E-Commerce and Taxation: Questions of Efficiency and Equal Treatment

PARCA’s new report, titled E-Commerce and Taxation: Questions of Efficiency and Equal Treatment, questions whether changes are needed to the state’s Simplified Sellers Use Tax (SSUT).

Executive Summary

Alabama’s tax on online goods sold by out-of-state sellers, the Simplified Sellers Use Tax (SSUT), has been a boost to state budgets but a mixed blessing for local governments and schools. As online commerce continues to grow, the assessment and distribution of the tax is increasingly important and potentially problematic.  

At the state level, the SSUT is the equivalent of the state sales tax, a 4% levy on online sales, the same rate that is applied to sales in Alabama stores. In terms of state taxes, the SSUT creates a level playing field between online vendors and brick-and-mortar stores. But at the local level, the tax creates winners and losers.

  • Online retailers benefit from a simple system, paying a total of 8% on all purchases made by Alabamians. The proceeds are divided in half between the state and local governments.
  • Brick-and-mortar stores are put at a competitive price disadvantage. The weighted average sales tax is 9.25%[1] across the state, and thus, most in-person sales are subject to higher taxes than online purchases.
  • Communities with less commercial activity and lower wealth benefit from the distribution formula of the SSUT because the proceeds are distributed on the basis of population, not where the purchase occurs.
  • Big cities and counties, which tend to have higher sales volume and local sales tax rates higher than 4%, receive less from online purchases made by their residents than if those same purchases were made in person.
  • In 2021, 120 school systems received revenue from county sales tax (totaling $665 million), and 40 school systems received revenue from city sales taxes (totaling $176 million). Some systems receive both city and county sales taxes. In total, 131 school systems received sales taxes from a county, a city, or both.

Considering the divergent interests involved, no one policy solution satisfies all parties. Options include:

  • Raise SSUT’s rate to match the prevailing local sales tax rate.

  • Join the 24 other states participating in the streamlined sales tax, which would allow a unified system for applying and remitting sales taxes for online and in-person sales. The local tax rates could be applied, but only one entity would collect state and local taxes, eliminating local oversight.

  • Build our own system for online retailers to look up and submit sales taxes based on where the purchase is made.

Since state and local coffers are full at the moment, immediate action on the SSUT is not expected. However, the issue will become more central with the continued shift toward online sales.


[1] Janelle Fritts, “State and Local Sales Tax Rates,” Tax Foundation (blog), accessed March 22, 2023, https://taxfoundation.org/publications/state-and-local-sales-tax-rates/.

Introduction

The SSUT is Alabama’s tax on goods sold by online, out-of-state sellers. Since its adoption in 2015, more and more consumers have chosen online shopping carts over their metal counterparts.

According to the US Census Bureau’s Retail E-Commerce Sales Report, online sales accounted for less than 1% of sales in the fourth quarter of 1999 compared to 15% of all retail sales—more than $260 billion—in the fourth quarter of 2022.     

Figure 1. Total E-Commerce by Quarter and E-Commerce at a % of Overall Retail Sales, U.S. Census

The changes in the way we buy also affect the way we pay for state and local government. Shifts between traditional and online sales alter the flow of revenue with important consequences for the General Fund and Education Trust Fund, counties and municipalities, and schools across Alabama.

Although the SSUT was initially celebrated for capturing an elusive revenue stream, its distribution formula has led to debates about fairness. The SSUT’s rate is lower than the rate for in-person purchases in most large cities, creating an advantage for online retailers at the expense of brick-and-mortar stores. The growing volume of commerce the tax applies to has sparked fears that the traditional sales tax will diminish in favor of the online alternative. That, in turn, would diminish the revenue that cities and schools depend on.

Figure 2. Estimated Growth in E-Commerce Activity, based on collections of the Simplified Sellers Use Tax

This report aims to explain the SSUT’s origin, describe how it works, analyze its implications, and discuss alternative policies so that Alabamians are equipped for the conversation on the SSUT.

The Origin of the Simplified Sellers Use Tax

Traditionally, states were limited to applying sales tax only to transactions within their borders. That norm was challenged in the 1990s by Quill Company, which sold office equipment and stationery over the phone and through mail-order catalogs. A Delaware corporation, Quill shipped goods all over the country. Those sales went untaxed until the North Dakota State Tax Commissioner tried to force the company to collect and pay taxes on their sales in that state.

Supreme Court Decision Blocks Taxation on Certain Interstate Sales

The Supreme Court ruled in Quill’s favor and struck down the North Dakota tax. From 1992 to 2018, a company without a “physical nexus” (an existing retail outlet) in a state would not be subject to any taxation from that state. The decision, which revolved around mail-order catalogs, helped make way for the unforeseen boom in online retail sales.

In 2000, e-commerce retail sales made up less than 1% ($6 billion) of total sales in the U.S. By 2010, that percentage had climbed to nearly 5%, representing $45 billion in sales. That commerce went largely untaxed. Alabamians were expected to report their online spending when they filed their tax returns and to pay taxes on those items purchased. That is known as a consumer use tax, a companion to the sales tax, but it applies to purchases made in another state. The use tax is generally paid by the buyer rather than the seller.

But relying on consumers to self-report online purchases and pay taxes through the income tax system was ineffective. As states recognized they were missing out on an increasing share of revenue, they began to develop policies to capture it and lobbied for a national solution to the problem.

SSUT Initially Established as an Optional System for Online Sellers

Initially, states created voluntary tax schemes, like Alabama’s SSUT, for sellers to collect and remit online sales taxes. By 2018, 45 states had 45 policies with different qualifications, thresholds, and expectations for compliance. Alabama’s was called the Simplified Sellers Use Tax: “simple” because of its statewide flat rate of 8%, “sellers” because it put the burden of remitting on the out-of-state vendors.

Established by Act 2015-448, Alabama’s SSUT went into effect in January 2016. Its simple state-level rate of 8% made it easy for online vendors to collect a flat rate on sales statewide and submit the proceeds to the state rather than collecting and remitting sales taxes to each municipality and county where they sold items.

Meanwhile, pressure continued to build to allow states to tax online sales, particularly as it became increasingly clear that online retailers were benefiting from an advantage over brick-and-mortar stores located in local communities.

Supreme Court Reversal Allows States to Tax Online Sales

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Quill decision, and in South Dakota v. Wayfair upheld a South Dakota law that required online sellers to collect and remit taxes on their sales in the state. The Wayfair decision led states, including Alabama, to amend and mandate their respective tax policies. The ruling stipulated, though, that state tax schemes should not put an undue burden on sellers.

