Bob Davis: Goat Hill and its two jobs

Can you guess the culprit? If you said the state's 1901 Constitution, give yourself a gold star.

The authors of that foul document had two primary goals: 1. Remove voting and other rights from blacks. 2. Keep anyone not rich and powerful from making substantial changes to the established order.

Sadly for us, for democracy and for social progress, they succeeded. Alabama's 1901 founding fathers produced a crippled offspring that is nothing more than a slave to powerful interests

From the Anniston Star
04-05-2009

Loads of serious work volleyed for attention last week in Alabama's state capitol, forcing lawmakers to prioritize their business. Or, as Gov. William J. Le Petomane from Blazing Saddles put it, "Affairs of state must take precedent over, uh, the affairs of state."

The Legislature failed — once more — to lift the 4 percent sales tax from groceries, an unjust burden on Alabamians trying to pay the bills.

Lawmakers accepted a $1,805 pay increase that kicked in April 1 — April Fool's Day, how delicious.

Spurred by the "Sweet Home Alabama" campaign, the Senate is mulling a proposal to significantly expand electronic bingo.

The House passed a bill to accept federal jobless benefits to serve those on the state's unemployment roll, a figure that now stands at 8.4 percent.

All that and more is enough to overflow any state legislature's plate.

But wait, as the late-night TV pitchman says, there's more!

The Statehouse has a few more items to mull over during its 2009 session, which is more than halfway complete.

The House and Senate must decide how to set up a prisoner work-release program for Cherokee County. It will consider the fate of a proposal to raise court fees in Cleburne County.

Closer to home, the city of Anniston is awaiting word from Montgomery on a proposed amendment allowing it to give local taxes to a local public education fund. The sheriff of Talladega County's raise and expense-account increase awaits a thumbs-up from the Legislature. DeKalb County needs a state law to allow it to fill a county commission vacancy before the term ends.

Well, that is quite the balancing act. Aiding the unemployed, lifting an unfair tax off the least of us and deciding how deep into gambling the state will travel vs. a single county sheriff's compensation, a prison-work program in one northeast Alabama county and how one city will spend its tax revenue on public education.

Can you guess the culprit? If you said the state's 1901 Constitution, give yourself a gold star.

The authors of that foul document had two primary goals: 1. Remove voting and other rights from blacks. 2. Keep anyone not rich and powerful from making substantial changes to the established order.

Sadly for us, for democracy and for social progress, they succeeded. Alabama's 1901 founding fathers produced a crippled offspring that is nothing more than a slave to powerful interests.

A sure way to concentrate power is to prevent local control, which is the reason localities must go to Montgomery, hat in hand, to beg for approval to produce local-only policy. These are the sorts of policies local governments ably handle in almost every other Western democracy in the world.

The logic, while despicable in its application, is perfectly splendid in theory, if you theorize on ways to keep the foot of the powerful Big Mules on the neck of the little man.

Controlling a majority of 35 senators and 105 representatives is far easier for the Big Mules than riding herd over hundreds of city councils and county commissions in Alabama. Just imagine how spread out Montgomery's perennially powerful lobbyists would be if they had to cover 67 counties and countless city halls. It's easier in one central location.

Of course, most local option bills don't get much close inspection from legislators without a dog in the fight. Still, it's the principle of going before the entire state with something it should have little, if any, say in. Not to mention how putting all these small-bore matters before a body that meets 30 days a year slows down local governments. And that's if these local bills don't get squashed in the end-of-session stampede.

Far too many state lawmakers tell us they prefer centralized power in Montgomery over placing democracy closer to the grassroots. Oh, they seldom put it in those terms; instead, they trot out the straw man that "local control leads to outrageous taxes." Consider the illogic of this tax-and-spend fantasy dreamed up by fans of the 1901 status quo: Local politicians in Alabama cities, directly accountable to local voters, will gain home-rule and suddenly turn Alabama into Massachusetts. From Barney Fife to Barney Frank in a matter of minutes? Not likely.

Putting power in the hands of the few instead of the many means that local government needs statewide approval for the most provincial matters. Why, for instance, should anyone outside Cherokee County have a say in how its county government sets up a work-release system? Yet the Legislature does. Looking for a reason why one-third of the Alabama Constitution's almost 800 amendments deal with purely provincial matters? There you are.

As it stands, Montgomery has two jobs. One is standard for all state capitols — look after a state's general needs, such as public safety, education and economic development. The other has to do with overseeing sheriff's salaries, city coffers and local court fees.

That would make this body more than the state Legislature. It makes it the world's largest city council.

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