Will 2007 be the year for constitutional reform?
Anniston Star
By Brian Lyman
Star Capitol Correspondent

12-03-2006

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MONTGOMERY - Advocates of constitutional reform say the door was opened in 2006.

In 2007, they think they have the best chance in years to kick it open.

Legislators and reform advocates are gearing up for the legislative session that begins in March. They are working on legislation that would allow voters to decide whether to call a constitutional convention to rewrite Alabama's 1901 constitution.

The first year of the current Legislature's term, they say, is the best time for state government to tackle complicated issues.

"We're building on momentum," said Lenora Pate, co-chairwoman of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform (CCR), which advocates a constitutional convention. "Last year, specifically, the leadership in both branches of the Legislature stressed the fact it's easier to get more complicated issues done in early part of the four-year quadrennium. Last year, there was a focus on elections and trying to avoid issues that could become election issues."

Last year, House Speaker Pro Tempore Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham, and State Sen. Ted Little, D-Auburn, introduced legislation that would have placed the issue of a convention before voters in November. The House bill failed in committee by a single vote; the Senate bill was approved by its committee but did not come to a vote on the floor.

Critics of the state's 1901 Constitution - which was framed in part to disenfranchise blacks and poor whites - criticize its centralization of power in Montgomery, the restrictions it imposes on local government and its undemocratic origins.

The first call to reform the constitution came in 1915, but since that time only one section - the judicial article - has been substantially rewritten.

Newton said he is working on "some kinks" in the constitutional convention bill and hopes to make it as "palatable" as possible to the majority.

"We have not started counting heads (in the Legislature)," Newton said Thursday. "One of the things we need do at the organizational session (next month) is decide who's going to be on the Constitutional Committee to hear this. That's where the first head counting needs to take place in the House and Senate."

The Alabama Farmers' Federation long has opposed a state constitutional convention, preferring that the Legislature amend the Constitution through a series of amendments.

Freddie Patterson, the legislative director of ALFA, could not comment Friday.

Gov. Bob Riley also has stated opposition to a constitutional convention, although he has said he would like to increase home rule in the counties.

Although head counting has not begun, the infighting among Senate Democrats could be crucial to the fate of a constitutional reform bill. A group of dissident Democrats, generally more sympathetic to Riley than other members of their party, have called for a bipartisan organization of the Senate and its committees.

"If the six Democrats align themselves with 12 Republicans, and should they develop control of the Senate, and become totally loyal to the governor ... if that be the case, the governor is on the record opposed to a constitutional convention," Little said.

A call to Riley's office Friday was not returned. Newton said it was too early to say if constitutional reform would be on Democrats' priority list.

Pate said she feels a convention is the best way.

"What the Legislature has failed to do in 105 years is make any meaningful change to the form of the documents," Pate said. "I don't anticipate the Legislature would or really could."

The CCR, meanwhile, is organizing what Pate calls "grass-roots" support and has formed a Constitutional Convention Coalition with non-profit groups interested in rewriting the state constitution. Pate is optimistic about the upcoming year.

"Last year, we made tremendous strides with not only having serious efforts, but having senators on the floor speaking, trying to bring it up out of order," she said. "Senators that were bold enough to try to bring it up out of order - that's a major step forward."

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