Legislators Left Laughing Over Accountability

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Mention accountability in Montgomery and you can almost hear the chuckles from Alabama Legislators.

That’s how big of a joke accountability is with the people Alabamians elect to represent them.

The majority of state legislators just don’t get it.

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I say that because in 1999, the first legislative session following the 1998 election, a majority of state legislators voted for a lottery only to see Alabama voters turn out in record numbers to inflict an overwhelming defeat on the referendum.

The politicians wrote off that defeat as an indication that most Alabamians are anti-gambling.

They completely ignored the message voters sent indicating a serious lack of trust in state government.

Not that any of the pro-gambling legislators really cared what the voters thought.

They knew that by the time the next election rolled around the voters would have forgotten the lottery and the vast majority of legislators would get re-elected.

And, as usual, they were right.

In 2003, the first legislative session following the 2002 election, most of the same legislators who backed a corrupt lottery scheme backed the proposal for an ill-conceived and problem racked $1.2 billion tax increase.

Once again, the voters of Alabama turned out in record numbers and laid an even worse lick’n on their proposal by beating it two to one.

This time the message sent to Montgomery by the taxpayers was unmistakably clear … voters want real accountability.

Members of the Legislature from one end of the state to the other said they heard the people’s voice and that voice was calling for accountability.

“Yes sir, yes mam,” they said, “We heard what y’all said.

Y’all said accountability.

Well we were really for accountability and reform all along.

Yes sir!”

Well, guess what?

When it comes to accountability and reform, it is as Speaker of the House Seth Hammett said, “…in the eye of the beholder.”

Of all the accountability measures that were addressed in the State Legislature this session, not one of them proposed core reforms that would fundamentally change state government.

There is no support among those who run the state House and Senate for basing budgets on the prior year’s revenue, for a Tax and Expenditure Limitation (TEL) amendment or for performance based budgeting.

As we approach the end of the legislative session there has not been even the slightest indication that the Legislature is serious about accountability or reform in state government.

They have no intention of taking the wheels off the gravy train and they are counting on the voters forgetting about it by the time the next election rolls around in 2006.

The so-called accountability measures that are being entertained by the Legislature are either political snow jobs intended to fool the voters or the equivalent of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

In other words, useless.

The problem is not a lack of remedies available.

Governor Bob Riley proposed restructuring the Public Education Employees Health Insurance Program (PEEHIP) and eliminating the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) program, but these proposals were dead on arrival in the state House.

The bill to ban PAC to PAC transfers entirely would have also been helpful.

But even these reform measures do not address the core issues necessary to achieving real and permanent accountability, which is so desperately needed.

Real accountability will require changing the way state government operates and putting limits on how much it can spend.

Alabama’s state agencies should be required to have a clear definition of their core function and clearly defined and measurable objectives for each fiscal year.

The agency’s budget must then be based on its core function, objectives and success at meeting those goals.

We consistently hear that Alabama is facing budget shortfalls but Montgomery has a spending problem, not necessarily a revenue problem.

Over the past 50 years the state has been in proration 14 times yet, during this same time period, there have only been three occasions when revenues were lower than the previous year.

For real accountability and reform in the budget process the Legislature should be limited to passing budgets that are based on the revenue from the previous year instead of passing inflated budgets based on estimated revenues.

Another solution to out of control state spending would be to pass a TEL amendment.

A TEL would limit the increases in annual state spending to no more than the inflation rate plus two times the percentage increase in population growth.

Instituting a TEL, using performance based budgeting and requiring that budgets be based on the previous year’s revenue would implement true fiscal accountability in the Alabama Legislature.

But it won’t see the light of day until after the 2006 election.

Maybe by then accountability will be the only thing in the eyes of the voters.