Long trek to reform worth it
The Birmingham News
September 02, 2007 11:33 AM
Tom Scarritt

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Reform in Alabama is not a sprint, it is an endurance race.

The folks in our state who are striving to replace our outdated, inadequate and immoral constitution got a second or third or fourth wind Thursday at an event honoring some of the pioneers in this long journey. The energy and enthusiasm from that gathering should fuel at least a few more laps around the track.

The Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform Foundation gave its first annual Bailey Thomson award to former Samford University President Tom Corts. An early milestone in the modern movement to reform the constitution came in 1999, when Corts told the Kiwanis Club of Birmingham that the state's 1901 constitution is crippling state government. At about the same time, Thomson, a journalism professor at the University of Alabama, was putting together a grass-roots effort to advocate reform.

Thomson died of a heart attack in 2003, at the age of 54, and that loss was a staggering blow for the citizen-based reform effort. The movement has struggled to find a voice since then, but Thursday's luncheon showed the passion is still there.

That passion existed well before the ACCR was formed, finding its voice on the editorial pages of Alabama newspapers.

A major reason for fixing Alabama's constitution is to get rid of the handcuffs it places on the ways the state can raise and spend money. Alabama's tax system is unfair, inefficient and inadequate, and it favors a few at the expense of the many. The Birmingham News has crusaded for tax reform since 1988. In 1991, editorial page editor Ron Casey and his team won the Pulitzer Prize for their tax reform editorials.

Casey, like Thomson, died far too young, but his contribution to the debate on tax reform, and the constitutional changes needed to accomplish that, remains.

Meanwhile, in Mobile, Thomson was the Press-Register's editorial page editor. He saw the strong link between the shortcomings of our constitution and the failings of our state, and he pushed for a new constitution.

The intertwined issues of tax reform and constitution reform address the fundamental structural flaws that keep our great state from reaching its potential. That is a message Thomson, in his role as a community organizer, helped move beyond the editorial pages and into the grass roots.

Cynthia Tucker, the keynote speaker at Thursday's event, described the job of editorial writers. "We whine, we opine, we harangue," said the Alabama-born editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's editorial page. Rarely, though, do we persuade as effectively as Thomson, and Casey, did on this issue.

The gap between persuasion and action can be a long one. A key element of tax reform, raising the threshold at which people start to pay income tax, occurred at the federal level under Ronald Reagan. It was enacted in Alabama only this year.

The wait for action on a new constitution has been frustrating. At least some aspects of the constitution that make it so bad, from its racist language to its hostility to home rule, are being debated and discussed.

"We have a mighty long way to go, but please, don't be discouraged by the journey," Tucker said. The crowd that gathered in Birmingham Thursday seemed ready and willing to keep on trekking.

Tom Scarritt is editor of The News.

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