Looking for answers
The Birmingham News
Sunday, October 08, 2006

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THE ISSUE: Constitutional reformers met Thursday to plan their 2007 strategy for a new Alabama Constitution.

Six weeks after Rondel Rhone became a Clarke County commissioner 14 years ago, he found out what it's like to feel powerless.

One of his constituents had just spent a lot of money fixing up her home for her coming retirement. Then the earthmoving equipment began digging nearby, readying for an all-night truck stop.

The woman asked Rhone what the County Commission could do. "I sympathized with her," he said. "I told her, unfortunately, there is nothing we can do."

There was nothing the Clarke County Commission could do because the 1901 Constitution of Alabama wouldn't allow it. The constitution's greatest flaw, among many, is that it hamstrings local governments by hoarding power in Montgomery. It doesn't allow local governments "home rule" - the ability to govern themselves. Instead, they must beg their lawmakers for help passing laws. Often, the process takes years, and sometimes requires a constitutional amendment that voters statewide must approve. It makes for massively inefficient government.

Thursday, a gathering at the sixth annual meeting of the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform heard Rhone's story and many like it. The crowd also heard of the need to spread such stories to show everyday Alabamians how the 1901 Constitution constricts their lives.

Some examples:

Two years ago, Trussville citizens voted 68-32 for a constitutional amendment that would have raised their own taxes to pay for a new school system. The rest of Alabama said no, so the amendment failed.

In Crenshaw County in 2004, voters by a 3-to-1 margin wanted to lower the probate judge's salary - an insanely high $113,000 in a county of 13,000 people. Voters statewide rejected the amendment, so it failed.

Jefferson County, after a years-long effort, finally got the Legislature in 2000 to pass a proposed constitutional amendment, which voters then approved, that outlaws prostitution in unincorporated parts of the county. It was something the County Commission should have been able to dispose of in about five minutes.

ACCR is hoping to use these sort of stories to build on the sometimes frustratingly slow progress it has made in the six years since its birth in moving citizens and lawmakers toward a new constitution. It will try again in 2007, as it did this year, to convince the Legislature to allow voters to decide whether they want a citizens convention to draft a new constitution.

That won't happen without a concerted effort at helping Alabamians understand why they need a new fundamental charter.

Some of the best ideas come from students. Matthew Lewis, chairman of the University of Alabama's ACCR student chapter, is organizing a 24-hour reading of the constitution at more than a dozen college campuses across the state on Oct. 24. (Last year, UA students read for 24 hours nonstop and got through only 464 amendments.) Andrew Brashier, chairman of UAB's ACCR student chapter, has plans for a student constitutional convention that would write a new document, "march on Montgomery and say, if students can do it, why can't (lawmakers)?"

It's a terrific question. After more than 100 years of waiting for a new constitution, there's still no good answer.
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