Alabama’s SSUT Laws and Amendments

Since its establishment as a voluntary tax, the SSUT has been revised multiple times to conform to the changing environment. Highlights include:

Act 2015-448

Established SSUT. Allowed vendors with no physical nexus in the state to collect and remit an 8% tax on all online purchases destined from Alabama. The amount and its distribution proportions aim to mimic sales tax: a 4% tax levied by the state and 4% meant to represent local sales taxes. 

Act 2016-110

A business in the program may remain unless they establish a storefront or an affiliate business has a physical nexus.

Act 2018-539

Mandates marketplace facilitators with revenue of more than $250,000 to collect and remit. Additionally, a 2% discount (of the tax collected, not a reduction of the 8% SSUT rate) will be allowed on the first $400,000 remitted if remitted in a timely manner.

Updated the distribution formula to its current formation:

  • State of Alabama takes half (4 cents on every SSUT-eligible dollar spent)
    • General Fund = 75% of the state share
    • Education Trust Fund = 25% of the state share
  • Local Governments receive the other half of the revenue (4 cents on every SSUT-eligible dollar spent)
  • 40% to counties
    • Individual county share based on the county’s share of the state population
  • 60% to municipalities
    • Individual city share based on the city’s share of the total municipal population

Act 2019-382

Updates the amnesty and class action provisions for eligible sellers.

Figure 3. Growth in total collections of the Simplified Sellers Use Tax

How Has the SSUT Worked for State Government?

Alabama has an unusual approach when it comes to taxes and spending, an approach that has led to perpetual problems with budgeting. In most states, a mixture of taxes is levied, collected, and deposited into a General Fund. Then a budget reflecting the state’s priorities is created, and the funds flow out accordingly.

In Alabama, the bulk of taxes are earmarked by law, collected, and spent for a specific purpose. The largest sources of state revenue, the income tax and the state sales tax, are earmarked for education.  

That has been good for education in good economic times because those taxes grow with the economy. In bad economic times, that has been a problem because revenues contract and cuts have to be made. For the rest of the government, earmarking creates a problem. There is not enough money to pay for needs, and what revenue there is does not grow enough to keep up with inflation.

In recent years, the Legislature took steps on both the budgeting and the revenue side to improve the situation. On the budget side, they set up a system that keeps from overspending during periods of growth.

On the revenue side, the SSUT was one of a handful of enhancements that injected much-needed growth into the General Fund.

Historically, the General Fund, which pays for non-education functions of state government, has been slow growing. The addition of the SSUT has helped change that equation, adding a rapidly growing revenue source to the General Fund.

The General Fund receives 75% of the state share of the SSUT ($233 million in 2022), providing 8% of the fund’s total. The remaining 25% of the state share of the SSUT flows into the Education Trust Fund.

Figure 4. The SSUT’s Contribution to the Education Trust Fund and General Fund, 2015-2022

SSUT collections as a percentage of the funds have grown as well. In addition to the SSUT growth, the General Fund has benefited from adjustments to and growth in the traditional sales and use taxes.

In 2015, the General Fund (GF) received a total of $1.9 billion, and the Education Trust Fund (ETF) received a total of $6 billion. At the time, the SSUT contributed nothing to either. Meanwhile, sales and use taxes made up 9% ($168 million) of the GF and 32% ($1.9 billion) of the ETF.

In 2022, the GF received $2.8 billion, and the ETF received $10.4 billion. The SSUT contributed 8% ($233 million) and 1% ($78 million) of the GF and ETF, respectively. Meanwhile, traditional sales and use taxes made up 15% ($418 million) of the GF and 26% ($2.7 billion) of the ETF.

Figure 5. Change in Contribution of the SSUT and Sales and Use Tax to the Education Trust Fund and General Fund

While the SSUT arguably shifts revenue from the Education Trust Fund that would have been collected as sales tax, the rise of online sales has occurred at a time when the traditional sales tax and income tax have grown rapidly.

Thus, despite the change in flow, the ETF has seen healthy growth as well. Sales tax collections rose more than 40% from 2015 to 2022, but other revenue—principally the income tax—rose even more. Revenue from income taxes nearly doubled, from $3.9 billion to $7.4 billion in 2022.

Figure 6. Overall Growth in Alabama Education Trust Fund and General Fund, 2012-2022

How Has the SSUT Worked for Local Governments?

At the state level, the SSUT closely parallels the state’s general sales tax, except in its division of proceeds between the General Fund and the Education Trust Fund. At the local level, though, the revenue produced by SSUT and distributed to local governments does not match local sales tax rates or activity level.

Whether or not the SSUT should closely resemble local sales tax is a policy decision. Presumably, online sales compete with local brick-and-mortar sales. Those local brick-and-mortar stores must collect a higher sales tax rate than online retailers. Brick-and-mortar stores also pay property taxes and employ more local residents than are supported by delivery services linked to online retailers.  

At the same time, sales tax collections tend to be concentrated in larger communities. Those larger communities benefit from not only the sales taxes paid by residents but also from sales taxes paid by people from other towns and unincorporated areas who drive in to shop.

With the rise of online sales, should the taxes paid on goods purchased on the Internet and delivered to doorsteps reflect the existing shopping patterns? Or should the proceeds of online sales taxes be equally distributed according to where people live?

Currently, the SSUT reflects a simplified collection and distribution system with a flat rate and a distribution by population. Cities, counties, and school systems that benefit from taxes generated under the local sales tax system see the online option as a competitive threat, with a competitive advantage created by the SSUT.

At the same time, cities and counties without a strong commercial base may be benefiting from an online delivery system that decreases their residents’ need to travel to commercial centers while generating taxes that would otherwise have flowed to commercial centers.

Figure 7. Distribution of the Simplified Sellers Use Tax, as divided between state and local governments, 2022

Counties

Counties are now receiving 20% of total SSUT collections.

For those counties with little income from sales tax, the money from the SSUT represents new revenue. But counties that generate significant sales tax revenue might be missing out on revenue due to purchases moving online. That is because the tax rate for the SSUT is lower than the sales tax in most large jurisdictions. Additionally, the revenue from online transactions is being dispersed across the state on a per capita basis with no adjustment for where the order and delivery are occurring.  

The loss of revenue to a particular county can be estimated by first taking a county’s sales tax collections and estimating that county’s proportion of Alabama’s total sales tax collections.[1]

That proportion applied to an estimate for total online sales can be used to estimate that county’s portion of all SSUT-eligible spending. Finally, the county’s sales tax rate is applied to find the revenue the county would have received if the county’s tax rate was applied to online sales.

