There is an oft-quoted saying that goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Though I’m sure such an explanation or definition of insanity cannot be found within the pages of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, it is a very useful phrase for describing behaviors or attitudes we sometimes engage in or hold that constantly yield fruitless, pointless or counterproductive results.
This phrase came to mind recently as I examined a chart of data from the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. The chart ranked the 10 Southeastern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee — in order of state and local tax collection per capita.
Just among our Southeastern peers, we were dead last. As a matter of fact, when compared with all the states in the union, Alabama came in 50th. Incredibly, we’ve maintained this last-place ranking since the early 1990s.
As a state, we’ve been starving ourselves fiscally for a very long time.
Alabama’s per person tax collection amount in the PARCA chart was $3,144. Closest to us was Tennessee at $3,270. That sister state we’re always glad for when it comes to various national rankings — Mississippi — topped us by taking in over $529 more per person. Mississippi has a per capita tax collection rate of $3,673.
To put this in another way, if our per person tax collection rate was the same as Mississippi’s, our state and local leaders would have an additional $2.6 billion (yes, billion!) in revenue for funding governmental operations. If we only matched our northern neighbor Tennessee, there would be an extra $600 million with which to fund local and state government! Again, these numbers are based on just keeping up with a couple of our neighbors, not trying to match the national average.
Undoubtedly there are those who applaud this decades-long, self-imposed fiscal malnourishment we’ve afflicted ourselves with. The problem is, though, this prolonged revenue famine is taking a collective toll. We are hurting ourselves, and it shows.
Alabama’s court system is “chronically” underfunded. This long-lasting, habitual and problematic underfunding of our court system has “put in jeopardy the Constitutional right to a speedy trial in front of a jury of one’s peers.” Persistent underfunding has created criminal and civil docket backlogs that threaten the very viability of our justice system.
If you’re a frequent traveler of Alabama’s highways and interstates, you probably have no problem believing The University of Alabama’s Center for Advanced Public Safety statement that Alabama is short 700 state troopers. That’s right, Alabama should have around 1,000 state troopers. Instead we have fewer than 300. Roadway fatalities in Alabama increased 155 percent last year, with 848 fatal accidents. Underfunding is literally costing lives.
Alabama’s most recent Infrastructure Report Card contains some disconcerting observations. Among them:
• Only an estimated 2 percent of all known dams in Alabama are being inspected for safety, maintained and have emergency action plans in place for use in the case of a failure.
Alabama’s known 2,200 dams that were built generations ago continue to age as the size of the population downstream of these dams continues to increase, placing more people and property at a greater risk.
• Congestion costs, accidents and poor roads now cost Alabama drivers over $3 billion each year, taking $300 or more per year out of each driver’s wallet depending on where they live.
• About 8 percent of Alabama’s bridges are classified as structurally deficient, and the situation is forecast to worsen as the average age of Alabama’s bridges climbs from 44 years now to the age of bridge retirement, around 50 years.
• While water quality currently ranks in the top 10 percent nationally, the physical infrastructure is aged beyond its expected life. In fact, much of Alabama’s drinking water infrastructure was put in place in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, meaning it will reach the end of its useful life at or near the same time.
• According to data released late last year by the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, Alabama spends 21.6 percent less on K-12 education than it did in 2008, the year before the onset of the Great Recession. As the report’s authors state, “Public investment in K-12 schools — crucial for communities to thrive and the U.S. economy to offer broad opportunity — has declined dramatically in a number of states over the last decade.” Alabama is the third worst in the nation in this category. Adjusting for inflation, the state spent $29 million less on teaching than it did prior to the recession. Underfunding is impacting our children.
Whether it’s mental health, prisons or other vital governmental services, it’s abundantly clear: Alabama is in trouble.
These various programs and services won’t magically adequately fund themselves. God is not going to miraculously rain down money from heaven to provide needed revenue. That’s our collective responsibility as citizens. We can’t keep doing the same thing year after year and expect different fiscal results. That’s just, well, you know….
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