An Evening with The Capitol Steps

Join us for an uproarious night of musical political satire with The Capitol Steps, benefiting the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama.

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 27 AT 7:30 P.M. AT BIRMINGHAM’S HISTORIC LYRIC THEATRE

Reserve your seats here!

At PARCA, working to inform and improve government in Alabama is serious work—and we’ve been doing it for almost 30 years. But sometimes you just need to laugh.

Cue The Capitol Steps!

The Capitol Steps have elevated political satire to an art form. Before The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and features on NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS and NPR, this Washington, DC-based comedy troupe gave audiences laugh cramps with their bipartisan lampooning. The Capitol Steps began in 1981 as a group of Senate staffers who set out to satirize their employers, and haven’t let up with their hilarious skits and musical comedy. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or Democrat, neither side is safe from the group that puts the “MOCK” in Democracy!

Seats are available at three levels:

  • Balcony – General Admission ($50)
  • Floor Level – General Admission ($75)
  • Preferred Floor Seating & Pre-Show Reception ($100)


Newly released “Leadership Matters” report examines reinventing schools through key leaders

Last weekend at the Business Council of Alabama’s Governmental Affairs Conference, the Business Education Alliance unveiled its latest report, produced by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. The report, titled Leadership Matters: A Blueprint for Reinventing Schools for Student Success, looks at the role of state, school and community leaders in driving our schools towards success.

Alabama public schools are producing more high school graduates, but more of them need to be graduating prepared for and connected to education and training beyond high school. Alabama’s economy has the potential for impressive growth, but to capitalize on that potential, business and industry will need a new generation of better-educated Alabamians.

To capitalize on this moment of opportunity for students and for Alabama’s economy, creative and energetic leadership is needed at the state and local levels.

With a new state superintendent of education in place and November elections set to determine leadership in the Governor’s office, the State Legislature, and the State School Board, a new class of leaders will be called on to craft a plan for closing gaps in preparation and paving pathways to career opportunities.

In this report, we examine the crucial role leadership plays in shaping educational outcomes, and we showcase six examples where leadership is making a difference and where data indicate students are achieving higher levels of success.

Change-making leaders in education are not exclusively school administrators. Leaders are also stepping forward from government, business, higher education, and from community and civic groups. In fact, in all instances showcased, successful leaders have forged partnerships to accomplish their goals for better student outcomes.

Leaders show a passion for change. Sheffield’s Superintendent Keith Lankford describes having a “fire in his belly” to capitalize on his community’s hunger for higher expectations for their children.

Leaders empower teachers and students to believe in themselves.  As Talladega County fifth-grader Annslee Shaddix explained, she’s learned talents aren’t fixed; they’re mastered through effort. “If you had a fixed mindset,” she said, “you’d never improve.”

Leaders see possibility beyond conventions. Pike County’s Superintendent Mark Bazzell knew many of his high school students were capable of college-level work. In 2018, 23 Pike County students earned not just a high school diploma, but a college associate degree at the same time.

Leaders may be as ambitious as those in West Alabama, where a new, employer-driven training and recruitment system is replacing traditional educational models, matching student interests and ambitions with employer needs in partnership with area school systems

Or leaders may focus on the basics, like in Brewton, where the community pools money for scholarships, and every senior is required to devise a plan for college or financial independence after high school, referred to in Brewton’s down-home vernacular as a “Get Off Your Momma’s Payroll Plan.” Those resources and plans are among the factors that help that community produce some of Alabama’s highest college and career readiness rates.

“Finishing high school is not our goal. Our goal is getting them to the next level,” explained T.R. Miller High School Assistant Principal Doug Gerety.

Leaders across Alabama would do well to embrace those higher aspirations and pursue them with the strategic thinking, dedication, and innovation shown by dynamic communities.

Click here to read full report here.

 


The State’s Image Ranks #9 among Alabama Voter Priorities

In late 2017, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) surveyed Alabama voters to determine their thoughts about the general direction of the state and the issues that most concern them. PARCA partnered with Samford University to survey policy professionals from across the state including academics, journalists, business and nonprofit leaders, and lobbyists. Their responses provided a list of 17 critical issues facing Alabama. PARCA partnered with USA Polling at the University of South Alabama to ask registered voters about these 17 issues. The voters’ responses generated the Top Ten list of voter priorities. Details about the survey and its methodology can be found in the full Alabama Priorities report at www.parcalabama.org

Alabama Priorities

1. K-12 Education
2. Healthcare
3. Government Corruption and Ethics
4. Mental Health and Substance Abuse
5. Poverty and Homelessness
6. Jobs and the Economy
7. Crime and Public Safety
8. Job Training and Workforce Development
9. Improving the State's Image
10. Tax Reform


Key Findings

Voters broadly agree on the critical issues facing the state.

Voters are not polarized along traditional political, ideological, racial, or generational lines. There is a significant gap between the priorities of experts and the priorities of voters.

