It didn’t take long, and I don’t think many were surprised by the quick response. Surely the state wasn’t going to be passive about this. Besides, depending on the outcome, a domino effect could easily be set in motion.
What’s going on? Mobile County Circuit Judge Jim Patterson recently ordered Circuit Clerk JoJo Schwarzauer to begin withholding a portion of the money collected by the local court system in order to ensure the system is adequately funded. Beginning Oct. 1, and continuing until the state “adequately and reasonably [funds] her office,” Schwarzauer is to refrain from giving the state 10 percent of the collected court fees and costs collected from litigants in Mobile County.
This was a bold move. Yet, considering the dire financial straits plaguing not just the Mobile County court system but court systems throughout the state, it’s an understandable one. Courts, like most aspects of government, need money to operate. The less they have, the less they can do.
It’s not that the court systems aren’t collecting money. The problem is that a significant portion of the monies collected is captured by the state and used for noncourt purposes. For example, in 2016 courts in Mobile County collected and disbursed more than $7 million to noncourt functions, $4.5 million going straight into the state’s general fund.
So, with expected swiftness, the state attorney general’s office has taken measures to block Judge Patterson’s efforts. For now, Patterson’s order has been put on hold. But the whole situation raises a very important question: Why is such a sizable amount of the revenue generated by the court system being captured by the state for noncourt functions?
The answer? Alabama refuses to fund its government in a sensible and realistic way. The state’s tax system is, simply, inadequate. However, instead of seriously trying to address this fact, state leaders have preferred methods such as siphoning off a sizable amount of court system revenue or using a lion’s share of money received from the BP oil spill to pay off state debts and plug holes in the state’s general fund budget. In other words, doing anything other than creating a viable tax structure that allows state government to do its job without robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, an organization opposed to all tax increases and the originator of the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” (which asks all candidates for federal and state office to commit themselves in writing to the American people to oppose all net tax increases), is well known for stating: “Our goal is to shrink government to the size where we can drown it [government] in a bathtub.”
The problem with that type of thinking, however, is that the citizens living under such a government will pay a high price. And Alabamians are definitely paying a price.
The judicial system operates on life support, jeopardizing fundamental constitutional rights. A state trooper force that is close to 700 troopers short contributes to a 155 percent increase in roadway fatalities. A health care system that’s imploding leaves many Alabama residents without access to basic health care services. An underfunded education system hinders positive educational outcomes. A deteriorating infrastructure of roads, bridges and dams affects economic development and the safety of citizens. The list goes on.
Yet it is routinely pointed out — in vain — that Alabama is 50th in the nation when it comes to per capita state and local tax collections. Having a low tax rate can indeed be a good thing and make the state and its locales competitive on a number of fronts, but being dead last is plain nonsensical.
Even compared to our Southern peers, we are failing badly. If Alabama taxed on the level of neighboring Mississippi, the state would have an extra $2.5 billion a year in revenue (yes, billion). If it taxed like Louisiana, $3.9 billion. Like Kentucky, $3.1 billion. Arkansas, $3.5 billion. Tennessee, $612 million.
Alabama leads the nation and the SEC in football, but if we just tried to match the SEC states’ average in per capita tax revenues, we would take in an extra $2.6 billion per year. No more robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Too bad we don’t get fired up about being at the bottom of this SEC list like we do when it comes to being at the bottom of an SEC football ranking.
It’s often said that “insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” Like in past election cycles, candidates will tell us what we want to hear — that Alabama can deliver on its basic services and advance the common good and welfare of the state without increasing its revenues. But true leaders tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. What do we need to hear?
That whether it’s the functioning of our court system, public safety, infrastructure, education, health care, prisons, etc., these can’t be done adequately and effectively without the necessary financial resources. Without the necessary revenues, these crucial services and functions will continually be under strain and financial duress. To think otherwise is, well ….