Constitutional reform stalls as referendum is denied
Mobile Register
Thursday, February 16, 2006
By BILL BARROW
Capital Bureau

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MONTGOMERY -- Reformers must find another path toward a citizen convention to rewrite the state's 1901 Constitution after an Alabama House panel deadlocked at 7-7 Wednesday, effectively killing a bill that would allow a public referendum on the matter.

Tie votes in legislative committees go to the "nays."

The deciding vote on the House Constitution and Elections Committee was cast by Rep. Joseph Mitchell, D-Mobile, who said he generally supports the concept of a rewrite and a citizen convention but opposes the details of how convention delegates would be chosen under the bill sponsored by House Speaker Pro Tem Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham.

Mitchell first offered an amendment that would have set up a system of quasi-public financing for delegates' campaigns.

After Chairman Randy Hinshaw, D-Meridianville, declared that the amendment failed on an audibly indistinguishable voice vote, Mitchell cast the ultimately deciding "no" vote on the original bill. Rep. Tommy Sherer, D-Jasper, did not attend the meeting, clearing the way for an even numbered panel and the tied vote.

A companion bill is alive in the Senate, and one of the seven members who voted "no" on Wednesday could call for a motion to reconsider under House rules, but the vote appeared nonetheless to be a blow to a movement that has gained some steam over the last decade.

One leading reformist, however, said she's not disheartened.

"What we saw here was the process at work," said Birmingham attorney Lenora Pate. "We still have a Senate bill, and we will continue to work to educate people on this."

Newton's bill would have allowed the public to vote this November on a convention. If a majority of voters opted for the convention, the bill would then have allowed for an April 2007 election of 210 delegates -- one male and one female from each House district. Then, as part of the 2008 general election, voters would have an up-or-down vote on the document produced by delegates.

A new constitution would not necessarily repeal or throw out existing statutes, which are compiled separately in the Alabama Code of Laws, and transition language would be required in the document to prevent legal disputes arising from any changes.
The one-hour committee meeting Wednesday laid bare the range of arguments and emotions that have colored weeks of public hearings and rallies by defenders and detractors of the 1901 document.

"Politicians think about the next election. Statesmen think about the next generation," Newton told his colleagues, as he recited the constitution's length, its original disenfranchisement of blacks and poor whites and its restrictions on local control. "You're being called upon today to be statesmen."

Speaking of the document's age, Rep. Jeff McLaughlin, D-Guntersville, said, "It's not age. A well-written constitution can be 100, 200 years old. But ours is not a timeless document. It's a time capsule of the period in which it was written. It was a way to perpetuate the power structure that existed at that time."

The two men also cast Wednesday's vote as a simple matter of trusting voters. Newton noted that the same voters chose him and other lawmakers in attendance. McLaughlin reminded his colleagues that they're eager to allow a public referendum on limiting eminent domain and strengthening private property rights.

Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, voted for the bill, but said voters in her working class Birmingham district knew little about the reform movement and felt disconnected from any possibility of participating in a convention.

An opponent of the bill, Rep. Randy Davis, R-Daphne, said, "It gets down to the point of so much fear about the gambling, the taxes, the land use, the home control."

Rep. Greg Albritton, R-Excel, ticked off a list of Alabama's successes, including a racially diverse Legislature and record-low unemployment and added with each item: "And that happened with our current constitution."

Davis and Albritton each said they support an article-by-article rewrite of the constitution, in which the Legislature would write proposed changes and present them to voters as amendments. That method was used in the 1973 judicial article to reform the state court system.

Newton, among the Legislature's oldest members at 77, answered: "I started out supporting ... article-by-article. But then I decided I wanted to see a new constitution in my lifetime, and going article-by-article, I'm not going to get there."

McLaughlin argued that a delegate body chosen under a system with limited campaign contributions would not produce a document void of the personal protections and references to God found in the current document.

Then he rebutted another of Albritton's points, highlighting the Legislature's diversity as proof of the constitution's flaws: "That wasn't because of our Constitution of 1901. It was because of the Voting Rights Act (of 1965), and it was the U.S. Congress. The reason we are diverse is only because of federal imposition over a stubbornly racist document from 1901 that we refuse to replace."

After the meeting, both Mitchell and Albritton talked to Pate. "Keep pushing," they both told her. "Keep pushing."

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