Opelika-Auburn News
Residents express concerns over
state Constitution

By Roxana Correa
Staff Writer

December 10, 2002

   The state of Alabama must rewrite its 1901 "archaic" constitution in order to move forward. That was the sentiment expressed during Monday's meeting of the Citizens Commission on Constitutional Reform.

   The commission, charged with increasing momentum to get the state's constitution changed, held its fourth and final public meeting in Auburn Monday. The group, made up of 21 members from across the state, has already been to Huntsville, Birmingham and Mobile, where they met with citizens to discuss home rule, education, individual rights, economic development and government organization. The meeting focused on debt and taxation as it relates to the constitution, which has been amended 742 times.

   The commission, along with about 30 residents, heard from Howard Walthall, who heads the state Constitution Law Project at the Cumberland Law School, Samford University, in addition to Bruce Ely, an attorney with Bradley Arant Rose & White; Susan Hamill, a professor at the University of Alabama Law School; and Jim White, of Porter, White and Company, a Birmingham-based investment banking firm.

   Following the presentation, local residents spoke out on why they feel the state should rewrite its current constitution.

   Opelika resident Larry Lee expressed concerns that people are leaving Alabama to work elsewhere.

   "My classmates (from Auburn University), my family and my daughter, are not coming back to Alabama," Lee said. "That was a great investment that the state of Alabama made in those lives as far as education, and we're not getting much in the way of returns. They're not coming back because the perception is that there is nothing to come back to."

   Lee said something must be done to change people's perception of the state. "For too long in this state, we've allowed ourselves to listen to the wrong voices," Lee said. "These voices have played blacks versus whites and rich versus poor. It's time we stop listening to those voices."

   Joe Sumners, director of the Economic Development Institute at Auburn University, said the constitution negatively impacts the state and compared it to run-down "Mom and Pop" stores.

The state's 1901 constitution includes a racist legacy and a failed tax system, Sumners said.

   "Because of the constitution, we have a tax system that is unfair, inadequate and unreliable," Sumners said. "This is not a new problem."

   In 1915, then-Gov. Emmit O'Neal described the state's constitution as archaic, Sumners said.

   "We still have the same constitution in 2002 and going into 2003," he added. The constitution, which has been under fire by various groups, is the cause of several poverty issues in the state as well, according to Pres Harris, organizer of Alabama Arise, an organization made up of about 144 church and community groups that deal with poverty issues.

   "The Alabama government should not perpetuate the poverty of its citizens, it should help improve their quality of life," she said.

   Harris said the constitution as it stands currently preserves a tax structure that unfairly burdens the poor, limits ways of properly funding the state education system and hinders advocacy efforts for the poor.

   An example of that is public transportation, Harris said. The constitution does not allow funding for public transportation, making it almost impossible to run an adequate public transportation system, which could make it easier for the poor to get to work and the elderly to access health services.

   "We need a constitution that will give a fair opportunity to the poor people in the state of Alabama," Harris said.

   Ruth Wright, an Auburn resident, spoke about the importance of having home rule under a new constitution. Home rule would allow local governments to vote on local matters.

   "There are serious problems in Lee County that can no longer be handled by local legislators in Montgomery," Wright said.

   According to Wright, in 1980, Lee County had three legislators, compared to nine legislators now. Of those nine, only three live in Lee County, Wright said. Wright suggested following a 1973 proposal to implement home rule.

   Also at Monday's meeting, Auburn City Council member Carolyn Mathews read a resolution passed by the council in April 2001 in support of rewriting the state constitution.

   The constitution, which was referred to as "long and tedious," represents a legacy of discrimination and unduly limits the power of local government, Mathews said. It distracts state legislators from important statewide issues by having to deal with local issues, and it encourages development of special
interest groups, she added.

   Sumners said the state has a window of opportunity in front of it. "If we don't take advantage of it this time, we're in trouble," Sumners said. "We have to voice our opposition to use our influence where it will do some good." After its final deliberations, the commission will present a recommendation to the governor and the Legislature on how to best approach constitutional reform issues. The recommendation will likely be made as early as mid-January.

   Roxana Correa is a staff writer covering Auburn and Lee County. Contact her at 749-6271 ext. 3149 or rcorrea@oanow.com

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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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