Saturday, August 15, 2009

Kicking the can ever so slightly

Well, that's done.

Alabama legislators, resisting the urge to lock down in tedious filibuster exchanges, got in and got out in five days this week for a special session to save Jefferson County from immediate financial disaster. They reauthorized an occupational tax that accounted for a fourth of the county's budget. They established a county manager and required quarterly budget reports. They saved the cheerleader and saved the world.

For a few years, anyway. The occupational tax will start to die in 2012 unless voters bail it out. As unpopular as the Jefferson County Commission is, and as unpopular as the very idea of taxation is in some circles, you could be forgiven for having doubts about the prospects for a "yes" vote. If the tax goes down, the county's cash flow problem is likely to re-emerge. And we won't even discuss that pesky, lingering $3.9 billion Sword of Damocles that is the county's sewer debt.

Questions of fairness understandably surround the occupational tax. Why should poor people pay at the exact same rate as richer people? Why is it OK for some counties to have an occupational tax but not others? And as we've heard most commonly, why should people who don't live in Jefferson County have to pay the tax? Isn't that taxation without representation?

The last question in particular might raise a valid point in a state with a governmental structure that makes any degree of sense. But in Alabama, where the question of whether a city is allowed to cut weeds is a matter for the Legislature, everyone across the state just got a say in Jefferson County's tax system.

If you look at the House and Senate votes on the occupational tax bill, you'll notice "yes" votes from Rep. Marcel Black of Colbert County and Sen. Vivian Figures of Mobile County. You'll also notice "no" votes from Rep. Robert Bentley of Tuscaloosa County and Sen. Trip Pittman of Baldwin County. Those areas, plus many others, weighed in on Jefferson County's occupational tax, even though, at last check, none of those places were Jefferson County.

So in the end, everyone had a chance to be heard, the votes were tallied, and the occupational tax is back on life support. Hundreds of potential layoffs of Jefferson County employees were averted. The county will have an added layer of oversight -- even if, as the Birmingham Weekly notes, adding a county manager will do little to simplify the county's finances. And all of the lawsuits and legal ambiguities surely are coming to an end.

Except... Wait... What's this? Oh, it's the Legislative Fiscal Office's fiscal note for the brand-new occupational tax bill. This should be informative: "An estimate of the amount of revenue generated by the tax authorized by this bill is undetermined due to the fact that a clear definition of 'compensation, excluding benefits, or net income before taxes whichever is less' is not provided in this bill."

Uh-oh.

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