In fiscal year 2021 (FY 2021), Jefferson County received $14.2 million from the state from SSUT collections. That year, $6.4 billion was spent statewide on SSUT-eligible goods. According to PARCA calculations, in 2021, Jefferson County accounted for about 17% of the state’s total in-state sales tax collections. If Jefferson County accounted for 17% of SSUT-eligible spending as well, Jefferson County would have had more than $1 billion in taxable online sales. If Jefferson County’s countywide sales tax was applied to that total, the county would have collected $28 million in revenue from that online commerce.[2]

In FY 2021, Greene Country received $195,000 in remitted SSUT collections. Using the same approach applied to Jefferson, PARCA estimates that Greene County would have collected only $66,000 if it applied the county’s 3% rate to its estimated level of SSUT-eligible sales.

Another way to compare SSUT distributions and local sales tax is to take income into consideration. The current per capita distribution assumes that every person in every county spends similarly online. Since higher income is correlated with higher levels of spending, an income-weighted distribution might more closely approximate actual local spending patterns.

For instance, in FY 2021, Madison County received $7.2 million in SSUT remittance. If SSUT was distributed by income and population, PARCA estimates the county would have received $10 million in disbursements.

Figure 8. Top 5 Counties in SSUT Distributions

Cities

Questions about the SSUT’s distribution formula are most pressing for municipalities where brick-and-mortar stores tend to be concentrated. Higher sales tax rates and dependence on sales tax revenue make the issue especially contentious.

Since 2018, all municipalities have enjoyed this new revenue from online sales, with the amount received based on city population. However, municipalities with large populations and high sales tax contend they are losing out on revenue they would have received if the purchases had been subject to a local sales tax instead.

In FY 2021, Tuscaloosa received $4.8 million from the estimated $6.4 billion in SSUT-eligible statewide spending. PARCA estimates Tuscaloosa’s 3% tax on its portion of statewide sales would have yielded upward of $6.6 million.

In FY 2021, Hueytown received $860,000 from SSUT disbursements. That year, it accounted for roughly 0.33% of the state’s sales. If Hueytown had received their 4% tax on that proportion of the SSUT sales, it is estimated they would have received a slightly lower amount: $856,778.

Hueytown represents a middle ground of municipalities that receive similar collections in both methods. The smaller the sales tax collections, the greater the difference between what they would have collected and what they received.

Many municipalities have less sales tax revenue than Hueytown, and many are probably receiving twice what they would have collected from sales tax.

While this distribution method might seem inequitable, it is worth considering the flaws of traditional sales tax.

Sales taxes are paid at the point of sale. This means that the Alabamians flocking to cities with high sales tax for retail are not only paying above their dwelling municipality’s sales tax, but they are also paying into the budgets of a different municipality altogether.

Figure 9. Top 11 Cities for SSUT Distributions

School

The SSUT and its distribution system also have an impact on school budgets. School systems receive sales tax money, collected and distributed according to local law or flowing through the county or municipal government. Presumably, as sales shift online, that revenue is diminished. The taxes from those online transactions, collected through the SSUT, are distributed to cities and counties. Unlike sales taxes, local governments are not obligated to pass along a portion to the schools.    

In 2021, 120 school systems received revenue from county sales tax (totaling $665 million), and 40 school systems received revenue from city sales taxes (totaling $176 million). Some systems receive both city and county sales taxes. In total, 131 school systems received sales taxes from a county, a city, or both.

Some cities treat the SSUT as if it were sales tax and distribute it to the schools in the same proportion as the traditional sales tax. Some school systems have negotiated agreements to receive a portion of the SSUT. Many have not.

The Alabama Department of Education asks school systems to report local sources of revenue. This reporting may not completely capture whether or not SSUT funding is flowing to the systems, but far fewer systems report receiving SSUT funding than report receiving traditional sales taxes. As of December 2022, only eight school systems reported receiving funding from their county’s SSUT revenue, and only seven school systems reported receiving funding from their city’s SSUT revenue, according to Alabama Department of Education records.

SSUT’s Unintended Consequences in the Marketplace

SSUT decisions also impact brick-and-mortar businesses. The SSUT’s low rate of 8% allows out-of-state vendors to charge lower prices than their in-state competitors.

Brick-and-mortar businesses employ more people and contribute to the local economy in various ways, including through the payment of rent or property tax. And yet they are compelled to collect a higher combined sale and local sales tax rate than an online seller.

Small businesses in Alabama are obligated to collect and remit sales taxes, whatever their sales volume. Out-of-state online businesses that sell less than $250,000 to Alabama customers are not obligated to participate in SSUT.

There are also situations in which local businesses could find an advantage in selling through a third-party, online marketplace facilitator and thus avoid paying local taxes. The online transaction could be facilitated through an online marketplace, assessed the 8%. The customer can then pick up the item at the store or have it delivered to the home, circumventing local sales taxes.  

Alternatively, some Alabama residents are, at least in theory, overpaying sales taxes on online transactions—Alabama residents who live in jurisdictions where the sales tax is lower than the 8% SSUT.

The Alabama Department of Revenue does have a process in place to reimburse residents living in these jurisdictions. The process involves filing a claim with documentation of purchases. The Department does not report how much has been claimed through that process.  

Still, even if a rural resident pays the SSUT on a transaction, it is not necessarily true that they are suffering an injustice. If that rural individual were to instead purchase the same item in a physical store, that store would likely be located in a jurisdiction that collects 8 cents or more in local taxes, since most retail stores are located in cities with sales taxes.

If Alabama wanted the SSUT to match the local sales tax, it would need to make sure a replacement system doesn’t impose an “undue burden on interstate commerce.” The opinion of the court gave little detail about what is burdensome, but it expressed that what South Dakota had set up “appear(s) designed to prevent…undue burdens upon interstate commerce” and that it would be up to Congress to decide. Despite this, there are cases going on in Louisiana and Colorado that might force the courts to give more guidance.

It is currently unknown what constitutes an undue burden, but it gets even harder to anticipate what that will look like as new technology emerges. In the Quill era, finding local rates in different states and remitting the correct amount was a huge burden. Nowadays, it has been made much simpler by the creation of easy-to-use databases and automated processes.

Currently, Alabama’s SSUT is less burdensome than most other policies. This means that our policy will not likely conflict with a future ruling. The implication for Alabama is that we could probably afford a more complex and demanding policy that might fix some of the problems discussed in this report.

Policy Alternatives

Alabama Simplified Sellers Use Tax has plenty of fans, and, for the time being, it will likely remain as it is.

It is simple—one uniform rate statewide, collected by one entity, the State of Alabama. This simplicity decreases the cost of compliance for businesses and the cost of collection for the state. It also encourages participation in the system, which otherwise could be difficult to enforce.

For smaller jurisdictions that lack commercial activity, it has created a revenue stream where none existed. For counties, always cash-strapped and lacking independent authority to levy a tax, the SSUT has been a boon.

But if the concerns of brick-and-mortar retailers and larger cities and counties are to be addressed, there are policy options.