Policymakers have an opportunity to inform and educate voters on critical and systemic challenges facing the state.

Policymakers have an opportunity to respond to immediate, often highly personal issues that concern voters.

Elected officials and candidates have an opportunity to show leadership and to build broad coalitions to address Alabama’s most pressing challenges.

In the following months, PARCA will produce summary briefs on each of the top ten priorities chosen by Alabama voters. Each brief will answer four critical questions: what is the issue, why it matters, how Alabama compares, and what options are available to Alabama policymakers.

#9: The State’s Image

What is the Issue?

The state’s image is the 9th most important issue for Alabama voters, with 57% of survey respondents indicating they are very concerned about improving the state’s image.

When examining the top ten priorities by population, the state’s image made the top ten for most groups. Interestingly, the issue ranked higher for older voters and for those with lower incomes and levels of education.

Some would say that Alabama’s image is well earned. Alabama ranks poorly compared to other states in many measures of corruption, education, health, income, and general well-being – issues that will be explored more fully in future briefs.

The State’s Image by Group – asterisks (*) indicates the issue did not rank in the top ten

Alabamians are reminded of this fact frequently. Every few days there is a story in the media highlighting how Alabama compares to other states on some measure. A simple web search generates many such rankings – some concerning more substantive issues than others and some rankings compiled with more rigor than others. In just the last few weeks, Alabama has been ranked as:

  • 42nd in child-well being[1]
  • schools rank 42nd in the nation[2]
  • #3 in speed-related deaths[3]
  • #1 for fast-food restaurants per capita[4]
  • 41st in places to start a business[5]
  • 40th in children’s health[6]
  • 49th in hiring people with disabilities[7]

Rankings such as these do not tell the whole story, but as has been said, perception is reality.

Why is the State’s Image Important?

Perception

Alabama, like other southern states, labors under stereotypical and outdated assumptions about the rural south: remote, uneducated, and uncivilized. This narrative continues to be nurtured in popular culture and, sometimes by the state and its people. Alabamians, however, and those that visit, know that these descriptions do not reflect the state.

Fairly or not, Alabama must contend with its reputation when attracting new industry and new investment to Alabama. At the same time, the state has been relatively successful on this front in recent years, suggesting that perceptions can be challenged.

Economic developers know that quality of life is fast becoming one of the most important factors businesses consider when choosing a new location. When recruiting a new industry or a new employee, business leaders in Alabama often say, ‘if we can get them to visit, we can get them to stay.’

Reality

At the same time, while some aspects of the state’s image might be misguided or stereotypical, other aspects are based in reality. On average, Alabama students do lag behind their peers in most states. On average, Alabamians are more unhealthy than residents in many other states. Alabama’s median income is in the bottom five in the country, and the state’s recovery from the Great Recession has been slower than many other states.

These are real issues affecting real people, every day – regardless of the state’s reputation.

As noted, the state’s image emerged as a higher priority for voters with lower levels of income and education. The issue also ranked higher for voters generally (9th) than for policy professionals (16th). This could be because policy professionals believe that the best way to change the state’s image is indirectly, by addressing the individual factors that create the image. They are not wrong.

However, that the issue ranks so highly for voters underscores the extent to which voters believe the state’s image affects them personally. We suggest that people with more resources – more education, skills, and income – are held less captive by the state’s reputation. They also have more ability to relocate to other parts of the state or to leave the state altogether to seek other opportunities. Conversely, those with fewer resources – less education, skills, and income – may be, or feel, stuck. In other words, their prospects and those of their families may be more intimately tied with those of the state, their county, and their town.

How Does Alabama Compare?

Rather than attempting to measure Alabama’s image compared to other states, we look at three indicators as proxies: job creation, economic growth, and population. These metrics do not constitute image – but we suggest that the same factors that drive these metrics also drive the larger concept of image.

Job Creation

According to the Alabama Department of Commerce, the state has added or announced 138,197 new jobs and $35.2 billion in investment between 2010 and 2017. This suggests Alabama is increasingly attractive to business. However, as with many issues, the distribution of new jobs is not equal. In 2017, 19 counties reported zero jobs from new industry and three counties reported no new jobs from industry expansion.

Economic Growth

The effects of job growth – and decreasing unemployment – are beginning to show in the state’s GDP. Alabama experienced 3.3% growth between 2016 and 2017, outpacing recent trends, but below its southeastern neighbors. For the period 2010 to 2017, Alabama’s compounded annual growth rate is estimated at 2.7%, lower than every other southern state except Mississippi and Louisiana – and far behind regional leaders Tennessee (4.6%), Georgia (4.3%), and South Carolina (4.2%).

Population

The state may be adding jobs and seeing a positive trend in GDP, but these trends are not correlating to population growth. The state’s image surely plays a large role in people’s decisions to move to, or remain in, Alabama – and in recent years, Alabama has struggled to compete with surrounding states.

