• Occupational Taxes, County Bankruptcies And You.

    Ever since Jefferson County, AL's half-cent occupational tax, authorized in 1967 but not collected until 1988, was struck down as "unconstitutional" back in 2011, the county's been out of an estimated $66 million in desperately-needed revenue. It was the proverbial straw that broke the county's back and drove it into one of the largest bankruptcies in recent history.

    Now the county wants to resurrect that tax in an effort to get its fiscal house back in order. Except there's plenty of vocal opposition that would rather have the county eat its cold bowl of court-imposed and "taxpayer"-supported austerity. Instead, Jefferson County is being forced to trim back on indigent care, most notably the services provided by Jefferson County's Cooper Green Mercy hospital. Most of the AL.com crowd wouldn't mind seeing the hospital close its doors, despite it serving a significant portion of JeffCo's poorest and uninsured.

    Cooper Green is currently some $8.9 million bucks in the hole. The hospital's seen its obstetrics and oncology services put to an end in an effort to cut back on spending. People who can't afford decent care from the other surrounding hospitals may have no other choice but to hit the emergency rooms of UAB and others. Meanwhile, the county is doing its best to shed enough of its budget to meet a $40 million dollar shortfall. It doesn't matter how much that ground glass hurts going down, you have to finish all of your austerity before eating dessert.

    The whole point of the occupational tax? There are thousands of suburbanites outside of Jefferson County who commute into the county for work but leave promptly afterwards, with their paychecks not far behind. Most of these people choose not to spend any money inside the county beyond the occasional lunch and a tank fill-up. They don't pay property taxes because they don't live in Jefferson County, but they still utilize the road networks and rely on law enforcement, fire and rescue and other resources.

    These folks live in Shelby, St. Clair, Bibb, Tuscaloosa and Blount Counties*, places with much lower taxes and far more conservative social and political mores. As you can imagine, they'll extract wealth from JeffCo, but that's about it. A half-cent occupational tax would go a ways to recoup some of those expenses spent on those commuting into JeffCo.

    The most recent bill drafted by lawmakers, the "Alabama Financially Distressed Counties Act," will give other counties the power to levy their own occupational taxes when they fall between a rock and a fiscally hard place. Unfortunately, those suburban folks are the kind of folks who reflexively twist their faces in disgust over paying yet another (half) penny in taxes, despite effectively having their cake and eating it. But it's not just the virulently anti-tax people who are up in arms over the prospect of an occupation tax.

    Part of the problem lies in Alabama's fucked up legislative methods when it comes to county-wide affairs. You see, while most other states give their counties home rule, Alabama...doesn't. In most cases, if you want to get get things done in your county, it has to go through the state legislature as either a local bill, seen and approved by the county's legislators or a general bill, seen and approved by all of the state's lawmakers. It only takes four county representatives in the House or one senator to take a local bill, beat the living shit out of it and toss it into a corner, broken and battered until the next legislative session. This is what the illustrious State Senator Scott Beason did to a prior attempt at resurrecting the occupational tax.

    The other part of the problem is the bill authors being their own worst enemies. Sen. Jabo Waggoner and Rep. Jack Williams each pushed their own versions of the "Alabama Financially Distressed Counties Act" as a general bill. Williams managed to get his bill through committee. And then a Birmingham News reporter asked a simple question: whether the bill included exemptions for lawyers, doctors and other professionals.

    Keep in mind this was an understandable question to ask. The previous occupation tax had this exemption in place to prevent professionals who were already paying professional license fees from essentially being double-taxed. Rep. Williams answered in the affirmative. And that's where the sugar turned to shit.

    You see, Rep. Williams didn't actually read the whole bill, despite being credited as the author. As it turns out, no one actually writes their own bills. Or reads them. Worse, lobbyists and other people with vested interests in legislation are the ones penning the bills:

    For Williams, the incident exposed an embarrassing fact about how legislation becomes law. Most lawmakers don’t write the bills they sponsor. This is probably for the best, since many are not lawyers and could do more harm than good if they did pen the bills themselves. What’s more, many lawmakers don’t read the bills, either. Instead, they trust the lobbyists and interested parties who shop legislation to them. This becomes a frustrating and embarrassing problem when pesky reporters ask them about the legislation or when the bills become law and have all sorts of unintended and irritating effects, as Alabama’s immigration law, HB56, had last year.

    It might seems silly from the outside looking in, but in a system run by lobbyists and politicians, trust is essential.
    That sums up Alabama's entire legislative problem in a nutshell. The legislators are merely figureheads and decoration for the real powers: lobbyists and corporate interests.

    JeffCo Commissioner David Carrington neglected to make clear to Williams how the exemptions weren't gonna be in the bill. Whoops. Fortunately, Waggoner's bill had these exemptions, in the form of a deduction from professional license fees as long as the fees were less than the tax. Waggoner's bill made it past the Senate, but it didn't make it past the House County and Municipal Government Committee intact.

    ...the County and Municipal Government Committee of the House of Representatives today voted 7-4 to rewrite the plan to exempt people who live outside the county from paying the occupational tax.

    Jefferson County Commission President David Carrington said that change would reduce revenue from the allowed occupational tax to about $45 million a year.

    Opponents of the amendment excluding Jefferson County workers who live outside the county said it would be unconstitutional, since it would create two separate classes of workers.

    That defeats the purpose of the bill, which is perhaps the intended effect. The last bill got killed because an "unconstitutional" amendment. Leaving this poison pill in the pie could get the whole thing thrown out at some point.

    Wednesday is the last day of the current state legislative session. Unless the governor feels like opening a special session, this may be the last chance for the county to see a solution to the fiscal problems ailing it.

    *There's an urban myth out there that Walker County residents actually commute into JeffCo. I doubt the veracity of this myth, as most Walker Co. residents have traded their wheels for cinder blocks.