Good reason to be unhappy
Editorial from the Birmingham News
Monday, April 30, 2007

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THE ISSUE: The state House of Representatives needs to take the next step toward a new constitution by approving a bill that would "let the people vote."

Whatever their T-shirts lacked in taste, they made up for it by being right on message: "We're unhappy because our constitution is crappy."

Many of those gathered Wednesday on the steps of the state Capitol sported the bright red shirt. The crowd of about 120 people, mostly college students, was there to rally for a bill that would let voters decide whether they want a citizens convention to write a new Alabama Constitution.

They are closer to that dream than a lot of people figured they'd get anytime soon, and closer than in 2006 when the "Let the people vote" bill died in the Legislature. Last year, a House committee killed the bill, while it passed a Senate committee but died because the Rules Committee refused to put in on the Senate calendar.

This year, at the session's halfway point, the bill already has cleared committee hurdles in the House and Senate. This week, the House likely will vote on the bill, said Rep. Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham. Newton, the second-ranking member of the House and the bill's sponsor, said it may come up for debate and possible approval Tuesday or Wednesday.

"I'm optimistic. I'm really optimistic this time," he said.

Let's hope Newton is right. A similar proposal in 2002 died in the House when opponents talked it to death. Five years is a long time to wait to allow the people of Alabama the chance to have their say. But then, they've had to wait 106 years to weigh in on a racist, flawed document that's at the root of so many of Alabama's problems.

The Alabama Constitution, instead of being a fundamental charter that states the people's rights and defines government's powers, has become the most amended state constitution in the country. That's partly to embed special-interest perks in the document, but mostly to give local governments power the constitution doesn't give them. (There are more amendments dealing with local school taxes than there are amendments to the U.S. Constitution.)

"I hope to see a constitution like the U.S. Constitution that can fit in my vest pocket, as opposed to a constitution I can't even cram into my briefcase," Newton told the crowd at the Capitol.

The present version, amended almost 800 times, doesn't make for efficient government. That was clear in February when the Legislature scrambled in a special session to raise the amount of money the state can borrow for industrial incentives, mainly to attract giant steelmaker ThyssenKrupp to Mobile County. Yet, thanks to the state constitution, Alabama can't guarantee ThyssenKrupp the state can live up to what it is offering unless voters ratify the Legislature's plan in June.

Contrast that with Louisiana, Alabama's only remaining competition for the project. Louisiana's Legislature met in December and passed an incentives package that doesn't require voter approval.

If Alabama loses to Louisiana, the 1901 Constitution could be partly to blame.

It's another reason to be unhappy because our constitution really is, as those T-shirts put it so inelegantly, "crappy."

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