By Roxana Correa
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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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