Roundtable Alumni Make an Impact

Impact Alabama, a statewide service organization that harnesses the energy of college students, deployed more than 570 IRS-certified students and volunteersduring this spring’s tax season to provide free tax preparation assistance to 8,200 families.

The returns they filed brought home $14.9 million in refunds. They also saved families over $2.5 million they would otherwise have spent on commercial tax preparation services. Impact Alabama was founded by PARCA Roundtable alumnus Stephen Black, who now serves as the director of the University of Alabama’s Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility. Impact’s executive director, Sarah Louise Smith, is the immediate past chairman of the Roundtable.

IMPACT’s tax preparation initiative, SaveFirst, targets those who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, the federal government’s largest anti-poverty program supporting low- to moderate-income working individuals and families. Students from sixteen college campuses participated in SaveFirst in 2014. The number of families served increased by 31 percent.

The effort, which helps families avoid the sometimes predatory fees charged by tax preparation companies that set up shop in low-income communities, drew attention from several national news outlets.  The New York Times, National Public Radio, MSNBC and NBC all produced feature stories on the initiative and issues surrounding tax preparation.


Alabama’s Tax Bargain

Tax Foundation Tax Freedom MapApril is traditionally the month we think about taxes. National tax comparisons are published, and we were reminded again this year that Alabama has among the lowest taxes in the U.S.

In this month’s edition of The Alabama Baptist, PARCA executive director Jim Williams points out that while our state’s taxes are low, we may not be getting a great bargain.

The questions we should be asking are these:  Are we getting our money’s worth? Are the tax dollars we send to Montgomery being spent efficiently and effectively? Unfortunately, Alabama’s budgeting and management process doesn’t ask those questions.  And until it does, we won’t know the answer.

Each year, The Tax Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, calculates what it calls “Tax Freedom Day.” This is the calendar day when total personal income is sufficient to pay all taxes – federal, state, and local, freeing the balance of the year for other pursuits. This year’s Tax Freedom Day came on April 21st for the nation as a whole.

In Alabama it arrived two weeks earlier, on April 7th, due to our low tax burden. Only four other states finished paying for their taxes sooner.

The latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that Alabama’s state and local governments collected $2,904 in taxes per resident for fiscal 2011, a lower amount than in any other state. South Carolina ranked second-lowest. Alabama’s taxes were $324 million lower than they would have been if collected at the same per-capita rate as in South Carolina.

However, taxes are a bargain only when taxpayers get more than their money’s worth from the services produced. This can’t happen without control over the use of revenue and budget procedures that focus on performance. The State of Alabama, which spends over 10 billion taxpayer dollars each year, has neither.

Most of that money flowing into Montgomery is earmarked. It will be spent for a specific-purpose, whether or not that purpose is determined to be an important priority or pressing need. About 88 percent of Alabama tax revenue is earmarked, a proportion far higher than in any other state. That’s a problem: guaranteed budgets provide no incentive to efficiency.

As a result, there is relatively little effort put toward measuring the performance of state agencies. Instead of being a careful examination of spending and the results of that spending, budgeting in Alabama is largely a matter of determining how much is available to spend and then spreading it out among the various agencies.  Alabama has a sound Budget Management Act that has been on the books for many years, but in current practice, Alabama has no systematic process for linking appropriations to performance measures or budgeting according to priorities.

Compare the budget documents produced in Alabama with those produced in other Southeastern states. Look at what Georgia and Tennessee do when it comes to making budgets and evaluating the performance of agencies. Compare the budget produced by South Carolina’s Governor  or by Mississippi’s executive budget and performance measures 

As every shopper knows, low prices are only half of what makes a bargain. We also need to know why we’re spending, if we are spending wisely, and whether we are getting quality government services in return.


Challenges Facing Children

Alabama children face steeper obstacles to opportunity than children in the rest of the nation, and that is particularly the case for black and Hispanic children, according to Race for Results, a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Race for Results focuses on 12 conditions that either create advantage or disadvantage for children on the journey to success and prosperity. Those include the percent of children born at normal birthweight, the percent of children in two parent homes, the education and economic conditions of the surrounding neighborhood, and academic and employment levels at various stages in life.

On virtually all the indicators, Alabama children face an uphill climb compared to children in the country at large. That is particularly true of minority children in Alabama.

Race for Results is a new publication for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the child advocacy organization that publishes the Kids Count Databook and also maintains an online data center that tracks a host of statistics on child well-being. In Alabama, VOICES for Alabama’s Children is Casey’s partner in the collection and distribution of information.

Economic and educational disparities between blacks, whites, and Hispanics are a stubborn public policy challenge. The online version of the Race for Results report allows you to explore the data and build your own charts and graphs. Here is a PDF document that contains results on the indicators comparing Alabama to the U.S. Those charts can also be viewed online at the link below. Click on the bottom right hand corner of the chart below for a full screen version.