Home rule amendment to be presented once again
Crimson White, January 28, 2004
By Heather Henderson, metro/state editor
A bill presented last year that would give Alabamians the power to decide whether to grant home rule to counties may come up again in this year's legislative session.
Though members of Gov. Bob Riley's administration said they will not know the specifics of the bill until the legislative session begins Tuesday, movers and shakers in the home rule bill say it will most likely be a duplicate of last year's bill, which was formed by a governor-appointed committee.
Last year's bill, which never passed through legislative committee, allowed county commissions to hold referendums to determine whether their counties could have home rule and to what extent.
"The home rule bill was designed to give local governments a little bit more control, but let local citizens decide how much control they could have," said Sid McAnnally, chairman of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform.
Right now in most counties, many actions must be approved by the Legislature, from zoning to litter laws and taxes.
Granting counties home rule would mean giving them the power to change zoning ordinances, and possibly tax structures, without the approval of their local state delegates.
"It would mean that for the first time, counties could deal with local issues on a local level," McAnnally said. "You want a decision made as close to home as possible."
McAnnally said bills of this magnitude usually take a few years to pass through the Legislature.
Opponents of home rule have argued that this move would lead to runaway taxation and disenfranchisement of rural residents in mostly urban counties.
However, if people knew how limited local governments are in making decisions about land use, planning, zoning and other issues, McAnnally said, he feels many would support an amendment to allow home rule.
"Constitutional reform only gets support when people know what it has to do with them," he said.
As far as disenfranchisement of minorities, McAnnally said checks and balances would be in place to make sure that didn't happen. In fact, he said, home rule would help, for instance, a rural farmer who needs buffer zones established around his farm to prevent a development from harming his livelihood.
Alfa spokesman: Home rule may hurt farmers
Fred Patterson, governmental affairs director of the Alabama Farmers Federation, said that if Alabamians really wanted home rule, they would already be asking for it.
"I believe if enough people contacted their legislators and they felt there was a mandate for it in their county, the legislators would allow a referendum," Patterson said.
"Voters don't seem to hold their legislators to task on that issue; if they did, then it would have to be done."
Patterson served on the governor's commission that produced the home rule legislation presented to Legislature last year. However, he said he and Alfa representative Jimmy Parnell cast the only two dissenting votes.
"We're not enthusiastic supporters. It would depend on the changes [to the home rule amendment] that would be made after going through the Legislature," Patterson said.
"Our folks are not as enthusiastic about home rule, but [the amendment] may not be something we would adamantly oppose [if it remained a vote of the people]."
Patterson argued that leaving decisions such as taxing and regulation to a body of commissioners could disenfranchise rural farmers, as well as large districts within counties only represented by one commissioner.
For example, Patterson said, if county commissioners were asked to represent their districts in a vote about an issue brought before the county, two districts in a county could overwhelmingly vote yes, while two larger districts voted no and another district voted down the middle. The agenda would pass, even with more people voting against the tax or regulation, he said.
Also, Patterson said rural farmers may have needs that people living in the city, who make up a majority in many counties, don't.
"Things [would] happen to [a rural farmer] to affect your business without having enough say-so to do anything about it," he said.
These changes could range from additional property taxes to environmental regulations and land use restrictions, Patterson said.
Patterson used as an example a farmer he knows who has farms in six counties. If counties were allowed to make their own environmental and land use regulations, he said, that farmer would be forced to abide by six different policies.
"Environmental laws hodge-podged by every city and county would get out of hand," he said.
Patterson said supporters of home rule have argued that counties and districts have local officials in charge of environmental regulations.
"You'd be surprised by how [often] county and city protection services are overwritten by state government," he said.
Patterson said many people who support home rule and "say that the South ought to be a new South and ought to be progressive" also oppose states' rights, something he pointed to as ironic.
"They trust Washington more than they trust Montgomery," he said. "I can't very well be for one without trying to understand why I'm against the other."
Patterson attributed many of the needed changes that have taken place in Alabama over the years, such as voting rights for all residents, to a central government.
"If the Old South was left to do what it wanted to do, things wouldn't have changed," he said.
Local delegate wants 'authority,' not 'power'
Tuscaloosa County Probate Judge Hardy McCollum said commissioners don't want power or rule.
"We're trying to have authority to go along with responsibility," he said. "If the citizens want the county to be held responsible, we need the authority to do so."
McCollum said counties should be able to decide what is best for them on issues such as litter laws and animal control laws.
"Opponents of home rule try to paint it as a taxing mechanism," McCollum said. "I'd just as soon not have taxing authority, but I do want the legislative authority to be a problem solver."
McCollum said he does not feel home rule would disenfranchise minorities, such as rural farmers.
"What most folks are concerned about is somebody raising their taxes," he said. "That's what most rural landowners are concerned about: taxing.
"We're in a growing economy, an urban county. We lack the ability in many incidents to meet those obvious needs related to protecting subdivisions and people's homes and rural farmland, for that matter."
For example, the family of a 7-year-old girl attacked by a Rottweiler last summer asked the commission to adopt an animal control law for the county.
Commissioners unanimously passed the 1940 state law, which restricts owners from allowing their pets to wander off their property but does not require a leash. They did not have the power, however, to tailor their own laws, which McCollum at that time said was needed to respond to the needs of rural parts of the county.
McCollum said the chances of a home rule amendment passing this year depend on how the bill is perceived in the Legislature.
"If it's [perceived as] a bill to raise taxes, then in my opinion, it won't have a chance of passing," he said.
McCollum said he doubts any drastic amendments to the state's 1901 constitution will be made this year.
"Unless there's a serious crisis, there's not going to be a lot of change," he said.