BUILDING A BETTER GOVERNOR: Ideas for a stronger Alabama

It’s time for state government to take a close look at its books. How much do we spend? How much do we collect? How do we collect it? What do we spend it on? Most importantly, can we repair the process for how these decisions are made?

Let’s call it the Alabama Audit and Action Agenda.

Also, call it a top priority for the politician who raises his right hand to be sworn in as our governor in early 2015.

In January, Alabama’s governor will assume office for a four-year term. Inauguration day is usually a time of high hopes, a brief moment where almost anything seems possible in our state.

Typically, that shining light of expectation dims very quickly. Over just a few weeks Alabama goes back to being Alabama. We live in a state whose constitutional writers intentionally made government difficult to manage. Our political class is typically rewarded for inaction rather than meaningful progress. We are populated by men and women who’ve been burned by so many false promises and cheap political theater that their default posture is heavy cynicism.

Faced with all that rust on the engine of government, in 2011 our newly elected governor, Robert Bentley, easily slipped into the comfortable and disappointing pattern of most of Alabama’s governors. The vision is limited. The projects small-bore. The plans sleepily unimaginative.

Yet, as they say in commercial disclaimers, past performance is no guarantee of future outcomes. We should hope so.

This January, whether it’s Bentley or his challenger Parker Griffith or someone else being sworn in as governor, Alabama deserves something better than the usual from its chief executive. We need a visionary who can break through the clutter and get this state moving in the right direction.

A good place to start would be the Alabama Audit and Action Agenda.

The premise is simple enough. The governor assembles a task force of Alabamians. The priority will be on a diverse group of state residents who can (a.) leave their partisanship at the door, (b.) take a deep and unblinking look at the state’s books and (c.) formulate bold solutions to put Alabama in a better position.

A recent report from the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) serves as a handy briefing for our task force. In 2011 (the most recent year available), state and local governments in Alabama collected $2,904 in taxes per resident, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s the lowest rate in the nation.

“However,” PARCA noted, “taxes are a bargain only when taxpayers get more than their money’s worth from the services produced. This can’t happen without control over the use of revenue and budget procedures that focus on performance.”

Alabama fails on both counts.

Almost nine out of every $10 in Alabama tax revenue is earmarked. State budget writers are left to wrestle over the margins. PARCA noted, “That’s a problem: guaranteed budgets provide no incentive to efficiency.”

Our task force should put down in black and white how the state can get the most out of its tax dollars.

Our panel must put a priority on outcomes. What are we getting for all our time and trouble? Is there a more efficient and modern way to perform the basic functions of a state government?

Here’s where the pain really starts to show. Consider education funding. Alabama spends a large share of its money on public schooling, almost $6 billion. The funding stream is unreliable, however. A half-dozen times in the past 15 years the state has had to claw back its spending plans because revenue projections fell.

Then there’s the issue of return on investment. Compared to other successful states, Alabama spends less than it should and that’s displayed in lackluster student performance.

We’d likely find the same results in other spending areas, including prisons, public safety, road and bridge repair and so on.

A good way to find out — and to make necessary fixes — is to create the Alabama Audit and Action Agenda and tell its members to plot a path to reform.

COMING TOMORROW: Sell, sell, sell education reform.