Between 2010 and 2017, the population of southern states has grown an average of 5.6%. Florida leads the pack at 11.6%. More comparable to Alabama however, are South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. These states have grown 8.6%, 7.7%, and 7.6% respectively.

Comparatively, in this same period, Alabama grew at 2.0%. This translates to a net population increase of 95,000 people in seven years – compared to an increase of 398,988 in South Carolina – a state that was approximately the same size as Alabama in 2010.

Moreover, the source of our population growth is telling. In the past seven years, Alabama has added population through natural growth (number of births minus number of death) and international migration. Alabama’s rate of international in-migration is much slower than most states, and its rate of domestic migration is lower than most other Southeastern states. Domestic migration – people moving from other states to Alabama – has accounted for a net increase of 1,153 people – less than 1% of the state’s population growth since 2010.

Alabama is adding jobs – but not people.  Alabama did see a larger year-over-year population increase in 2017. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new trend.

What Can We Do?

What, then, does this suggest for policy makers?

We suggest that policy makers recognize and prioritize the issues that give rise to a negative reputation. They have a real and profound impact on real people’s lives. As Alabama finds and implements effective responses to education, healthcare, jobs and the economy, crime and more – the state’s image will improve. More importantly, the lives of Alabamians will improve.

At the same time, leaders have an opportunity to remind Alabamians, and a larger national and international audience, of a broader story.

Alabama is emerging as a leader in advanced manufacturing and enjoys a growing reputation in research and innovation, as well as arts, culture, and cuisine.

Successes such as these should be celebrated. At the same time, the state’s challenges should be addressed in a straightforward manner, with an inclusive, broad-based program for expanding opportunity for all.

For the PDF version of the State’s Image summary brief, click here.

1] http://www.gadsdentimes.com/news/20180729/alabama-ranks-42nd-in-child-well-being

[2] http://www.waaytv.com/content/news/New-study-Alabama–489500431.html

[3] http://www.waff.com/story/38728591/alabama-ranks-no-3-in-speed-related-deaths

[4] https://whnt.com/2018/07/03/alabama-ranks-number-one-for-the-most-fast-food-restaurants-per-capita/

[5] https://www.bizjournals.com/birmingham/news/2018/07/02/alabama-ranks-low-for-best-places-to-start-a.html

[6] https://www.bizjournals.com/birmingham/news/2018/04/26/alabama-ranks-near-bottom-for-childrens-health.html

[7] https://www.al.com/business/index.ssf/2018/03/alabama_ranks_49th_among_state.html


Tax Reform Ranks #10 Among Alabama Voter Priorities

Background

In late 2017, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) surveyed Alabama voters to determine their thoughts about the general direction of the state and the issues that most concern them. PARCA partnered with Samford University to survey policy professionals from across the state, including academics, journalists, business and nonprofit leaders, and lobbyists. Their responses provided a list of 17 critical issues facing Alabama. PARCA partnered with USA Polling at the University of South Alabama to ask registered voters about these 17 issues. The voters’ responses generated the Top Ten list of voter priorities. Details about the survey and its methodology can be found in the full Alabama Priorities report.

Key Findings

Voters broadly agree on the critical issues facing the state.

Voters are not polarized along traditional political, ideological, racial or generational lines. There is a significant gap between the priorities of experts and the priorities of voters.

Policymakers have an opportunity to inform and educate voters on critical and systemic challenges facing the state.

Policymakers have an opportunity to respond to immediate, often highly personal issues that concern voters.

Elected officials and candidates have an opportunity to show leadership and to build broad coalitions to address Alabama’s most pressing challenges.

In the following months, PARCA will produce summary briefs on each of the top ten priorities chosen by Alabama voters, starting with #10. Each brief will answer four critical questions: what is the issue, why it matters, how Alabama compares, and what options are available to Alabama policymakers.

#10: Tax Reform

What is the Issue?

Tax reform is the 10th most important issue for Alabama voters, with 47% of voters indicating they were very concerned about the issue. Tax reform averaged 3.89 on 1 – 5 scale where 1 is “not at all concerned” and 5 is “very concerned.”

That voters are concerned about taxes and tax reform should come as no surprise. That the issue ranks tenth, however, is unexpected. The survey did not ask the direction or nature of tax reform. Certainly, voters and policymakers have differing concerns about Alabama’s tax policy. Taxes could be too high, too low, insufficient, or unfair. Recent research suggests that all of these can be true at the same time.

  • Taxes can be high – Alabama’s sales tax rates are among the highest in the country.
  • Taxes can be low – Alabama collects the lowest amount of property tax revenue per capita in the nation. The per capita collections could be doubled, and they would still be below the national average. Alabama per capita personal income tax collections are also lower than the national average.
  • Taxes can be insufficient – Alabama’s state and local governments collect less in taxes than state and local governments in any other state in the union. That means governments here have less money to spend to provide similar levels of service.
  • Taxes can be unfair – Taxes are not low for everyone. Because of the imbalance in the tax structure, taxes fall more heavily on some groups than others. Alabama’s tax system is the 12th most regressive state and local tax system in the nation,[1] meaning the poor pay a greater share of their income in taxes than the wealthy.

