Court cost collections continue to sag

In tough budget years, lawmakers have often looked for alternative ways to bring in revenue to support state government operations. In the case of the judicial branch of government, the Legislature has repeatedly raised the charges, fees and fines charged to the users of the court system, shifting much of the cost burden for court operations to the courts themselves.

However, court cost collections have proven to be a less than reliable source of revenue. In 2014, total criminal and civil court collections were down by $8.5 million to 2013, a drop of 6 percent. Compared to 2011, total court cost collections are down $17 million, or 10 percent. That’s a decline in collections even through the Legislature raised fee amounts during that same time period.

About 2/3 of court costs are collected through the criminal courts, amounting to just over $96 million in collections in 2014. The biggest component of that is traffic court collections. And that’s where the steepest drop in collections has come. In 2014, the state court system collected $54 million through traffic courts across the state, compared to $72 million in 2011. That’s an $18 million decline, or a 25 percent drop, over that time period.

This decline could be linked to problems in other departments. The Department of Public Safety reports that currently it has only 289 Troopers assigned to Highway Patrol statewide, far short of past staffing levels. According to figures provided by the State Personnel Department, DPS, as a whole, had 276 fewer employees in FY 2014 than it did in 2008, which amounts to an overall decrease in employees of nearly 20 percent. According to DPS, troopers issued  792,860 citations in 2012. That number fell to 690,323 citations in 2013. From January to November of 2014, troopers had issued 663,414 tickets. Beginning in 2015, DPS will be folded into the new Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. LEA director Spencer Collier has said he plans to put a priority on putting more troopers on the road.

Collections in the civil courts make up the remaining 1/3 of collections, totaling $48 million in 2014.That total is roughly the same amount collected in 2011.

ACT Aspire Statewide Results

The Alabama Department of Education this week released statewide results of its Grades 3-8 assessment tests, broadly known as the ACT Aspire.

The Aspire tests, which were taken statewide for the first time last spring, replace the Alabama Reading and Math Test which had been used to measure student and school performance.

The Aspire offers several advantages. Devised by the well-known national testing company, ACT, the Aspire is more closely aligned with national performance measurements. It includes a benchmark scoring system designed to show whether a student is on track academically to graduate from high school ready for college.  You can read more about the Aspire and Alabama’s new assessments from the A Plus Education Partnership. And here you can find the State Department of Education’s discussion of statewide Aspire results.

PARCA uses test data from the Aspire and other sources as well as available financial data to help school systems identify their strengths and the areas in need of improvement.

As this is the first year the state is using Aspire as a performance measure, the results set a baseline from which future improvement and growth can be measured.  As expected though, the results establish a tougher, and likely more accurate, benchmark for academic proficiency. On the ARMT, the percentage of students scoring above proficient ranged between 68 and 93 percent, depending on the grade and subject tested. On the Aspire results, the highest percentage of proficiency could be found in 3rd grade math where just over half the students (52 percent) were deemed to have met or exceeded the proficiency level for that grade. On the other hand, only 29 percent of 8th graders scored at or above the readiness benchmark in math.

The Nation's Longest Constitution Just Got Longer

Enlarge to explore.

It’s now official. In 2014, Alabama added 12 more amendments to its constitution, bringing the total number to 892. The State Elections Canvassing Board met the final week in November and certified the election results.

The additions include amendments restating, in stronger term,s the right to hunt, fish, and bear arms. The Alabama Constitution of 1901 also now allows a sewer authority in Franklin County to provide broadband internet and requires a $1 per bale assessment on each bale of cotton to be used for cotton promotion (With the latest amendment, you can’t ask for a rebate on that assessment).

The additional verbiage added this year will allow Alabama to continue padding its lead in constitutional length. Alabama not only has longest state constitution in the U.S, it is perhaps the longest constitutional document in the world.

By comparison, the U.S. Constitution is more than twice as old and has only been amended 26 times. State constitutions do tend to be more detailed and amended more often. But the average number of amendments across the states is 150. The next closest state to Alabama is California with 527 amendments.

According to a tally kept by the Council of State Governments, Alabama’s Constitution, at more than 376,000 words (without the 12 new amendments) is more than four times as long as the Texas Constitution. That’s the second longest state constitution, at just under 87,000 words.

That makes from interesting trivia, but does it matter?

If you want clarity, efficiency, and effectiveness, it does matter. If you want responsibility and accountability, Alabama’s constitution is indeed a problem.

Typically, constitutions describe principles and fundamental philosophy, set out a framework for government structure, and divide state powers among the branches and between state and local governments.

The Alabama Constitution, by contrast, goes into tedious detail. While the constitution may have started by laying out general statewide principles, its accumulation of amendments is due in to the exceptions to those principles and special cases made for specific localities. It is estimated that 70 percent of the amendments are local in nature. Which begs the question: Why are they in the state constitution?

The framers of the Alabama Constitution of 1901 wanted to set limits on government. In particular, they wanted strict limitations on what local governments could do. So, they set up a system in which many local decisions have to flow through state government for approval. The local amendments to the Constitution are only the top layer of complexity. Below that, the state legislature has passed over 36,000 local laws which apply to specific counties or municipalities.

The heavy involvement of state legislators in local affairs tends to create confusion about who is responsible for decision-making. It also blurs the lines of accountability when things go wrong. And finally, it also interferes with the development of a culture of statewide planning and policy making, which the state needs the Legislature to play.

Despite the energy put into constitutional reform efforts over the decades, the issue of granting local governments more independence has been one of the most intractable.  The latest Constitutional Reform Commission finished its work earlier this year, and its final round of proposals included an amendment that would have granted counties limited home rule in some aspects of their operations. That proposed amendment failed to pass the Legislature.