Constitutional reform bid pushed
Pulitzer-winning columnist lauds effort, and those who have led it
The Birmingham News
Friday, August 31, 2007
THOMAS SPENCER
News staff writer

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Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Cynthia Tucker on Thursday encouraged about 400 advocates of replacing Alabama's 1901 constitution to keep the faith, even if progress is slow.

"We've come a mighty long way," the Monroeville native told a luncheon audience at Birmingham's Harbert Center. "We have a mighty long way to go, but please, don't be discouraged by the journey."

Organized by Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, the first annual Bailey Thomson Awards Luncheon was held to celebrate progress made toward constitutional reform and to honor contributors to the movement.

Critics of the 1901 Constitution say the state's fundamental law is obsolete, and littered with remnants of the state's racist past.

The sprawling document consolidates power in Montgomery, depriving local communities of the ability to govern themselves, critics say. They also say it has created a tax system that is inefficient, produces inadequate revenue and unfairly burdens lower-income residents.

Alabama's constitution is by far the nation's longest, with 799 amendments. The U.S. Constitution, more than twice as old, has only been amended 26 times.

While the subject of constitutional reform may seem arcane and complex, ACCR believes it is making progress in making it more accessible.

`It's a Thick Book':

One of the luncheon honorees, Lewis Lehe, came to ACCR as a Homewood High School senior, proposing to make a documentary on the constitution. The comic and informative result was "It's a Thick Book," which is viewable at ACCR's Web site, www.constitutionalreform.org.

Lehe, now a student at the University of Pittsburgh, is cutting the 45-minute film to 27 minutes. It will debut at that length at the Sidewalk Film Festival. ACCR plans to make the shorter version available to businesses around the state, hoping they'll share it with their employees.

Also honored at the luncheon was Thomas Corts, the former Samford University President who was the first chairman of ACCR.

Greater Birmingham Ministries, the faith-based anti-poverty group, was honored for its work in spreading the word about the flaws of the current constitution. GBM has developed a curriculum for Sunday school classes to teach about the subject.

GBM executive director Scott Douglas said it might seem odd that a faith-based organization is tackling such a political question. But the constitution, he said, helps perpetuate poverty through regressive taxes and an inadequately funded education system.

"If Moses can tell Pharaoh to let my people go, we can say, `Let my people vote,'" Douglas said.

ACCR has pushed a bill in the Legislature that would provide for a vote of the people on whether or not to hold a constitutional convention. If the referendum results favored a convention, a new constitution would be drafted, then presented to the people for an up or down vote.

Progress, albeit modest:

The convention bill has been introduced in the past several legislative sessions. In 2007, versions of the bill made it out of committee in the House and the Senate. In the House, it was brought to the floor.

"It's progress, even if it is modest," said Mark Berte, ACCR's grassroots director.

Thomson, the namesake of the awards luncheon, leads a team that wrote a highly regarded series about the Constitution while an editorial writer at the Mobile Press-Register. Later, as a professor at the University of Alabama, he founded ACCR as a means to educate the public about the constitution and push for change. He died in 2003 at the age of 54.

Tucker, an Auburn graduate who is editorial page editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was an admirer of Thomson's. She told the luncheon audience that he was expecting a long fight and that ACCR would have to carry on without him.

"Bailey had already prepared to wage the long war," Tucker said. "He was no summer soldier."

E-mail: tspencer@bhamnews.com.

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