Why Is Tax Reform Important?

Public services in the United States, things like education, roads, and prisons, are generally funded through a mix of taxes and fees assed to all taxpayers. The structure of the federal system and the fifty state systems are complicated and the subject of ongoing debate. Voters and policymakers can and do argue over the details of the tax structure. However, there ought to be broad agreement on two fronts.

First, the tax system should generate revenue sufficient to meet the needs and demands of the public. The Alabama Priorities Project and other PARCA research suggest that many Alabamians do not believe that Alabama spends enough on public services.

Second, public revenues should be reasonably stable from year to year. However, Alabama has relied on one-time sources of revenue or unexpected windfalls to balance its books in each of the past five years. The 2017 Interim Report of the Legislature’s Joint Task Force on Budget Reform:

Year after year, session after session, the Alabama Legislature returns to Montgomery to answer the same, age-old question: “What are we going to do to fill the hole in the General Fund Budget?”  Certainly, there have been times over the years that this was not the case, but for the most part this question has been asked annually for decades.[2]

In attempting to achieve sufficiency and stability, voters and policymakers wrestle with three basic questions: Fairness – does the tax burden fall fairly across all taxpayers?; Adequacy – is tax revenue sufficient to meet the needs of modern life?; and Efficiency – Is the tax relatively easy to collect or does it place too great a burden on government or taxpayers? Jim Williams, retired PARCA Executive Director, notes “Tax problems are present in all states, but in Alabama the failure to create a fair, adequate, and efficient system of taxing and budgeting has led to what is in effect a perpetual budget crisis.”[3]

How Do Alabama Taxes Compare?

In PARCA’s 2017 report, How Alabama Taxes Compare, we reported that Alabama’s state and local governments collect less in taxes than state and local governments in any other state in the union.

In 2015, Alabama state and local governments collected a total of $15 billion in taxes, or $3,144 per resident.  Across the U.S., the median value for state and local taxes per capita was $4,379.

The median state had a per capita tax advantage of $1,235 over Alabama. In other words, if Alabama collected taxes at the per capita rate of the median state, local and state governments here would have an additional $6 billion to spend building and maintaining roads; providing police and fire protection; operating civil and criminal courts; supporting schools and colleges; libraries and parks; and the myriad of other functions government performs.

National comparisons are not always convincing because of regional economic differences, but Alabama stands out even in the Southeast. The figure below presents two sets of calculations. On the left, the Southeastern states are compared and ranked on their total state and local tax collections divided by their populations, producing a total for tax collections per capita. The chart on the right shows the per capita tax advantage of other Southeastern states over Alabama.

Alabama ranks at the bottom. The state closest to Alabama in terms of per capita tax collections is Tennessee, which collects $126 dollars more per resident than Alabama. The top Southeastern state in terms of taxes per capita is Louisiana, which collects $809 more per resident than Alabama.

As a bottom line, Alabama governments have less tax money available to pay for those services.

However, this is not widely understood. PARCA’s 2017 public opinion poll revealed that 34% of voters believe they pay about the same in taxes as those in neighboring states and 29% believe they pay more than residents of other states pay.

What Can We Do?

Voter concern about Alabama’s tax system or doubts about its adequacy and fairness can be troubling to policymakers at every level. Alabama has two sets of options: piecemeal refinements or broad-based reform.

Piecemeal Refinements

State and local governments could adjust sales tax rates. Decreasing rates will further reduce revenue. Increasing rates will make the tax system more regressive and could have diminishing returns. Sales taxes can also be very volatile. Tax collections increase and decrease as retail sales increase and decrease. This makes revenue unstable in volatile times and disastrous in periods of significant economic downturn. Moreover, changing consumer habits affect sales tax revenue. As more and more commerce shifts online, state and local tax collections are impacted.

State and local governments could expand the number of services that are taxed. Alabama applies its tax to almost all sales of goods, but it does not apply the tax to most kinds of business, professional, computer, personal, and repair services. In recent decades a greater share of economic activity has shifted toward consumption of such services. Alabama taxes 22% of services – the average state taxes 55% of services[4].

The state could increase and stabilize revenue through increases to property taxes. Property taxes are hard to change in Alabama. Caps on property taxes have been placed in the Alabama constitution, and any change to property tax rates requires approval not just from the Legislature, but also by a vote of the people.

Broad Based Reform

Since 1991, three major tax reform proposals have been developed (The Alabama Commission on Tax and Fiscal Policy Reform in 1991, The Tax Reform Task Force in 1992, and Governor Riley’s Accountability and Tax Reform Plan in 2003). As Jim Williams notes, “Experience has shown that Alabama voters are unlikely to favor a comprehensive reform package.”[5] However, while none of the major reforms were initially adopted, in the years since, a number of measures tracking or closely related to those systematic reform proposals have been adopted.

