Convention bill could come to vote next week, speaker pro tem says
Thursday, April 26, 2007 By BRIAN LYMAN
Capital Bureau

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MONTGOMERY -- A bill that would allow Alabamians to decide whether to call a constitutional convention could come to a vote in the House of Representatives as early as next week.

Speaker Pro Tem Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham, the sponsor of the legislation, said at a constitutional convention rally Wednesday that the bill would pass if it can get past a vote on a budget isolation resolution, a procedural requirement on all legislation taken up before the state's budgets.

"If we get the votes on the BIR, we'll pass it," he said. "And I certainly wouldn't want to be one of the folks to vote against the BIR, even if I was on the other side."

Newton's bill would schedule a special election Feb. 5 -- the same day as the presidential primaries -- asking voters whether to call a constitutional convention. If a majority says yes, the bill would provide for voters to elect delegates in advance of the convention, which would convene in October 2008.

Sen. Ted Little, D-Auburn, who also spoke at the rally, is sponsoring a similar bill in the Senate.

A new state constitution would have to be approved in a popular vote.

Opponents of a convention say it could be hijacked by special interests, who would craft the document to advance their causes.

"I don't see any way to keep the politics out of it," said state Rep. Jim Barton, R-Mobile, who prefers to see the Legislature revise the constitution on an article-by-article basis. He said he would vote against a constitutional convention bill if it comes to the floor.

"I don't see any way to keep AEA (Alabama Education Association), ALFA (the Alabama Farmers' Federation), the BCA (Business Council of Alabama) and ATLA (Alabama Trial Lawyers' Association) out of the convention," he said.

The Alabama Farmers' Federation favors article-by-article reform, in which lawmakers must approve proposed amendments, which then must be approved by voters.

"That has been historically a way that's worked well at amending the constitution," said Jeff Helms, a spokesman for the Farmers' Federation. "By doing that, it's requiring a three-fifths vote in both houses by elected officials, who are accountable to voters."

Even if the bill does not make it out of the House, a floor vote would represent a step forward for supporters of a constitutional convention. The House Constitution and Elections Committee approved Newton's legislation on an 8-5 vote April 11. A similar bill sponsored by Newton was killed by that committee in 2006. A Senate version made it out of committee last year but did not come to a vote.

Reform supporters cite the 1901 constitution's racist origins and fraudulent enactment. They also deride its restrictions on local governments' ability to regulate land and tax policy as an impediment to economic development and Alabama's quality of life. The prime beneficiaries of the existing system, they claim, are the wealthy and powerful.

Opponents of a rewrite cite those same restrictions on local government as a necessary check on power. They defend fundamental portions of the document, such as its declaration of rights. The constitution's beneficiaries, according to its defenders, are the average voters, the "little guys."

Each side also attempts to shred the other's arguments.

Opponents of reform point out that the racist provisions have either been removed altogether or overridden by federal law and court rulings. Reformers insist that the constitution's most popular parts -- such as the declaration of rights -- almost certainly would be part of any new document proposed by a convention.

The rally Wednesday afternoon, organized by college chapters of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, brought out about 120 people, mainly students from around the state.

Speakers, including Newton and ACCR Chairwoman Lenora Pate, told supporters huddled on the steps of the Capitol that Alabama's 1901 Constitution has held the state back.

"Alabama is destined to be more than No. 1 in the alphabet and football," Pate said.

Those in attendance were generally optimistic about the bill's chances.

"You learn, and you're kind of surprised about what goes on," said Matthew Lewis, a senior at the University of Alabama who helped organize Wednesday's rally. "But I'm more fired up than I've ever been before."

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