Bennett: '03 best time for reform
Says movement building up for rewriting state constitution

David White
News Staff Writer

December 10, 2002

AUBURN — Alabama Secretary of State Jim Bennett said Monday that next year offers the best hope for persuading lawmakers and voters to rewrite major parts of Alabama's constitution.

   "I believe 2003 is the breakthrough year. I think it's our best shot to do so. If we don't get it in '03, I think the movement will lose some steam," Bennett said.

   "I see it building steam right now. I think the grass-roots movement has built up to the point where it's an issue on the table," he said. "There are just more marchers in the parade."

   Bennett chairs a 21-member commission formed by the nonpartisan, grass-roots group Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform to suggest changes to Alabama's Constitution.

   Bennett said the commission's report will be given in early January to the Legislature and Gov.-elect Bob Riley, who takes office Jan. 20. Bennett noted that almost 900,000 voters approved an amendment on Nov. 5 that was designed to ensure voters would be given the right to accept or reject any proposed new constitution.

   "I think it was a clear indication that they want to participate in constitutional reform," said Bennett, who leaves office next month.

   Gerald Johnson, director of the Capital Survey Research Center, the polling arm of the Alabama Education Association teachers' lobby, told commission members that 61 percent of Alabama voters support constitutional reform, according to a poll of 606 registered voters conducted Nov. 13-20.

   The commission has heard from citizens and experts since July, meeting in Huntsville, Birmingham and Mobile before its final public meeting held at Auburn University on Monday.

Local control:
   Riley thanked commission members in a letter for their work and said it would be invaluable to his administration "and its efforts in revising our state constitution."

   Riley said he would like to see parts of the constitution changed to reduce earmarking, which dedicates various state taxes for specific uses, and to give county governments "at least some measure of home rule so they may govern more effectively."

   The current constitution limits the power of county governments to develop economic development projects, propose tax increases and perform many other functions without the Legislature's approval. Granting greater home rule would reduce or erase the need for lawmakers' permission.

   Riley never mentioned tax reform in his letter, even though commission members Monday focused on sections of the constitution that limit property taxes and state income taxes. They heard from experts who said those limits should be eased or erased to let the state raise more money for education and other state

   Riley spokesman David Azbell, however, said Riley plans to tackle home rule and earmarking before tax reform.

   "He does believe we need to have comprehensive tax reform, but that will come later," Azbell said. "That is not a first-year goal."

Framework set:
   Azbell said recommendations from the commission chaired by Bennett would be given to a group Riley plans to appoint soon after his inauguration, the Alabama Citizens' Constitutional Commission.

   Azbell said that group would be charged with proposing, within 120 days, changes to the constitution for Riley to propose to the Legislature. Azbell said those changes likely would focus on earmarking, home rule and, maybe, creating a line-item veto power for the governor.

   Some states allow line-item vetoes, which let a governor kill specific spending items approved by lawmakers in state budgets.

   The constitution, in place since 1901, provides the framework for state government, taxes and the powers of county governments, among other things.

   It can be rewritten by individual amendments, which must be approved by lawmakers and then voters statewide to take effect.

   It also could be replaced by a convention of delegates elected to write a new constitution. Lawmakers and voters both would have to approve holding a convention. The amendment passed Nov. 5 says voters would decide whether to accept any new constitution written by a convention.

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Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform Foundation, Inc.
P.O. Box 34
Montgomery, Alabama 36101-0034

E-mail: accr@constitutionalreform.org
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