“A new constitution
for a new Alabama”

Address to Alabama Boys State, University of Montevallo, June 12, 2000


By Dr. Bailey Thomson
Associate professor, Journalism, University of Alabama

   Thirty-four years ago I sat where you are now as a delegate to Boys State. We were in this same auditorium, although the political and social climate in Alabama was vastly different then.

   Our state did not have strong leadership to guide us through the crisis of racial integration. Instead, politicians often exploited citizens’ fears of the unknown. Our Boys State convention was a part of its time, just as your convention reflects the age in which you live.

   As I share these reminiscences, I see a much more hopeful future for you, in part because our state has managed to put many of those old fears behind it. But much still remains to be done if we are to achieve the great potential that Alabama represents.

   Since I was a delegate here, I’ve learned that leadership is about taking risks for great causes. It is also about motivating people to seek the common good.

   As I look upon Alabama here as we begin a new century, I wonder: Where are the leaders who might encourage our state’s citizens to do what’s right for themselves and their posterity?

   Certainly, I hear officials say they are doing what the people want them to do, although it’s not always clear just who those particular citizens are. But too few of our elected leaders dare to get out front — ahead of the opinion polls and the old tired wisdom that says nothing changes in Alabama.

   As I travel around Alabama, I often hear people say: "We can’t expect our politicians to take the lead on this particular issue. We have to figure out a way to give them cover."

   Translated, that line means citizens who are trying to address serious problems have to go first and draw the fire before they can expect politicians to join the battle.

   In Alabama, we now have a vigorous and competitive politics arising from a genuine two-party system. But a common feature of our campaigns is a reluctance to talk candidly about serious problems.

   Certainly, some of this caution among politicians is understandable.

   Even a courageous candidate can take on only a few major issues at a time. And campaigns are outrageously expensive. Someone who wants to run for governor and stand a chance of winning can expect to spend upward to $10 million. A state Senate seat could cost $300,000.

   But prudence too often becomes timidity.

   Many politicians are reluctant to say or do anything that might lower their polling numbers and jeopardize the steady flow of money they need to run. As a consequence, we don’t hear enough of them talk about tax reform, home rule and other fundamental issues.

   The public, meanwhile, has to be educated. This can be difficult during a campaign when political discourse often is squeezed into sound bites of less than a minute.

   It doesn’t take much longer than a minute, however, to realize Alabama is in trouble — deep trouble. We have not done those things that a well-constituted citizenry should do.

   Consider our wretched tax system. Alabama has had two blue-ribbon groups study this problem in the last decade, and they’ve both said the same thing: The system rewards the wealthy with low property and income taxes, and it punishes the poor with high sales taxes. Yet our state staggers from one crisis to the next, as our leaders try to patch an unfair system rather than reform it.

   For example, Georgia has a broader tax base that provides about $500 more per capita to invest in schools and other services. It’s probably no coincidence that Georgia’s economic growth rate consistently exceeds the national average, while Alabama’s rate regularly falls below the U.S. benchmark.

   I’ll be more specific about tax fairness.

   If you own land in Alabama, you pay the lowest property taxes in the country. But if you are poor, you pay some of the highest sales taxes even on your groceries and non-prescription drugs.

 

  For example, owners of timberland in Cleburne County, Alabama, pay about $1.85 per acre each year in property taxes. But if you step just across the state line into Haralson County, Georgia, the tax rate is about $7 per acre.

   Now Georgia is not a high-tax state. It’s just that in Alabama, special interests have insisted upon ridiculously low property taxes, while socking the poor with high sales taxes.?

   The result is not only that our state has an unfair tax system but it also starves critical public services such as schools and law enforcement.

   A good example can be found in our prison system. We don’t have enough guards. We can build new prisons, such as the one at Brent, Ala., but we have to hold our breath that the inmates won’t take it over.

   At the local level, meanwhile, officials lack the authority they need to address the runaway sprawl that afflicts our urban counties with traffic jams and environmental damage. Without what we call home rule, local governments cannot begin to manage growth properly.

   Tax reform and local home rule are both part of a bigger issue. To fix those problems, we need to revise our state’s bloated constitution. It presents the biggest single barrier to our progress.

   If there is one great thing my generation needs to do for your generation, it is to draft a modern state constitution one that will encourage and enable you young leaders to build a state worthy of your aspirations.

   From following the news, you probably know that groups around the state are calling for constitutional reform. Chambers of commerce in Tuscaloosa and Huntsville sponsored rallies this spring to demand reforms such as home rule for counties and a fair tax system.

   I’m going to tell you in a minute why I expect this movement to continue growing. But first, let me briefly tell you where the problems lie with the current document, which reformers have been assailing almost from the day it was ratified.

   Let’s begin with the immoral purposes behind the present document:

   The 1901 state Constitution’s main purpose was to deny black citizens the right to vote in Alabama. In case you didn’t hear me, let me repeat that:

   Framers of the present constitution assembled in Montgomery in 1901 with one main goal in mind: to deny former slaves and their children the rights they gained under the 14th and 15th amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

   As long as blacks voted in large numbers, the big planters and even the industrial bosses of Alabama felt threatened. After all, blacks might team up with working class whites to demand fair labor laws. Or they might want fair property taxes to pay for schools.

   So the planters and the industrial bosses got together and decided to take away black people’s right to vote. They did this through a variety of clever means, but the effect was to remove black people as a political force in Alabama. The constitution’s framers could do this because by 1901 the federal courts were willing to look the other way, to their lasting shame.

