Alabama ranks near the bottom; how many times have you heard that?

In 2019, Alabama finished “dead last” in public school math proficiency. According to U.S. News and World Report, Alabama also ranks near the bottom in healthcare, crime statistics and its prison system, among other categories.

However, Alabama ranks near the top in one area: political corruption. And if the rapid expansion of state government continues, corruption will only become more prevalent.

A 2017 report from Illinois State University ranked Alabama as the most politically corrupt state in the nation. Not a top-ranking to be proud of. We can and must do better.

While the report defines corruption in several ways, Alabama was declared the most legally corrupt state in the nation. That means while elected officials may technically be acting within the law, they are doing so in an unethical manner. The state ranked only slightly better in illegal corruption.

Government growth is at the heart of legal corruption. In just the past four years, the size of Alabama’s state government is on pace to grow by more than a quarter. That’s billions of extra dollars being doled out by the state to agencies, contractors, grant recipients, etc. And while government waste is bad for citizens in any form, it’s even worse if elected officials are trading taxpayer money for political power.

Even a casual observer of Alabama politics should not be surprised by the state’s high corruption ranking.

In 2017, then-Gov. Robert Bentley resigned after pleading guilty to charges of misusing state resources. Speaker of the state House of Representatives Mike Hubbard left office after a 2016 conviction for violating state ethics laws. In 2015, a state judicial committee suspended state Supreme Court chief justice Roy Moore, who eventually resigned.

Corruption is an issue that Alabamians care about deeply. A 2017 survey conducted by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) found that government corruption and ethics was the third most important priority for Alabama voters. State spending was also high on the list.

According to PARCA, political corruption can lead to serious negative outcomes, such as a weakened education system, low business investment, weakened civil and political rights, and budget deficits. Again, too much state spending and corruption are intertwined.

As we prepare for the upcoming primary and general elections, how can Alabama do better?

The first step is to elect candidates who are committed to limited government. With government operating within tighter purse strings, there would be fewer resources available and less likelihood of corruption compromising the state budget process.

Other changes could help limit unethical behavior.

Gubernatorial candidate Lew Burdette has made ending corruption a top priority. In a recent interview, Burdette said that campaign money is the problem. Since 2013, corporations have been permitted to make unlimited contributions to political candidates. Contributions had previously been limited to $500 per election.

Do major corporate contributors expect nothing for their investment?

Burdette said, “All it does is buy favor and influence.” He proposes limiting political contributions and has self-imposed a $10,000 maximum contribution for his campaign.

Limiting campaign contributions alone will not stop corruption.

Another piece of the puzzle is to increase monitoring, enforcement and sanctioning efforts in Alabama. That involves both government as well as the public. At the state level, more auditors and investigators could be put into place.

Citizens must hold government accountable as well. A 2018 report found that local news reporting on corruption, often sparked by complaints from citizens, had been found to lower the costs of government, presumably because officials knew that someone was monitoring their behavior.

Transparency also plays an important role. According to PARCA, while ethics disclosures are publicly available in Alabama, they are not easy to decipher. There is no way to simply browse records. Providing the public better access to data will improve transparency and help stop corruption.

Finally, Alabama should establish term limits. Without term limits in place, lawmakers may spend decades in Montgomery. Because of the money it takes to run multiple campaigns, the longer someone stays in office, the more likely they are to become beholden to their political benefactors. Establishing term limits, like 14 other states already have, would make corruption less likely to occur.

No one thing will totally end corruption within state government. Alabama must combine a smaller state government with systemic reforms that encourage government and the public to work together to solve this problem.

Alabamians should strive for a quick end of their national leadership in corruption and instead insist on an honest, transparent government.

Justin Bogie serves as Senior Director of Fiscal Policy at the Alabama Policy Institute. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to: