Trusting voters, or maybe not
The Birmingham News
Wednesday, March 22, 2006

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This week, Alabama' K-12 schools are out for spring break. So, too, is the Legislature.

For Alabama voters - at least those who remained home this week - it is as good a chance as any to cross paths with their lawmakers, many of whom are using the time to campaign for re-election.

Lawmakers will ask citizens for their vote, trusting voters enough to make a wise decision on Election Day. Many of those same lawmakers, though, would just as soon turn down a hefty campaign contribution as let those same voters choose whether they want a new Alabama Constitution.

It is a position as inconsistent as the 3-point shooting we've seen during March Madness. Either lawmakers trust voters, or they don't.

Right now, it looks as if the House doesn't trust voters. A bill that would let voters decide this November whether they want a convention of citizens to draft a new state charter has languished in committee. With the number of legislative days this session winding down, the bill is close to death and needs major resuscitation. It is stuck in the Constitution and Elections Committee after failing to pass on a 7-7 vote last month. House Speaker Seth Hammett ought to be pressuring the committee to send the bill to the full House, but there's no evidence any such thing is happening.

In the Senate, the Campaign Finance, Ethics and Election Committee approved a similar version of the bill 10-0. But it has yet to make it to the full Senate for a vote. That's because the Senate Rules Committee hasn't scheduled it, and the fear of constitution reformers is that the committee won't.

Sen. Jim Preuitt, D-Talladega, who chairs the Rules Committee, should make sure the bill gets a fair hearing with the full Senate, for a number of reasons:

First and foremost, this is a matter of trust. Do Preuitt and other senators trust voters enough, assuming the bill passes, to allow them to make a decision on a constitutional convention?

There's been talk some of the Senate committee members viewed their vote to approve the bill as a "gimme." They could look good with voters ("I trusted you to make the right decision; it's just a crying shame more of my fellow lawmakers didn't"), knowing full well Preuitt would never let the bill onto the Senate floor. Preuitt shouldn't give them a free pass.

The special-interest pressure to keep the bill bottled up is intense. Preuitt can show voters their interests, rather than special interests, come first.

If the Senate were to take up and approve the bill quickly, it would send a message to the House its members would ignore at their own peril: Senators trust the people, while representatives don't.

The fate of the bill to allow voters their say on a citizens' constitutional convention lies, in large part, with Preuitt and Rules Committee members. They should schedule the bill for a vote early next week, and senators should approve it.

They owe it to voters - not just in their districts, but statewide - to let them know just who in the Legislature trusts voters enough to make the right decision in November.

© 2006 The Birmingham News
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