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Alabama’s home rule dilemma – Lagniappe Mobile

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Last week, the Club for Growth put out scorecards measuring the Alabama Legislature on two metrics: attendance and a grade on members’ voting records for what it deemed to be pro-growth legislation.

It is one of several ways the organization has exerted its influence over Alabama politics. Many are probably aware of its entree into congressional and U.S. Senate elections over the past few years.

As it turned out, Alabama’s legislative branch, based on Club for Growth’s standards, was not as conservative as one might think. That is, if you base “conservatism” on what is defined as pro-growth policies, i.e., limited regulations and anti-taxation.

The average Republican score in the Alabama House was 15 percent. The average Democrat score was 0 percent.

The Senate was a little higher with an average Republican score of 21 percent and an average Democrat score of 6 percent.

The news was not received all that well by legislators, few of whom were willing to talk on the record. However, one mentioned he would have had to have his finger glued to the “nay” button to do well on this scorecard.

Among the criteria was what Club for Growth called a “massive ad valorem tax scheme.”

The way the club described that matter was it would allow for “a potential 600 percent tax increase on property owners in Montgomery County for the county’s school tax district.”

Why is the entire Alabama Legislature being graded on a Montgomery County tax referendum?

Under the Alabama Constitution of 1901, if local officials want to raise taxes, they must do it through the Alabama Legislature.

Local governments’ powers are limited in Alabama, and to expand them, it often takes an act of the Alabama Legislature through a constitutional amendment or local legislation.

In this particular instance, the Montgomery County tax referendum was a local bill, and most lawmakers outside of Montgomery County, as a courtesy, did not vote on the legislation.

However, they were penalized under the Club for Growth grading scheme, which viewed an abstention as allowing a massive increase in taxes.

There were “flaws” in the grading system — but if the Alabama Legislature does not want to be responsible for Montgomery County tax hikes, perhaps it is time to consider a decoupling of the Legislature and local governments.

Under this system, all 140 members have skin in the game on local decisions regardless of courtesy or traditions.

This debate has raged for decades: Should locals be allowed to make decisions for what suits their interests without having to get permission from the distinguished and august body known as the Alabama Legislature?

Maybe.

You cannot have unlimited home rule. Could you imagine 67 counties operating like 67 states? What if one county wanted to legalize recreational marijuana?

What if one or two counties wanted to legalize gaming? Oh yeah, wait. That might explain the situation we are in today with gambling.

In 2015, Birmingham attempted to institute its own minimum wage of $10.10 an hour. It didn’t stick. A federal court blocked it.

What if local governments were allowed to set their own minimum wage? What if Wilcox County had a $17-an-hour minimum wage? Hell, why not $100 an hour? One of the poorest counties in America could solve all of their economic woes, right?

And, of course, there are the aforementioned property taxes.

On the one hand, you can’t have the state government dictating everything down to zoning within city limits. However, you can’t have a lawless situation like Russell County’s Phenix City in the mid-20th century, where prostitution and gambling were not considered to be illegal, or where at least law enforcement looked the other way while vice was on display.

The doctrine of limited home rule is what we strive for in Alabama. You want to maintain some consistency within the state while recognizing what works for Mobile may not work for Monroeville.

However, the reality is the Alabama Legislature, while authorizing a vote of the people to raise taxes on themselves, is still on the hook for allowing that to happen.

Whether or not there is merit to the proposal or not, under the Alabama Constitution of 1901, the entire Legislature bears some responsibility. For that reason, it is fair game.

This could be the playbook for home rule advocates.

If you don’t like the idea of having to ask the Alabama Legislature to grant permission for whatever ordinance you want your local government to adopt, make the entire Legislature accountable — even if they abstained under so-called courtesies and traditions of the chambers.

“You allowed a 600 percent tax increase?”

“Well, it was just Montgomery County, and we should let them decide.”

If this is so, then let the county commissions make that call. It should still be on the ballot, of course. You have two checks on the process — the local legislative branch (city councils, county commissions) and a vote of the public.

Is it the best use of the Alabama Legislature’s time to grant permissions on how local governments finance their education systems?

If it is, then that comes with accountability — and expect for groups like the Club for Growth, the National Rifle Association and the Alabama Policy Institute to judge accordingly, and possibly give a primary or general election opponent an easy talking point.

 



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