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.
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."
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
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
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