Moving Forward

Alabama’s tax system is not balanced. Policymakers can improve voters’ confidence in the tax system and stabilize revenue by seeking a better balance of taxes on income, property, and transactions – what we earn, own, and buy.

View the printable PDF brief here.

[1] Davis, C., Davis, K., Gardner, M., Heimovitz, H., Johnson, S., McIntyre, R. S., . . . Wiehe, M. (2015, January). Who Pays? 5th Edition: Alabama. Retrieved November 30, 2017, from https://itep.org/whopays/alabama/

[2]Alabama Legislature. (2017, May, p. 1). Interim Report from the Joint Task Force on Budget Reform.

[3] Williams, Jim (2017, Nov.) “Insights from Previous Attempts at Tax and Budget Reform in Alabama”

[4] Minnick, R. (2008, July. Revised 2010). Sales Taxation of Services, Retrieved November 20, 2017, from https://www.taxadmin.org/sales-taxation-of-services

[5] Williams, Jim (2017, Nov.) “Insights from Previous Attempts at Tax and Budget Reform in Alabama”


The Priorities of Alabama Voters

In 2018, Alabamians will elect a governor and five other statewide executive branch officers, 140 legislators, and scores of local officials. Those elected will lead Alabama for the next four years. These leaders should be responsive to the concerns of those they represent but also willing to help citizens understand critical, but perhaps less obvious, public policy issues. Such leadership requires understanding what issues most concern voters and what issues voters may not fully appreciate.

In this election year, PARCA surveyed Alabama voters to determine their thoughts about the general direction of the state and the issues that most concern them. We found broad agreement on the critical issues facing the state. Based on voter response, PARCA identified and ranked voters’ top 10 critical issues. Alabama Priorities explores this issue.

The Priorities

Alabama voters are eager to see improvement in K – 12 education, with 70% indicating they are very concerned about the state’s education system. Voters are worried about healthcare , particularly access and cost. With the recent resignations of a Governor, a Speaker of the House, and a state Supreme Court Justice, it should come as no surprise that voters are concerned about corruption and ethics. For many voters, mental health and substance abuse are not just theoretical problems—56% of Alabamians indicate they are very concerned about the issue. The poor and homeless have not been forgotten.

These issues, along with jobs and the economy, crime and public safety, job training and work force development, the state’s image, and tax reform comprise the top 10 list of Alabama’s priorities.

Perhaps this list should not come as a surprise. Previous polling by PARCA and other organizations have found similar results.

What is perhaps more surprising, however, is the extent to which these are shared priorities. We found few significant differences between Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites, or other groups. While differences exist, Alabama voters are not polarized.

Alabama Priorities

1. K-12 Education
2. Healthcare
3. Government Corruption and Ethics
4. Mental Health and Substance Abuse
5. Poverty and Homelessness
6. Jobs and the Economy
7. Crime and Public Safety
8. Job Training and Workforce Development
9. Improving the State's Image
10. Tax Reform

Experts and Voters: Differing Priorities

At the same time, while the data suggests broad agreement among voters, there is an area where significant gaps exist. PARCA surveyed business, civic, and nonprofit leaders, journalists, and academics. The differences between the priorities of these experts and voters were noticeable.

Four top 10 issues for voters fell outside the top 10 for experts:

  • Mental health and substance abuse
  • Poverty and homelessness
  • Job training and workforce development
  • Improving the state’s image

Conversely, experts identified four issues that did not register high on voters’ list of concerns:

  • Infrastructure and transportation
  • Prison and sentencing reform
  • Funding state government
  • Civil rights

Possible explanations as to why some issues are more important to voters and others more important to experts are offered in the “Differences Between Experts and Voters” section of the report. three implications are suggested.

Implications

The data suggest four implications.

  1. Voters are not polarized along traditional political, ideological, racial or generational lines.
  2. There is a significant gap between the priorities of experts and the priorities of voters.
  3. Policymakers have a two-fold opportunity to inform and educate voters on critical and systemic challenges facing the state.
  4. Policymakers have an opportunity to respond to immediate, often highly personal issues that concern voters.

This research suggests that elected officials and candidates have an opportunity to show leadership and to build broad coalitions to address Alabama’s most pressing challenges.

Read the full report here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


PARCA Gubernatorial Candidate Forum Brings Leaders Together to Discuss Alabama Priorities

This past Wednesday, May 16th, PARCA held a 2018 Gubernatorial Candidate Forum at Woodrow Hall in Birmingham. The event was hosted by the PARCA Roundtable, PARCA’s young professionals’ group of 28 to 45-year-old civic and business leaders. It was a great opportunity for Democrat and Republican candidates to come together and express ideas in a nonpartisan environment prior to the June 5th primary election.

Participating candidates included Tommy Battle, Sue Bell Cobb, Scott Dawson, James Fields, Bill Hightower and Walt Maddox.

