Mock Convention Puts Pressure on Reform Opponents
Jennifer Foster Opelika-Auburn

Published: February 16, 2009

Saturday in Prattville, former Alabama Chief Justice Gorman Houston swore in the 105 delegates to the first session of Alabama’s mock constitutional convention, sponsored by Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform.

Yes, the convention was only for show. But it is a powerful visual symbol that the constitutional reform movement, nine years in the making, is getting some serious legs.

It’s about time. Alabama’s current constitution, ratified in 1901 even though almost half of the state’s counties opposed it, is riddled with historical anachronisms, racist language and inefficiencies. It strangles local governments and restricts the ability of our city councilors, county commissioners and anyone else outside Montgomery to respond to local needs.

In his column last week, Anniston Star editor Bob Davis adapted the Facebook “25 things about you” phenomenon to the Alabama Constitution. As with those ubiquitous notes authored by my friends, I learned some things.

Did you know that in the original state constitution, American citizenship was not an absolute requirement for voting? One’s “intention to become a citizen of the United States” was enough.

Did you know that the rallying cry for the 1901 document was, “White Supremacy, Honest Elections and the New Constitution, One and Inseparable”? Talk about your political sound bites.

Did you know that three Black Belt counties voted 17,475 to 508 for the new Constitution?

Never mind that the three counties’ combined eligible-voter population at the time was 5,623.

And what about the 800-plus amendments to the 108-year-old charter? In the 2008 general election alone, Alabamians approved 25 amendments – almost as many as the 27 amendments that have been ratified over the entire 220 years of the U.S. Constitution.

Reform opponents use fear tactics and slippery-slope arguments to defend the woefully inadequate status quo. A new constitution would bring increased taxes! Gambling! Haphazard government land grabs!

Well, local governments are having to raise taxes and fees anyway to make up for the state’s antiquated tax structure that is, among other things, simply starving schools of the resources they need. I don’t know if reform opponents have driven down I-85 toward Montgomery lately, but gambling is already here – and it’s expanding. And as for government land grabs, have they heard of Kelo v. City of New London?

Reform opponents embrace a high-browed skepticism o f the convention process. Delegates would surely be unduly influenced and the new constitution permeated with special-interest giveaways if we were to rewrite it, they say.

Really? If they oppose a constitutional convention on those grounds, do they also support the immediate and indefinite suspension of all activities of the Alabama Legislature? Because if the final products of any place are infected with favoritism, influence-peddling and special-interest taint, it’s Goat Hill.

State Sen. Ted Little (D-Auburn) and State Rep. Demetrius Newton (D-Birmingham) filed resolutions this week that would allow Alabamians to vote on whether to hold a constitutional convention to write a new legal document and clean up this mess.
Your legislators presumably trust your judgment to elect them to office. If they won’t trust your judgment when it comes to the State Constitution – if they don’t support these resolutions – you should demand to know why.

Jennifer Foster is a political enthusiast who lives in Auburn and writes a column for the Opelika-Auburn News.

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