In Alabama, reform is slow, but it truly can happen
The Huntsville Times
Sunday, September 02, 2007

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If you doubt that the reform movement is alive and well in Alabama, you obviously weren't in the Harbert Center in downtown Birmingham on Thursday. There, hundreds of citizens - prominent and not so prominent - from all over Alabama gathered in a third-floor ballroom for a pivotal event: the first annual Bailey Thomson Awards Luncheon.

The event was sponsored by the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform Foundation, an offshoot of the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform.

The award is named for late journalist, historian and academic Bailey Thomson. On the editorial page of the Press-Register of Mobile in the 1990s, Thomson, who once worked at this newspaper, became a champion for a new constitution. He went on to help found the ACCR. In 2003, Thomson died of a heart attack at the relatively young age of 54.

The annual awards honor those who further the cause of constitutional reform. This year's winners include Lewis Lehe, the Greater Birmingham Ministries and Dr. Thomas Corts, former president of Samford University.

Thursday's keynote speaker was another prominent Alabama journalist, Monroeville native Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Sunday columnist in The Huntsville Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

The commitment in evidence at the event impressed me. It also reminded me that constitutional reform is but one of three areas of Alabama government that must change if the state is to help its people live up to their potential.

This state continues to suffer under the racism, favoritism and anti-democratic sentiment of the Constitution of 1901 and its staggering 800 amendments. A measure in the Legislature earlier this year to let the voters decide whether they want a constitutional convention suffered the same fate as before - it died.

But hope endures. The reform movement continues to organize citizens on the grass-roots level. An amendment ratified earlier this decade would give state voters the final say on adopting a new constitution if one were to be drafted by a convention. Someday, I think that safeguard will pay off.

Two other fronts

But how stands reform on two other fronts - government ethics and taxation? Progress on both issues is real if limited. At the very least, the small steps taken so far show what can be done.

Alabama's regressive tax system, which dumps a disproportionate burden on those who can least afford it, remains largely intact. Even so, in 2006 the Legislature gave the poorest of the poor some relief on the state income tax, and the sales-tax holidays - last year and this year - helped working families with the costs of sending their kids back to school.

On the ethical front, the Alabama State Board of Education's new policy aimed at legislators who are also on the payroll of the two-year college system is already having an impact, even though the policy is being challenged in court.

Legislators are starting to choose between their two paychecks. Even if the policy is ultimately struck down in court, lawmakers realize this is a battle they'll lose in the court of public opinion.

Gov. Bob Riley wants a similar policy enacted into law for all of state government, but at the moment that remains a hard sell.

Nonetheless, on all three fronts, the changes are real. A decade ago, I could not have envisioned that the state would do what it has done. A decade from now, who knows?

The constitutional reform movement must be patient. Columnist Tucker and others made the point that major changes take time.

And Tucker should know; as a black child at age 4 she had to ride in the back of the bus. Now, whether you agree with her views, she's a national figure whose integrity and crystal-clear vision should offer inspiration to anyone who thinks our lives can be made better.

Bailey Thomson did his share. Now it's up to others, and many of our citizens seem more than willing to pitch in.

John Ehinger's e-mail: john.ehinger@htimes.com.

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