Alabama House panel votes for plan to let voters decide whether to call a convention to draft a new state constitution
The Birmingham News
Thursday, March 06, 2008
DAVID WHITE
News staff writer

MONTGOMERY - State voters would decide whether to call a convention to draft a new state constitution, under a plan that took an early step toward approval Wednesday.

The Constitution and Elections Committee of the state House of Representatives voted 9-4 for the proposal. Democrats voted for it. Republicans opposed it.

State Rep. Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham, sponsored House Bill 308 and said he hopes the full House will vote on it within three weeks.

Newton, the second-ranking House member, tried but failed the past two years to get the House to pass a convention bill. "I hope we have the votes this year," Newton said.

If his bill is approved by at least 53 of the 105 House members and at least 18 of the 35 senators, state voters would decide in June 2010 whether to call a convention.

If most voters say no, nothing else would happen. If most say yes, voters in November 2010 would elect 210 people, a man and a woman from each of Alabama's 105 House districts, as convention delegates.

A candidate for delegate would have to be a qualified voter, an Alabama citizen for at least three years and a resident of his or her House district for at least one year before the election, which would be non-partisan. A candidate would have to file a $50 qualifying fee and could take no more than a $100 campaign contribution from any one source, or $200 if the candidate faced a runoff.

Delegates would hold the convention starting the first Monday in June 2011, and they would decide when to end it.

If delegates succeeded in drafting a new constitution, state voters would decide in November 2012 whether to accept it. If most said yes, the new constitution would take effect Jan. 1, 2013. If most said no, the current constitution would remain in effect.

A bill almost identical to Newton's has cleared a Senate committee and awaits a vote by the full Senate.

The constitution is the supreme state law. Critics say it was designed to keep power out of the hands of blacks and poor whites. Replacing it could drastically change taxes, the structure of state government, and the powers of local governments, for instance.

Newton said the current constitution, adopted in 1901, gives too much power to legislators and not enough to local governments such as county commissions.

"If you want to know why lobbyists have such great power in this state, the 1901 constitution gives them that," Newton said.

He urged committee members to trust voters on whether to call a convention. "Do you trust the same people who elected you to make that decision?" he asked.

But committee member Rep. Barry Mask, R-Wetumpka, said in an interview that he thinks the current constitution works just fine and hasn't blocked blacks from holding public office or stopped economic growth.

"This constitution hasn't held this state back," Mask said. "Look at the black elected officials. Look at the economic development going on in this state."

Sandra Bell of Montgomery spoke against the bill, telling committee members that she feared lobby groups such as the Alabama Education Association would dominate the convention. "The powerful lobbyists will rewrite the constitution," Bell said later.

But Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, told committee members, "The people ... are smart enough, civil enough and even wary enough to produce and vote on a new constitution for a new century and new millennium."

Voting for the bill were Democratic Reps. George Bandy of Opelika, James Gordon of Saraland, Ken Guin of Carbon Hill, Jimmy Martin of Clanton, Joseph Mitchell of Mobile, Mary Moore of Birmingham, Jack Page of Gadsden, Tommy Sherer of Jasper and Patricia Todd of Birmingham.

Voting against the bill were Republican Reps. Greg Canfield of Vestavia Hills, Chad Fincher of Semmes, Micky Hammon of Decatur and Barry Mask of Wetumpka.

E-mail: dwhite@bhamnews.com

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