Option 1: Level the playing field between online sellers and brick-and-mortar stores

The current SSUT rate of 8% online purchases is lower than the state average sales tax of 9.24%.[3]

That gives online vendors an advantage over brick-and-mortar stores. The difference is even more significant in some of the larger municipalities, with sales tax rates on in-person purchases reaching 10% in Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile, and Tuscaloosa.

Table 1. Sales tax rates for top 10 cities, sorted by combined sales tax rate

Argument for: This option would maintain the simplicity of the SSUT for online sellers while leveling the playing field. This approach is the simplest to achieve politically and would benefit all the recipients of the SSUT. It would lower the incentive for companies to remain out-of-state or migrate transactions to an online third party.

Argument against: Raising the rate does not address objections to the current distribution system, which does not align with the level of commercial activity or wealth in a community. As currently structured, the SSUT is more of a statewide revenue-sharing mechanism than a local tax. Additionally, for residents of low-tax jurisdictions, the tax on online goods would be much higher than in their home jurisdictions. Raising the rate also does not address the plight of school systems losing out on local sales tax.

Option 2: Equalize other terms between online and in-person sales   

Currently, a remote business that generates less than $250,000 in revenue annually does not have to collect and remit SSUT. Notably, this threshold is more than double the typical threshold of $100,000 in force in other states. More importantly, there is no similar threshold for brick-and-mortar stores subject to normal sales tax. This gives small online retailers a considerable advantage over their local competitors.

Argument for: An adjusted threshold would bring Alabama more in line with the majority of states in terms of capturing sales taxes from online transactions, and changes could level the playing field with Alabama-based sellers. The amount of SSUT collections would increase, and all the recipients of it would benefit.

Argument against: The adjustments would impose a burden on smaller Internet-based companies in terms of compliance. It would not address the disbursement method for those who want it changed. It doesn’t help local schools that lose out on local sales tax.

Option 3: Apply to all purchases, online or in-person, the appropriate state and local taxes for the jurisdiction

Alabama could require online sellers to calculate and pay the sales tax based on where the order is being delivered. That would require that Alabama provide a system for cataloging, geocoding, and communicating the appropriate rates. And it would likely require localities to give up control of the tax collection and administration process.    

Perhaps, the easiest route would be to join the 24 states, including Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee, in adopting the Streamlined Sales Tax, a multistate cooperative system for simplifying the assessment and payment of sales taxes. The participating states agree to a set of common rules and definitions and provide up-to-date information on sales tax rates and the precise geographic areas where those rates apply.

The simplification effort was launched after the original Quill decision, which prohibited taxation across state lines because of the overwhelming complexity of determining local sales tax rates and rules in the multitudes of jurisdictions across the country. Since then, cooperating states have been supported by businesses interested in simplifying compliance and payment. Like the SSUT, the Streamlined Sales Tax initially offered a simplified and voluntary way to pay taxes on online sales.  

The drive to simplify and the evolution of technology helped pave the way for the Wayfair decision, which allowed states to require online vendors to collect sales tax. In the Wayfair case, the Supreme Court reversed Quill, recognizing that South Dakota, a participant in the Streamlined Sales Tax effort, had created a system in which Wayfair was no longer facing an “undue burden” complying with the taxes state and local governments levied.

Remote companies who want to sell to participating states must register with the Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board Companies and then can use the database (provided by the state to the Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board) of locations and tax rates. The collections are sent directly to a single state entity and then distributed to the areas from which they were collected.

Alabama has traditionally been resistant to having one entity, presumably the State Department of Revenue, administer taxes on behalf of all local governments. In fact, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, and Louisiana are the only states that allow complete home rule over sales taxes.[4]

That resistance to state collection and distribution is one of the reasons why Alabama has not joined the Streamlined Sales Tax organization. If Alabama joined, municipalities could still set their own sales tax rates, but they would lose control of aspects of tax administration. A centralized system for filing and payment of sales taxes would be required. Cities require returns submitted to individual jurisdictions or audit businesses they suspect are not paying their fair share. Certain definitions and schedules would need to be uniform.

Alabama’s SSUT avoids the complexities that would have resulted if Alabama allowed municipalities to tax online sales. Louisiana and Colorado both have notoriously complex home rule local sales tax systems. Both states are facing lawsuits from companies that claim the complex system is too hard to comply with and places an undue burden on remote sellers. If Alabama were to adopt a system in which local sales tax rates were assessed on online transactions, the state would be wise to adopt a unified and simplified system for administering it.

Argument for: Bringing local sales tax rates and online sales tax rates into conformity would create a level playing field and would allow local communities to set rates and benefit from the economic activity within their borders. Local transactions would support local priorities.

Argument against: Alabama would need to have a sole entity collect sales taxes and oversee sales tax auditing. Local governments would lose some aspects of control. Alabama would need to create and maintain a centralized database of all the sales tax rates and their respective boundaries. Compliance would be more complex for online sellers. The equalized distribution of tax resources produced by the SSUT would be eliminated and replaced with a system that perpetuates the concentration of wealth and economic activity.

Conclusion

The Simplified Sellers Use Tax was a good step in a direction many states still have not attempted. Its simplicity and low-rate prioritized compliance did not require much coordination. It enticed online sellers to participate, providing advantages at a time when collection and payment of online taxes were voluntary.

Since the SSUT was adopted, remittance is now mandated. The amount of money spent online has exploded, and with it, the consequences of the SSUT’s setup.

Currently, many brick-and-mortar stores must charge higher prices to cover higher tax rates. Large municipalities and counties miss out on critical sales tax revenue, and schools lose out on local sales tax revenue. Meanwhile, smaller counties and municipalities are receiving a substantial amount of money from SSUT distributions. The effects of this policy are somewhat hidden behind our recent windfall of federal money and general economic surge, but they will become more pronounced when we are strapped for cash.

Whether a change to the Simplified Sellers Use Tax comes this session or in the next few years, it will likely come. It could come as a small rate change, an adjustment of distribution, or perhaps a major overhaul of sales tax as we know it. Even after such a step, the Wayfair decision set in motion a technological and political conundrum that will not soon be solved. Ongoing litigation will more clearly establish what constitutes an undue burden in the collection of Internet sales taxes. This will change how much governments can ask of businesses, but evolving technology will also make that mark a continually moving target.


[1] A certain portion of the sales tax is not attributable to a particular county. That pool of sales tax revenue is not considered in this calculation.

[2] Jefferson County’s traditional countywide sales taxes flow not just to the county commission but to multiple agencies as designated by law. As in other counties, the SSUT distributions in Jefferson are sent to the county commission.

[3] Fritts, “State and Local Sales Tax Rates,” accessed March 22, 2023, https://taxfoundation.org/publications/state-and-local-sales-tax-rates/.

