State House leader confident in constitutional convention bill
The Anniston Star
By Markeshia Ricks
Capitol Correspondent

MONTGOMERY — The question of calling a convention to overhaul Alabama's 107-year-old constitution soon will be before state lawmakers.

But getting it passed will be the ultimate test of political muscle and of a grassroots constitutional reform movement's ability to change the minds of legislators.

Last year, the bill made it to the House but was pulled because Speaker Pro Tem Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham, didn't have the votes to bring it to the floor for debate.

Newton said this year could be different.

"I feel confident about the vote on the budget isolation resolution," he said of the 60 votes needed to bring the bill up before the state's budgets are passed. "But we have to have 63 affirmative votes for it to move on."

Newton said preliminary counts show the votes are close, but he's been in Montgomery long enough to know nothing is certain until the final vote is cast.

"People tend to change their mind depending on where the pressure comes from at the last minute," he said.

The pressure from special interest lobbyists is real, but proponents of the bill have a few things working in their favor.

They have Newton, a House leader, sponsoring the bill, and a growing group of citizens willing to fight for the issue.

Combine that with the House's recent passage of a historic but controversial tax-reform bill, and it would seem like a cosmic cocktail for success.

But former state legislator and U.S. Rep. Glen Browder said politics often doesn't work that way.

"There are all kinds of games that can be played that give the appearance that something is making progress in the Legislature, or even Congress for that matter," said the retired Jacksonville State University eminent scholar in American democracy. "But when those games are played, the legislation never succeeds."

Browder said various delaying tactics can keep a bill from ever reaching the floor for debate or keep it from ever reaching voters, in the case of a bill like one calling for a constitutional convention.

Some of those tactics include passing House and Senate versions of bills so that they die in the conference committee, or keeping a bill on the back burner until the end of the session so that other bills will have higher priority, reducing the chances of it passing.

"You have to have muscular politicians who are going to stand up and say, 'This is going to pass,' and they make sure it passes," he said.

Browder said that's what he had in Anniston attorney Jim Campbell when they worked to pass the Alabama Fair Campaign Practices Act of 1988.

Browder was Secretary of State at the time, and Campbell was Speaker Pro Tempore when that legislation was passed, ushering in campaign reform for the first time since 1915.

Campbell said the timing was right politically for that bill, because people recognized that the lobbying corps for special interests in the state had grown exponentially.

It also didn't hurt that Campbell was one of the most powerful legislators in the House, and serving as the bill's primary sponsor increased its profile significantly.

"You have to have someone with the ability to get the bill out there," he said. "Being where I was gave me the ability to get it out of committee and on the calendar."

That's why it's no coincidence that the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform have put the constitutional convention bill in the hands of Newton in the House, and Sen. Ted Little, D-Auburn, in the upper chamber.

Little is a member of the Senate Rules Committee, which decides the calendar for that body.

Lenora Pate, co-chairwoman of ACCR, said passage of a plan to remove the state portion of the sales tax on food is encouraging.

"It demonstrates that legislators are very engaged, and it also demonstrates that it takes a long time for certain issues," she said. "That tax plan has been in legislative form for a number of years, and it went through a process similar to the one being followed with the constitutional reform bill."

Newton said he believes allowing voters to decide whether they want to call a convention could win more bipartisan support than even the tax plan had when it passed.

"I believe a lot more Republican members support the constitutional convention than they did John Knight's tax plan," he said.

But what might be missing is a key ingredient that Browder and Campbell had when they got the campaign reform bill passed: the consensus of urgency and method.

Back in the late 1980s, after a scandal involving campaign finances, it occurred to citizens, the media and even the newly elected Gov. Guy Hunt that reform was needed.

As high-profile state officials, Browder and Campbell were able to highlight the issue and convince people that their plan for change was the right one.

While citizen awareness of the 1901 constitution and its now 801 amendments has grown, Browder and Campbell say they've yet to see the consensus they had.

While many legislators and even Gov. Bob Riley have indicated their support for constitutional reform, some favor a constitutional convention and others an article-by-article revision.

Neither Browder nor Campbell would comment on the merits of either method, but both said concerns about special interests influencing any constitutional reform process is warranted.

Pate said the bill simply allows the people to decide whether to call a convention.

The bill could conceivably pass both bodies of the Legislature and voters could accept or reject it during the June 2010 gubernatorial primary.

"Hopefully, in the next week or so all the people will let their legislators hear from them, and their legislators will trust them enough to let them vote," she said.

Constitutional look

A look at various constitutions, when they were adopted, and the number of amendments:

U.S.: 1787 — 27

Alabama: 1901 — 799

Georgia: 1983 — 67

Florida: 1968 — 111

Mississippi: 1890 — 117

Tennessee: 1870 — 32

N. Carolina: 1971 — 34

Texas: 1876 — 456

Tennessee: 1870 — 32

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