News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion
SUNDAY, MAY 15, 2005


Alabama imposes control over local governments

Following is the tenth in a series of columns by members of the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform.

By W.S. Dixon and Michael Varchetta

The original 1901 Constitution of the state of Alabama consists of 18 articles containing 287 sections. It has been amended 753 times and still does not fit the definition of a true constitution.

This constitution is the basic law on which the state is founded. It does contain the elements of government. It does set out the powers of the state. It does lay out the functions of the state. But it contains as much law that is statutory in nature as it contains basic law. It contributes to inefficient government. Worst of all it makes Alabama government cost more than it should.

In the United States there are approximately 120,000 units of government. One of these is federal, 50 of these are states, and the rest are local governmental units. A wide variance of opinion exists as to the proper distribution of functions between the states and the several areas of local government. To a degree, the distribution of functions depends on the circumstances of the time. In Alabama in 1901, apparently the framers of the constitution felt that circumstances dictated that the state should control almost all of the functions of local government and dole them out as circumstances directed; they were afraid so-called "home rule" would dilute the Legislature's control.

Many if not most of the amendments to the original, basic constitution are concerned with local, i.e., county or municipal, actions. Some expand the functions that can be undertaken by these governments, others restrict their functions. Of the first 100 amendments, 56 of them deal with local government. Much of this stems from the perceived need to control both the population and the finances of the state. Most of the 56 amendments mentioned above are concerned with taxation by the local governments. Many later amendments deal with individual municipalities or counties and give them permission to perform governmental functions that are strictly of local concern.

While it is true that counties and local governments are extensions of the state that carry out functions the central government believes ought to be performed, other states have dealt with this by laying out general functions that can be performed by all local governments and providing that any additional functions can be authorized by enacting enabling laws. In Alabama the constitution must be amended to accomplish most of these functions. To amend the constitution requires a vote of the people of the entire state even when the function to be performed or allowed will affect only one county or one community. The cost of doing this is not inconsiderable. To be blunt, it is costing Alabama an arm and a leg to do what other states do for little or nothing.

A cost of this system that is frequently overlooked is that rapid action by a county or community is frustrated by this system. Delaying needed action almost inevitably raises the cost of taking the action. In some cases, allowing the activity that needs to be addressed to continue can have costs beyond simple financial costs and can affect the health of the people of the area.

Another cost of this system is in the opportunity it provides for manipulation for private or partisan political gain. Representatives, both public and private, of all areas of the state have the opportunity to influence the outcome unless their particular requirements are met.

Perhaps the greatest cost of all, however, is to the reputation of the state of Alabama. When businesses are looking for a place to locate their establishment and they find that it takes a constitutional amendment to ensure that the local area can provide the resources needed by their establishment, they are forced to reconsider. And Alabama suffers.

W.S. Dixon is a member of the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform. He is retired from Lockheed and lives in Florence. Michael Varchetta is President of ACCR at UAH.

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