[4] Gail Cole, “Economic Nexus, Home Rule, and Sales Tax: What Businesses Need to Know,” Avalara, Inc., accessed April 11, 2023, https://www.avalara.com/blog/en/north-america/2022/07/economic-nexus-home-rule-sales-tax-what-businesses-need-to-know.html.


Most Alabama Counties Grew in 2022, Reversing Trend

People are moving to Alabama, and according to most recent population estimates, the growth is more widespread than it has been. Out of 67 counties, 36 saw population growth between July 1, 2021, and July 1, 2022, the period covered in the latest Census Bureau release. In the prior year, only 29 counties saw positive growth. Throughout the 2010s, only 24 counties grew.

Fig. 1. Numeric Change 2021-2022

The growth is particularly noteworthy because four factors were putting downward pressure on population growth:

  • Death rates were still elevated in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic
  • The large Baby Boom generation is entering years of increased mortality
  • Smaller succeeding generations have lower birthrates
  • International immigration is still lower than historical norms

Printable PDF available here.

But in the counties that grew, and for the state as a whole, domestic migration — a net positive number of U.S. residents moving into the state — overcame the headwinds.

Fig. 2 Domestic Migration 2021-2022

The strongest growth was among the usual suspects: Baldwin County in the south and Madison and Limestone counties in the north, with Lee, Shelby, and Tuscaloosa counties also continuing positive growth trends. The Huntsville area’s growth continues to spread across North Alabama, with population growth accelerating in The Shoals (Lauderdale and Colbert), Cullman, Morgan, and Marshall counties.

The Wiregrass and Northeast Alabama counties also grew, including Calhoun County, which had been on an extended population losing streak. Calhoun added over 600 new residents through domestic migration for a net population gain of 111. Etowah County attracted 524 new residents, but since deaths exceeded births, the population total declined slightly, down just 55 residents.

In percentage terms, Limestone County grew the fastest. That’s likely growth not only in Athens, the county seat, but also from Huntsville and Madison, which have spread from Madison County into Limestone. Generally, counties along the Interstate corridors are growing, as well as counties bordering Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida. On the western border with Mississippi, most counties are losing population.

Urban losses

Alabama’s traditional urban centers — Jefferson, Montgomery, and Mobile — lost population, primarily due to domestic outmigration.

That population loss parallels national trends among urban counties: in the wake of the pandemic, most population centers lost population. According to the estimates, Jefferson County’s population decreased 4,588 in 2022. Since the 2020 Census, Jefferson County’s population has decreased by almost 9,000.

Rate of Domestic Migration, 2021-2022

There are signs of a turnaround, though. Nationally, large urban centers began seeing population recovery in 2022. Jefferson County’s population loss was lower in 2022 than in 2021. International immigration and natural increase helped fuel population growth in urban centers elsewhere, including among Southern neighbors. Alabama’s big cities saw some population growth through international immigration. However, Alabama generally sees much lower rates of international in-migration.

Rate of International Migration, 2021-2022

Divergent Rates of Change

Alabama’s Black Belt and other more remote rural counties continued to lose population through residents moving away and through higher death rates. According to the estimates, Lowndes, Perry, and Greene Counties are each now below 10,000 in population, with Greene being the least populous at 7,422. Bullock, Coosa, and Wilcox are close to 10,000. Nationally, about 1,000 of the more than 3,000 counties in the U.S. have 10,000 or fewer residents.

Population Estimates, 2022, U.S. Census Bureau

In addition to outmigration, rural counties tend to have negative rates of natural change: in other words, more deaths than births. Those counties tend to have a higher median age, with a higher share of the population over 60. That’s a population that has an increased risk of death from natural causes.

Rate of Death, 2021-2021

On the opposite end of the spectrum are counties with a higher proportion of the population who are young adults or in their child-bearing years. In only eight counties have births outnumbered deaths since 2020: Lee, Shelby, Madison, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Limestone, Marshall, and Autauga.

Rate of Natural Increase, 2021-2022

The tabs above the images allow you to explore statistics for individual counties for births and deaths, and domestic and international migration, as well as numeric change over time.

The National Picture

Alabama’s population change is occurring in the context of national trends that are visible when zoomed out to the national level. Population losses in Alabama’s Black Belt are connected to patterns along the Mississippi River from Mississippi and Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and even Illinois. Baldwin County’s growth rate has echoes along the coasts of Florida, Georgia, and North and South Carolina coasts. Huntsville’s growth sits at the edge of the mountain interior southern region stretching across Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and Northern and Central Georgia.


Who Cares About Childcare? PARCA Annual Forum, 2023

Gov. Kay Ivey identified affordable and high-quality child care as a key priority in her speech to the Public Affairs Research Council’s Annual Forum, held Friday, March 10, at the Harbert Center in Birmingham.

“Many Alabamians and others across the country face a dilemma in finding safe, reliable childcare,” Ivey told the crowd of close to 400, “As more and more Alabamians join the workforce, which is a very positive development for our state and quality of life, more working families will also be in need of childcare services. There is no better time than right now to address this fundamental need facing this state.”

Friday’s Forum featured researchers, parents, childcare providers, and employers discussing the state’s challenges in fostering an adequate supply of affordable, convenient, and high-quality care for young children and their working parents.

Below you can find the program for the event, which includes biographies of the featured speakers.

Speakers included Alison Hooper, an assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Alabama’s College of Education, whose research has mapped childcare availability and access across the state, and Cynthia Osborne, the executive director of the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center and professor of Early Childhood Education and Policy at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development.

Osborne’s center has developed a 50-state comparison of key policies that relate to childcare, plus statistical comparisons of child well-being and policy options for delivering additional support to children and families. That includes a summary of findings for each state, including Alabama.

Both presentations are embedded below.

UA Assistant Professor of early childhood education addresses the PARCA Annual Forum, March 10, 2023
Cynthia Osborne addresses the PARCA Annual Forum Friday March 10, 2023

The Forum also included a panel facilitated by Janina Nobles, Child Development Instructor and Program Advisor at Bevill State Community College. The panel included a collection of parents, a childcare provider, and an employer to provide a range of perspectives on the issues happening in childcare.


How Alabama Taxes Compare, 2022 Edition

PARCA’s How Alabama Taxes Compare, 2022 Edition, uses data published by the U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of State and Local Finances to compare tax revenues across the state. This most recent set of revenue and expenditure data cover state and local fiscal years ending between July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020, identified as the fiscal year 2020. That means the state of Alabama’s data is from the fiscal year that ended September 30, 2019.

Key Findings

• In 2020, Alabama had the nation’s second-lowest state and local tax collections per capita.

• Alabama has the lowest per capita property tax collections in the nation.

• Alabama has among the highest sales tax rates in the U.S.

