You can’t trust Montgomery politicians to get things done. We know that, and former Alabama Gov. Fob James knew that, too. That’s why it sounded like a fantastic idea when in the 1980s James fought the Legislature year after year in an eventually successful battle to put into the Alabama Constitution a provision called the Budget Isolation Resolution (BIR).
That measure, which Alabama voters approved by a margin of three to one, requires that lawmakers pass the state’s education and general fund budgets into law before passing any other legislation. To address any issue other than the budget, the resolution requires the consent of “three-fifths of a quorum present” in the House and the Senate. The public loved the sentiment — politicians having to focus on the state’s pocketbook before all else — but politicians hated it.
After its passage, the Associated Press in a 1985 piece said lawmakers would be “guinea pigs” in the upcoming legislative session because of it. Legendary Secretary of the Senate McDowell Lee called it “the worst piece of legislation passed in my lifetime.”
Now, more than 30 years later, the BIR is wreaking havoc in Montgomery and across the state. The problem, though, isn’t the resolution itself. It’s legislative incompetence. You can’t trust Alabama politicians to get anything done, and you especially can’t trust them to get it done right.
Because budgets aren’t easy to agree on, and because Alabama’s Legislature only meets for 30 days a year, lawmakers have become self-proclaimed BIR experts. Because the budgets are typically passed in the waning days of each regular session, nearly all bills that come up require a BIR vote — and a three-fifths majority for passage before the budgets. So at this point, it’s become routine: for a bill to pass, there’s a BIR vote, and then there’s the vote on the actual legislation. No big deal. Until now.
Earlier this year, an Alabama judge struck down a Jefferson County sales tax, and the BIR breakdown began. The judge ruled that the House’s budget isolation process, which has required a BIR vote with a three-fifths “majority of present members,” is unconstitutional because it does not meet the requirement of “three-fifths of a quorum present” mentioned in the Alabama Constitution.
That small difference in wording could be critical, because the Jefferson County sales tax invalidated in the case wasn’t the only bill passed through this specific BIR process. And it wasn’t just a handful. It was literally hundreds. And now they’re all up in the air.
“The potential impact of this ruling is far-reaching,” Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) said of the Jefferson County court ruling. “[It could end up] affecting funding for vital services such as schools, courts, sheriffs’ offices, economic development organizations and other critical services statewide.”
Another Representative, Ed Henry of Hartselle, echoed Ward’s sentiment, saying that a local revenue source for schools could end if the amendment isn’t approved by voters.
“If the courts deem that in jeopardy, it would be hundreds of thousands of dollars that the local system would lose,” Henry said. “That’s not unique to Hartselle. It’s across the entire state, so [S.B. 7] is something we need to do to be prudent.”
Just in Mobile, more than two dozen bills — ranging from alcohol issues to tax regulations — could be invalidated just like Jefferson County’s sales tax. That is, unless we give Montgomery what they’re asking for: a bailout.
During this special legislative session, while most of the media focus was on the lottery and its epic demise, Sen. Ward had only one goal in mind: keep those hundreds of bills alive. Through sheer grit and determination — and a court order — Sen. Ward successfully shepherded through the Legislature a constitutional amendment Alabamians will vote on in November that would fix the BIR breakdown, if approved. But the question is: Should we have to fix what Montgomery broke? I don’t think so.
Below is a list of laws that could be in jeopardy if the amendment is not approved by voters in November:
• Mobile Optimist Club, Christmas tree sales, exempt from corporate and
municipal sales and use tax and gross receipts tax;
• Mobile County ad valorem tax, county commission authorized to levy ad
ditional for public school purposes, referendum;
• Saraland, corporation limits altered to deannex cert. territory;
• Mobile County, circuit and district courts, additional court costs, distributed
for alternative corrections program;
• Mobile County, civil service system updates;
• Aircraft over 30,000 pounds, reconditioning, component parts, municipal
sales and use tax exemption, retroactive effect;
• Beer or malt beverage kegs, identification number and registration with buyer
or lessor required, duties to sheriff, penalties;
• Judge of probate, county commission authorized to appropriate funds for
miscellaneous expenses related to office;
• Mount Vernon, corporation limits altered
• Judge of probate, estates, general administrator elected position and expense
allowance abolished, expenses for appointed position provided through
• Centre for the Living Arts Inc., municipal ad valorem and sales and use tax
• Bonds, issuance for land and capital improvements;
• Sheriff, compensation, certain payments ratified;
• License commissioner, issuance fee, additional, distribution for office of
license commissioner; and
• Alcoholic beverages, reasonable quantity purchased from military liquor or
package stores, for active duty, active reserve status or retired Armed Forces
allowed, civil penalties.
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