Constitutional reform: stalled or just starting?
Crimson White, October 27, 2003
By Chris Otts, senior staff reporter

As skeptics say state doesn't want change, ACCR plans to go full-steam ahead with efforts to rewrite charter

Many politicians and residents have long called for a revision or general scrapping of Alabama's constitution. But the 1901 document, though amended more than 700 times, has survived into the 21st century, and now the nearly century-old movement to rewrite it seems to be at an important crossroads.

Gov. Bob Riley became the first chief executive in many years to designate constitutional reform as a priority early in his term. Riley appointed a citizens' commission to study the document and recommend changes to it.

But the state's overwhelming rejection of Riley's $1.2 billion tax and accountability package last month suggests to many that Alabamians don't trust their government and have no desire for sweeping reform measures.

Some reformists, however, regard this as a crucial period to push for a new constitution as financial problems continue to plague the state.

As The Crimson White reported Friday, journalism professor Bailey Thomson has been named the new chairman of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, a three-year-old grassroots organization pushing for a new constitution.

Thomson said the group will move its center of operation from Montgomery to Birmingham. The group plans to focus less on lobbying the Legislature and more on inspiring a broad, popular movement for reform, he said.

The 1901 constitution: protective or problematic?

Historians agree and records show that Alabama's 1901 constitution was written by a ruling elite of wealthy, white planters who wanted to extend their power and deny blacks and poor whites their say in government.

Thus, the constitution that passed the convention contained strict methods of denying suffrage to blacks and poor whites, including property ownership requirements, poll taxes and provisions that would allow poll workers to decide subjectively whether someone was fit for voting.

Evidence also strongly suggests that the constitution was ratified through massive voter fraud in the Black Belt, a customary way for rich whites to win elections at that time.

But the federal government through the civil rights acts of the 1960s declared all such methods of disenfranchisement unconstitutional, thus nullifying those parts of the document.

So how does the century-old document still impede progress in Alabama? In several ways, reformists say.

One issue constantly raised for debate is home rule, the ability of counties to take care of their own local affairs. Very little home rule exists in Alabama; counties cannot raise their own property or income taxes, and nearly all decisions require approval from the Legislature.

To meet the individual needs of counties across the state, the constitution has been amended 742 times, making it the longest such document in the United States at more than 315,000 words.

Amendments 386 and 387, for example, make it legal for nonprofit organizations to hold bingo games in Jefferson and Madison counties, respectively. In all, 16 amendments deal with the operation of bingo in different counties.

Amendment 520 authorizes the Madison County Commission to "provide for the excavating of human graves."

Reformists contend that giving counties home rule would allow local governments to operate more quickly and efficiently and would also make the Legislature more efficient since it would not have to spend time considering legislation that only has to do with one area of the state.

But proponents of the constitution, including the farmers' union Alfa, oppose home rule because they believe it will lead to a deregulation of county governments, which would then lead to property tax and income tax hikes in certain places, they contend.

Alfa spokesman Paul Till said the union wants to keep decision-making centralized in the Legislature so statewide standards can be left in place.

"You need to be able to know what you can do in this county and that county," Till said. "There needs to be uniformity on rules and regulations."

State Republican Party chairman Marty Connors said he thinks GOP legislators would be for "limited home rule." He said there should be more local decision-making, but also some protection against local tax increases, like a referendum.

"What we don't want to do is shift power back to counties to the degree that it encourages any form of additional local tax increases," he said.

Thomson challenges the idea that home rule would lead to outlandish tax increases. In a 1998 series of Mobile Register editorials he wrote regarding Alabama's problems, Thomson argued that South Carolina had a similar problem with a lack of home rule and managed to fix that problem for the better in the 1970s.

He dismissed tax increase concerns as rhetoric meant to frighten people.

"Other states have home rule, and they don't have these dire consequences," Thomson said. "I don't think we're in any danger with counties doing runaway taxation."

