Once again, voters see firsthand the
problems the 1901 Constitution creates
The Birmingham News
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Welcome to the end of your ballot, that part filled with obscure proposed constitutional amendments few voters have even heard about, much less studied enough to know whether to approve them.

Don't mistake that criticism for condescension. If it weren't part of our job, we'd be just as befuddled (some would argue we still are).

Voters aren't to blame. Blame the 1901 Constitution of Alabama. There are six statewide amendments on Tuesday's ballot, but only one affects voters statewide. The other five concern voters only in Shelby, Blount and Russell counties, and the cities of Madison and Tuskegee.

Why, pray tell, should voters anywhere else even care about, much less be forced to vote on, those amendments? Because the constitution goofily forces a statewide vote on local proposed amendments if the Legislature doesn't pass them unanimously with at least three-fifths of the members voting. Also, a majority of the Local Constitutional Amendment Commission (the governor, presiding officer of the Senate, attorney general, secretary of state and speaker of the House) must approve them.

Thankfully, 29 local amendments will be voted on only in the affected counties, including one each in Jefferson and Shelby.

Here are our recommendations:

STATEWIDE:

Amendment 1: This isn't an easy call. Voter approval would expand the cap on the education rainy-day fund from $248 million to 6.5 percent of the previous year's budget ($437 million this year) and create a General Fund rainy-day fund of 10 percent of the yearly budget for state agencies ($183 million this year). The money would come from the $3 billion Alabama Trust Fund, which collects royalties paid to the state by companies pumping natural gas offshore.

The rainy-day funds would help state government through the tough economic times that have made tax collections sag. Already, education officials are predicting proration, or mandated spending cuts, of more than $300 million in this year's education budget. General Fund agencies also could face cuts without a rainy-day fund coming to the rescue.

Opponents rightly point out that reducing the Alabama Trust Fund by hundreds of millions of dollars reduces earnings from interest and capital gains. That reduces the amount the Alabama Trust Fund generates every year for the General Fund budget, cities and counties, and the Forever Wild land trust. The money borrowed is paid back to the Alabama Trust Fund with no interest. And for the General Fund rainy-day fund, 25 percent of the total amount borrowed will go into a capital improvement fund for counties and cities and not be repaid.

The alternative, though, is a brutal year of cuts. That could severely wound some of the state's most successful school programs, such as the Alabama Reading Initiative, the Math, Science and Technology Initiative and prekindergarten. They could drive up tuition at the state's public colleges and universities. And state agencies could be forced to slash services to the most needy.

The need for the rainy-day funds outweighs concerns. Vote "yes" on Amendment 1.

Amendments 2 through 6. These are strictly local issues: Amendment 2 would create a judicial commission for Shelby County that would fill vacancies in district and circuit courts; Amendment 3 would equalize the ad valorem tax for public schools in the city of Madison; Amendment 4 would prevent any city not in Blount County to annex any part of the county without voter approval; Amendment 5 would allow the Legislature to regulate and raise court costs in Russell County; and Amendment 6 would provide for the election of two people to Tuskegee's utilities board.

Unless you live in these counties and cities, don't vote on Amendments 2 through 6.

For our readers in Shelby County, a judicial commission similar to Jefferson County's highly successful model makes good sense. We recommend a "yes" vote on Amendment 2. The Blount County amendment requiring a countywide vote on an attempted annexation of any part of Blount County by a city not completely inside the county is way over the top. We recommend a "no" vote on Amendment 4.

JEFFERSON COUNTY:

This amendment would make sure tenants are responsible for paying sewer bills. Property owners and landlords shouldn't be held responsible when a tenant skips out without paying. We recommend a "yes" vote.

SHELBY COUNTY:

This amendment would reorganize the county Board of Equalization, with the Shelby County Commission instead of the governor appointing new members. The commission is in a better position to make timely appointments. Shelby Countians should vote "yes."

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