A special (interest) vote
The Birmingham News
Sunday, February 19, 2006

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One vote does not a statesman make, but boy, it can unmask a politician beholden to Montgomery's powerful special interests.

That's the message of a House committee's vote Wednesday on a bill to let voters decide in November whether they want a citizens convention to write a new Alabama Constitution. The House Constitution and Elections Committee deadlocked 7-7, keeping the bill from going to the full House for a vote.

"Politicians think about the next election. Statesmen think about the next generation," the bill's sponsor, House Speaker Pro Tem Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham, told his colleagues on the committee.

Unfortunately, supporters of the bill needed one more politician acting like a statesman for at least one vote to send the bill to the House.

There were legislative heroes and villains aplenty.

The heroes: Two of the seven who voted for the bill, Reps. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, and Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, are from Jefferson County. DeMarco, especially, deserves applause because he has opposed the idea of a citizens convention but is willing to let voters decide. Also trusting their constituents enough to make the right decision were Reps. George Bandy, D-Opelika; Randy Hinshaw, D-Meridianville; Jeff McLaughlin, D-Guntersville; Bryant Melton, D-Tuscaloosa; and Sue Schmitz, D-Toney.

The villains: Those who sided with the entrenched interests were Greg Albritton, R-Excel; Randy Davis, R-Daphne; Joe Faust, R-Fairhope; Mickey Hammon, R-Decatur; Steve Hurst, D-Munford; Joseph Mitchell, D-Mobile; and Randy Wood, R-Anniston.

Tommy Sherer, a Democrat from Jasper, did not vote.

The failed vote was a blow to constitution reformers who have seen the movement pick up steam in recent years.

"It says the status quo and those who are invested in the system want desperately to hold onto it," said Lenora Pate, co-chair of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform.

Most invested of all in the 1901 Constitution may well be the Alabama Farmers Federation, which Pate said had two lobbyists working the meeting room Wednesday. One, Paul Pinyan, continually whispered into the ears of committee members during the hearing, according to The Huntsville Times. The Christian Coalition of Alabama, which has received money from Alfa for its lobbying efforts, also politicked against the bill.

Thanks to Alfa, the constitution values property at a fraction of its worth, with artificially low limits set for certain kinds of property. It is the reason large farmers and timberland owners pay pennies on the acre in property taxes.

Alfa and its legislative lackeys like things just the way they are. Alfa, because its members continue to pay the lowest property taxes in the nation by far; the lackeys, because staying in a special interest's good graces often garners campaign contributions.

Pate says voters in the villains' districts ought to call their representative and give them an earful.

"Tell them unless they vote for the people, I'm not voting for you," she said.

That's a threat most politicians understand. The question is, do they understand it as well as they understand their special-interest masters?

© 2006 The Birmingham News
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