Gov. Robert Bentley opened and closed his 2014 State of the State address last week by talking about Wilcox County, Ala., the poorest county in the country. The county’s unemployment rate in November was 13.9% and its poverty rate in 2012 was almost 40% — both are double the state average. An estimated 67% of the county’s 25-years-and-over population have only a high school degree or less. The county also had just 11,670 residents in 2010 and has lost population almost every decade since its peak population of 35,631 in 1900. (I posted a brief history of Wilcox County and the Black Belt region in a blog post.)
Bentley championed the state’s success in helping the area by attracting a $100 million Golden Dragon copper tubing plant and its potential 500 jobs to the county, at a cost of $200 million. That many possible jobs would be game changing for a county that has 407 residents in the labor force unemployed. Alabama Industrial Development Training will handle the hiring, according to the AL.com article, so it is safe to assume that all hirings will be local.
But the governor’s strategy of attracting jobs — mainly manufacturing jobs — to declining communities across the state is not the holistic strategy that these communities deserve. These jobs and new manufacturing plants aren’t just numbers and photo opportunities that he should be able to use for his re-election campaign later this year. They are the product of a smokestack-chasing economic development strategy that poses the danger of establishing the very dependency that the governor himself decries.
“There is never freedom for the Breadwinner who is dependent on the government,” Bentley said in his State of the State.
But, how is the state enabling Wilcox County and its residents to be self-reliant by throwing $200 million to the Chinese-based Golden Dragon company? That totals out to $400,000 state dollars for each of the plant’s 500 potential jobs. Bear in mind, these jobs will only pay an average of $15 to $17 per hour, according to Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield. At that rate, the state is essentially paying the salaries of the plant’s employees for 13 years. It’s a state handout to a supposed corporate savior.
Gov. Bentley is instilling government-dependency through corporate welfare. To make matters worse, Golden Dragon’s profits will be shipped out of the county since it’s a foreign company. It likely won’t buy local and reinvest in the community, as a result.
The only community roots that the plant will have are the financial incentives that planted it there in the first place. Golden Dragon is a profit-seeking company that would therefore uproot and move if offered an incentive package worth a dollar more. A move would leave Wilcox County back to where it was before.
The plant will surely be an immediate boost to the county and the surrounding area, but doling out state tax dollars to attract unreliable manufacturing jobs cannot be the only strategy. Wilcox County’s labor force isn’t truly competing in the globalized marketplace if it depends on state incentives to set it apart from the rest.
If Gov. Bentley and state officials want to make areas like Wilcox County self-sustaining, they should invest and subsidize locally. Whether it’s opening a business incubator, creating night classes on business to be held in local schools or cutting the permitting process and offering to pay rent for startups in depressed areas.
There is a whole host of opportunities that could create an economy that builds itself, instead of parts for a foreign company. And for $200 million, any and everything could be on the table. For scale, $200 million is more than half of the City of Birmingham’s entire yearly budget.
Manufacturing jobs should only be viewed as a short-term economic plan. Developing smarter and better-skilled Alabamians in Wilcox County and elsewhere will better support their independence and economic potential and is a better use of state tax dollars.
Wilcox County, Ala., is in the heart of the Black Belt — the Southeastern region named for the fertile soil that supported the plantations that dominated the area’s 19th and early 20th Century economy. The terrain itself gave reason for plantation owners to seek out slave labor, as discussed by Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton. Unlike the sandy soil in hilly Northern Alabama, “it required gangs of slaves, fearful of the whip, to clear and work the gummy clay of the Black Belt.”
Following abolition of slavery, plantation owners and paper mills offered the only jobs in the area to the poor minorities and whites repressed by Jim Crow. These workers, as a result, could not accumulate significant wealth, skills or education.
The Black Belt region represented a significant player in state politics in early 20th Century Alabama. Its wealthy rural land owners joined with the state’s industrial leaders to form the Bourbons, which influenced the 1901 constitution and legislation for decades. The coalition controlled the state to the benefit of the rich and the detriment of the poor — both white and black.
As the South was drained by the Great Depression and the Great Migration of African Americans to the North and the West, and as the country industrialized for the World Wars, the area’s plantations lost their significance. Black Belt areas such as Wilcox County quickly lost their primary wealth and political importance. This demographic and economic shift is why the Black Belt is often assumed to reference the region’s poor, majority-minority makeup.
