Constitution reform takes a back seat
Huntsville Times, April 11, 2004
By Anthony McCartney, correspondent

Advocates wait as shortfall struggles dominate politics

Gov. Bob Riley says government reform has to come before constitution reform, due to the $340 million shortage in the General Fund the state is now facing.

MONTGOMERY -- From the lack of discussion about tax and constitution reform since the failure of last year's Amendment One and the subsequent budget crisis, one might think that the efforts didn't just get pushed to the back seat of politicians' agendas -- they got run over.

Advocates lost a vocal and prominent ally in Gov. Bob Riley, who abandoned calls for tax reform after voters killed his $1.2 billion plan by 68-32 percent in September. Soon after, the governor's crusade shifted to government reform and accountability -- this year's vogue buzz words.

The state's $340 million shortage in its General Fund has left Riley and lawmakers with little time or inclination to try to reform Alabama's Constitution or its 19th-century tax structure.

Susan Pace Hamill, the University of Alabama tax law professor who spent much of last year speaking to groups around the state about tax reform, giving reformers their battle cry to protect "the least of these," said reform efforts aren't stymied. They've just changed.

Riley, she said, isn't key to reform efforts.

"You're not going to get the kind of support we need from the top down," she said.

The type of reform Alabama needs, Hamill said, "requires a populist-oriented, ground-up demand for it."

That means people in rural counties, those that overwhelmingly said no to Amendment One, need to buy into the need for constitution reform. It doesn't have to come from Riley, she said.

"He came from a tradition ... that's not exactly grass-roots, populist-oriented," Hamill said. "Maybe it was just too much to expect him to acquire that."

Last year, no one seemed to be a more vocal or outspoken proponent for constitution and tax reform than Riley.

But after Amendment One's defeat, Riley moved quickly to quickly orchestrate budget cuts and is now struggling to get lawmakers to pass his accountability package, which focuses on reducing public employee benefits.

Still, Sid McAnnally, acting chair of Alabama Citizens for Constitution Reform, said last year's debate on constitution and tax reform generated more public interest in the issue than ever before.

It also resulted in a home rule bill, sponsored by Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, winning recent Senate approval, 18-6. The bill would give counties control over issues such as weeds, stray animals, water and sewer services and some noise ordinance authority.

It would not grant planning and zoning authority or the ability to levy new taxes which, with the exception of sales taxes, require the Legislature to act.

Barron's bill is the first time "home rule has been taken up on a statewide basis by the state Legislature," said McAnnally.

"I'm afraid we've squandered some opportunities because of partisanship."-- Kimble Forrister

Hamill said constitution reform efforts also suffered a setback with the recent death of Bailey Thomson, a former journalist, professor and constitutional scholar who was developing a grass-roots strategy as ACCR's head. She said she spoke with him about it two weeks before his death.

"If it hadn't been for the Bailey Thomson tragedy, you'd probably see more concerted, grass roots (constitution reform) efforts," she said.

Riley's spokesman, Jeff Emerson, insists the governor remains committed to tax and constitution reform.

"The governor is as committed to both as he ever was," he said.

He said Riley still wants to address Alabama's "regressive" tax structure, which taxes income on persons earning $4,600 and more.

Emerson said ever since Sept. 9, when Amendment One was defeated, Riley has talked about reform, but that he believes government reform has to come before tax and constitutional changes.

"Without the first, the rest of it is very difficult to even attempt," Emerson said. "That's how come his focus has been on the need to pass real, fundamental reform in Montgomery."

Lawmakers, for their part, are focused on passing budgets. Many lawmakers say they can't address constitution reform when the state is facing a $340 million shortage in the General Fund, threatening to derail Medicaid and other vital programs. McAnnally agreed that the state's dire finances are more important for lawmakers to tackle now, but the issues aren't independent of one another.

"The crisis we're in is an illustration of why we've got to address this issue," he said.

Still, some wonder when, or if, the momentum built last year will return.

Carl Grafton, a political scientist at Auburn University Montgomery, said he doesn't think Riley will push constitution and tax reform again.

Since Amendment One's defeat, Riley has been "contrite," Grafton said, and "meekly accepted his punishment from his former allies" such as the Alabama Farmers Federation and the Christian Coalition, for advocating change.

With parts of Riley's legislative package now getting killed by lawmakers every week, Grafton said, the Republican governor has begun blaming lawmakers rather than building coalitions.

"This business -- running around the state, badmouthing the Legislature -- this is not how you get things done," Grafton said.

Not that Riley is the only one to blame, he said.

"The Democrats are at least as culpable. It's not just Alfa and the Christian Coalition. There are old-line Democrats who want things to remain just as they are."

Riley said March 29 he knows many people feel he has damaged his ability to get proposals through the Legislature because he forced lawmakers to approve the Amendment One package.

"I honestly don't believe it," he said.

"What we've got to do is convince the legislative bodies that they have to become a participant in this debate," Riley said, speaking in his Capitol office. "There hasn't even been a debate across the street."

Returned to corners

Susan Hamill, a University of Alabama law professor, says Gov. Riley is not the key to constitutional reform.

Last year, Riley was an unusual ally of reformers: a conservative Republican and effective campaigner.

"The constitutional reformers had been working away, two, three, four years," Grafton said. "They couldn't believe their luck when Riley spun around and promoted Amendment One. When he suddenly disappeared, that, too, had to be disheartening to anyone with an orientation to reform."

Kimble Forrister, executive director of Alabama Arise, an advocacy group for the state's poor, agreed that Riley's embracing tax and constitution reform gave reformers a powerful friend.

And it was "more than they'd ever hoped for" when Riley's brought together groups that usually fight each other, such as the Alabama Education Association and the Business Council of Alabama.

"That's why it was so distressing that after the vote, everybody returned to their corners," he said.

Riley recently formed a committee with teacher lobbyist Paul Hubbert, Retirement Systems of Alabama head David Bronner, state Finance Director Drayton Nabers and others to try to hammer out compromises on state health care issues for both employees and Medicaid recipients.

McAnnally said Riley's efforts last year, while raising public awareness, didn't address reformers' complaints that Montgomery isn't responsive to issues that matter to people back home. Some of Riley's "initiatives really don't speak to those concerns," he said.

And for all of last year's talk about constitution and tax reform, he said, no meaningful bills became law. But contrasted with four years ago, constitution reform is now a "part of the of the political vocabulary of the state."

For now, McAnnally's group is focusing on grass-roots efforts, trying to organize chapters in each of the state's 67 counties.

Grafton said reformers need a strong leader who can turn their message into one that people can embrace in droves.

"Without that kind of leadership, it's just not going to happen."

It would be natural for a Democrat with gubernatorial ambitions to emerge as that leader, he said, but none of the probable candidates fits that bill.

Among those who have been named as potential Democratic candidates for governor in 2006: former Gov. Don Siegelman, House Speaker Seth Hammett, Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley and Sen. Jeff Enfinger, D-Huntsville. None of them has said they plan to run.

Forrister said he hasn't given up hope for reform. But the political climate and state financial crisis make that improbable now, he said.

"I'm afraid we've squandered some opportunities because of partisanship," he said.

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