• Alabama is now the only state that allows state individual and corporate income taxpayers to fully deduct federal income taxes paid. That provides a tax advantage for high earners.

• Despite a recent change that provides some relief, Alabama begins taxing income at the lowest threshold in the U.S.

Alabama state and local taxes collections are low due to two factors: lower rates and a smaller resource base to tax. Alabama’s Per Capita Gross Domestic Product, the total value of all goods and services produced, ranks in the bottom five of states, meaning we have a lower resource base to tax. However, these other states make a greater tax effort and, thus, generate more money to provide services.

This gap between Alabama and other states will not be so obvious when newly elected lawmakers convene in March to craft budgets for FY 2024. A strong inflationary economy, high employment levels, and a flood of federal relief have supplemented state spending and stimulated record levels of state and local tax collections in the most recent year.

But as proposals are floated to make changes to tax rates, it’s important to understand the tax system in context, including a history of underinvestment compared to other states. Any changes should ensure adequate revenue, promote fairness and opportunity, and increase ease of collection and compliance.

How Alabama’s Taxes Compare, 2022 Edition, explores Alabama’s tax system in more depth and context.

Printable PDF version available here

Below are interactive versions of the charts in the report.


Another Banner Year in Alabama Tax Collections, but Inflation Will Take a Bite

Alabama tax collections grew at an eye-popping rate in the 2022 fiscal year, with particularly strong growth in income tax collections (up 27% over 2021) and online sales (up more than 20%). The strong collections produced surpluses in both primary state accounts, the Education Trust Fund (ETF) and the General Fund (GF).

Printable PDF available here

While the growth is sparking talks of rebates and tax cuts, it will be important for legislators to keep in mind that inflation will increase the cost of operating state government. At the same time, rising interest rates and diminishing levels of federal relief will likely slow growth going forward.

Alabama has had a string of record years when it comes to tax collections, with no discernable drag caused by the pandemic shutdown and the subsequent recovery. Preceding the pandemic, Alabama experienced historically low unemployment and was beginning to increase labor force participation rates, drawing discouraged workers off the sidelines and contributing to income gains.

While the pandemic sent a sudden jolt through the economy, federal relief kept paychecks coming for many and provided stimulus money to households as well. Alabama’s dip in the second quarter of 2020 wasn’t as sharp as some states, and the economy reopened more quickly than some.

In FY 2021, the continued federal stimulus and the recovering job market produced record growth in tax collections. And in FY 2022, total collections grew even faster, 18% across both funds, with the strongest growth in the Education Trust Fund.

The Education Trust Fund

The ETF receives the receipts of state sales and income tax, plus a handful of other revenue streams.

Income and sales tax collections rise with a growing economy and can shrink when the economy contracts and goes into recession. Inflation, which has averaged below 3% over the past 20 years, averaged over 7% during 2022. Since people spend more, sales taxes rise, and tax collections also grow.

Income taxes

At the same time, during FY 2022, there was a strong demand for workers, with historically low unemployment. To attract and retain employees, employers increased wages. Alabama’s workforce returned to and exceeded pre-pandemic numbers in FY 2022. Alabama’s labor force participation rate is still 5% lower than the U.S. rate, but the strong job market has drawn more people back into the labor force.

During FY 2022, the number of people working in Alabama surpassed pre-pandemic peaks, though that didn’t occur until July 2022.

With more workers receiving higher pay comes higher income tax collections. The income tax receipts were up 27% in FY 2022, contributing a total of $7.2 billion to the ETF, up $1.5 billion from 2021. And 2021 wasn’t a down year. Income tax collections increased 21% in 2021. Even in FY 2020, the fiscal year that included the pandemic contraction, income tax collections rose almost 7%.

Rising income tax collections resulted from a variety of factors. In addition to rising wages, corporate profits have been, and continue to be, high. Alabama corporate income tax collections were up 33% in 2022, an increase of $325 million over FY 2022.

Another likely contributor to the substantial 2022 collections was stock market gains in 2021, a year in which the S&P 500 was up by 27%. Taxes on those gains would have flowed in during the 2022 fiscal year.

Considering the poor stock market performance in the 2022 calendar year, revenue from that source will be down in Fiscal Year 2023.

A final contributing factor to the growth of income tax collections is the return to a normal level of auditing by the government after pandemic-related restrictions on face-to-face interactions slowed those efforts. Some of the gains may be attributed to settlements from prior years and increased compliance in the current year.

Sales taxes

Meanwhile, state sales tax collections were up 7.66%. Inflation over the period is estimated to have been 7.7%. The state makes some adjustments to the sales tax before making a final deposit in the Education Trust Funds, which slightly decreased the percentage gain to the Education Trust Fund. Ultimately, revenue from sales taxes flowing to the ETF increased 6.8%, or $159 million. The Use Tax, a companion to the sales tax but assessed on out-of-state purchases of goods and machinery, was up 18%, contributing an additional $35 million to the ETF.

The state portion of the Simplified Sellers Use Tax (SSUT), a tax on online purchases, was up 21%, suggesting a continuing migration toward online shopping. Overall, the SSUT brought $311 million, but 75% of the proceeds went into the General Fund. The SSUT contributed $78 million to the ETF, $13 million more than in 2021.

Overall, the Education Trust Fund grew 21%, an increase of $1.78 billion, with total collections at $10.42 billion.

Because of the Rolling Reserve Act, the ETF is budgeted conservatively, with spending capped by a formula. That formula computes a historical growth rate for the fund, keeping lawmakers from overspending in periods of high growth and preserving funds for lean times. It more than did its job in FY 2022. The ETF bought in $2.75 billion more than the state budgeted for education spending in FY 2022.

When the Legislature convenes in March of 2023, the body will decide what to do with that surplus. While some are proposing tax rebates or cuts, others are urging caution.

The massive injection of federal aid for education, which amounts to over $3 billion over three years, will be tapering off in 2024. Teacher compensation will need to increase to keep pace with inflation and to attract young people into the profession. Regardless, the state has healthy reserves and has continued to budget conservatively with state funds. The FY 2023 ETF budget calls for spending $8.3 billion out of the ETF, $2 billion less than what was collected in FY 2022.

The General Fund

The General Fund also grew, but not at the same rate. This has been typical of the General Fund compared to the Education Trust Fund performance pattern. The Education Trust Fund grows fast when the economy grows, while the General Fund sees a slower growth rate. The General Fund is made up of a hodgepodge of revenue sources. It supports the operation of all the government’s non-education agencies, including Medicaid and the state prison system.

The Legislature has made several adjustments in recent years to increase growth in the General Fund. That’s important because expenses inevitably rise. Not only that, the state has chronically underinvested in some supported by the General Fund, the Department of Corrections, for example. A stable, growing revenue base is needed to address longstanding needs.  