Gov. Robert Bentley’s State of the State last week referenced six corporations that recently expanded or will expand their Alabama-based manufacturing plants: Airbus, Boeing, Hyundai, Mercedes, Toyota and Honda. Those six plants represent just two industries — aircrafts and automobiles — that are both in the transportation sector.
Bentley’s job-attraction resume is one energy crisis away from imploding. It’s no wonder that he had a “drill, baby, drill” moment later in his speech:
“In north-central Alabama we will soon begin the study and research of one of this state’s greatest energy resources. 7-point-5 Billion barrels of oil are located on the surface and sub-surface in north-central Alabama, in the form of oil sands. This year we will create the Alabama Oil Sands Program at the Geological Survey and Oil and Gas Board to further study this potentially rich resource.”
Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat in 1955 launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the Civil Rights Movement. Although the color barrier on buses eventually fell and black ridership returned, the state of Alabama had already boycotted and continues to boycott the funding of buses and other forms of mass transit.
The consequences of this decision are certainly measurable. The Birmingham metro ranked 94th out of the 100 largest metros for job accessibility and transit coverage in a 2011 Brookings study. Rankings for the other Alabama metros are assumed to be just as disappointing but most reports only examine larger metropolitan regions.
The state’s dismissal of mass transit restricts its residents’ transportation choices and congests its economy.
Why It Matters
If you can’t reach jobs, you can’t reach a higher income level. The state’s poor transit and job accessibility definitely correlates with Alabama’s low economic mobility, defined as an individual’s ability to improve his or her economic status. Pretty much the entire country has higher levels of economic mobility, except for the traffic jam that is the Atlanta region.
If employees can’t reach jobs, employers have a limited base to hire from. Gov. Robert Bentley is hellbent on attracting out-of-state jobs to Alabama but has yet to free a penny of the gas tax to help residents commute to those new jobs. The young professionals that cities and states crave are ditching cars and hopping on buses to reach their jobs. Unfortunately, Alabama has stalled itself out in the car culture of the 20th Century.
Required car ownership drives up the cost of living. Even though Alabama’s metros and the state rank as affordable places to live, the state’s sprawled-out nature necessitates car ownership and the estimated $5,000+ annual price tag.
Those who ride the bus are left to wait at the bus stop. The initial funds set aside for mass transit would serve current riders the most. Local transit authorities could increase the frequency of buses to arrive at stops every 15 minutes (a transit standard), down from the current hour-long headways. According to a 2010 BJCTA survey (p. 20), 86% of its riders identify as black/African American. Pretending that the state’s fight against mass transit isn’t racial or anti-urban would be naive.
What Should Be Done
The state gas tax is a common way for states to fund mass transit projects and operation, and it should be no different in Alabama. As the chart above shows (calculated from the migraine-inducing distribution law), cities and counties already receive 43.7% of the gasoline tax revenue but are barred from using it for mass transit. This infringement on local rule is one of many countless examples of Alabama’s immense state power.
All that would be needed is a constitutional amendment to allow local governments to spend their shares of the gasoline tax revenue on any type of transportation projects. This amendment would not increase the gas tax, reduce the Alabama Department of Transportation’s budget or require local governments to spend on mass transit. It would simply free counties and municipalities to spend their gas tax shares as they and their constituents see fit.
Former State Legislator Steve Flowers announced his intentions to run for Place 2 on the Public Service Commission at a press conference earlier today.
“During my legislative career, I maintained one of the most conservative voting records among my peers and earned a reputation as being one of Alabama’s most pro-business legislators,” Flowers said in a statement reported by AL.com. “I plan to continue that legacy in this next chapter of my public service.”
Flowers was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1982. He left the office in 1998 after not seeking reelection. In 2002, Flowers switched parties and ran for the Alabama State Senate as Republican, ultimately losing to Hank Erwin. He currently writes a syndicated column on Alabama politics, teaches a class on Southern politics at Troy University, and hosts weekly television and radio shows.
The seat is currently occupied by Terry Dunn, who announced his intentions to run for re-election following a disagreement with Commission President Twinkle Cavanaugh earlier in the year.
Dunn, who had been pushing for a formal rate review of Alabama utilities expressed concern that Alabama’s rate structures allow for returns on equity of above the national average (Alabama Power’s return on equity was estimated at 30 to 40 percent higher than the national average). Cavanaugh, however, countered that doing so might be dangerous for Alabama jobs, and supported an informal review instead.
Dunn issued a statement that said Cavanaugh was “trying to change the subject rather than give the public a straight answer about why they are fighting a proposal that is so obviously in the public interest and so obviously overdue.”
