Letting local governments govern
The Birmingham News
Saturday, June 09, 2007

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THE ISSUE: It shouldn't take Prichard or any other city or county three years to get something done, but that's often the case because of Alabama's awful constitution.

If it seems like the city of Prichard has been trying darn near forever to create a foreign trade investment zone, that's because it has.

Here's a recap, which, if it weren't so infuriating, would be Keystone Cops comical:

A proposed constitutional amendment first appeared on Mobile County ballots in 2004. The Prichard City Council approved the zone, and Prichard residents voted by a 2-to-1 margin in favor of the measure, but it lost by about 3,700 votes countywide.

Prichard gave it another try in 2006, but this time the measure appeared on ballots across the state. That's because state Sen. Hank Erwin, R-Montevallo, opposed the legislation in the Senate, forcing a statewide vote. Mobile County voters overwhelmingly supported the amendment. The rest of the state rejected it by a slim margin - less than one-half percent of the vote.

Prichard tried again this year. The measure passed the Alabama House and Senate unanimously. That allowed it to appear on the ballot as a local, rather than statewide, amendment. Tuesday, Mobile County voters by about a 3-to-1 margin voted to create the trade zone, which will serve as a special tax district for the purpose of importing duty-free and quota-free goods as allowed under federal law. With the district allowing certain imports that would be free from tariffs or duties, the city hopes the taxing structure would attract investors.

Now, you may ask yourself, why did Prichard have to get the Legislature to pass a proposed amendment that had to be approved by voters before the city could set up a trade zone? And, why should voters anywhere else in the state care at all, much less have to decide, whether Prichard should create a trade zone? Those are fair questions. The answer: the Alabama Constitution.

When it was written in 1901, the constitution severely limited "internal improvements" and economic development. In the 106 years since, it has become a hodgepodge of amendments that have somewhat freed the state and counties and cities to make improvements and push economic development.

But why shouldn't county and city governments be able to make decisions for themselves about economic development efforts, including trade zones, without having to go to the Legislature, and then voters, for approval? If local voters don't like those decisions, they can elect new council and commission members.

Plus, there's nothing efficient or remotely sensible in forcing Prichard to wait three years through three sessions of the Legislature and three votes - one of them statewide - before being able to set up a trade zone. Yet this is routine for city and county governments trying to get measures through the Legislature and approved by voters.

There's got to be a better way and, of course, there is: a new Alabama Constitution that lets governments govern.

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