In just under a week, Alabamians will join the rest of the nation in going to the polls to fill national, statewide, and local offices. At the presidential level, it’s fair to say it has been a bitter and divisive election, and I’d guess that more than a few people will be glad to see it end, regardless of which candidate wins the office. There’s a lot of election fatigue out there.
Here in Alabama, in every statewide election we have the opportunity to extend a world record: our dubious achievement of being governed under the world’s longest constitution. Its 892 amendments make it the most amended constitution in the world. It’s 12 times longer than the average state constitution, largely due to this state’s aversion to home rule and local autonomy. In next week’s election, there are 14 more statewide amendments on the ballot. At the risk of fatiguing you just a little more, Ruth and I ask you to indulge us in just a little bit of campaigning for one of them.
Amendment Two is proposed to protect funding for Alabama state parks by preventing the Legislature from using park revenues to shore up other parts of the state’s budget. As we’ve pointed out before, Alabama taxpayers don’t fund their state parks. About 80-90% of the budget for running Alabama’s state parks comes from their users through various fees and charges. The rest of the money comes from earmarked portions of use and cigarette taxes. In recent years, the state has taken $15 million in funds earned by the parks, intended for their operation and maintenance, to meet rising expenses in the general fund that have not been offset by revenue such as taxes. At first, such transfers depleted park reserves but didn’t affect park operations, but as the transfers continued, the situation deteriorated to the point that it wasn’t possible to keep all the parks open. Five parks were closed in 2015, though fortunately four of them have re-opened under agreements with local governments.
Amendment Two has two main provisions. The first, and most significant, states that money raised by the parks for their operation can only be used for that purpose. It shuts the door on transfers to other state departments. The parks, if left alone, are practically self-funding and this amendment will keep it that way. It won’t raise taxes and it won’t raise fees. Instead, it gives the Alabama State Parks Division the freedom to perform long-term planning to maintain and improve their facilities. In the current situation, though it’s possible to forecast park revenues to a certain extent, the parks don’t know how much of the money they raise will be available, so they can’t budget accordingly. In Amendment Two there are limits put in place, so that if the parks actually raise more than $50 million in revenues (a far cry from their current numbers), the amount of money provided by taxes will be pro-rated. For instance, if the parks raise $55 million in user fees and charges, $5 million less will be coming their way through the earmarked use and cigarette taxes.
The second provision has been a source of confusion and has led to much misinformation being spread about its intent. It calls for an amendment to an existing amendment (ugh, this constitution!) that will allow all of the parks to contract with non-state entities to operate hotels, golf courses, and restaurants in the parks. This has been decried as privatization of the parks. The truth is that many of the parks already have such arrangements in place, usually to the benefit of the state since those concessionaires pay the state for the privilege of running those facilities. This language is necessary because an earlier amendment that funded a bond issue to improve some of the parks stipulated that outside entities could not run facilities in those parks. The result is that years later, those facilities can only be run by the state, even when outside companies can run them more cost-efficiently and pass the savings along to the state. And if there isn’t enough money to run those facilities, such as golf courses, the state is forced to close them instead of partnering with private enterprise to keep them open.
Of course, what you see on the ballot isn’t the full text of the proposed legislation, and our Legislators have an evil genius for sneaking in favors for their cronies in the fine print. The Huntsville Outdoors blog has an excellent look into the history of this bill and its possible pitfalls. Though there is some language in the bill that has led to skepticism, bear in mind that this bill wasn’t developed in a vacuum, and that the State Parks Division is in favor of the bill. Conservation Alabama has an explanation of the intent behind this language, and Greg Lein, the director of Alabama State Parks, has also addressed these concerns in an article on al.com. I know it’s second nature in Alabama to assume that the government is always trying to pull a fast one (with some justification!), but this amendment looks like a golden opportunity to stabilize parks funding and a way to restore some levels of service.
Some people have said that they always vote against every proposed amendment as a protest vote against the convoluted Alabama constitution. How’s that working out for you? If you want to cast a protest vote, ask candidates for your state legislature where they stand on calling a constitutional convention to fix the problem, and depending on their answers, vote accordingly. Even better, when you have your ballot in hand, spare a moment to think of all the Alabama senators who voted in 2015 to eliminate the Forever Wild Land Trust, in direct opposition to the will of the people who re-authorized the program in 2012 by a 3-1 margin (if your senator isn’t Cam Ward, he or she voted in favor of this travesty). Though this bill was withdrawn in the face of opposition, there are a lot of senators who would be the better target of a protest vote.
Approving Amendment Two will secure the future of funding for Alabama’s state parks and prevent the need for hare-brained schemes to keep the parks open. We’ve traveled to state parks in Tennessee and Georgia many times over the past couple of years, and though Alabama has every bit the natural beauty (and more biodiversity), our facilities and amenities are badly lagging behind those of our neighbors. Amendment Two can help us realize the potential of our parks.
So as you head to the polls on November 8, spare a thought for our state parks and approve this modest proposal in Amendment Two. After all, if 892 amendments are good, 893 amendments must be better, right?