Dunn responded to Flowers’ candidacy in a press release today. “I think it’s fair to ask, ‘Whose side is he on?” Dunn said. “I’ll continue to stand with customers, not the companies.”
Others who have declared their candidacy for Place 2 on the Public Service Commission include: Former Alabama Republican Party interim press secretary Jonathan Barbee, Chairman of the Alabama Minority GOP Phillip Brown, and former Greene County Commissioner Chris “Chip” Beeker.
Considering the lack of high-profile, statewide campaigns this election season, the race for Place 2 on the Public Service Commission will likely be one of the most watched.
The Republican primary is slated for June 3, 2014. The general election will take place on November 4, 2014.
Cities, not states, are all the rage. Whether it’s young people moving downtown, the predicted end to suburban living, or the importance of financially stable municipalities, cities have dominated headlines for the first time since we first started leaving them.
Even thought-to-be-rural Alabama is not immune. About half the state lives within the metropolitan spheres-of-influence of just the four largest cities – Birmingham, Montgomery, Huntsville, and Mobile. More than 70% of the state lives within the state’s 11 total metropolitan areas. These metro areas grew in population by 1.4% between 2010 and 2012, on pace with the US national average and the average for all metro areas.
This growth –any growth or decline, for that matter – requires growth management. Local and state governments minimize the strains of growth and maximize its benefits by using growth management tools and policies such as zoning and land preservation.
How a state’s population and growth is distributed impacts the environment, transportation infrastructure, community health, local economies, and other important components.
So what’s Alabama doing for growth management? Well, nothing actually. Cities and metropolitan areas have their own comprehensive and regional plans that focus inwardly, but Alabama has no statewide growth management plan.
Many states lack a growth management plan, though.
The difference is that the state of Alabama has deliberately weakened the power of city and county governments and centralized power within the state legislature. You would think that a powerful state government would take the opportunity to implement a statewide growth management plan, but Alabama has not.
Alabama’s power structure combined with its lack of leadership limits its municipalities’ ability to grow and ability to determine how they grow. This gets us to home rule.
Home rule is the legal and political concept of states granting self-governance to local governments. The varying permitted functions and powers comprise the legal element, and the state legislative decision to grant such authorities comprise the political element.
Home rule does not equate to complete local sovereignty – only the degree of independence delegated to local governments.
The long history of home rule helps evaluate Alabama’s longstanding decision to withhold power from local governments.
Although the federal and state governments control political power in the United States today, the colonies operated more locally. Most scholars agree that the “dominant political culture in colonial America was localist and decentralized.”
The size of Southern colonies necessitated a unique setup of local government. Southern colonies formed counties to “exercise their powers over wider areas,” whereas Northern colonies used townships and boroughs. Counties are still in place in Alabama and are the local government most severely weakened by the state.
The Constitutional Period Through The Mid-19th Century
The United States Constitution’s exclusion of local governments implicitly empowered the states to regulate local governments. State legislatures delegated power to local governments through constitutional provisions.
Judicial decisions in the early 1800s supported the growing recognition of state power over local governments. In the opinion for Stetson v. Kempton, an 1816 Massachusetts Supreme Court case, Justice C.J. Parker called towns “creatures of legislation” that had “only the power which are expressly granted to them.”
The Three Home Rule Doctrines
Dillon’s Rule is the most recognized home rule doctrine because of the widespread acceptance of limited local governments. But, the Cooley Doctrine and the Fordham Rule are two interpretations that favor stronger local rule.
These doctrines are only judicial holdings of state law that have conversely influenced the political decisions of state legislatures.
Dillon’s Rule construes states as the ultimate arbiters of local control, and as a result, local governments only have the power expressly bestowed on them. This legal interpretation typically resolves any state-local disputes in favor of the state. The killer quotation from Iowa Justice John Dillon’s opinion in an 1868 case: “Municipal corporations owe their origin to, and derive their powers and rights wholly from, the legislature. It breathes into them the breath of life, without which they cannot exist. As it creates, so it may destroy. If it may destroy, it may abridge and control.” The United States Supreme Court upheld the principles of Dillon’s Rule in the 1907 case Hunter v. Pittsburgh.
The Cooley Doctrine offers a diametrically opposing interpretation to Dillon’s Rule. The doctrine assigns the absolute right of government to municipalities and protects their rights from the state. The Cooley Doctrine traces back to the decisions of Chief Justice Thomas Cooley of the Michigan Supreme Court beginning in 1871. Cooley writes, “[L]ocal government is a matter of absolute right.” State governments, Cooley argues, only have the right to govern the framework of local governments, not to control them. Unlike Dillon’s Rule, the Cooley Doctrine did not receive widespread judicial application. Despite the courts’ neglect of the doctrine, states have recognized its merits and woven its core beliefs into constitutional provisions and municipal charters.