Simplified Seller’s Use Tax

The most successful of those adjustments was the establishment of the Simplified Sellers Use Tax (SSUT). The Legislature chose to devote 75% of this tax on Internet sales to the General Fund, which has been one of the state’s fastest-growing revenue sources. The move continued to pay dividends in Fiscal Year 2022.

Revenue from the SSUT was up 21%, an increase of $40 million, for a total contribution to the General Fund of $233 million.

While it continues to grow rapidly as more commerce moves online, the SSUT’s growth rate is slowing. Between 2019 and 2020, revenue from the SSUT doubled, then grew by almost 40% in 2021. In the first years of the tax, revenue grew quickly as vendors who previously hadn’t collected online sales taxes joined the system. Digital commerce also grew especially quickly during the pandemic. The shift toward digital commerce will continue, but revenue gains won’t likely advance as rapidly going forward.

Other sources

Insurance company taxes also provided a major boost to the General Fund in 2022, up 13% or $65 million more than it did in FY 2021. The tax is assessed on the value of insurance premiums issued. The Insurance Company tax is the largest tax source in the General Fund at $554 million in FY 2022. Before FY 2021, $30 million of the Insurance Company Tax was transferred to the Education Trust Fund. That has ended, providing more support for the General Fund.

The Use Tax, at $272 million, was the second largest contributor to the General Fund. This is a tax on purchases of cars, machinery, boats, mobile homes, or other goods in other states for use in Alabama. A 2015 change in the distribution formula for the Use tax has allowed a greater portion of the tax to flow to the General Fund. In 2022, revenue to the General Fund from the Use Tax increased by 18%, providing an additional $35 million than in 2021.

Rising interest rates increased revenue from the interest earned off State deposits. Revenue doubled, increasing by $20 million to $40 million.

Higher energy prices boosted the tax revenue from Oil and Gas Production taxes, up by 80%, an increase of $17 million.

Total growth in the General Fund increased 8.4%, a slightly higher rate of increase than the inflation rate during the period. Total collections increased from $2.56 billion to $2.87 billion, up $31 million. By the end of 2022, receipts to the General Fund were $351 million above FY 2022 budgeted expenses. The Legislature anticipated the surplus and applied it to the 2023 budget.

The Big Picture

The revenue flowing into the General Fund and the Education Trust fund presents only a portion of the state government spending in Alabama. In addition to the taxes earmarked for the Education Trust Fund and the General Fund, other state revenue streams flow directly to agencies. For example, taxes on motor fuels flow to the Alabama Department of Transportation for highway building. State colleges and universities collected tuition. Federal funds help pay for highways, Medicaid, education, and social services.

About half of Alabama’s public spending is for education, and half is for non-education agencies.

Rainy Day

If a recession does cause a contraction in revenues, Alabama is in a better position to weather a downturn than in the past. According to a recent analysis by Pew Charitable Trust, Alabama has the 20th strongest reserves, with $1.4 billion stashed away in Rainy Day Funds. According to Pew’s calculations, Alabama could run 49 days on the amount it has in reserve.


A New Constitution Plus Additional Amendments on the Nov. 8 Ballot

Beyond the political contests on the November  8th ballot, Alabama voters will decide whether to adopt the Alabama Constitution of 2022, a recompiled version of the current constitution, as well as 10 statewide constitutional amendments. There will also be 19 other state constitutional amendments appearing on the ballots only in the county where those amendments apply.

Replacing the Alabama Constitution of 1901 has long been a goal of reformers. The current Constitution was adopted explicitly to guarantee White Supremacy in Alabama, by disenfranchising black and poor white voters, mandating segregated schools, and forbidding interracial marriage, among other provisions. 

Such unconstitutional and repealed provisions will be gone from the Alabama Constitution of 2022. The constitution would also incorporate and reorganize the 978 amendments that have been made to the current constitution.

At the same time, the new constitution would preserve current law and practices that centralize power in the Legislature and require amendments to the state constitution for even mundane local matters. If the Alabama Constitution of 2022 is adopted, Alabama will still have the world’s longest constitution: more than three times the length of the next closest state.     

PARCA’s new report, An Analysis of the Proposed Alabama Constitution of 2022 and the Statewide Amendments, details the proposal for the new constitution and the 10 amendments that will also be on ballots statewide.

As always, PARCA provides a high-level analysis of each statewide amendment. We study the ballot wording, but also the authorizing legislation behind the language. We do not make recommendations or endorsements, rather, we seek to understand the impact of the proposed changes and the rationales for them.

Voters can find sample ballots on the Secretary of State’s website, listed by county.  The ballot language for the statewide and local constitutional amendments is also available on the site. Background material on the proposed Constitution can be found on the website of the Legislative Services Agency.

PARCA, Leadership Alabama, and Samford hosted a discussion of the proposed constitution Oct. 18, and a video recording of that event is available online.

Read the full report here.



Alabama Public Opinion Survey 2022

With elections for governor and legislature pending in the fall, Alabamians are united in support for public investment in education and healthcare, divided on how to raise money for new investments, and express a preference for local leadership and decision-making. That is according to PARCA’s annual public opinion survey.

The poll of over 400 Alabama residents was conducted by Dr. Randolph Horn, Samford University, Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Research and Professor of Political Science. 

Results from this year’s survey are consistent with previous years’ results in some important ways.

  • Alabamians continue to rank education as the most important state government activity.
  • Large majorities of Alabamians say the state spends too little on education and healthcare.
  • Alabamians have an aversion to taxes but say upper-income residents pay too little.
  • A slim majority say budget surpluses should be reinvested in state services, specifically education, rather than used to cut taxes.
  • If budget surpluses are used to cut taxes, the most popular tax cut is the sales tax on groceries.
  • Alabamians are willing to pay more taxes to support education but do not agree on which taxes should be increased.
  • Alabamians are essentially split on tax-funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition. However, a majority believe vouchers, if allowed, should be available to all students.
  • Alabamians continue to believe that they have no say in state government and that government officials in Montgomery do not care about their opinions.

Results of the survey indicate many opportunities for officials to demonstrate responsiveness to public concerns and leadership in crafting public policy solutions.

Download the full report here.


2021 Population Change in Alabama Cities

Each year, PARCA analyzes population estimates issued by the U.S. Census Bureau. Visualizations of the population estimates and change for the state, counties, and metro areas can be found on our data dashboard. The estimates release covers cities and towns and their population changes between July 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021. For additional perspective, see coverage of the estimates by al.com.

During this period, international migration was effectively shut off. The influx of new residents from overseas had been a primary driver of population gain in the larger established cities. Meanwhile, this period also saw elevated mortality rates due to the pandemic. Also, due to the pandemic, cities across the nation saw an outflow of residents as businesses stayed shuttered and workers were asked to work from home.

