The Constitutional Revision Commission, a 16-member panel charged with rewriting the state constitution, met Friday to hear proposals for giving counties the power of home rule.
None of the proposals would give counties the power to raise taxes unilaterally. But some could save county commissioners a long drive to Montgomery to lobby for local laws.
“There ought to be a mechanism for a county to have some say-so into how it operates,” said Sonny Brasfield, director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama.
Alabama is among a handful of states where rural areas are governed largely from the state capitol. Most of the state’s 67 counties lack the power to set land-use policy, levy taxes or set up economic development programs. Many county policies can be changed only with passage of a state law or amendment.
The profusion of local amendments is the main reason the Constitution of 1901 has fattened up to more than 376,000 words. The Constitutional Revision Commission is trying to rewrite the entire thing, piece by piece, although the commission’s recommendations must get legislative approval and pass a statewide amendment vote before they take effect.
A coalition of anti-poverty groups, led by Alabama Appleseed, is pushing for a direct grant of powers to counties, allowing them to act on most matters — except for taxation — without the legislative go-ahead.
“Let’s get the middle guy out of the way,” said Craig Baab, a senior policy fellow for Appleseed.
Baab handed out charts showing the 500-plus local amendments passed between 1901 and 2008. Eighty-nine governed economic development efforts, 65 changed local court costs and 57 dealt with county employees’ retirement. Baab said giving those powers to counties would be more efficient.
The Association of County Commissions offered a different approach, one that would grant interim powers to counties most of the year, pending review by the Legislature when in session.
One advantage of that plan, supporters say, is that it would allow some checks and balances on counties.
Howard Walthall, a professor at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law, said checks and balances might have prevented Jefferson County from embarking on the sewer construction project that led the county into bankruptcy. Sewer construction, he said, is one power counties already have. On the other hand, Walthall said, lack of home rule kept the county from re-instituting an occupational tax that could have helped the county get back on its feet.
“Jefferson County is a poster boy for, A, the need for home rule, and, B, the dangers of home rule,” he said.
Walthall also presented a proposal to create eight classes of counties, based on population, each with different self-rule powers. Rules for each class could be passed through statewide law. Alabama’s cities are run that way already.
Commission members were cautious of the plan.
“I could enter a bill to regulate a class of counties and I wouldn’t have to live in one of those counties, is that correct?” asked Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham.
Walthall said the law wouldn’t prevent such a vote, though House and Senate rules would.
The commission didn’t hold a vote on any of the proposals. In past sessions, the commission has held wide-ranging discussion of changes, while writing relatively minor constitutional changes into their final recommendation.
Even minor changes to the Constitution of 1901 can produce large effects downstream. The commission has been considering a move to strike the “whole county” provision in the Constitution, a rule that requires lawmakers to build legislative districts that include whole counties, instead of dividing them among several districts.
Commission members said the rule hasn’t been observed consistently in decades, in part because of the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. But the Alabama Democratic Conference invoked the “whole county” provision in a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s most recent round of redistricting, which ADC members say dilutes black voters’ power.
Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greenville, urged the commission Friday to keep the “whole county” wording.
Singleton said that by dividing counties among several districts, the redistricting plan made it harder for mostly-black counties to get their legislation passed.
“By population, Jefferson County should have 20 people in its delegation,” he said during a break in the meeting. “Instead they have 26 legislators. And those additional legislators live outside the county.”
Perry County Commissioner Albert Turner said his county has a population of about 10,000 — and four legislators. If he only had one legislator to go to, he said, passing local legislation would be much easier.
“We have no authority as a county commission,” he said.
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