The Fordham Rule developed from political theory in the mid-20th century. The Fordham Rule recommends a synthesis of the two other home rule interpretations – a high level of local government independence with the state’s right to oversee defined legal areas. The Fordham Rule has been called a “devolution-of-powers” approach that supports the use of state-approved municipal charters that supersede state statutes in prescribed legal areas. By virtue of existing in the middle of the home rule spectrum, the Fordham Rule has gained political traction over the less state-politically appealing Cooley Doctrine.
Alabama’s Limited Home Rule For Counties
Alabama is categorized as a counties-only Dillon’s Rule state. By incorporating as a city, communities can receive additional powers far beyond those granted to county governments.
Alabama is not alone as a Southern state that restricts the powers of local governments. What sets Alabama apart is the extreme degree to which it restricts its counties and the original reasons for doing so.
Alabama’s political mistreatment of counties began around the time the state adopted its constitution at the turn of the 20th century. Even before the state’s constitutional convention in 1901, the state legislature had handled local issues within local communities. The precedent of an overbearing state government mixed with the time period’s gradual embrace of Dillon’s Rule and the state’s divided social culture led to a distrust of local governments that influenced the state constitution.
Those at the Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1901 sought to preserve the power of the state Democratic Party within the state capitol, while also diminishing the power of typically Republican-controlled local governments and restricting the rights of minorities. Delegates associated county officials with the populism movement and supporters of blacks and poor white farmers.
The proceedings of the convention openly recorded that those in attendance sought to “establish white supremacy in this State.” This racist mindset influenced the decision to withhold power from local governments. One delegate declared that most delegates could agree that a state legislator is “more capable of legislating for the people of his county” than the county government itself.
The debate concerning local government powers devolved to such a point that the original document did not include an article addressing local government or any home rule elements. It took until after the ratification of the constitution for the state legislature to grant basic powers to local governments, but the legislature remained steadfast in its condemnation of counties.
The constitution eventually succeeded in a public referendum wrought by widespread voter fraud and disenfranchisement to the benefit of the constitution’s backers.
Suffice it to say, the framers of the Alabama Constitution applied far different reasoning for limited local governments than originally imagined by the supporters of Dillon’s Rule.
The Code of Alabama provisions powers to county governments. The authorized growth management powers of a county include the power to regulate subdivisions and to enforce zoning within flood-prone areas.
The subdivision power covers the ability to control the minimum size of lots and the placement of public utilities and infrastructure. Subdivision ordinances are the lowest rung for growth management and are wholly reactive to development.
The code does authorize county governments to adopt and enforce zoning in flood-prone areas for the prevention of “human suffering” and “great financial and economic loss.” The reasoning for this provision could have also been applied to granting additional zoning power, but the state legislature has refused to recognize the benefits of county zoning.
Without zoning powers, counties cannot legally prevent an industrial use from locating next to a neighborhood or even a school. Counties, as a result, cannot predict their future land use patterns and cannot prepare their infrastructure accordingly.
Calls for Reform
Supporters for a new Alabama state constitution have organized, but confronted with minimal political support and a public fear of enlarged government, the constitutional reform movement has failed to gain traction.
Many Alabama residents fear the effects of increased local control as well. State legislators and interest groups have associated stronger county governments with higher taxes over the years, causing individuals in the state to fear that newly empowered counties will tack on additional taxes to fund expanded government operations. This is the case in financially strapped Jefferson County in which the County Commission plans to campaign for state legislation that would revive its occupational tax.
The state’s insistence to follow the model set forth by Dillon’s Rule has created ineffective governing for counties and a tumultuous relationship between counties and the state.
Counties have been forced to spend time and resources lobbying the state legislature to amend the state constitution to grant powers that most local governments in other states take for granted. A 2005 analysis revealed that 500 of the state constitution’s 772 amendments dealt with an individual county or city. Historical prejudices continued during the 19th and 20th centuries as amendments delegating power to primarily black counties were adopted at a slower pace than those for primarily white counties.
Without a comprehensive provision for planning, counties such as Baldwin County needed the state legislature to pass an act to permit local growth management efforts. Baldwin County could only adopt its zoning ordinance after the Baldwin County Planning and Zoning Act passed in 1991.