Printable PDF version available here

Birmingham’s population dropped by 2,558, more than any other Alabama city. It was followed by Mobile, which was down 1,459, and Montgomery down 1,341. With an estimated population of 197,575 in 2021, Birmingham is now the state’s third-largest city, behind Montgomery at 198,665, and No. 1 Huntsville, at 216,963.

Huntsville bucked the trend of large city population loss, adding 1,920 residents according to the estimates. Only Auburn added more, 2,135, which was more population gain than any other Alabama city. Since 2010, Auburn’s population has increased 43%, the fastest rate of growth among cities over 20,000. Neighboring Opelika has also grown, adding an estimated 465 in 2021.

Both Auburn and Huntsville have been spreading out through annexation, adding undeveloped land where housing is now being built. At 218 square miles, Huntsville is now far larger than Birmingham at 147 square miles.

Add up the growth totals in Baldwin County, and you’ll see why the coastal county is No. 1 in numeric growth among Alabama counties. The estimates show Foley adding nearly 1,500 residents, Daphne more than 1,000, and Fairhope and Gulf Shores over 500 apiece.

The Birmingham-Hoover metropolitan area is still far larger than the next largest metro, Huntsville, with around 500,000 residents compared to Birmingham-Hoover’s 1.1 million. Over the past two decades, population growth around Birmingham has occurred chiefly in its suburbs.

However, according to the 2021 estimates, some traditional growth engines were idling. Trussville only added 172 new residents, and Hoover saw a net decrease of 98 residents. Homewood, Mountain Brook, and Vestavia Hills saw population declines. A bright spot for Jefferson County was Gardendale which posted a gain of 407. The growth in the Birmingham MSA occurred farther out in Shelby and St. Clair County. Calera added 742 residents; Chelsea, 478; and Helena, 465. Pell City, Moody, and Margaret town in St. Clair County also added residents. Nearby, Tuscaloosa added 658 residents and broke over the 100,000 population mark, coming in at 100,618.

Across a region, the biggest population gains were in north Alabama. In addition to Huntsville’s growth, Athens, in Limestone County, added over 1,300, and the City of Madison almost 1,000. Nearby, The Shoals added 424 residents, with growth in both Florence and Muscle Shoals continuing a positive trend. Across the entire northern tier of the state, almost all the cities and towns showed growth.

Southeast Alabama around Dothan saw modest growth, with Enterprise leading the way by adding over 500 new residents.

Anniston and Gadsden, however, continued a flat to declining population trend.

More broadly, most cities and towns in rural Alabama, from Northwest Alabama, through the Black Belt, and East Central Alabama, lost population.


State Parks Constitutional Amendment on May Primary Ballot

When voters go to the polls on May 24, they will be asked to vote on a single amendment to the Alabama Constitution of 1901, a proposal to borrow $85 million to pay for repairs and upgrades at Alabama’s 21 state parks.

Click here to read a detailed description and analysis of the proposed amendment.

Alabama has what is believed to be the world’s longest constitution at over 400,000 words, with 977 amendments. Oddly, 70% of the state constitution consists of amendments that apply to individual counties or cities. Alabama’s 1901 Constitution severely constrained government and consolidated power in Montgomery. The multitude of amendments is a long-lingering aftereffect of that approach to governing.

Having just one amendment to vote on is unusual. In November’s general election, 29 amendments will be considered, including amendments that would strike unconstitutional provisions and substantially reorganize the document.


PARCA Report Highlights Challenges of Municipal Financial Comparison, Examines City Tax Collections

Our 2022 edition of How Alabama Cities Compare (the tenth edition of PARCA’s study of Alabama city finances) introduces a new methodology, highlights the challenges of comparing municipal finances, and proposes a better way to collect the information in a standardized way that should produce comparable data more quickly. After building consensus and adjusting existing practices, such a system would save cities time and provide the data they need to manage their affairs.

Understanding a city’s revenues and expenditures in comparison to other cities is a fundamental tool for effective management.

By benchmarking against neighbors, a city may discover it is spending more than necessary. Alternatively, city leaders may conclude that a higher level of investment puts the city at a competitive advantage, providing a higher level of service and better quality of life for residents.

Unfortunately, making such comparisons is difficult in Alabama. Unlike other states, cities in Alabama are neither required nor encouraged to use a uniform chart of accounts, a standard system for coding revenues and expenditures.

Nor does Alabama have an effective system for publishing and sharing the kind of comparable data that could be produced with a uniform chart of accounts.

For instance, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida have a statewide reporting system that makes city and county financial information available online in a downloadable format that allows for detailed comparisons between peer cities or counties.

If Alabama wants to gather this data and equip its cities with a tool for comparison, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of State and Local Finances provides an existing base of information already submitted by city governments.

In terms of tax collections, an analysis of the most recent data from the Census survey finds:

  1. Alabama cities heavily depend on sales tax, with almost 60% of revenue coming from that source.
  2. Of cities with populations more than 20,000, per capita tax collections range from $2,674 in Homewood to $402 in Prichard.
  3. Oxford has the highest per capita sales tax revenue at $1,502 per resident.
  4. Mountain Brook is the only city in Alabama to collect more in property taxes than in sales, with 46% of municipally collected revenue coming from the property tax.
  5. Birmingham leads the cities in occupational and business licenses taxes per capita, with that revenue contributing 42% of city tax revenue.

Meanwhile, on the expenditure side, the survey reveals:

  1. The governments in North Alabama spend more than governments in the rest of the state because they operate public utilities, including municipal electricity providers.
  2. Excluding utilities, Birmingham and Bessemer, both cities that receive an influx of commuters, spend more per capita on the broad range of municipal services. That includes topping the list for per capita spending on police and fire.
  3. Oxford tops the list in per capita spending on parks and recreation. Smaller cities that report the operation of municipal sports, arts, and recreation facilities rank high in this category.
  4. The data offers the potential to track spending on municipal courts, jails, solid waste disposal, and other categories of spending, but currently, cities appear to diverge widely in how they report that information in the survey.

Working with state officials and with assistance from the U.S. Census Bureau, Alabama local governments could develop a more streamlined system for generating and reporting this data. With closer agreement on how to categorize particular revenues and expenditures, the survey could provide clearer, more actionable comparable data. The survey includes questions on debt. Better reporting of this data can provide more transparency to the public. A more robust system could also provide better accountability and oversight, potentially avoiding bankruptcy and scandal.

However, it will take leadership, likely by state officials, to gather consensus and execute a system cities, counties, and other local entities are motivated to participate in.

Read the full report here: How Alabama Taxes Compare, 2022 Edition