Local voters should decide issues
By By Rep. Ronald Grantland, Guest Columnist
There are many significant stories from the recent historic election. They focus on winning and losing candidates, local and national races, and some are even focusing on the next election. Are we entering the era of the permanent campaign? Certainly let’s hope not.
Yet there is one unique Alabama campaign story that gets less attention and ink than most others-the fate of the constitutional amendments at the end of the ballot.
There was only one statewide amendment on the ballot, and it passed with a healthy margin. Amendment 1 expands the Rainy Day Fund for education and establishes a similar fund for non-education services provided by the state like prisons and health care.
We are in tough economic times, and although Alabama is better situated than many other states, there are terrible impacts looming for areas that should never suffer. Alabama education is largely paid for by state sales and income taxes that are solely earmarked for schools. The problem with funding education in this manner is that when there is a downturn, unemployment goes up, purchasing goes down, and revenue for schools drops off a cliff.
Amendment 1 expands the credit line for education from the Alabama Trust Fund, the state oil and gas savings account. In times of revenue shortfalls, the state can now borrow up to 6.5 percent of the year’s budget from the fund. It’s borrowed to prevent proration, the ugly process of slashing budgets in the middle of a school year. The money has to be paid back within six years.
Yet what about the other five amendments on the ballot? They were all local issues, and many folks were left wondering why they were voting on it at all. It should have all of us asking questions about why we vote on so many local issues on a statewide basis.
One of the amendments was a property tax question for Limestone County, a proposed increase to fund Madison City Schools.
The amendment was resoundingly defeated in Limestone County, where 61 percent of residents voted no. However, the amendment passed statewide by a very slim margin, an approval of just over 8,700 votes out of 1.1 million cast statewide. Property taxes are going up in Limestone County thanks to voters who do not live there.
Local property taxes are just that: local. It makes perfect sense that it should be in the hands of local voters. Yet voters from all across the state weighed in, and voted differently than local homeowners.
The reason for amendments like the Limestone issue is because of our state constitution. Without getting into the issues about what should replace the constitution or how it could be reformed, no one can say that it is a wise idea for folks in Jefferson County to vote on a judicial commission in Shelby County, or that a person in Mobile should weigh in on creating a utilities board in Tuskegee. But that is what happened under our state constitution during this election, and it is not the best way to decide important local issues.
It makes sense to vote statewide on things like the Rainy Day Fund, and to leave things like court costs in Russell County to Russell County voters. We live in a democracy, and that means we should entrust local decisions to local voters.
That is something we should all be able to agree on.