UA professors discuss how tax plan has affected constitutional reform
Crimson White, September 05, 2003
By Nick Beadle, student life editor

While talk about Gov. Bob Riley's $1.2 billion tax and accountability package has often dominated Alabama media for the past three months, it has drawn attention away from another reform movement.

The two UA professors who served earlier this year on Riley's Alabama Citizens' Constitutional Commission say the tax plan has affected the movement to reform Alabama's behemoth 1901 constitution - believed to be the largest in the world with more than 700 amendments - and not for the best.

Political science professor emeritus William Stewart said the tax plan's failure Tuesday, which he said is almost guaranteed, will set back the constitutional reform movement at least a decade.

"It will show the people of Alabama are not in the mood for reform," he said.

Stewart said many within the constitutional reform movement believed tax reform would be a prelude to constitutional changes, because if it were to pass, it would make the prospects of the much more massive constitutional reform less frightening to Alabamians.

However, he said the plan's likely defeat would add another weapon to constitutional reform opponents' armory, as they could easily assert constitutional reform is another method by which the state government is trying to raise taxes.

Stewart said any attempts at constitutional reform would also feel the wrath of Alabama's black legislators, who he said are angry Riley did not approve felon voting rights legislation in exchange for their endorsement of the tax package.

However, Stewart did say the constitution would likely be recompiled and that the racist language in the 1901 document would likely be removed in next November's election.

Associate journalism professor Bailey Thomson said one of two possibilities could spring out of the tax plan's failure.

One would be Stewart's pessimistic view that defeat would set back constitutional reform for several years. The other would leave comprehensive governmental reform as the state's only option to give Alabamians more confidence in their government.

Despite the odds against it, Thomson said he is hopeful Alabama voters will approve the tax and accountability plan.

"If it's successful as I hope it will be, it's going to give everyone more confidence in Alabama's ability to choose for the future and make the right decision," he said.

In addition to stealing media attention, Thomson said the campaign surrounding tax and accountability plan has hurt the reform movement when one considers what he described as the bottomless pockets of constitutional reform opponents.

"Where we have felt the impact of this campaign is it's hard to raise money for [constitutional reform] when so much of it is going to tax reform," he said. "There's just so much money to go around."

More problems than tax reform

Thomson said a need for constitutional reform would still exist if Riley's plan is approved. He said that while the package would make Alabama's tax system much fairer, it would not deal with constitutional issues such as the lack of home rule and modernizing state government.

Stewart concurred, saying the package deals with increasing resources for state government, not improving its structure.

"Most of this stuff in other states would be of a statutory nature," he said.

If approved, the tax and accountability package would amend Alabama's 1901 constitution to enact its proposed changes to the state government.

Thomson said he does not foresee tax package supporters opposing constitutional reform because they would fear the group tasked with the rewrite would eliminate the tax plan's reform measures from the revamped state government.

He said he guesses the plan, if passed, would delineate Alabama's tax structure for the next generation and said any group rewriting the constitution would not tamper with something already approved by the state's voters.

Stewart said that though the tax plan campaign and the constitutional reform movement have overlapping support circles, some interest groups supporting the tax plan would be against constitutional reform because they oppose further un-earmarking of state funds and the streamlining of state government.

"They want to keep government as in-house as possible," he said.

Lessons learned

As for what lessons constitutional reformers can learn from the pro-tax-plan campaign if there were a similar referendum on a revamped constitution, Thomson said the movement would need devoted leadership at the top of a pro-reform campaign.

"It's absolutely critical that a governor be out front," he said. "We can see from the [tax plan] campaign that every hope for successful reform in Alabama depends on a lot of awareness to be raised."

Thomson and Stewart both attested that gaining strong grassroots support would also be critical for a successful constitutional reform referendum.

Thomson also said money would be essential.

"I wish it were not that way, but that's just a fact of life," he said.

Stewart said inserting and concentrating on accountability measures - such as mandating a rainy day fund, allowing for the recall elected officials and keeping better track of what the state is spending money on - in a constitutional revamp would increase a new document's chances of voter approval.

"The people [of Alabama] are extremely skeptical [and distrustful] of public officials," he said.

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