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Sail On, Good Ship of State

Posted onMedia Contact
1999-10-05William Nunnelley, phone (205) 726-2800, e-mail wanunnel@samford.edu

Speech for Birmingham Kiwanis Club
Thomas E. Corts, Samford University
October 5, 1999

 

Our institutions are in danger of being destroyed by unloving critics or uncritical lovers, John Gardner once said. To be a loving critic, one is compelled to admit that Alabama has so many positive attributes, yet, sadly, this great state is in total disrepair. Oh, it manages to keep going day-to-day and we have some successes like the Mercedes plant and the new Honda Plant in Lincoln. But systems do not work, or do not work well enough. Our potential is poorly spent. Our true destiny is not reached. Much as we love it, the Good Ship of State is afloat, moving, but hardly plowing the waters.

Consider the report of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. With funds from the Pew Charitable Trusts, a task force dialogued with experts in state government to rank state government performance on the basis of five criteria. It tested them in Ohio, Kansas, Oregon and Florida. After fine tuning and adjusting, questionnaires went to every state in 1998, followed by 1,000 interviews with state personnel, scholars and practitioners, evaluating each state. In Financial Management, Alabama was among the poorest with a D+. In Capital Management, Alabama was the very worst, the only state to receive a D-. In Human Resources, Alabama rated C-, its highest rating, but only six states scored lower. In "Managing for Results," including performance-based measures, effectiveness, value for dollars spent and results, Alabama was the only state to score F. In Information Technology, Alabama, with two other states, scored a D. Clearly, compared to all other states, Alabama fails. This objective judgment is that we have the worst state government of any of the 50 states – even though we do not pay the lowest average salary to state employees, nor do we have the lowest number of state employees relative to the population.

I read the survey and could not poke holes in it. No one takes pride in being 50th out of 50. If this state were our business -- and if it is not, then whose is it? -- wouldn't we demand that Alabama be turned around and fast?

Without looking for people to blame, consider the Alabama Constitution, the fundamental document that shapes state government. It is estimated to be 220,000 words, about two and a half times as long as any other State's constitution. Why? Alabama's Constitution has grown primarily attempting to cope with unworkable restrictions imposed by the 1901 document on state and local governments. The result is a Constitution that is dangerously unfair because it is almost incomprehensible, and barely workable.

By 1901, there had already been five previous versions of the Constitution -- the original in 1819, in 1861, 1865, 1868, and 1875. In each era, Alabamians have done the sensible thing and updated their Constitution. A hundred years ago, still reeling from the effects of the Civil War, the writers of the 1901 version chose to place very stringent limitations on state government, to deny independence to local governments, and to limit the Legislature's ability to pass local laws. So, they put everyone in a straitjacket, far too confining as it turns out for this modern age. Making the best of an outdated Constitution, attempts have been made again and again to get around a too-restrictive Constitution by changes or amendments. In some cases the courts have struck down sections and we never coordinated what was left over.

We have changed the Constitution drastically by amendments, 660 of them, more than any other State constitution. We added 44 amendments last year alone! In fact, the amendments are about twice the size of the Constitution: "the tail wagging the dog," we have a set of amendments with a Constitution attached.

The practice has been to go around those limits, rather than redefine them. For example, (1) the Constitution of 1901 restricted local borrowing and prohibited state debt except in time of war. The limits are still in the document, but more than a hundred amendments create specific exceptions – absolutely essential so that governments can borrow. (2) The Constitution sets strict limits on property taxes.

After 99 years, those limits remain in print but, over 180 amendments authorize property taxes for city, county and school purposes. (3) The Constitution originally limited the subjects on which local acts could be adopted and the procedures to be used. While those limitations are still on the books, 118 amendments detour around those confines. (4) In 1901 the Constitution prohibited local governments from involvement with private enterprise. That language is still there, but 47 times in succeeding years, amendments have steered around those restrictions to allow cooperation for economic development of cities and counties.  (5) The Constitution originally prohibited the Legislature from actions related to local court costs and the compensation of elected officials. 

Today, 62 counties are exempt from one or both of those limitations through local amendments. Any one can see that local city and county government by state constitutional amendment is poor government. It is increasingly difficult even to know the status of the law in a particular county, because the Constitution may say one thing, yet that entire section can be abrogated for one county by some obscure local amendment. The confusion is even greater because amendments are numbered sequentially and not categorized in any way within the Constitution. It is a maze, but counties have so little authority, legislators end up making county and city decisions, which have to be ratified by voters state-wide.

Now, strangely, amendments providing approval after the fact are becoming more common. For example, an Amendment in 1994 sought to validate a 1982 local act in one particular county, as well as actions taken and obligations incurred in the 12 years afterward. The limits contained in a Constitution might as well be written in sand, if they have no check on governmental action before it occurs.

Our Constitution was probably not that good in 1901 and is totally inappropriate for 2001. No one would purposefully design a Constitution so convoluted as ours now is. This is not a Republican/Democrat issue. This is not a racial issue. This is not union versus non-union folks.  It is not city dweller against the farmer. This is a job to be done by Alabamians for Alabamians.

Layer upon layer of barnacles encrusted to the hull of Alabama's Good Ship of State have her listing, ineffective, able to use only a fraction of her power capacity. We need to bring her into drydock, scrape the hull, recommission her, and send her out to plow the seas in the front lines of the fleet.

I wonder if we have the courage to try something that has never before been tried in the history of this Republic. Could a group of outstanding citizens form a task force, and procure some major foundation grant (so it is not "beholden" to government or people of ulterior influence)? With the help of the best experts in the world the task force could do what no other state has done: re-invent state government, correcting those problems that have plagued us and sending the strongest possible signal that Alabama plans to prosper and to lead, not just survive and follow, 50th behind the leader.

A Constitution is for all the people, and wide participation must be part of the process. But if we took the time to create understanding among our citizens, what has been a weakness could become a strength. 

The world would be mightily impressed by a state taking thoughtful, decisive action to cure its obvious weakness. But more than image, Alabama citizens will have a Constitution that serves them and allows state, county and city elected officials to do their jobs responsibly, with full accountability and integrity. 

The Constitution is the handle that we can and should get hold of. The dawn of a new millennium is a good time to fix what is broken, if the Good Ship of State is to sail on. Proper stewardship of Alabama, if we are to be faithful in our time, demands that we reject the cynics, that we seize this moment to transform Alabama.

 

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