Another major criticism of the 1901 constitution is that by leaving power in Montgomery, it makes the state more susceptible to control by interest groups. Alfa and the Alabama Education Association, the state teachers union, are known for their vast lobbying power.

Constitutional reform: nothing new

Reforming or just scrapping the 1901 constitution is not a new idea. Attempts to do so go back to 1915, when Gov. Emmett O'Neal argued that the constitution, only 14 years old at the time, was outdated. As he left office, he told the Legislature that no real progress could be made "until the present fundamental law is revised and adapted to meet present conditions."

Gov. Thomas Kilby also said the constitution was impeding progress within the state in 1923. Perhaps serving as an inspiration to Riley several years later, Kilby suggested creating a constitutional commission composed of citizens from different walks of life who would draft changes for a constitutional convention to consider.

In the late 1930s a group called the Alabama Policy Committee actually presented a model constitution, which included a reapportioned Legislature and no poll tax. The group's proposal was ignored, however, and the group fizzled shortly afterward.

Gov. "Big" Jim Folsom made a determined stab at reform in the 1950s when he constantly battled the Legislature by calling it into special session several times and demanding a constitutional convention. Folsom especially wanted the body reapportioned. The Legislature fought back, however, and eventually won the day since Folsom could not force it to call a convention.

When Fob James succeeded George Wallace as governor in 1979, he charged a commission to recommend constitutional changes and it did so, calling for home rule, low property taxes and the initiative and recall power for residents. A proposed new constitution passed the Senate (a first) but died in the House.

Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley in 1982 assembled a committee that drafted a new constitution eliminating obsolete language and duplicative provisions. The new document, two-thirds more compact, passed both houses but died before referendum when the state Supreme Court ruled that the current constitution did not permit a new constitution to be put before the voters in the form of an amendment to the 1901 document.

Is the future unwritten?

While some think Riley's political setbacks resulting from the tax plan will curb his ability to go after constitutional reform, others, such as state labor commissioner Jim Bennett, who headed Riley's reform commission, are more optimistic about the governor's commitment to the cause.

"Constitutional reform is important to Gov. Riley, and it's still important to him," Bennett said.

Riley spokesman John Matson denied that the governor's interest in constitutional reform has declined since the defeat of the tax plan.

"The governor is still very committed to reforming all parts of state government," Matson said, though he said he did not know of any specific plans regarding constitutional reform.

But reform advocate William Stewart, former chairman of the UA political science department, said that despite his wishes, he does not see a new constitution being implemented in this decade.

"I've studied Alabama politics so long and seen so many movements bite the dust that I'm afraid I don't have any optimism," he said.

Though Thomson commended Riley for his courage in proposing the tax reform, he said a movement for reform would be more effective if it came from the ground up.

The difference between the current constitutional reform movement and those that have failed for some 80 years is popular involvement, reformists say.

Thomson said ACCR has a loyal following of about 2,000 members who pay an average of $50 in voluntary dues. The group is committed to educating Alabamians, not lobbying in Montgomery, he said, and reform will happen when enough residents are behind the cause.

Samford University President Thomas Corts, who has served as chairman of the grassroots organization since it began in 2000, said he still plans to be intimately involved with ACCR after stepping down as chairman. He agreed that the new movement's strength is its growing popular support.

"We've been pretty good about getting the word and educating the public," Corts said. "We want to try to make each person an enthusiastic salesman in behalf of constitutional reform."

The 2-1 rejection of the tax plan may suggest that many Alabamians are not reform-minded, but a recent survey of 1,000 residents by the University of North Alabama shows that 66.7 percent of those polled feel the constitution needs to be reformed.

"That's a pretty astounding figure," Thomson said.

Asked if the tax plan defeat weakened the resolve of those in favor of constitutional reform, Thomson said the case is just the opposite.

"Our members have not given up by any means," he said. "In fact, the message we're getting is, 'Please, go forward.'"

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