Plus or minus One — Our problems are still with us
Anniston Star, September 6, 2004
By Sid McAnnally, special to The Star

Across the state, editorial writers will be looking back to Sept. 9, 2003, and a vote that rejected the boldest single initiative ever on an Alabama ballot. Many will see the vote as the end of a reform movement, but a closer look shows that the issues raised by Amendment One have dominated the past year, and continue to drive politics in Alabama.

Whether you supported the initiative or not, Amendment One was a singular moment in Alabama’s history. A Republican governor put his political capital on the line to do what he and his equally conservative finance director believed was necessary to rescue the state financially and move Alabama forward:

• A change in the tax structure so that Alabama no longer over-taxed the poor;

• A plan to replace the annual budgetary Band-Aids with a reliable funding source for Medicaid to insure health care to the poor and elderly;

• Providing the Alabama Reading Initiative to every Alabama school child;

• Solving the crisis brought about by the skyrocketing cost of state employee health insurance.

There have been many explanations for the defeat of the plan, most focusing on the tax increase. But polling after the election revealed one deciding factor. By overwhelming margins voters had lost faith in state government. It is no accident that Alabama earmarks more of its tax revenue that any other state — and that distrust cripples the ability of the governor and lawmakers to be effective in addressing the changing needs of the state.

But there were victories associated with the campaign that emerged in the regular session of 2004. The Alabama Reading Initiative, a cornerstone of Amendment One, saw support grow so strong that it was fully funded by the Legislature and will soon be in every elementary school in Alabama. More than 40 bills were introduced that dealt with accountability in an attempt to rebuild trust between voters and state government keeping the accountability conversation on the legislative agenda.

What about our reformer governor?

While not as visible as the Amendment One proposal, Riley has made a sweeping change that he is calling “SMART Budgeting.” This year, for the first time, any request from a state agency must be broken out by specific need so that anyone can look at the budget and see where tax money is being spent. Budget Chairman John Knight enthusiastically endorsed the plan. That’s the kind of reform that many who voted against Amendment One said they were looking for — and that trust is critical to our future as a state.

With these victories come the issues that remain unresolved. Funding for Medicaid and employee health care costs are at the top of the agenda as a $150 million deficit awaits lawmakers when they return to Montgomery. The one-time revenue sources used to shore up the budget last year are no longer available. The General Fund, the fund that pays the state’s explosive health care costs, does not have any growth taxes and is perpetually in a deficit.

In November, we will see 30 more Constitutional amendments on the ballot. If passed they will join 742 other Band-Aids on a document that is the most amended constitution in the world.

Our horse and buggy constitution drags behind us as we struggle to provide adequate health care for our sick, make our taxes fair and educate our children.

In Huntsville, a group of citizens decided to see how much interest there was in reforming the Constitution. A small group held a one-day petition drive. Eight thousand people signed up for reform.

Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform will be repeating this effort across the state in November to give others in the state the chance to express an opinion on the issue of reform. Membership in ACCR is growing rapidly as cities and counties across the state struggle against the limitations written into the 1901 Constitution that prohibit economic development and demand that local decisions be made in Montgomery.

Alabama voted not to make the changes proposed by Amendment One, but the problems that it addressed will continue to rob our state of its potential until we come together — Democrat and Republican, governor and Legislature — and deal with the challenges that are before us.

Our antique constitution is a good place to start.

Sid McAnnally is the acting chairman of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, a volunteer operated organization with membership throughout the state.

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