The Birmingham News
For a decade, constitution reformers have watched Alabama lawmakers lay a goose egg on them every legislative session. Goose egg, as in zip. Zero. Zilch.
The bill (and later, a resolution) that reformers pushed year in and year out -- a proposed amendment to let state voters decide whether a convention of citizens should draft a new Alabama constitution -- died every session.
It died in the session that ended earlier this month, too. Yet, lawmakers actually passed meaningful legislation that will goose the grievously flawed 1901 document.
One is a proposed amendment that will let voters choose whether to strike from the constitution its embarrassing racist language. The other is a resolution creating a Constitutional Revision Commission that could make for some real changes for the better to what is supposed to be our state's fundamental charter.
What happened? As odd as it may sound, Republicans taking over both chambers in the Legislature resulted in progress toward a better constitution. Odd, because many constitution reformers believed most Republicans had no interest in ditching the document. There was good reason to believe that: Democrats sponsored the "let the people vote" bills and resolutions over the past decade; and Republicans, for the most part, killed them.
"We've never said there doesn't need to be some constitution reform. It was never the end result; it was the means. How do you get there?" said Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood.
How you get there these days -- at least with Republicans in control of the Legislature -- is by rewriting the constitution article by article, something DeMarco has tried but failed to do for the past four years.
This year, though, Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, sponsored the resolution creating the revision commission, which will work with the Alabama Law Institute and recommend article-by-article rewrites.
The commission's task is to revise 11 of the constitution's 18 articles, which the Legislature will consider over four years and, if approved, send to voters. Marsh's resolution excluded six articles either because they already have been revised (the judicial and elections articles) or because they don't need revision (state boundaries, which are set by Congress, the militia, oath of office and mode of amending the constitution).
There's one more article, though, that Marsh ruled out for a rewrite, and it's an 800-pound gorilla: the taxation article. Marsh said he believed it would doom any current effort to rewrite the constitution. For sure, fear-mongering about a citizens' convention writing a new constitution to raise taxes made reformers' job in the Legislature much harder over the past decade.
"Doing it article by article .¤.¤. we'll make quite a dent in that constitution," Marsh said. "Then, you can come forward and say, 'We got this far, let's talk about possibly addressing the taxation issue.'"
In a state whose motto might as well be "no new taxes," that's unlikely even years down the road. That's a shame, because so much of Alabama's reward-the-rich, punish-the-poor tax system is embedded in the 1901 constitution.
In the meantime, Marsh's pragmatism may actually result in some very real improvements to the constitution, even if we idealists would prefer to trust Alabama citizens to draft a brand new compact between them and their government.
One thing Marsh says the commission will tackle is home rule -- more power for local governments to govern themselves. "It's something to be looked at and addressed where it's relevant in the different articles," he said. "There was no intent to exclude the issue of home rule."
That's good to know, because some constitution reformers believed the commission had no intention of taking on home rule.
Before we pop champagne corks, though, we'll have to see what the commission recommends to the Legislature, what lawmakers do with those recommendations, and whether voters approve them to know how much Alabama's current constitution will improve.
The process isn't perfect, and it will take years to get done. But at least, after a decade of defeats, constitution reformers saw real progress in this year's session that could lead to a better constitution. That beats another goose egg every time.
Bob Blalock is editorial page editor of The News. E-mail: email@example.com. Blog: blog.al.com/bblalock
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