Hope for reform still alive
Birmingham News, December 4, 2005
By Tom Scarritt

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For years, those of us who believe Alabama needs a new constitution have hoped the continuing crises in state government might prompt reform. We were wrong.

Almost three years ago, I wrote, "The year we all have feared could offer Alabama's best chance yet for reform." We were facing a crisis in funding and a crisis in confidence in government. The incoming governor, Bob Riley, had said it might take such an emergency to bring about real reform.

Instead, we struggled through without structural change.

Tax collections are improving, and the deluge of disaster warnings from Montgomery has slowed to a trickle. The problems remain, but they do not seem quite as urgent.

Maybe this is the time to attempt reform.

David Brooks, in a column printed in The Birmingham News on Friday, commented on the difficulty of engaging citizens to solve problems when they are weary and overwhelmed, which leads to skepticism. "In skeptical ages," he wrote, "people are quick to decide that longstanding problems, like poverty and despotism, are intractable and not really worth taking on."

Citing Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman, Brooks wrote, "Americans begin social reforms when they are feeling confident, not when they are weary and insecure."

That would explain why the most sweeping social reform of the 20th century, the civil rights movement, was able to gain traction during the postwar boom, from the arrest of Rosa Parks 50 years ago through the 1960s. It also may explain why the beleaguered Alabamians of the early 21st century were so skeptical of constitutional reform.

That skepticism was manifest in the belief that reform was a cover for raising taxes. The effort to right the social and structural wrongs of the outdated and immoral Constitution of 1901 was tied too closely to the efforts to fix funding shortfalls.

Funding issues, real as they are, no longer fill the front page. Maybe now we can talk more productively about the issues of fairness, efficiency and good government. Maybe now we can talk about home rule as a way to bring government closer to the people, not as a way to let cities and counties raise taxes. Maybe now we can talk about tax reform as a way to lift the burden on Alabama's poor, rather than as a way to raise more money. Maybe now we can talk about the constitution as a plan to make government work for our people, rather than as a way to tie government's hands.

That conversation requires us to put aside for a moment our cynicism, and to embrace the hope that problems can be solved. It requires us to entertain the notion that by working together we can make life better for our grandchildren and for our grandparents. It requires us to believe we can govern ourselves.

The hope for constitutional reform is being kept alive on college campuses and in civic groups around the state. A petition drive by the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform is going strong, and at least one poll shows support for political candidates who favor a citizens convention to consider a new constitution.

Crisis did not bring reform; maybe a bit more confidence can. Tom Scarritt is editor of The News. His e-mail address is tscarritt@bhamnews.com.

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