley wants to make with the state constitution is the inability of a governor to make line-by-line changes to legislation.
If the Alabama House and Senate pass a bill - such as an education budget - Alabama's governor has little say-so in the final piece of legislation.
In fact, the governor has only three options: He can sign the bill, veto the bill or pocket veto the bill. The first two options are understandable. The third option - a pocket veto - refers to the governor's ability to let a bill sit on his desk until the end of the session. If that happens, that piece of legislation is dead.
The line-item veto process is simple. If allowed, the governor would be able to cross out specific "lines" of the legislation without killing the entire piece.
For Riley, it's about accountability.
Supermajority Requirement to Pass Tax Bills
In Alabama, tax-paying citizens spend almost 40 percent of their income on taxes -- both on the state and federal level, according to Riley.
As part of a series of changes to the state constitution, Riley said it's too easy for the state legislature to pass a new tax on the people.
Currently only 51 percent of legislators have to pass a tax before it is levied on the public.
To do that, the governor plans to ask the legislature to pass a super-majority amendment to the constitution that increases the number of legislative votes it will take to pass a new tax. As opposed to 51 percent -- or a simple majority -- Riley believes three-fifths of the legislature should approve the tax.
If there is one issue that Thomson believes can be put on the back burner, this is it.
The final aspect to Riley's constitution reform plan focuses on the inordinate amount of useless language floating in the document.
Our commission looked at how we could recompile it so there still might be 300,000 words but at least the dead language would be gone."
To Bryars, there's little controversy over this issue.
That may not be the case, according to Thomson.