House rules committee hearing
.Constitutional convention call

By Jim Bennett
Secretary of State
State of Alabama

March 13, 2002

   Well thank you Mr. Chairman.

  It's been almost 20 years since I have been a member of the House and just being here brings back a lot of good memories.

   I am here today to urge your support for SR 152 to allow the voters of this state to decide whether or not they wish to call a constitutional convention.

   I can think of no more significant thing this Legislature could do in the final year of its term than to allow the voters of Alabama to decide this issue.

   The latest polls I have seen indicate a strong desire on the part of the people to get involved with 85% of the respondents saying they want the opportunity to vote on whether or not to call a constitutional convention.

   Further, more than 55% say they would be less likely to re-elect a member of the Legislature who denied them the chance.

   Alabama has already had six constitutions. I think it's time we had a seventh.

   Many efforts to do this have been made in the past but without success. Gov. Emmett O'Neal, only 14 years after adoption of the 1901 Constitution, was already asking that it be replaced saying it put Alabama government in a stranglehold.

   Gov. Thomas Kilby made a similar plea in 1923; so did Gov. Big Jim Folsom in 1946, Albert Brewer in 1969 and Fob James in 1979.

  The Legislature came back and passed a rewrite in 1983 under the leadership of Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley and Sen. Ryan deGraffenried but the State Supreme Court blocked the statewide ratification vote just months before the election.

   I recall too in 1993 when Sen. Mac Parsons got a convention call through the Senate without a dissenting vote. I was a co-sponsor that year.

   I think it's time we moved forward and brought this matter before the people to decide. If they say no, the movement will be halted; if they say yes, then, through a convention of elected delegates, the people will begin the process.

   I trust the people to do what is right.

   Those opposed to a rewrite would have you believe that reform efforts are aimed at taking God out of the constitution and promoting gambling, higher taxes and even gun control.

   It is ludicrous to assume that a convention of popularly elected delegates would be that out of touch with the sentiments of the voters. Such a constitution would never be ratified.

   But we can make this one better.

   The most striking thing about the constitution we currently live under are all the restrictions it puts in place, from prohibiting the practice of dueling to requiring local governments to come to Montgomery for the most mundane of things. . . like setting up water boards and banning junk cars from neighborhood lots.

   These are issues that more properly should be decided on the local level.

   Thomas Jefferson said that that government closest to the people governs best.

   I would think if you gave to local governments more discretion-- if you followed the national trend to decentralize government back to the local levels--you would attract even better candidates back home to look after their own business.

   One of the most frustrating things I think for those running for court house positions is to promise to bring about government efficiency and then, once elected, discover that to do almost anything at all they have to come to Montgomery to ask the state's permission.

   As a former member of the House and the Senate, I remember well all the local issues we were asked to consider and I thought it odd back then we were spending so much time dealing with local bills when so much work was needed on state matters.

   We had one bill, I remember, that would have allowed Jefferson County to cut noxious weeds on residential lots vacated by persons who had moved out of state. This became a matter for the Legislature to decide.

   Some of you spend about half of your time down here dealing with such issues. In the 2000 regular session the Legislature, 49% of all the non-resolution items were local matters.

   Voters have the opportunity to vote local officials out of office if they don't represent the people well and I think they would do it too if that's where the buck stopped. They don't need to be hiding behind their legislators in Montgomery.

   So restrictive is our constitution county officials are constantly requesting new constitutional amendments to allow them to act. In 1996, our citizens voted on 43 changes to the constitution; in 1998, 47; six in 1999; 52 in 2000 and three last year. Since 1996, we have averaged 25 amendments a year.

   Some 20 more are already pending for this year.

   This guidebook for government is clearly loosing coherence. The average citizen should be able to read and understand their state constitution. . . more like the federal one.

   Ours is not an easy read and you certainly can't put it in your pocket. I doubt very much that anyone gets a warm and cozy feeling about it. If they read it, they probably would be astounded by all the prohibitions.
And finally, let me say something about the tone of government. Despite the rewrite of the suffrage amendment by the chairman of this committee a few years back, the body of the 1901 Constitution still reveals all the racially divisive language from the Jim Crow days of long ago.

   We should send this document to a resting place over in the Dept. of Archives and History and by sending HJR 152 to the floor, you will be taking the first step in doing just that.

   Thank you for your time. It has been my great pleasure to be here. We ask you to let the people decide this issue.

© 1999-2002, Office of the Secretary of State, State of Alabama

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