Hammett sees time right for change

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 28, 2003

Limited home rule and tax reform are both at the forefront of any proposed constitutional reform in Alabama, and from the county commissioners in the smallest county to the governor's office - everyone has an opinion.

Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, Speaker of the House of Representatives, has long been one of the leaders in the state advocating reform, and continues to be a leader in working to institute true change in Alabama's government.

However, when it comes to the specifics of limited home rule, tax reform and the best way to reform Alabama's 1901 Constitution, his views are among the most respected and sought after in all of Alabama.

Hammett, long a proponent of home rule, said he feels such a move would be best for the state's citizens.

"Local officials are almost always better informed and more attuned to the needs of constituents," he said. "At the same time, I also feel that limited home rule legislation should include safeguards to insure fairness."

To gain that local limited home rule, Hammett believes a rewrite of the current constitution on an article-by-article basis is best.

"While there are advantages in other methods, I favor an article-by-article rewrite of the state constitution. In addressing one or two constitutional articles at a time we could be sure that each article received full deliberative attention and the citizens of Alabama would not have to consider a single, cumbersome document in a take-it-or-leave-it referendum," he said. "The House has also passed a recompilation bill and sent it to the Senate. Any changes to the state constitution must be ratified by voter referendum, by law. Whether those changes are made by the Legislature or by a citizen-led constitutional convention, the people of Alabama will have the final say."

When it comes to the subject of "earmarking" funds - perhaps the most heated topic of all - Hammett says both sides of the coin must be evaluated, but change is needed to allow for more flexibility in funding.

"There are advantages and disadvantages to in earmarking funds," he said, "especially to the extent that Alabama does. I think we could reduce the amount of earmarking in state funds to bring us closer to the national average without unduly harming education or the Department of Transportation. This would allow us far more flexibility in funding than is currently possible."

In a recent Mobile Register story, Gov. Bob Riley suggested he be given the power of a line item veto - where a governor could strike out individual sections of a budget or bill - in order to help improve the flow of legislation. This one item could be the most heavily debated of any constitutional reform, aside from a potential tax increase.

Hammett said although a line item veto wouldn't be out of the question, it must be approached with caution, and used with even greater caution.

"The Legislature is responsible for the disbursement of state funds," he said. "While the Governor submits a state budget for the Legislature to consider, I believe that person should only be allowed the power of a line item veto when the Legislature is in session."

In the same Mobile Register story, it was suggested that any new taxes be passed or removed by a "super majority" of voters instead of a majority of voters or legislators. Hammett said simply that "our system of government is based on majority rule, and taxes should be treated no differently than anything else."

Alabama's financial condition - standing taller than any other issue for the time being - has become the fodder for restaurant gossip and schoolhouse debate. With a projected $500 million shortfall in revenue, much of it falling on the shoulders of education, Hammett said the time is now to act, and that Gov. Riley's hinting at possible increased taxes isn't surprising.

"There is little doubt that we are going to have to find additional sources of revenue, both as an immediate solution to the projected $500 million shortfall we are currently facing and to help prevent such fiscal crises in the future," he said. "I am aware that the Governor is trying to eliminate waste as a first step, but there is not nearly a half-billion dollars that can be eliminated. Along with other members of the Legislature, I await his recommendation on how we are to address this issue."

As for a comment made from Senator Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, regarding the governor's thoughts on initiating a tax increase to the Mobile Register, where he said "We're not going to just vote for new revenue," Hammett said although he hadn't seen the senator's comments, he still believes the need is urgent for new sources of revenue.

"I reiterate that the funding sources we have now are inadequate to address the needs of our citizens and that means tapping new revenue streams."

As for the current education funding crisis, Hammett also said it's time to act, and that while it is never easy to vote for new taxes - for any legislator - a solution must be found.

"My concern is that some government officials have decried our perennial lack of adequate funding for so long that the average Alabama citizen thinks we are 'crying wolf' when we tell them how dire our current situation is," he said. "Alabama is one of 45 states facing the worst financial problem since World War II. My intent is to help the Governor to solve this crisis before we have to start the austere measures that will be necessary otherwise."