   In my mind, denying a citizen the right to vote just because he is black is immoral. But that’s what the framers of this document did. And they were proud of it.

   But this constitution would never have been ratified in an honest vote of the people. For one thing, working class white people quickly caught on that they might lose their right to vote as well. These same restrictions aimed at black people would apply to them as well.

   So for good reasons, counties that had white majorities and mostly small farms opposed the 1901 Constitution. They were fearful of how it would centralize power in the hands of a small elite. The victory margin for the new Constitution occurred in the Black Belt counties, where there were great plantations worked by black laborers. These counties naturally had large majorities of African-Americans. Thus we are expected to believe that black voters in those plantation counties overwhelmingly chose to disfranchise themselves.

   Of course, they didn’t. The vote for ratification was a massive fraud, perpetrated by powerful whites who stole votes to guarantee they would control things in the 20th century.

   And they did a good job. Just as opponents had feared, hundreds of thousands of working class whites were driven from the voting places, just as black citizens were. In fact, full voting rights were not restored in Alabama until Congress and the federal courts intervened in the 1960s.

   This 1901 constitution often has reflected the desires and agendas of special interests ever since, rather than the needs of the citizenry. But history is not the only reason we need to replace this monstrosity.

   Our state constitution is a bloated, almost unreadable document. Because it severely limits the right of local government, counties and cities have been forced to seek relief though constitutional amendments.

   Thus, our state constitution now has around 665 amendments. Altogether, the document has about 310,000 words. It is by far the longest constitution in the United States and probably in the Western world.

   For example, Alabama’s constitution is nearly 40 times longer than the U.S. Constitution. You can put the U.S. Constitution in your shirt pocket. Alabama’s Constitution, by contrast, is about the size of a Danielle Steele novel, give or take a few bedroom scenes.

   In studying civics you learned that a constitution is supposed to be a broad framework for organizing government and protecting citizens’ rights. It is supposed to be organic law that rises above petty everyday matters to address the broad issues in our society.

   But not in Alabama. Our state constitution reads more like legislative laws dealing with minute issues. For example, Alabama’s constitution addresses matters such as whether counties can have bingo games or whether they can raise their school taxes. It gets even more specific. Amendment 489, for instance, authorizes the country music hall of fame in Colbert County to purchase CDs.

   But one of the biggest problems is what the Alabama constitution doesn’t say. As I mentioned earlier, it does not give counties the right to govern themselves.

   Instead, the document concentrates power in Montgomery, forcing local officials to come begging their legislators for authority to perform even the most mundane local jobs.

   For example, the Baldwin County Commission cannot protect groundwater. Nor does it have authority to control stray animals. It can’t even pass a tree ordinance to protect the county’s beautiful oaks.

   When counties do seek relief from the Legislature, they are at the mercy of their local delegations. A single senator can kill any local bill an abuse of power can invite vindictiveness and petty politics.

   Reformers have tried since 1915 with Gov. Emmet O’Neal to rewrite this document. In 1932, the Brookings Institute did a major study of Alabama’s government at the request of Gov. B.M. Miller and concluded the state needed a new constitution.

   More recently, Gov. Albert Brewer in 1969 made reform a priority. A commission headed by Judge Conrad Fowler here in Shelby County did outstanding work and drafted a model constitution. Unfortunately, Brewer was no longer in office when the commission concluded its work and that effort died.

   From such efforts, we can conclude that special interests, combined with citizens’ apathy, have kept the 1901 constitution intact.

   So why try again to do what seems to be the impossible: That is, to bring Alabama’s blueprint for government into the modern era?

   Several reasons come to mind:

   Alabama is widely recognized for having one of the most inefficient and poorly organized governments among the states. Indeed, a survey by the respected Governing magazine recently ranked our state at the bottom. Besides the hardships this inefficiency imposes upon our people, are we likely to attract the best companies and their high paying jobs when we do such a poor job of governing ourselves?

   Many of the crucial improvements we need to make, such as school reform, hinge on revising our Constitution. For example, we have to develop a fair taxation system to support schools and other vital public services.

   The current constitution has reflected bad faith toward government since its fraudulent ratification. We need to change this attitude. We need to draw our citizens into the political process and create a new system — one that can educate our people to govern themselves wisely and to live and work in a global economy.

   You may ask, Where are the politicians who will step forward and tell the truth - that we cannot fix our many problems in Alabama until we first revise our constitution?

   I’m afraid that most of them are waiting on somebody else to jump up and lead.

   Therefore, we citizens have to make something big happen. We have to demand that our elected leaders in Montgomery empower us to write a new constitution.

   The Legislature can do this by calling a convention of citizens. Then the people of Alabama can vote on whether they want to accept this convention’s work.

   I believe a convention would be harder for special interests to control than having the Legislature rewrite the constitution article by article. More important, a convention would invite more good people to get involved in civic affairs. We might see capable new leaders enter the arena.

   Yes, it is tempting to walk away and disengage from the problems that beset our state. It’s easy just to look the other way and accept things as they are.

   But I believe we the people can challenge our circumstances and change them, if only we do not give up. We have to be strong citizens and do what’s right for our community.

   And some of us have to be strong leaders, to help educate our fellow citizens and inspire them to take action.

   Since I was your age, I have seen a great deal of change in Alabama most of it for the better. Many of the old fears that abounded when I grew up have diminished. And there’s hope for an even better Alabama, which you will inherit.

   During your week here at this beautiful campus of Montevallo, I urge you to learn all that you can to prepare yourself for leadership. And above all, I urge you to think boldly about the possibilities for that new Alabama you will inherit.

Thank you.

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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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