Unless all counties follow Baldwin County’s burdensome approach, the unincorporated land in Alabama is left unplanned, threatening the development pattern of the state. City zoning power is not enough either, since most of the state’s land falls under county jurisdiction. Deprived of county zoning power, rural areas especially are susceptible to development that may not follow the standards of effective planning or the characteristics of its surroundings.
Local governments operating under Dillon’s Rule suffer from a “chilling effect” that “causes local officials to doubt their power, and it stops local governmental programs from developing fully.” In addition, forcing localities to govern only with delegated powers also undermines their capacity to respond to unprecedented situations. In an era of climate change and economic restructuring, the ability to respond to unprecedented situations is needed more than ever.
The proliferation of community incorporations for additional local powers also affects the state’s metro regions. These incorporations typically occur along the metropolitan fringe and create unnecessary fragmentation of government. Alabama exacerbates this problem by setting a minimum population for a community to incorporate at just 300, although the community must be within a “populous” county or near another incorporated area. After at least 15% of the community has signed a petition to incorporate, a judge oversees a public referendum.
In the past few years, state representatives have abused their power over local governments by withholding bills pertaining to communities as leverage to publicize their own interests. One state representative vowed to block all local bills in the legislature after other representatives did not back a particular bill.
Alabama’s application of the Dillon’s Rule for its counties has impaired local governments. Although the concept of Dillon’s Rule empowers state to oversee local governments and prevent abuses of power, Alabama has not employed it accordingly. Instead, the state sought to establish the supremacy of the state legislature to thwart populist county governments that supported minorities.
Despite the issues associated with greater municipal authority, Alabama’s deliberate weakening of local governments results in poor growth management and political meddling. Alabama’s outdated legal treatment of counties, which serve as the local governments for most of the sparsely populated state, imposes unnecessary strains.
Now that the rest of the county has realized that local governments are the engines of economic success, Alabama must decide what its role will be moving forward.
Will it lead? Will it support local governments? Or will it continue to hold local governments back?
 Kenneth E. Vanlandingham, “Municipal Home Rule in the United States,” 10 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 269 (1968) at p. 280.
 The Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, “Local Government Autonomy: Needs for State Constitutional Statutory and Judicial Clarification” (The Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, October 1993) at p. 28, online at http://www.library.unt.edu/gpo/acir/Reports/policy/a-127.pdf.
 The Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (October 1962), supra at p. 5.
 Stetson v. Kempton, 13 Mass. 272 (1816).
 City of Clinton v. Cedar Rapids & Mo. River R.R., 24 Iowa 455 (1868).
 People v. Hurlbut, 24 Mich. 44 (1871).
 Jefferson B. Fordham, Model Constitutional Provisions for Municipal Home Rule (Chicago: American Municipal Association 1953).
 The Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (October 1993), supra at p. 44.
 The Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (October 1993), supra at p. 44.
 Jesse J. Richardson, Meghan Zimmerman Gough, and Robert Puentes, “Is Home Rule the Answer? Clarifying the Influence of Dillon’s Rule on Growth Management,” The Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy (January 2003) at p. 41, online at http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2003/1/01metropolitanpolicy%20richardson/dillonsrule.pdf.
 Jim Williams and Randolph Horn, “Local Self-Government in Alabama,” 33 Cumb. L. Rev. 245 (2003) at p. 257.
 Ron Casey, “Our Rotten Constitution Needs to Go,” in For the Love of Alabama, ed. by Sam Hodges (Tuscaloosa, Ala.: The University of Alabama Press, 2011), p. 30.
 Will Parker, “Still Afraid of ‘Negro Domination?’: Why County Home Rule Limitations in the Alabama Constitution of 1901 Are Unconstitutional,” 57 Ala. L. Rev. 545 (2005-2006) at p. 558.
 Parker, supra at p. 546.
 Parker, supra at p. 558.
 Williams and Horn, supra at p. 259.
 Williams and Horn, supra at p. 260.
 Casey, supra at p. 31.
 Code of Alabama § 11-24-2 (2006).
 Code of Alabama § 11-19-2 (1971).
 William H. Stewart, “The Tortured History of Efforts to Revise the Alabama Constitution of 1901,” 53 Ala. L. Rev. 295 (2001) at p. 309.
 Stewart, supra at pp. 326-327.
 Parker, supra at p. 546.
 Parker, supra at p. 562.
 Richardson, supra at p. 674.
 The Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (October 1962), supra at p. 24.
 The Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (October 1962), supra at p. 29.