Last week, the county’s hopes for righting its finances were dead. Today they’re alive. Tomorrow, who knows?
One of the disadvantages of a deadline is that it leaves you writing to someone across a gap in time. Things happen. Things change. By the time you read this, the world is a different place than the one in which I write, and you might know how this story ends before the message gets there. It’s a kind of time travel. But what’s interesting from this end of things, future-dweller, is how Jefferson County’s hopes almost ended, but didn’t.
Jefferson County has been struggling to replace about $60 million in occupational tax revenue it lost after nearly two decades of bungling by the Alabama Legislature. I won’t bother to recount that struggle. The important facts are these: Even by reducing some departments’ staff by more than half, the county commission hasn’t been able to make up the deficit in its general fund budget. The “full faith and credit” with which it backs its general obligation debt is worthless without the backing of the legislature, which holds most power in Alabama. And that unbalance of power has left a lot of banks, which extend credit to cities and counties throughout the state, wondering whether any of those municipal governments’ full faith and credit was ever worth anything at all.
In the legislature, there were two ways to fix the problem: Either by a so-called local bill, which only the county’s legislators agree upon, or by a general bill, which the entire state’s lawmakers must approve.
The trouble with local legislation is that the legislature’s rules don’t abide by the basic concept of democracy. Either four county representatives in the Alabama House or one senator can contest a local bill and kill it. The result is minority-rule in the extreme, and the county has run into those obstacles in both houses of the legislature. Last year, Sen. Scott Beason killed a bill which would have given the county the authority to reinstate the occupational tax. This year, similar bills have died in the local House committee.
So a new plan was put into action. A couple of lawmakers who care more about fixing problems than creating them sponsored a general bill to give the county commission the tax power it needs to right itself.
In the House, Rep. Jack Williams sponsored the Alabama Financially Distressed Counties Act. Sen. Jabo Waggoner sponsored an identical bill in the Senate. Williams got his bill through the County and Municipal Government Committee, and then all hell broke loose.
After the bill passed the committee, Birmingham News reporter David White asked Williams whether it included exemptions for professionals, such as lawyers and doctors.
Back when the original occupational tax was in place, this was a major criticism. Because the tax piggybacked on a bill for business and professional license fees, it exempted professionals already paying those fees, even though, proportionately, many did not pay as much tax as the secretaries and assistants working for them.
Williams told White the exemptions were still in the bill, but he was wrong. The latest draft of the bill did not include the exemptions, and when Williams realized that, he thought he’d been hoodwinked by the county commission. Commission President David Carrington said he thought Williams already understood the exemptions were not included.
For Williams, the incident exposed an embarrassing fact about how legislation becomes law. Most lawmakers don’t write the bills they sponsor. This is probably for the best, since many are not lawyers and could do more harm than good if they did pen the bills themselves. What’s more, many lawmakers don’t read the bills, either. Instead, they trust the lobbyists and interested parties who shop legislation to them. This becomes a frustrating and embarrassing problem when pesky reporters ask them about the legislation or when the bills become law and have all sorts of unintended and irritating effects, as Alabama’s immigration law, HB56, had last year.
It might seems silly from the outside looking in, but in a system run by lobbyists and politicians, trust is essential. Williams said the incident was the most embarrassing moment of his political career. The county had lost his trust. Even after speaking with the commission president, Williams said he thought the bill had no chance of passing into law in the regular session. It was dead, he said.
But not quite.
Sen. Waggoner’s version of the bill was still alive in the Senate. After a week of damage control and fence-mending, Waggoner replaced his bill with a substitute, pushed it through committee and passed it through the Senate. And it hadn’t even been on the Senate calendar earlier in the week.
(Advocates of term-limits bemoan lawmakers who move into office and stay there for life. Seniority, to them, is a problem, not a solution. But at times like this, seniority and experience gets things done.)
Waggoner’s substitute bill solves the fairness problem. It allows professionals to deduct their professional license fees from their occupational taxes. As long as the fees are less than the tax, everyone will pay the same rate.
While the bill is a statewide bill it only applies to counties which have filed for and been admitted by the courts into Chapter 9 bankruptcy. At the moment, there is only one of these in the state — Jefferson County. As the county has made clear to lawmakers in the last week, being declared eligible for Chapter 9 is not easy. In the last year, Boise County, Idaho, and Harrisburg, Penn., both filed for Chapter 9 but were refused admittance by the courts. A municipality must exhaust every other reasonable option first, which Jefferson County did.
Last week, Gov. Robert Bentley put his support, for what it’s worth, behind the bill. What’s more, he said if the county delegation could get on the same page, he would be willing to call a special session to pass a fix to the county’s problems.
The trouble is that this commitment has been a common dodge for many of his predecessors. The county’s problem is that its delegation can’t get on the same page. It was all but designed to be divided. The fix is making the county eat its peas and carrots even if it wants to spit them out.
For Jefferson County’s lawmakers voting in the county’s best interests is against their personal political interests. People hate taxes and they tend to vote out politicians who support them. That’s why asking the rest of the state’s lawmakers to support the occupational tax bill has been the only way to get it passed. It’s the path of least resistance.
But it required a at least two county lawmakers to show leadership. Waggoner has gone to lawmakers from other parts of the state for support, and last week, on the Senate floor, he all but begged them for help. Putting pride and personal interest aside is the distinguishing characteristics of the leadership Jefferson County has needed all along.
Meanwhile, Williams says he is ready to do the same in the House. When I spoke with him last week, he said he is ready to give the bill another shot. It will go before the County and Municipal Government Committee again on Tuesday or Wednesday. If it passes there, it will have at least two legislative days to make it through the full House.
House members from adjacent counties might not support the bill. Their constituents like it even less than Jefferson county residents, even though anyone who works in the county spends at least half their waking hours there, benefiting from its law enforcement and riding on its roads.
Ultimately, the bill would give power to the county commission. The current commissioners are not the gang of criminals whose portraits still decorate the courthouse walls like wanted posters in the post office.
“Give us the authority and we’ll take the heat,” Commissioner Joe Knight said when I talked to him about it on Friday. “If people don’t like it, then we’ll all be one-term commissioners, but at least we will have fixed the problem we were sent here to fix.”
The Messenger Shoots Back is a column about political culture.