A central theme of the 2012 Republican presidential primary has been decreasing the power of the federal government. The hopefuls promise to shrink the federal government’s role in education, health care, worker safety, environmental regulation and so on. GOP candidates support letting state governments fill that void, or not fill it at all if that is preferred.
State governments are the laboratories of democracy, the saying goes.
Unfortunately for Alabama, it appears our laboratory is staffed with mad scientists mixing volatile chemicals to see how loud the explosion will be. It’s almost as if the Statehouse is ruled by crazy-eyed men in lab coats laughing manically at their mischief.
Item No. 1 in the chain of evidence would be the aforementioned state Constitution. The document’s authors explicitly set out to enshrine racism as Alabama’s rule of law. Just as devious were their plans to devise a system where power for the wealthy could be kept in a bottle on a high shelf at the state Capitol. The worse news is that they succeeded.
It’s easy for Alabama’s powerful interests to control 35 senators and 105 representatives. And they don’t even need a majority, just a select few who can stop what legislation they wish to have stopped. Alabamians outside that high-and-mighty circle face a very difficult climb to see their dreams become reality, which is why attempts such as properly funding education, protecting the state’s waterways, and putting more power in the hands of cities and counties have been so difficult for the past 111 years.
From the perspective of the 1901 Constitution’s authors, everything is working just fine. Reformers who would like the lives of the comfortable a little less comfortable are kept at bay. Local school districts seeking to raise local funds for their schools have to navigate obstructions that would test the patience of a saint.
And the Constitution’s greatest achievement is a perpetual loop of self-defeat. It works like this: State government is set up to be dysfunctional, established to not work. Alabamians suffer at the hands of this inefficient and unproductive system that greatly reduces their quality of life. Their cynicism is fed daily as this creaky state government constantly pulls against progress that would improve Alabama.
What’s the use in reform, the downtrodden shrug, nothing can fix this mess.
The Star’s Cameron Steele recently looked closely at how deep budget cuts are hurting criminal justice in Alabama. One local prosecutor has a backlog of 200 drug cases because the state lab doesn’t have the money or the manpower to efficiently process suspected evidence. Courthouse staffing shortages have increased the time it takes to perform basic functions such as divorces or wage-garnishments. A state penitentiary system meant for 13,400 houses almost 27,000 convicts. Who would want to be packed that tightly with law-abiding citizens, much less criminals?
Yet, Montgomery won’t budge. The leaders there seem paralyzed with fear. They whisper that asking Alabamians for more money means they might be tossed out of office by voters skeptical that state government can work.
Those fears over tax increases are not illegitimate. Through decades of demagoguery, Alabama voters have been trained to despise taxes.
If the budgetary holes in Alabama’s criminal justice system are responsible for tragic suffering by innocents because a bad guy slipped through the cracks, then there will be hell to pay. Alabama voters will be outraged; they will demand to know how this happened. How do we get to a point where we don’t have enough money for something so basic?
Merely explaining it as an experiment in Alabama’s democracy lab won’t cut it.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.