The forum featured one-on-one conversations with each candidate. The six conversations were led by PARCA Roundtable members Victoria Hollis, Peter Jones, and Kendra Key, young professional civic leaders Anthony Hood and Bridgett King, and WBHM News Director Gigi Douban.

A number of the questions specifically addressed the concerns of young professionals. Candidates were also asked about many of the issues most important to voters, as reported in PARCA’s recent Alabama Priorities. At the end of the event, all six candidates came to the stage for questions from the audience of around 135.

Some of the main ideas expressed throughout the evening focused on education, taxes, workforce development, the correctional system and the state’s image.

A collegiality emerged between the candidates throughout the evening, and for a few moments, there were no political parties, only public servants interested in improving the state of Alabama.

 


How Alabama Taxes Compare

Since late 1988, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama has produced an analysis of Alabama’s tax revenues. Relying on the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual survey of state and local governments across the country, we are able to determine how Alabama taxes and revenue compare to other states. In the analysis, state and local spending are considered together, because states vary greatly in how they divide up the responsibilities for funding government services. This report considers data from 2015, the most recent year available.

Alabama’s state and local governments collect less in taxes than state and local governments in any other state in the union. This has been a basic fact of life in this state since the early the 1990s. It lies at the root of our perpetual struggles to balance state budgets. It underlies the difficulties we face when trying to provide to our citizens the level of government services enjoyed by citizens in other states.

As a bottom line, Alabama governments have less tax money available finance the operation of services like schools, roads, courts, health care, and public safety.

Explore our latest report, How Alabama Taxes Compare, and see how Alabama’s tax system fares against our southeastern neighbors, and what that means for our state. If you want to compare Alabama’s per capita taxes to those in other states, PARCA-designed interactive tables are available online. 


How Alabama Roads Compare, 2017

PARCA’s latest report, How Alabama Roads Compare, provides an in-depth analysis of the conditions, funding and future of our state’s roads and bridges. Data presented in the report can also be viewed through interactive tables here.

Alabama Roads: Where are we now?

Alabama’s roads and bridges are in relatively good condition compared to other Southeastern states. The percentage of roads in good condition is higher than most other states and the percentage of roads in poor condition is lower than most other states. The percentage of bridges in need of replacement because of deficiency is about average for the Southeast.

However, those generally good conditions on existing roads have come at a cost.

The Alabama Department of Transportation has had to devote an increasingly large share of its budget to preserving the existing road system, with a shrinking pool of money available for new projects to address congestion or expand the road system to foster transportation improvements and economic development.

Currently, only $150 million per year is available for system enhancement and expansion projects, a drop in the bucket considering the billions of dollars in projects needed to address existing congestion issues, much less the additional billions that would be needed to finance aspirational projects like Birmingham’s Northern Beltline, a new Mobile River bridge, and variety of other projects desired by communities large and small.

Alabama’s road spending in recent years has been supplemented by more than $1.3 billion in borrowing. That has allowed state and local governments to tackle needed improvements and perform in the present projects that will pay dividends in the future. However, that borrowing authority has been exhausted, and future road spending will be curtailed. The infusion of borrowed money is ending and the demands of paying back what has already been borrowed money will consume a greater share of road money.

This impending road revenue crunch is rooted in a fundamental problem in how we pay for roads: a set 18-cents per gallon motor fuels tax. Per-gallon motor fuels taxes were last raised in the early 1990s. The buying power of that 18 cents on each gallon has eroded due to inflation. On top of that, the greater fuel economy of cars and trucks on the road today means that less gas in being purchased to fuel more miles of travel.

The wear and tear of traffic on the roads continues to increase, but revenue from per-gallon taxes is not keeping pace. Per vehicle mile traveled, Alabama is collecting half what it did in the early 1990s, when adjusted for inflation.

In the immediate term, the 2018 transportation budget will contain about $200 million less in revenue than it has enjoyed for the past 5 years, revenue provided through the ATRIP borrowing program. The debt service required to pay that borrowing back has been steadily climbing. In 2018, it will leap to $114 million, almost $50 million more than the 2017 total, and remain locked in for the next 19 years. As a bottom line, in 2018, there will be about $250 million less to spend on roads than there was in 2017.

Where do we want to be in the future?

Alabama needs sufficient revenue to pay for the upkeep of its current system, plus an adequate pool of money available to add capacity to address congestion problems and to improve the transportation network. That revenue for roads also needs to cover the cost of paying back the money the state has already borrowed.

How do we get there?

Alabama hasn’t raised its per gallon gas tax in 25 years. Only 8 other states have gone as long without an increase. In recent years, most states have raised per gallon taxes and have also adopted mechanisms to address the drain on buying power created by inflation and greater fuel economy.

In the past several legislative sessions, Alabama lawmakers have introduced various proposals to address the impending shortfall in road funding but none of those proposals have gathered sufficient support.

