If Iraq gets new constitution, why not us?
Birmingham News, February 2, 2005
By Bob Blalock

Scene from the Jan. 31 rally by the Birmingham Chapter of ACCR.

Millions of Iraqis braved suicide bombers, mortar attacks and gunshots to vote for a governing assembly that will write a new constitution for Iraq.

That temporary body will draft a document by December, to be voted on by the Iraqi people. It begs the question: If Iraq's citizens can vote for a new constitution, why can't Alabama's?

Lenora Pate, vice chairwoman of Gov. Bob Riley's Alabama Citizens' Constitution Commission, wondered that Monday at a Birmingham rally to spur Alabamians to sign petitions for a new state constitution.

"It merely asks our state Legislature to allow us to do what was done in Iraq yesterday ... to allow us to vote on the question of a constitutional convention," Pate told the gathering, sponsored by the Birmingham chapter of the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform and several other groups.


Scott Douglas Remarks at ACCR Rally

And how, short of trying to convince President George W. Bush that Alabama harbors weapons of mass destruction, will the Legislature ever allow such a vote?

Twofold purpose:

ACCR, a group that for more than four years has tried to sprout grass-roots support for a new constitution, believes petitions signed by thousands of people across Alabama will help set the stage for drafting a new fundamental charter. Volunteers are collecting lists of names, which will be given to lawmakers by ZIP code early next year so they can see that sizable numbers of their constituents want to get rid of the 1901 Constitution.

Pate said the purpose is twofold: to make constitution reform a "dominant issue" in the 2006 legislative session, and an issue in the 2006 elections.

The effort, launched statewide in late October, has gathered 35,000 signatures, Pate said.

Not to discourage ACCR, but to catch the attention of our lawmakers may take hundreds of thousands of names. Lawmakers are notorious for ignoring tough issues by claiming they hear no clamor from people in their districts about fixing those problems.

Of course, that's an easy out for the Legislature. But why would lawmakers willingly give up some of their own, limited constitutional power by letting a convention of citizens draft a new constitution?

They won't, short of a massive popular uprising for it.

Lawmakers risk too much: Citizens who may demand term limits, initiative and referendum and home rule for local governments come immediately to mind.

The lack of home rule, in particular, allows lawmakers to lord it over local governments, especially county commissions. Under the 1901 Constitution, commissions must beg their local delegations for permission on everything from approving laws regulating barking dogs, to holding votes to raise taxes. (Monday's best line: Greater Birmingham Ministries' Scott Douglas called the Legislature "the largest county commission in the world.")

The process makes for government as efficient as an old communist collective. Witness Trussville: Superintendent Suzanne Freeman said the city may have to wait two more years for another vote on a constitutional amendment that would equalize taxes between city residents who live in Jefferson and St. Clair counties. That's because in November, voters statewide - statewide - turned down the amendment. Never mind that 68 percent of Trussville voters approved the amendment.

Stop change:

But responsive, effective government was never the intent of the 1901 Constitution. It was, instead, "to stop change at all costs," said Marshall County District Judge Howard Hawk, a former lawmaker.

The do-nothing constitution succeeded, probably beyond the drafters' wildest dreams. Besides handcuffing local governments, the constitution hampers economic development. Much of the state's immoral, unfair tax system is locked into the document. And, of course, with the failure of Amendment 2 last November, hateful, racist language still laces the constitution.

In Hawk's view, it would be hard to do much worse than the Alabama Constitution.

"Regardless of what the people of Iraq draw up for their constitution ... it will be better than the state of Alabama's," Hawk said.

Maybe Alabama does have a weapon of mass destruction: the 1901 Constitution.

Bob Blalock is editorial page editor of The Birmingham News. E-mail him at bblalock@bhamnews.com.

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