AS TAXES GO DOWN, COURT FEES GO UP.
Alabama is a conservative state, full of good Republicans who hold fast to the most sacred doctrine of the tax cut. State legislators are well that raising taxes—even when extra funding is needed—is an unpardonable sin that merits excommunication from state leadership.
And so as Alabama’s dutiful leaders have labored to cut taxes, something funny has happened: They’ve begun to notice that public employees, government services, and infrastructure don’t pay for themselves. Small government, it turns out, costs a lot.
That development left some scratching their heads. After all, the conservative Bible promised truly: “Do not be deceived; Reagan is not mocked: for whatsoever tax a man cutteth, that he shall also have trickle back down upon him.” Tax cuts pay for themselves, right?
Alabama leaders haven’t found that to be the case. So to remedy the problem, they decided to find other ways to get money out of citizens.
AL.com points out some of the examples of costs that are now paid for by court fees, not tax revenue: “In Chambers County, drug offenders pay into the fire and rescue fund. In Madison County, since 2000 fees for serving court papers have paid for county employees to get a raise. In Lawrence County, court costs help fund the county historical commission, so ostensibly future generations can learn about a time when Alabama adequately funded its court system.”
The State of Alabama has become so dependent on money extracted from increased court fees that, in 2014, Cleburne County officials were apoplectic when they realized that construction on nearby I-20 had cut traffic tickets in half.
The county, which normally processes about 10,500 traffic tickets a year, had only processed 3,375 by August 2014. Cleburne County Circuit Clerk Jerry Paul Owen told the Anniston Star that he was only expecting the town to reach 5,000 tickets by the end of the year.
Without the 5,500 traffic tickets lost because of construction, county officials said they would lose $200,000 in revenue needed for roads, bridges, and the county jail.
The Star’s investigation found that, as tax revenue has decreased, counties across the state have become more reliant on fines. In Cleburne County, a speeding ticket for less than 25 mph over the speed limit would’ve cost $174 in 2000. Now, that same ticket costs $271. Some of the things that ticket pays for include:
- Cost of the fine: $20
- Roads and bridges: $30
- The county jail: $30
- The district attorney: $18
- Part-time employees in the Circuit Clerk’s Office: $3
Calhoun County has a similar problem in that it also relies heavily on speeding tickets to pay for both county operations and to pay money to the state. The $272 speeding ticket in Calhoun County pays for exactly the following:
- Revenue to the state of Alabama: $115.50
- The Calhoun County Commission: $73
- The Circuit Clerk’s Office: $8
- Judicial Administration: $4
- Police Officers Annuity: $5
- The Citizen’s Trust Fund: $1
- Crime victims fund: $2
- The District Attorney: $23.50
- The Drug Task Force: $20
- The actual cost of a speeding fine: $20
That’s right, Alabamans. Your speeding fine for under 25 mph is only supposed to be $20.
Instead of paying what you owe for your actual infraction, though, your money is being taken by courts to pay for things totally unrelated to your offense—all because you keep electing people who promise to cut your taxes without mentioning that they’ll find other ways to get the money out of you.
But they know that talking about “tax cuts” gets you to the polls. They know that appealing to the fable of Reaganomics makes you swoon. And they know you’ll keep re-electing them as long as they use the right words.
This isn’t just happening in Cleburne County or Calhoun County or in Alabama. It’s happening nationwide. Tax cuts, growing resistance to tax hikes, and the economic malaise that followed the Great Recession have pushed counties to use their courts to extract revenue out of small time offenders.
The result? Working class people are paying for the cost of giving tax cuts to the wealthier residents of these states.
In Alabama, though, budget cuts may threaten to strangle their cash cow: Rather than raising taxes to pay for the court system, Alabama has cut support for the court system from $75 million in 2010 to $3 million 2013. The courts now get just 1.6% of state funds. And state legislators are looking to cut the courts further.
Good luck with that.