As those proposals resurface in subsequent sessions, attention should be paid not only to preventing the immediate shortfall but to preventing the perpetual erosion of road dollars. Many of our Southeastern neighbors have crafted long-term approaches to road funding from which Alabama could learn.

Click here to read the full report, including information on traffic vs. capacity, construction and maintenance, road debt and more.

 

 


Student Achievement Matters: The Future of Student Assessment in Alabama

In June 2017, the Alabama State Board of Education voted to cancel its contract with ACT for the administration of the ACT Aspire, a suite of standardized tests which, for the past four years, has served as the primary assessment tool Alabama used to gauge the annual academic progress of public school students across the state. Identifying the best replacement for Aspire is crucial. It’s a decision that affects everyone who cares about the quality of public education, from students, teachers, and parents to the leaders of government, education, and business.

PARCA’s latest report, Student Achievement Matters: The Future of Student Assessment Is Now, lays out the recent history of assessments, what state and national assessments tell us about the performance of Alabama students, and calls attention to the steps we should take from here.

It is vital that Alabama have an honest, rigorous, enduring test if students, parents, teachers, education leaders, and the state as a whole are going to have a realistic picture of Alabama’s educational system and an effective tool for gauging progress. An annual assessment of student achievement is required by federal law. State education leaders have indicated they will use an assessment provided by a different testing company, Scantron, in 2018.

Meanwhile, a process for determining a long-term replacement has begun. These decisions on the future of Alabama’s statewide assessments are critical. These assessments are a cornerstone of the state’s education accountability system. They are required by federal law. The assessments should tell us how students, schools, and systems are performing regarding state standards and in comparison to other peers, both in Alabama and in the nation at large.

The new report, commissioned by the Business Education Alliance and prepared with policy expertise from A+ Education Partnership, describes what the state should be looking for in a new assessment system and the process that should be in place for its selection.

A comprehensive system of high-quality student assessments should be an efficient system and produce the necessary information with the least amount of assessment. Student assessments are used to make vital decisions about instruction, interventions and support, advanced educational opportunities, and policies. High-quality, standardized student assessments are essential for evaluating equity among schools and within them.

Most importantly, assessments should be a tool for the growth of individual students, a true measure of strengths and weakness, and a real-world appraisal of a student’s position on the path to college and career readiness. In the globally competitive, technologically advanced economy of the 21st century, it is imperative that our graduates receive an education equal in quality to that received by students in other states. That is the only way our graduates can succeed, and our state can attract employers looking for qualified employees.

The decisions that will have to be made on the future of assessments in Alabama must be made with broad engagement and buy-in from the educational community, its citizenry, and the state’s political and business leadership. Student achievement matters to us all.

View the full report here.


Together We Can – Charting a Course to Cooperation for Greater Birmingham

PARCA’s latest report, commissioned by the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, focuses on the fragmentation of the Birmingham region, the challenges it causes, and potential solutions exemplified by other metro areas around the country.

With the clouds of Jefferson County’s bankruptcy lifting and downtown Birmingham showing impressive signs of revival, optimism about the region’s future is high.

Considering the positive signs, it’s important to ask whether the community is prepared and positioned to capitalize on its current momentum.

In recent decades, Birmingham and its metro area have underperformed in job and population growth in comparison to comparable cities. That begs the question: Why?

Nationally, a substantial body of research indicates that metro areas with more broad-based, cooperative governmental arrangements grow faster and generate greater prosperity than metro areas that are governmentally fragmented, divided into a multitude of independent municipalities.

The region’s central city of Birmingham is surrounded by more independent suburbs than any other southern city. This pattern of fragmentation has consequences. It leads to duplication, creates intra-regional competition, concentrates economic advantage and disadvantage, and diffuses resources and leadership. It makes it difficult to arrive at consensus, pursue priorities of regional importance, or deliver services that transcend municipal boundaries. In sum, it puts the metro area at a disadvantage.

Figure 1 compares job growth since 2000 in two groups of metropolitan areas. The seven cities on the left are fragmented like Birmingham: a diminished central city ringed by a multitude of suburbs.

 

Figure 1

The seven metros on the right have governmental structures that unite the region. In the more unified metros, job growth since 2000 ranges from 20 percent to 50 percent. In the fragmented metros, job growth ranges from 5 percent to -12 percent.

Average annual employment in Birmingham-Hoover MSA has increased by only 0.24 percent since 2000.

The same contrast emerges when comparing median income and poverty and unemployment rates: In cities where government is fragmented, growth is slower, and social and economic problems are more concentrated.

The negative effects of fragmentation weigh not only on the center city but also on the metropolitan area as a whole. The fortunes of the central city and its suburbs are interlocked.

Fragmentation is a long-term process, a deeply ingrained pattern of development that Birmingham shares with northern cities that have a similar industrial heritage. It is not easily undone. In no instance in the post-World War II era has there been a mass political consolidation that dissolved existing cities or school districts. However, cities across the country have developed alternative approaches that promote unity and increase cooperation within their metro areas.

