News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion


Supreme Court calls a halt to lousy way to spend funds

Nobody denies that many of the projects for which state legislators have used pork-barrel money are worthwhile. But there are right ways and wrong ways to make decisions about spending public money.

The Alabama Supreme Court said Friday that lawmakers have been going about it the wrong way. The court ruled 7-0 that community service grants (the polite name for pork) infringe on the government's separation of powers.

Specifically, the court said the Legislature cannot direct the spending of this money without the executive branch (headed by the governor) being involved. Once the Legislature appropriates the money, "its role ends and it is for the executive branch to make the discretionary decisions as to how appropriated funds shall be expended," the court said.

So, all of a sudden, legislators can't spend $12.8 million they had set aside for pork grants during fiscal 2006.

In fiscal 2005, which ended Friday, each House member got at least $46,800 and each senator at least $140,400 to distribute to education projects they chose in their districts. Legislators would decide which projects would get the money — typically such things as computers, library books, and uniforms for sports, band and cheerleading.

Before a check was issued, a legislative committee would review the projects to make sure they served an educational purpose. The state comptroller would issue the checks — sending them not to the intended recipients but to the legislators, who would pass them out.

The system allowed too much control of the money by individual lawmakers, who were essentially free to reward friends, punish enemies and stage-manage their delivery of the money. There was no guarantee that the most critical needs got served first. And timely delivery of the money depended on the whims of the legislators.

We know of at least one case, some years ago, when a legislator seeking re-election was accused of holding onto his checks for months until the election got closer, presumably in hopes that voters would remember his generosity better on Election Day.

The Supreme Court has now made it necessary for legislators to replace that rotten system.

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