The Birmingham News
There's more than one way to skin a constitution. But will the latest proposal -- a constitutional revision commission -- be enough to put the 1901 Constitution of Alabama out of our misery?
Not completely (more on that later), but the idea is a good start toward cleaning up the mess the constitution's drafters created more than a century ago.
It is a big job.
Alabama Senate Pro Tempore Del Marsh sponsored a resolution creating a constitutional revision commission.A coven of land barons and industrialists drafted that constitution to take away voting rights from blacks, even if it meant poor whites were collateral damage. That's because the drafters were tired of using the black vote to steal elections, although they did it one more time -- during the referendum to fraudulently approve the 1901 Constitution.
The constitution also concentrated power in Montgomery, allowing special interests to more easily control the Legislature, and stripped local governments of the tools they need to run their own affairs (edit by jared bickford). That lack of self-government, or home rule, is why the constitution is cluttered with more than 800 amendments. Many are downright ridiculous: giving a county permission to dispose of dead farm animals, or control rodents and insects, or excavate graves.
Presumably, as the revision commission proposes article-by-article rewrites of much of the current document, it will propose some sort of home rule for local governments. Otherwise, why bother?
The Legislature already has approved the resolution, and Gov. Robert Bentley has said he would sign it.
The commission will have 16 members: the governor and three people he appoints; the House speaker and three people he appoints; the Senate pro tempore and three people he appoints; and the Senate and House chairs of the Judiciary Committee and Constitution and Elections Committee.
Bentley, Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, who sponsored the resolution, and House Speaker Mike Hubbard all are Republicans, as are the committee chairs. Those with appointing power should take care to choose, as an amendment to the resolution states, members who "reflect the racial, gender, geographic, urban/rural and economic diversity of the state." They also must avoid filling the panel with special interests intent on preserving their constitutional protections.
The best news on that front is the well-regarded Alabama Law Institute will do the heavy lifting: offer the commission specific guidance on revising the constitution and recommend article-by-article revisions. The commission will propose those revisions to the Legislature, which must approve them before sending them to voters for approval.
The 1901 Constitution is grouped in 18 articles, plus amendments. The commission's task over four years is limited to reviewing 11 of the 18 articles. Those include articles on distribution of powers, the legislative and executive departments, banking, corporations and education.
The resolution excludes six articles because, it says, those articles already have been revised (the judicial and elections articles) or because revision isn't needed (state boundaries set by Congress, the militia, oath of office and the mode of amending the constitution).
As promising as the work of the revision commission sounds, it will ignore one of the biggest constitutional elephants in the room: the taxation article.
Marsh said tackling the tax section would doom his plan, and there's plenty of reason to believe he's right. Constitution reform opponents have made a cottage industry of claiming any attempt to rewrite the constitution is a backdoor way to raise taxes.
Marsh has opted for pragmatism over idealism in an effort to make some very real constitutional improvements. At some point, though, the tax article must be dealt with. Much of what is immoral and unfair with the state tax system, which grabs a much higher percentage of income from poor and middle-income families than from wealthy families, is embedded in the constitution.
But Marsh's revision commission at least has the chance to skin more of the 1901 constitution than ever, and that's something worth cheering.
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