JSU Newswire
Jacksonville, Alabama

Legislative Legacy
What you get when you violate the law of unintended consequences

By Dr. Hardy Jackson
JSU Professor of History

Reprinted from the Mobile Register

Of all the principles that have shaped Alabama's political history, the greatest impact has been made by what's known as the "Law of Unintended Consequences."

In essence, this axiom states that "regardless of what government intends to accomplish when it acts, something else will come of it." To which a corollary is usually added: "And that something else is generally bad."

Our current budgetary crisis is largely the result of this law.

Our founding fathers who wrote the much-maligned Alabama Constitution of 1901 intended that the state would provide education for only those children for whom education would be worthwhile-children of well-to-do folks like themselves.

As for other youngsters, the children of blacks and poor whites, well, one of the founders summed it up this way: Give them more than a primary education and they'll never 'work another day in the sun.'

Then came the unintended consequences: Limiting education to a favored few made Alabama the object of ridicule in progressive circles, which hurt our feelings and wasn't goof for business. So, in the 1920s, reform-minded politicians decided to put revenue in a trust fund earmarked for upgrading education.

Sometimes we forget what an innovation the Education Trust Fund was. Under its provisions, Alabama schools were guaranteed revenue up front. Our sister states, where every year education had to fight for a piece of the pie, were green with envy.

But where to get the money? Planters and industrial barons had made it clear in the 1901 constitution that funds would not come from taxes on property. This left sales taxes, which, advocates said, were fair because "everybody pays them."

Enter the unintended consequences: Reliance on sales taxes meant that dips in the economy frequently caused revenue to fall short, resulting in what politicians came to calling , with a fine feeling for words, "proration."

Alabamians took proration in stride. If the money was irregular in its arrival, and if it was sometimes inadequate for the task, at least it was something.

And with that "something," plus federal money milked from Washington, during the 1940s and 1950s, Alabama began to make progress. If we lagged behind everybody but Mississippi, we were still better off than we had been.

Then came the good times: 1961 to 1978. We need to remember how far this state came during those 17 years without proration. With money at least predictable, if not plentiful, populist politicians and enthusiastic educators gave Alabamians free textbooks, fresh buildings, better-paid teachers, more trade schools, strategically scattered junior colleges, and new universities.

Then, in the midst of it all, unintended consequences began to appear.

Who would have thought that as a result of all this, Alabamians would begin to believe that giving students a decent education was what the state was supposed to do-that it was an essential function, if you will?

And who could have predicted that enhancing education would give the Alabama Education Association the opportunity to become a force capable of making or breaking political career? Flush with new members and membership dues, the teacher organization became just such a force. It was during these years that the press stopped calling AEA a professional association and began calling it a union.

Nor, surely, had it been intended that legislators and the special interests they served would see the Trust Fund as a cash cow for what they called "non-classroom programs." And siphon off more than $200 million.

And, of course, no one had intended that sales tax exemptions would be granted so lavishly that the old assertion "everybody pays them" would become a cruel joke.

Then in 1978, bad times returned. State revenue dropped, proration became the byword, and along came more unintended consequences.

With state money cut, school systems discovered that if they wanted to continue the programs they had begun, then local folks would have to increase local taxes. But when that happened, educators also discovered that the richer districts got richer and the poorer districts did not.

In the past, poorer schools might have accepted this inequity as their lot and done the best with what they had. But by now, as an unintended consequence of the unprorated years, the poorer districts believed that the state was obligated to provide students with an equal (or at least equally funded) education, no matter where they lived.

In 1990, the poorer systems took the issue to court, and won.

Thus the law of unintended consequences left politicians facing what they liked least-a dilemma. Where could they get the money for the poorer schools, which the authors of the 1901 constitution had never intended to fund in the first place?

It fell to Gov. Fob James to find a solution. Having promised the people that he would not raise their taxes, James approached the problem with that direct simplicity that was the hallmark (and, some say, the downfall) of his administration. He took the money from higher education.

Immediately, the law of unintended consequences kicked in. College tuition went up, classes were canceled, and in some cases students did not graduate on time. Then the most unintended consequences occurred: Higher education got organized, formed the Higher Education Partnership, and set out to make sure that such a thing never happened again, which they did by helping elect Gov. Don Siegelman in 1998.

Promising to be Alabama's "education governor," Siegelman took the fruits of a robust economy, and increased money for all levels of education, kindergarten through graduate school. He also set up new programs and started replacing portable classrooms, He was on a roll.

Then the economy tanked, and the governor did what the law told him to do. He declared proration. The message to school systems was: Tighten your belts. Take the hit and make the best of a bad situation, just as you have done in the past.

But the law of unintended consequences would not let them. In Mobile, where belts were already tight, school officials went to court, where they argued that a 1995 AEA-backed law protected K-12 salaries from proration, so higher education should therefore have to absorb most of the cuts.

The judge agreed with Mobile and its allies. Then the Higher Education Partnership, which was unintentionally created when Gov. James "Fobbed" the universities, appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which is where it now sits.

See why the governor and the Legislature are having such a difficult time with all of this? Because none of it was supposed to happen. Indeed, almost every problem we are facing is an unintended consequence of something else.

And I've only scratched the surface. Look closely and see how many you can find.

And while you're at it, see if you can come up with a way to prevent unintended consequences in the future. Because if something is not done to straighten out our mess, we are going to end up with an irregularly land inadequately funded education system in which a favored few get really good schooling and the rest are left with the leavings.

But wait: Wasn't that what the authors of the 1901 constitution intended all along?

Home Search Help Contact JSU
© Copyright 2001:   Jacksonville State University