Hundreds of Local Laws at Stake on November Ballot

Voters statewide will decide the fates of 14 proposed amendments to the Alabama Constitution on Nov. 8.

The topics range widely – from protecting money for state parks to expanding the Auburn University board of trustees.  A few affect only one county.

Voters might find some of the amendments confusing unless they do some homework before heading to the polls.

An example is Amendment 14, which officials say is needed to save hundreds of local laws from legal jeopardy.

"All 67 counties would have something at stake should this go down," Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said.

The issue goes back to another amendment added to the state Constitution in 1984.

Amendment 448 requires legislators to pass the state budgets before other bills.

The budgets are long, detailed documents that need lots of fine-tuning, so lawmakers circumvent the mandate to approve them first.

To do that, they pass a "budget isolation resolution" for each bill they consider before the budgets, which is allowed under Amendment 448.

The so-called BIR vote is ingrained in the legislative routine.

In December, a court ruled that a Jefferson County sales tax law was invalid because the BIR vote did not get the required three-fifths vote.

Amendment 448 says approval requires three-fifths of a quorum, meaning at least 32 votes in the House.

But a House of Representatives rule says approval requires three-fifths of those voting, a lower standard.

The Jefferson County sales tax bill passed the House after a 13-3 vote on the BIR.

Hundreds of other local bills have become law since the 1980s with BIR approval by fewer than 32 votes in the House. That's because it's customary for House members to abstain on local bills outside their districts.

The court ruling invalidating the Jefferson County law is on appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court.

Ward said more than 600 local laws would be ripe for lawsuits if the Supreme Court upholds the decision.

That would "pretty much guarantee that any other challenges will sail right through," said Ward, who sponsored the bill to put Amendment 14 on the ballot.

Local laws that are potentially at risk affect sales taxes, gasoline taxes, property taxes, court costs, pistol permit fees, Sunday alcohol sales, annexations and dozens of other matters.

One example is a Chilton County law passed in 2014 to allow a referendum for a 1-cent sales tax to build a hospital.  St. Vincent's Chilton Hospital will have a grand opening on Sept. 30.

Amendment 14 would ratify and validate all the bills that have passed under the House BIR rule.

Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said Amendment 14 is the logical way to resolve a technicality that jeopardizes established laws needed to deliver government services.

Brasfield said it's not practical to think that the Legislature could pass them again.

Local bills have to be advertised for four consecutive weeks before passing, and Brasfield said that alone would cost an estimated $3 to $4 million.

Brasfield said he's worried because there are 13 other amendments before Amendment 14 on the ballot.

"Sometimes voters lose interest," Brasfield said.

Ward said mayors, county commissioners, sheriffs and other local officials have participated in conference calls about the importance of approving Amendment 14. He said they will be the leading the effort to get the word out.

"That's going to be your principal cheerleaders and surrogates out there because they realize what it can do to so many local laws and sources of funding," Ward said.

There is a new resource to help voters understand the proposed amendments.

The Legislature passed a bill in 2015 to create the Fair Ballot Commission. The commission writes summaries of constitutional amendments in plain language, easier to digest than the legalistic wording of some amendments.

The summaries are on the Secretary of State's website.

Some of the other amendments:

Amendment No. 1 would add two at-large members to the Auburn University Board of Trustees and ensure that no more than three trustees have terms that expire the same year. The board would increase to 16 members.

Amendment No. 2 would prohibit the Legislature from using money generated at state parks for purposes other than maintaining the parks. It would allow certain parks and lands to be operated and maintained by someone other than the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Amendment No. 4 would allow county commissions to create policies on county personnel, litter-free roadways and public property, public transportation, safety on public roads and emergency assistance. Currently, counties have to seek passage of a local law for many basic policy decisions. The amendment would not authorize tax increases, planning and zoning or salary changes.

Amendment No. 6 would repeal and replace Article VII of the Constitution, which governs impeachments.

Currently, the impeachment article does not say how many votes is required in the Senate to remove an official from office.

Amendment 6 would say a two-thirds vote is required.

It would not change reasons for which an official can be impeached.

The amendment was proposed by a bill passed in 2015, before the ongoing move to impeach Gov. Robert Bentley, which is being investigated by the House Judiciary Committee.

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