State constitution on agenda
Reform proposals include rewriting articles or allowing voters to call a convention

Mobile Press-Register
Thursday, February 07, 2008
By BRIAN LYMAN
Capital Bureau

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MONTGOMERY -- In what is close to becoming an annual tradition, bills and amendments that would give the public a chance to change the state's 1901 Constitution began stirring this week in the Legislature.

An amendment introduced by state Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, to rewrite the document's banking article passed the House Constitution and Elections Committee Thursday. A second amendment that would rewrite the article regarding corporations was held up over technical concerns about its language.

Also, Speaker Pro Tempore Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham, and state Sen. Ted Little, D-Auburn, have reintroduced legislation that would allow voters to decide whether to call a convention to overhaul the constitution.

"Their plan failed to become law last year, but supporters invoked a spirit of cautious optimism.

"I guess we're eternal optimists," said Lenora Pate, co-chairwoman of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, which supports a constitutional convention. "We've tried to improve upon (the bill) based on legislative feedback. I think it has potential to get through the House."

The issue of constitutional reform has flared up from time to time in the Legislature but usually remains at a moderate simmer. Reform supporters deride the 1901 constitution's restrictions on local governments' ability to regulate land and tax policy as an impediment to economic development and Alabama's quality of life.

Opponents of a rewrite cite those same restrictions on local government as a necessary check on power.

Newton and Little have they want to drop a 50/50 requirement of male and female delegates at a convention.

Voters would decide whether to conduct a constitutional convention, according to the legislation. If a majority voted yes, there would be an election of delegates to the convention.

The new constitution drawn up by a convention would then be submitted to Alabama voters for their approval.

The House and Senate convention bills both got out of committee last year. Newton's version made to the House floor, but he withdrew it when the bill was clearly headed to defeat on a budget isolation resolution vote -- a procedural motion.

"My problem has been that I don't know what they are afraid of," Newton said of bill opponents.

Those trying to defeat it on procedural grounds, he said, will "scream 'Let us vote' on everything else. It really concerns me that the biggest difficulty comes from those unwilling to trust the people."

The convention plan is opposed by the Alabama Farmers' Federation, which lobbied against Newton's bill last year and favors an approach in which lawmakers would revise the constitution article by article.

"You already have representatives elected by the people, elected by a popular vote who can do that," said Jeff Helms, a spokesman for the federation. "They can serve that role in taking an article-by-article approach."

DeMarco's amendments would strike outdated language from the banking and corporation articles, such as that relating to the gold standard. It would not add any new provisions.

The DeMarco package passed the House last year and made it out of a Senate committee but was killed in a general massacre of bills on the final night of the 2007 session.

DeMarco said Tuesday that he hopes rewriting two noncontroversial parts of the constitution would clear the way to look at more controversial articles, like those limiting home rule for local government. DeMarco said he is optimistic that his bills will win approval this year.

"You're always an optimist early in the session," he said.

If the bills passed, voters would see them on state ballots later this year.

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