In 2016, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham commissioned the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) to conduct a study of the current structure of government in Greater Birmingham, with Jefferson County as its primary focus. The study was to examine Greater Birmingham’s historic development and its current state in comparison with other cities, to describe different options other cities have pursued to overcome fragmentation, and finally, to explore how those different options might work in the Birmingham context.

This resulting report was developed with advice and review from a Strategic Advisory Group convened by the Community Foundation. Members of the Strategic Advisory Group were selected to provide a range of perspectives representing the larger Jefferson County community.

Locally, a wide range of public officials from the central city, the suburbs, and the county were also consulted, as were leaders in business and civic groups.

KEY FINDINGS

Fragmentation has led to a decline in Birmingham’s prominence and its ability to lead the region.

In 1950, Birmingham was the 34th largest city in the U.S. According to the latest population estimates, the city has fallen out of the top 100. Though the latest estimates indicate the city may have halted its population decline, other Alabama cities where growth is strong may eventually displace Birmingham as Alabama’s largest city.

The population of the City of Birmingham now represents only 32 percent of Jefferson County’s population compared to 60 percent in 1950. The city still holds a position of regional leadership thanks to its ability to draw taxes from businesses and commuters who come into the city to work or shop. Over 90,000 people commute into the city each day, filling more than half of the jobs in the city. According to PARCA’s analysis, city residents contribute 33 percent of city taxes, non-residents contribute 28 percent, and businesses 39 percent.

However, Birmingham’s role as chief supporter of regional assets and projects is under increasing strain, as it struggles to meet not only that role but also the needs of economically distressed neighborhoods and residents.

Fragmentation is a drag on metropolitan growth.

The Birmingham-Hoover MSA is currently the 49th largest in the U.S., but its growth in employment and population is slow compared to peer MSAs. Growth is particularly lagging in its central county, Jefferson. Recent projections estimate Jefferson County will add only 8,967 new residents by 2040, a 1.4 percent increase over the current population.

Greater Birmingham has not developed a viable alternative for regional leadership.

While Jefferson County has positioned itself to better play a regional leadership role thanks to recent improvements in its finances and management, it still lacks an executive branch. Nearly half of the large counties in the U.S. are now headed by an elected CEO, creating a strong and capable executive branch charged with the management of the county government. Jefferson County is still governed by a five-member commission elected by district. Additionally, the 26-member Jefferson County Legislative Delegation exercises substantial control over local affairs.

Greater Birmingham needs a spirit of governmental innovation.

Across the country, local governments are innovating with form and function, finding new ways to collaborate, economize, and deliver better customer service. Greater Birmingham need not be bound to traditional ways of doing things.

INSIGHTS FROM OTHER CITIES

PARCA’s research identified four different approaches cities and metro areas take toward building and maintaining regional unity. Four cities representing the four different approaches were selected for study.

The four approaches are:

1. Functional Consolidation

Decreasing duplication and increasing efficiency through cooperative agreements between local governments.

Example Metro: Charlotte, North Carolina

2. Modernizing County Government

Structuring county government to provide regional leadership.

Example Metro: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

3. Cooperation Through Regional Entities

Using regional bodies to deliver services or coordinate strategy on a region-wide basis. These can be public or private, or a fusion of the two.

Example Metro: Denver, Colorado

4. Political Consolidation

Most often, the merger of the central city with the central county, creating an umbrella metro government to deliver regional level services.

Example Metro: Louisville, Kentucky

Once labeled “the most segregated city in America,” Birmingham is justly proud of its historic role in breaking down the walls of segregation that once legally separated blacks and whites.

The time is now right to re-examine the barriers to unity that were created in the past and develop a new approach that better meets the needs of all the people in the Birmingham metropolitan area—urban, suburban, and rural. No one approach rules out the others. In crafting an approach that meets its unique needs, Birmingham might borrow ideas from each.

This is not a new issue for the region, and greater Birmingham is not alone in having tried multiple times to resolve it.

Louisville and Nashville each failed twice before achieving governmental consolidation, and Charlotte created its intergovernmental cooperation strategy as an alternative to unachievable structural change. Pittsburgh took a first step to attack fragmentation by reforming county government, just as Denver did by creating special-purpose regional authorities with their own tax sources.

The question of community unity has been a recurring strain in Birmingham’s history. Greater Birmingham was catapulted to the status of major American city through a consolidation in the first decade of the 20th Century. Multiple votes from the 1940s through the 1960s presented city-suburban merger as an option but failed to garner adequate support. A different approach, the Metropolitan Area Project Strategies, was proposed in the late 1990s.

With the negative effects of fragmentation having become very clear, it is time for fresh ideas and new conversation about how Greater Birmingham can chart a new, more prosperous course. The public seems ready to engage in this conversation.

View the full report here and access additional components of the project here.