State constitution debate renewed in public hearing on bill
By Brian Lyman
Star Capitol Correspondent

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MONTGOMERY - Round Two of this year's debate over the state constitution featured invocations of God, condemnations of racist language and appeals for and against amending Alabama's 105-year-old document.

More than 70 people packed a small hearing room Tuesday as the Senate Committee on Constitution, Campaign Finance, Ethics and Elections met for a public hearing on a bill that would allow voters to decide in November whether to call a constitutional convention.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Ted Little, D-Auburn, would put a yes/no question on the ballot. If approved, a special election to choose constitutional convention delegates would be held next April, with the convention assembling in July.
A constitution would have to be completed by May 1, 2008, and would be submitted for voter approval the following November.

Speaker pro tem Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham, has introduced a similar House bill. A public hearing on that legislation last month drew hundreds of supporters and opponents. The House Constitution and Elections committee may vote on that bill today.

Tuesday's hearing, like previous ones, often became heated, with speakers debating the merits and deficiencies of the 1901 Constitution more than the bill in question.

Bill supporters argued that the 1901 constitution is outmoded, filled with racist language and limits home rule for counties.
Lenora Pate, executive director of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, presented a petition with 67,000 signatures in support of a convention and said that the popular vote would provide the final say on a constitution.

"We believe firmly that this bill under consideration today would require a vote of the people, which is the ultimate safeguard," she said.

Others, like Kathy McMullen of the Alabama Parent-Teacher Association, said the hundreds of amendments made to the constitution since its passage show that it is a bad document.

"Our Alabama Constitution has been constitutionally amended 772 times since 1901," she said. "A basic governing document that needs such tweaking is one that doesn't work well to begin with."

The document's racism also was cited. "The Constitution of 1901 was formulated to be racist," said Bob Robertson of Huntsville. "It is racist. It is overtly racist in its wording. It disenfranchised black people."

Opponents argued that a new constitution would somehow open the door to higher taxes, removal of God from the state's governing document and limitations on the rights of Alabamians.

"The Constitution of 1901 is stronger and better than the U.S. Constitution," said Bill Anthony, a CSX retiree from Talzell. "It enshrines 26 rights we don't have under the federal constitution."

Opponents also attacked the motives of bill supporters, accusing them of receiving money from the Ford Foundation, a generally liberal think-tank, and from other outside organizations.

Kenneth Freeman, executive director of the Alliance for Citizens' Rights, said the organizations with petitions were "fertilized by money and watered by deception." He handed committee members biographies of reform supporters who spoke in favor of the bill at the House hearing last month.

That drew strong criticism from Sen. Curt Lee, R-Jasper. "People have a right to voice their opinions without you trying to smear them like this," Lee told Freeman. "We need to talk about these issues without getting personal."
Pate said after the meeting that her organization received its money from membership dues and had never received any grant money.

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