Even more reasons for new constitution
The Birmingham News
Opinion Columnist Bob Blalock
Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Alabama Legislative Session Update and where do we go from here?
What the Polls Say

We need another reason to rewrite this state's 1901 Constitution like Mal Moore needs another suggestion about who the next University of Alabama football coach should be. But here are a few more arguments for a new fundamental charter to add atop a pile as deep as the intrigue over the search for Mike Shula's replacement:

With last week's certification of the Nov. 7 election, the Alabama Constitution boasts 18 new amendments, bringing the total to 795 - by far the most amended constitution in America. For those who are counting, that's 29 times more amendments than the 27 adorning the U.S. Constitution.

The document's length isn't the biggest problem, but its most grievous flaw does explain why the state constitution is so long: Local governments have so little control over their own affairs they continually have to ask the state Legislature for permission for everything from controlling mosquitoes, to picking up litter, to creating special zones to attract economic development. The Legislature, in turn, must put these proposals before voters for approval.

The apparent failure last month of an amendment that would set up a foreign trade zone in Prichard is a textbook example of just how goofy Alabama's constitution is. Officials in that depressed city in Mobile County wanted the zone to help spur their economy. But thanks to Alabama's absurd constitution, they needed an amendment to set up such a zone. Complicating matters was state Sen. Hank Erwin, R-Montevallo, whose lone opposition to the proposed amendment forced it onto a statewide ballot. Even though Mobile County voters favored the amendment 59 to 41 percent, voters across the rest of Alabama inexplicably turned it down. (The amendment's razor-thin 0.32 percent margin of defeat triggered an automatic recount under state law.)

The U.S. House of Representatives this week is considering the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, which cleared the Senate earlier this year. Under the act, expanded oil and natural gas drilling would send millions of dollars in drilling revenues to Alabama and other Gulf Coast states. What does this have to do with the Alabama Constitution? Everything.

Directed dollars:

The money the states would get is supposed to be spent on protecting, preserving and restoring the coast; protecting against hurricanes; easing the damage to wildlife or fish; and other coastal-related projects, as News staff writer Mary Orndorff reported Tuesday. The Alabama Constitution, though, thanks to an amendment voters approved six years ago, directs oil and gas revenues into three funds that don't include specific allocations for the coast. Instead, 65 percent of the money is deposited into the Alabama Trust Fund, the state's $2.8 billion nest egg; 28 percent goes to a capital improvement trust fund; and 7 percent is split among cities and counties around the state for capital improvements.

What seemed like a good idea at the time creates a potential headache for state officials. The fear is that in order to spend the federal dollars, Alabama needs a constitutional amendment to undo the earmarks set out in the earlier amendment. Earlier this year, Louisiana voters passed a constitutional amendment that ensures the new drilling dollars go specifically to restore the coast and for levee projects.

As always seems to be the case, Alabama needs yet another amendment to undo the damage the 1901 Constitution created. Wouldn't it be easier in the long run to write a new document that stands the test of time? That acts as a statement of principles and declaration of rights instead of state code? That makes governments function more efficiently instead of less?

Another amendment:

One more amendment to the constitution, possibly the last it truly needs, could lead the way to that happening. This year, though, the Legislature didn't see fit to put on the ballot a proposed amendment that would let voters decide whether they want a citizens convention to write a new constitution.

Lawmakers were too busy protecting themselves and special interests that benefit from the current constitution. The clear message, certainly to the more than 60,000 voters who signed petitions delivered to the Legislature that called for passage of the proposed amendment, was that their interests don't matter.

If voters cared one-tenth as much about that insult as they do about who the next UA football coach will be, lawmakers wouldn't dare ignore them. Bob Blalock is editorial page editor of The News. E-mail: bblalock@bhamnews.com.

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