Opposing sides face off over state constitution
Mobile Register
Thursday, January 26, 2006

Staff Reporters

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MONTGOMERY -- Competing camps converged Wednesday on the Alabama Capitol, simultaneously lauding and loathing the state's 1901 constitution.

Reformers, citing the document's racist origins, record-setting length and restrictions on the power of local governments, came to Montgomery pushing legislation to allow a statewide referendum that would trigger a citizens' convention to write a new constitution.

Supporters of the existing constitution -- or opponents of any rewrite -- praised the 1901 document's list of individual rights and restrictions on a lottery and casino gambling.

Reformers, organized under Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, said they want to make the state more progressive. They presented lawmakers with a petition signed by 65,000 residents, calling for a convention.

"The Alabama Constitution is very undemocratic in spirit and in fact," said Bob Schaefer, chairman of ACCR's southwest Alabama chapter and a political science professor at the University of Mobile. "No other state in the Union has a constitution that's so restrictive as ours, and it leads to really inefficient government."

Their opponents, organized largely under the Association for Judeo-Christian Values and the newly formed Alliance for Citizens' Rights, said the reform movement is a subterfuge for tax hikes, church-state separatists, gambling magnates and a left-wing takeover effort.

"Once you get through all the fluff -- it's not about 'it's old and long' -- this is about ... bringing a socialist agenda to Alabama," said Sandra Bell, a member of the Judeo-Christian group.

The two sides filled a Capitol auditorium for a three-hour public hearing of the House Constitution and Elections Committee, the panel first considering a public referendum calling for a constitutional convention.

Following the hearing, packed with ACCR members wearing "Let Me Vote" stickers, the two sides held rallies outside. Reformers drew about 250 people to the Capitol's front steps. Rewrite opponents retired to the front steps of the State House, where reporters nearly outnumber participants, some of whom held signs reading: "Keep Our Constitution. Change the Governor."

Both sides invoked God, claimed a much greater support base than the crowds they drew Wednesday and contended that their causes are in defense of grassroots democracy.

Birmingham attorney Lenora Pate emceed the rewrite rally, where she talked openly about "a great cloud of witnesses" that had "worked in the vineyard." She named Bailey Thomson, the late journalist, professor and ACCR co-founder, and the late Rep. Jack Venable, a Tallassee Democrat who died in November.

Pate and others said Thomson and Venable backed a rewrite movement designed to give everyday citizens a greater voice. Prichard City Councilwoman Earline Martin-Harris told the crowd, "Elected officials love to have a comment from their constituents. I know I do. ... So, please let the people vote. Let me vote."

At the opponents' gathering, Bell pointed to the mention of "Almighty God" in the constitution's preamble, which, she said, would be scrapped in a rewrite. And, she said, the document already empowers the people "because we have to vote before the liberal Legislature raises our taxes." (The Legislature can raise some taxes without a vote of the people.)

For Schaefer and about three dozen people from Mobile and Baldwin counties, the day began long before the committee hearing and the rally. The group, most of them ACCR members, left Wednesday for Montgomery before 7 a.m.

Jordan Van Matre, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Mobile, said he became interested in constitutional reform last year and started a constitutional reform chapter at the school. The constitution, he said, "disenfranchises poor people. It's the worst constitution in the world." He has collected 100 student signatures at the university and said he was most concerned about how the constitution restricts the powers of local governments.

The Atlanta native who has lived in Mobile for three years added, "If the constitution does not change, then I will not remain in Alabama for very long."

Foley High School teacher Pat Siano said the constitution hampers public education with an unstable tax system and the failure to guarantee the right to a public education. But she acknowledged that election-year politics may make it tough to get legislators onboard for change. All 140 legislative seats are on the ballot this year.

Rep. Randy Hinshaw, D-Meridianville and chairman of the House constitution committee, confirmed that assessment after his hearing.

Hinshaw, who supports a rewrite, said he had planned to bring up the bill for a vote next week but may delay that because he doesn't have the votes. "I'm not going to bring it up too soon and get it killed," he said. "These people deserve better that."

© 2006 The Mobile Register

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