Constitutional reform game plan eyed
The Birmingham News
Friday, October 06, 2006 DAVID WHITE
News Staff Writer

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Montgomery - People who want Alabama to have a new constitution must make their case with more voters, persuade more legislators, get the legislative leadership on board and have the governor or another high-profile politician lead the campaign.

So said several state lawmakers Thursday when the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, a nonpartisan grassroots group, met at the Capitol.

"This is going to be a multi-step process," said state Sen. Steve French, R-Mountain Brook, who urged supporters of a new constitution to persevere and, if need be, work to gain momentum year after year until they get a victory.

Birmingham attorney Lenora Pate, co-chair of ACCR, said supporters of a new constitution have made great strides.

"I think we're well on the way," she said. "The polls are showing tremendous support for the issue."

The state Senate and House of Representatives earlier this year killed bills backed by ACCR that would have let voters decide whether to call a convention that could propose a new state constitution, which voters then could accept or reject.

Opponents said a convention might propose a constitution that would make it easier to raise state taxes or create a state lottery, or that would give county governments more home rule so they could raise local taxes and zone property more easily.

Supporters said the current constitution, which took effect in 1901, should be replaced because it was designed to empower white landowners and take away the vote from blacks and poor whites. They said it's too long and cumbersome, with more than 770 amendments, and that it puts too much power in the Legislature and not enough in local governments.

State Rep. Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham, sponsored one of the convention bills this spring and said he planned to do so again in the 15-week legislative session that starts in March.

But Newton told ACCR members that they still have work to do to educate more voters.

"Many of our citizens, despite the hard work that this group has done, they're still ignorant in terms of what needs to be done, and even where they are as individuals as it relates to constitutional reform," Newton said.

He also urged supporters of a new constitution to try to win commitments from legislative candidates seeking election Nov. 7. All 35 seats in the Senate and 105 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs then, though some candidates, such as Newton, are unopposed so far.

"Between now and November, you have an opportunity to ask every single person who's running for the Legislature: `Can I get your commitment on supporting constitutional reform?'" Newton said.

But French and Sen. Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose, said ACCR members won't get far unless they persuade the leaders of the House and Senate to do more than pay lip service to a convention bill.

Lawmakers elected Nov. 7 will choose their leaders in January.

Commitment sought:

"The first thing we've got to have is, we have to have a commitment from the leadership of this state: Democrats, Republicans, governor, lieutenant governor, legislative leadership, et cetera, you have to have that commitment. Without that, you don't get to first base," Byrne said.

Byrne said ACCR and other champions of a new constitution must find a leader to help push a bill through the Legislature or campaign for it statewide before the public vote on whether to call a convention.

"At this point, I wouldn't give our chances for 2007 a very high probability. But we've still got several months before the session starts. Somebody's going to have to stand up and be the leader," Byrne said in an interview.

"It does not have to be the governor. It could be the lieutenant governor. It could be the speaker (of the Alabama House). It's got to be somebody in a leadership position who picks it up and makes it their own," Byrne said. "We don't have that leader."
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