Power to the people
From the Huntsville Times
Monday, February 16, 2009

Some candidates still oppose a constitutional convention

With a primary election for the now-vacant 7th District Senate seat formerly held by new U.S. Rep. Parker Griffith, D-Huntsville, set for March 3, the editorial board of The Huntsville Times has been listening to candidates outline various positions.

While our meetings have not been completed, a trend has been detected - particularly among most of the Republicans seeking their party's nomination. A majority of the candidates oppose a constitutional convention, but agree the state's ruling document is flawed. Their solution? Let the Legislature rewrite it one article at a time - subject, of course, to eventual voter approval.

It's heartening to hear candidates acknowledge that the current constitution, adopted in 1901 by men motivated by racism and seeking to codify centralized power in Montgomery, is not only an anachronism, it's past due for reforming.

But it's erroneous, perhaps even disingenuous, to expect the Legislature to right wrongs that have existed for more than a century - and, perhaps more importantly, prevent Alabama from achieving effective and honest government.

Why not let the Legislature rewrite the constitution article by article?

Because it hasn't. Each year, a legislative rewrite is given as an excuse for not only not holding a constitutional convention but for not letting Alabama's citizens vote on whether to hold one. Piddling clean-up efforts have been tried to little effect. Basically what's happened is, because the Legislature has so much control over decidedly local issues, we keep adding amendments to the world's most voluminous constitution.

Because there's no reason for the Legislature to embrace reform. Legislators have all the power now. Why would they voluntarily give that up? Anything they would come up with - if they ever came up with something - would be furniture-moving, not real change.

Special interests?

Against such arguments, candidates, with straight faces, say that a constitutional convention would be dominated by special interests and couldn't be trusted. That's opposed to the Legislature, which has been considering a new capitol because there isn't sufficient room for lobbyists to work in comfort putting their spin on legislation.

Note also how the convention process mitigates against passing a document that somehow is favorable toward the Alabama Education Association or the Business Council or whatever bugbear worries you.

First, voters must approve holding a convention. Then, voters must elect delegates. Finally, voters must approve whatever document was fashioned by the convention.

If you oppose such a democratic process, aren't you opposing democracy itself? Aren't you saying you don't trust the people to decide their own destiny?

The Wright way

A more nuanced argument was presented in a recent editorial board meeting by Peter Wright, a GOP hopeful, who said he supported a convention - provided certain conditions, like passage of the Ball-Orr ethics bill, are met first. But he thought the current economic downtown precluded spending state money on elections, facilities and other costs that a convention would incur.

Is Wright trying to have it both ways? He certainly sounded sincere.

But his objection seems more of a short-term concern than a long-term solution. How much money is it costing the state for the continuous dithering by legislators over local matters that concern only certain cities and counties? How much does it hamstring efforts for economic development? Isn't this really a case of paying a little now to reap a fortune later?

Meanwhile, reform-minded legislators, who have failed to get bills for a convention passed previously, are adopting a new tactic in the current session. A joint resolution, which has fewer hoops to jump than a bill, calls for a special election in 2010 - paired with the gubernatorial primary - to allow voters to say whether they want to hold a convention.

Success of the venture is problematic. Few Republicans support it, and a host of lobbyists don't. The resolution awaits action in the rules committee of each house.

Getting involved

As you try to decide which candidate you will vote for in the March 3 election, you'll want to learn about their positions on this - and other - issues. The Times will begin Wednesday profiling the six Republicans and two Democrats who are seeking the Senate seat.

Also, various forums are set, or are in the planning process, between now and then where you can assess the candidates. Keep checking The Times for information.

And, of course, if you get a chance to buttonhole a candidate, ask him or her where they stand on constitutional reform. Put the questions asked above to them.

Also, please note the two mock constitutional convention sessions that the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform held this past weekend. One was held Saturday in Prattville, and another was held Sunday. Yet another, this one in Montgomery, also wound up Sunday. ACCR held the mock conventions to try to allay the fears that opponents are using to try to keep the status quo.

Eventually, of course, the constitution will be rewritten for the same reason that people who need to drive to work have to fix their motor vehicle: If it doesn't work, it has to be fixed.

Letting the people - rather than the legislators - decide what makes the most sense. Maybe someday, all legislative candidates will realize this.

(For more important about ACCR, check out www.constitutionalreform.org. The telephone number for local ACCR information is 536-7535.)

By David Prather, for the editorial board. E-mail: david.prather@htimes.com.

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