State's husky constitution could add 35 amendments
Birmingham News, August 9 , 2004
By David White, staff writer
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Find out for yourself how big Alabama's constitution is

MONTGOMERY-- Alabama 's constitution, already the biggest in the nation, may be about to get bigger.

Alabama voters will face 35 proposed amendments to the state constitution on the Nov. 2 ballot. Since November 1998, they have considered more than 140 such changes to the bulky document.

Alabama 's supreme state law, adopted in 1901, has more than 300,000 words and 752 amendments.

The last amendment is numbered 751, but about 70 years ago two were assigned the same number by mistake. That's why there's an Amendment 26 and an Amendment 26A.

The amendments will stretch to 787 if voters this fall approve all 35 that are proposed. Most would affect just one county and will be voted on only by people there.

For instance, voters in Shelby County will decide whether to let legislators pass laws to let sheriff's deputies and police officers enforce traffic laws on private roads in gated communities in their county.

But eight amendments will be on the ballot statewide, including one that would let Trussville residents vote whether to raise city property taxes for schools to bring in about $700,000 a year.

Another would erase parts of Alabama's constitution that call for segregated public schools and deal with poll taxes. Federal courts have struck down those sections as illegal under the U.S. Constitution, but the words are still there.

Most voters likely will shrug when they see the amendments at the end of the ballot Nov. 2, and many people will ignore them, predicted Brad Moody, a political scientist at Auburn University Montgomery.

"To most voters, it's just something that happens. They don't get too excited about it," Moody said.

Thomas Corts, president of Samford University and a long-time advocate of a new state constitution, said it makes no sense to micromanage state and local government through the constitution, which should provide a broad framework that lets the Legislature and local governments pass detailed laws.

Pointing to the 35 amendments on the ballot this fall, Corts said, "The absurdity of trying to run the whole state by amendments to the constitution is just pointing itself out."

Corts warned that the longer legal documents get, the more complicated, confusing and prone to legal dispute they tend to be. "We all know things that get long can bamboozle you."

Corts said he hopes voters eventually will tire of long ballots and push lawmakers to create a constitutional convention or approve some other way to get a new, streamlined constitution that hands more power to local governments.

"It'll all end when we get about 1,200 to 1,300 amendments and we're struggling over what these things mean," Corts said.

Alabama's 103-year-old constitution puts a leash on county governments. As a rule, they must get the approval of state lawmakers and then voters to rewrite the constitution before they can raise taxes or zone property, change retirement plans for sheriffs, build industrial sites for companies or do a host of other things.

Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana, said those roadblocks may stay in place awhile longer, since they help state lawmakers who enjoy that power and big companies that want to keep taxes low.

"Maybe one day we'll get fed up with all this and quit letting the money barons protect their pocketbooks and give everyone home rule and move on," Hill said.

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