Group still pushes new constitution
Birmingham Post-Herald, October 11, 2004
By Daniel Connolly

Many have tried to reform, improve on aging document

When Hartwell Lutz tries to persuade people to sign a petition in favor of creating a new state constitution, he shows them a big fat book.

Then he tells them that the tome he's holding is the Alabama Constitution. Then he says it's an old edition that lacks 150 of the latest amendments.

"I say it's just a mess, and it needs to be replaced," he said.

But the problems with the constitution aren't quite that simple, he said. And creating a new constitution won't be simple, either. Some of the state's most powerful political lobbies said they don't want a constitutional convention, and Gov. Bob Riley isn't calling for one, either.

Lutz, a 72-year-old retired district judge and former state legislator from Huntsville, is helping coordinate a petition drive for Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform.

The group is pushing for a constitutional convention and plans to launch the petition drive statewide, possibly to coincide with the Nov. 2 presidential election.

Some of the chief criticisms that the ACCR and other groups make of the Alabama Constitution are:

• It was designed to disenfranchise blacks and poor whites and to concentrate power in Montgomery.

• It requires local governments to obtain constitutional amendments to regulate local issues. In November 2000, for instance, voters approved a constitutional amendment to ban prostitution in Jefferson County's unincorporated areas. Alabama's constitution now has 751 amendments.

• It set a tax system that is unfair to the poor.

• It earmarks too much money, making it difficult for the government to function.

Many efforts to reform the constitution have failed. In 1915, Gov. Emmet O'Neal called for a new constitution as he left office and the Brookings Institute made the same recommendation in 1932, according to a 1994 report by the Mobile Register. Gov. Jim Folsom failed to make it happen in the 1940s and '50s. Gov. Albert Brewer's efforts went nowhere in the 1960s. Gov. Fob James and Gov. Bill Baxley tried again and failed in the 1970s and '80s.

Riley's plan to revamp the state's tax code — accomplishing part of what constitutional reformists want — was crushed in a 2003 referendum.

The reform movement had another setback in November, when Bailey Thompson, the University of Alabama journalism professor who founded the ACCR, died of a heart attack

Thompson's death set the group back, Lutz said.

"I'll acknowledge that the movement got kind of quiet," he said.

But the petition drive represents the group's largest initiative in months.

Last month the Huntsville organizers of a petition drive were expecting a modest outcome, said Sid McAnnally, ACCR's acting chairman. "If they got maybe 1,000 signatures it was going to be a victory," he said.

The group ended up with more than 10,000 signatures in a drive that coincided with municipal elections, Lutz said.

The organization is meeting Oct. 26 at Samford University to launch the statewide petition drive.
Lutz said he'd like to see the organization get at least 200,000 signatures.

There's still one caveat: There can't be a constitutional convention without the approval of the state Legislature, so the petitions are a means to put pressure on lawmakers to call one, Lutz said.

If the Legislature calls a convention, residents would elect delegates. The delegates would then write a new constitution, and voters would have to ratify that constitution.

Meanwhile, there are signs that those pushing for reform will face some serious opponents as the process continues.

Under the current system, many large properties are taxed under "current use" rather than actual value. Critics say that amounts to a tax break for large farmers and timber owners.

John McMillan, vice president of the Alabama Forestry Association, said a constitutional convention would be a bad idea.

"Let's don't say that we have purists running around here wanting to save the state by passing a new constitution. Let's just let it be known that the people who are doing that have an agenda," he said.

"One (part) of it is to raise taxes, for darn sure. You know we went through all that and the people spoke pretty loud and clear about what they thought about that this time last year," he said, referring to the defeat of Riley's plan.

The Alabama Farmers Federation has said it is opposed to a constitutional convention.

A spokesman for the group wasn't available for comment, but ALFA has posted a statement on its Web site.

"We oppose any type of constitutional change by convention. A convention, as some say occurred in 1901, could produce a constitution much less desirable and would require a take-all or leave-all vote," the statement reads. "An article-by-article approach presented to the people for ratification would be more easily understood and more widely accepted. Some articles may not need to be and should not be revised."

Lutz said the item-by-item approach amounts to not amending the constitution at all. He said it's difficult to convince people to change the constitution because it benefits ALFA and other interest groups.

"Every single one of those amendments got in there because somebody had influence to get them in there," he said. "And more than likely they spent some money to get them in there."

McAnnally, the acting chairman, said he wants to build political dialogue with people who are concerned about the process.

"Many of these people have legitimate concerns that need to be the focus of conversation," he said. "One of the things ACCR has done from the beginning is try to bring together people to talk about moving the state forward."

Other, less sweeping changes to the constitution are in the works. Upon taking office, Riley appointed a committee to study constitutional reform.

One of the group's recommendations, reorganizing the constitution to make it less unwieldy, was already passed by the state Legislature last year.

Another recommended item, removing racist language from the constitution, will be on the ballot for the November election, said John Matson, deputy press secretary for the governor.

The constitution still contains segregationist clauses that will be removed if voters approve the item. The clause states, "Separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race."

"Constitutional reform is still a priority for the governor," Matson said. But he said the governor isn't enthusiastic about a constitutional convention.

"The governor, you know, has been working through the Legislature to get these reforms passed and prefers to take that route," he said.

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