At least we have progress in the Legislature
The Tuscaloosa News
Monday, February 18, 2008

Believe it or not, there are some good bills making their way through the Alabama Legislature.

Last week, the Senate Constitution, Campaign Finance, Ethics and Elections Committee approved a ban on PAC-to-PAC transfers. The bill contains loopholes, but it’s a start.

At the same time, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation to implement a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that bans capital punishment for people with mental retardation. The court ruled six years ago but Alabama has failed to respond by setting appropriate guidelines. Even though it’s long overdue, the interest is welcome.

The same committee also passed a bill to let Alabamians vote on whether they want to rewrite the state’s 1901 constitution. The full Senate now will consider the proposal, but its chances are not considered good. It has died year after year.

One of the major goals of constitutional reformers is decentralizing the power that the framers of the 1901 Constitution placed in Montgomery. Despite their protests that they are not interested in micromanaging local governments, lawmakers have been extremely reluctant to let go of any of their authority.

That’s what makes a bill that won the approval of the Senate elections committee last week so interesting. It would increase the number of legislators needed to force a statewide vote on a local constitutional amendment.

Largely because it is chock full of such amendments, the Alabama 1901 Constitution is the longest document of its kind in the country. A statewide vote simply isn’t needed to set the bounty on beaver tails in Lamar County, but that’s the way it is.

As things stand, the objection of a single lawmaker in either chamber of the Legislature can force a local amendment onto a statewide ballot.

The most notorious recent example was in 2006, when Sen. Hank Erwin, R-Montevallo, objected to an amendment to create a foreign trade zone in Prichard.

The amendment first appeared on Mobile County ballots in 2004. The Prichard City Council approved the trade zone, and Prichard residents voted for it 2-to-1. However, it lost by some 3,700 votes countywide.

When Prichard tried again in 2006, Erwin opposed the amendment. Its purpose was to create a special tax district for importing duty-free and quota-free goods, as allowed under federal law, in hopes of attracting investors to economically depressed Prichard. But there was speculation that Erwin thought it would lead to gambling.

Forced by his lone objection onto the statewide ballot, the amendment won overwhelming approval this time in Mobile County. However, the rest of the state rejected it by the slimmest of margins — less than one-half percent of the vote.

Last year, Erwin backed off. The measure passed the Alabama House and Senate unanimously, allowing it to appear on the ballot as a local, rather than statewide, amendment. Mobile County voters approved it 3-to-1.

The change the committee approved last week would require opposition of at least 15 lawmakers in the House and five in the Senate to force a statewide vote. That’s not ideal — it is, in fact, a poor substitute for the home rule that the 1901 Constitution denies to Alabamians — but it’s progress.

The proof, of course, is in the pudding. Getting these measures out of committee is only the first step. Securing passage by the full Legislature is something else entirely.

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