For nearly three decades, Jim Williams applied the force of factual, objective research to the partisan, political reality of Alabama state and local governments.
So did he move that boulder of problems that Alabama governments create, deal with – or avoid?
Until last month, Williams – officially James W. Williams Jr. – had been the first and only executive director of Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. PARCA, as it is known, was created by former Alabama Gov. Albert Brewer in 1988 with the mission of improving how the public’s business gets done. Williams retired at the end of September from the executive director job but will continue to do some research for the organization.
Williams through the years avoided voicing his opinions; he considered that restraint a part of the toolkit for a widely trusted researcher. But at 25-plus years and retirement, he agreed to discuss a scorecard on what has improved in Alabama government in his time, and what has not.
Little change on taxes, Constitution
Two big things about Alabama government – its taxes and its state Constitution – have not changed in any fundamental way, Williams says.
That means that the state operates with comparatively little money for public services, and the low-property and high-sales taxes that do feed the coffers are not “fair, adequate and balanced” as they should be, Williams says. Because of the state Constitution, city governments face a gamut of approvals before they can enact taxes, as other places typically do for schools, for example.
“There’s a difference in cheap government and economical government. We’ve got cheap,” Williams says. “…Around the state, a lot of people have never voted on a tax.”
That said, however, Williams sees a list of instances when governments, business and civic groups worked with PARCA on plans to spend the money government had on goals that mattered in ways that worked. Williams describes PARCA’s role this way: “We assist the public sector in being more performance-based.”
Good news from 2015 budget battle
For instance, this year’s state budget battle — which took Alabama’s governor and legislature three sessions to resolve – has a silver lining, something that PARCA spotlighted at its 2015 annual meeting. Three big-ticket state government missions – education, Medicaid and prisons –are involved in big-picture strategic plans that set goals and assess how well programs work to reach them. Despite the budget struggles, the legislature found more money for education initiatives that are part of Plan 2020, the Alabama Board of Education’s plan for improving schools. Lawmakers also appropriated money to support strategic plans to decrease prison overcrowding and improve Alabama’s Medicaid system. On the downside, focusing on top priorities has left other agencies, including courts and mental health, “woefully underfunded,” Williams says.
Some years back, Williams in his work noticed the obscure Budget Management Act of 1976. The Alabama law calls for state agencies to identify goals, show how programs address them, and to be funded on that basis. It has no penalties, however, and has been variously used or ignored by governors.
Gov. Bob Riley used the law and created a program he called “SMART budgeting.” Williams and PARCA helped him put in place the state government budget process that identified what worked and what didn’t, and acted to eliminate failures and keep and expand successes. One remarkable example, Williams says, was a public safety director who set the goal of lowering the death rate on Alabama highways. He shifted the department’s limited resources to places where speeding and accidents happened, and the highway death rate went down.
The system functioned for several years and portions of it remain in place. The administration of Gov. Robert Bentley doesn’t actively use it, but the underlying idea made something of a comeback in this year’s funding of education, Medicaid and prisons.
“Budgeting is the bottom line,” Williams believes. He decries the legislature’s budgeting tradition of mostly dividing the revenue pie in the same portions to agencies without assessment of results.
Local governments lead change
The most fertile ground for change, though, may be in local government, Williams says. PARCA does extensive analysis of test scores and works with education-improvement plans in Mobile, Tuscaloosa, Decatur and Jackson to assess how their efforts are faring. The state doesn’t provide a model budget for schools, so PARCA is working with the Birmingham Board of Education to create one.
And for those who complain that Birmingham-area governments can’t work together on anything, Williams has the counter-example. In the early 1990s, the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce gave a grant to promote cooperation. Using that, PARCA bypassed politicians, worked with city department heads, and helped create what is now the 80-member Purchasing Association of Central Alabama. It gets the advantage of joint bidding on everything from copy paper to dump trucks.
Williams maintains a reformer’s long view of his work. “People say, ‘Give us the state that gets it exactly right.’ It doesn’t exist,” Williams says.
“If people want to change, we can help. We can’t make change.”