Earmarking creates need for new state constitution
Following is the eighth in a series of columns by members of the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform.
By Dr. Kenneth R. Johnson
Dead men have, at times and through dirty politics, controlled elections in Alabama, Chicago, and other places. Dead men also control the budget-making and the expenditure of state money in Alabama through a practice known as earmarking.
Earmarking is the practice of setting certain revenue aside for the exclusive use of a particular purpose. The Alabama income tax revenue is earmarked for the exclusive use of education. The gasoline tax is earmarked for highway and bridge construction and maintenance. Other revenue is set aside for the protection of wildlife.
Nothing is inherently wrong with the practice of putting money aside to be used exclusively for a specific purpose. Earmarking has been an established practice for a long time. Every state in the Union and probably every city and county government does it. In Alabama, most of the earmarking of state revenue has been done through amendments to the constitution.
The people of Alabama seem to prefer extremes. We have the longest constitution of any state in the Union and probably in the world — approximately 575 pages long. The Alabama practice of earmarking follows this extreme with approximately 85% of all revenue going directly into earmarked funds. No other state comes close to this high percentage. Nevada, next highest, earmarks about 65% of its revenue. The national average for earmarking is slightly less than 22%.
How did this situation come about?
In most cases, the people simply wanted to ensure that some very important government services were reasonably well financed and not ignored by insensitive politicians. In Alabama there seems to be an additional concern. Alabamians seemed to see earmarking as a way of guaranteeing wise use of state money and simply did not trust the legislature to make good and honest decisions regarding expenditure of public funds.
Earmarking of public funds may well be a good thing when done on a relatively small scale. But, when 85% of the total state budget is earmarked, the whole financial structure of state government is in jeopardy.
Some government services are operating under financial laws passed more than 75 years ago. Under such conditions, state financial planning, appropriations, and expenditures are out of balance. (What were wages in 1930? Could you live on that today?)
Obviously the present earmarking system in Alabama does not work well. Programs receiving earmarked money, such as education through the Educational Trust Fund, often have more money than is actually necessary, while other programs are horribly under-funded. This is exactly the condition existing today, and it has existed numerous times in the past 100 years. State money cannot be shifted from the over-funded areas to the under-funded areas and, as a result, government financing is often wasteful and services inadequate.
It is illegal for the governor and legislators to take earmarked money such as that in the Educational Trust Fund and use it for non-education purposes. To get around this restrictive situation, governors have often proposed that money earmarked for education be spent for non-education purposes. Numerous projects were labeled education programs and financed out the Educational Trust Fund.
Many of these projects have been discontinued, but the effort to use earmarked money for other purposes goes on. This year Gov. Bob Riley has proposed that $23 million of earmarked money be used for a Children's Health Insurance Program, about $9 million for the Department of Public Health, and about $19 million for Mental Health. These are worthy projects, but under the existing earmarking system, they cannot be adequately funded.
Taking money from earmarked programs for other purposes is basically illegal. At best, it is a temporary fix. Legislators and the governor should seek a long-term solution to this recurring budget problem.
Their efforts and their leadership should be directed toward adopting a new constitution and a permanent correction of the problems resulting from earmarking.
Dr. Kenneth R. Johnson is professor emeritus of history at the University of North Alabama.