'It's a thick book' — Reform movement is afoot to rewrite the Alabama Constitution
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By Chris Norwood

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Alabama’s Constitution of 1901, the state’s current governing document, is the longest such charter on earth. None of the state constitutions from any of the other 49 states even come close. According to Wikipedia, it is twice as long as India’s constitution, which is currently the largest national governing document in the world.

Alabama’s constitution, and some of the serious problems it raises, is the subject of the documentary “It’s A Thick Book,” by Homewood resident Lewis Lehe. The various segments of the film are framed by Lehe speaking on the phone to various government agencies trying to obtain a hard copy of the constitution. The title comes from an offhand remark made by an employee in the attorney general’s office when Lehe asked for a copy to be mailed to him, since he does not have Internet access.

The film has been endorsed by Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, an organization that was formally launched in Tuscaloosa in April 2000. In August of that year, Lincoln City Councilman Kurt Kuykendall drafted a resolution calling for reform, which was approved by the Talladega County Commission and the councils in Lincoln, Talladega and Oak Grove.

Kuykendall’s resolution characterized the state constitution as “autocratic” and “antiquated.”

“(It) has been amended over 700 times, and is ambiguous and designed so as to grant all powers to the state. State legislators seemingly spend more time on local issues than they do on state business, and local governments, counties and cities are unduly harmed in fulfilling its responsibilities to meet the concerns and needs of the people they are elected to serve by this all-powerful state government,” it continued. “Selfish interest lobbyists control and motivate the state legislative body, thereby causing our state ranking to be less progressive than any other state in the South, and for 100 years, we the citizens of Alabama have been made to suffer this humiliation.”

A meeting at the Talladega County Courthouse shortly after the resolution was passed drew about 70 people, but many municipal officials were at a Department of Transportation Conference in Alexander City the same day and couldn’t attend. The momentum from that meeting never really went anywhere.

Kuykendall remains passionate about the issue, but says he is not particularly active in the push for reform anymore.

“The legislature is not going to give up the power they have,” Kuykendall said. “When you have power, you’re generally reluctant to turn it loose. It will take years.”

Kuykendall and ACCR both advocate creation of a new constitution through an elected convention, which would then submit the results to a popular vote.

“You can’t just let the legislature do it,” he said. “That’d be like putting the foxes in charge of the henhouse. “

Kuykendall also believes that Sen. Jim Preuitt arranged the Alex City meeting when he found out about the reform meeting in Talladega. “It was a deliberate act to cut participation,” he said. “We still got a good crowd, but the people we really needed to address it to weren’t there.”

The Populist Revolt

According to the film, the Constitution of 1901 arose out of what is often referred to as the “Populist Revolt” of the 1890’s. Up until this point, Alabama politics was dominated by the wealthy whites in the Democratic Party. But at the end of the 19th century, a coalition of blacks and poor whites working through the Jeffersonian Democrat or Populist Party actually presented a challenge to the established ruling elite, and may have actually won control of state government were it not for widespread election fraud. As Jacksonville State University historian Hardy Jackson pointed out in the film, “The saying used to be, we do have democracy in Alabama — they vote the way they want to, and we count them the way we want to.”

Thus, one of the primary objectives of the Convention of 1901 was to find a way to secure white supremacy by disenfranchising blacks while not running afoul of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bars any racial qualifiers in voter registration.

The final result was an escalating series of criteria, beginning with a poll tax of $1.50 — which in 1901 was enough to feed a family for a week, and more money than most sharecroppers ever saw in one place — and a literacy requirement. Starting in 1902, an elector had to prove that he had served in the U.S. or Confederate military during wartime or was a direct descendant of someone who had, and then the following year had to be either the owner of or the husband of the owner of at least 40 acres of real property or real property assessed at a minimum of $300.

Ironically, the referendum on the new Constitution failed outside the Black Belt, where the populist movement drew most of its strength.

According to the DVD, the vote outside the Black Belt was 76,000 against and 72,000 for.

In the Black Belt counties of Dallas, Hale and Wilcox, 18,000 people voted for the new constitution and only 500 voted against. Those three counties at the time had a total white population of 5,600.

The suffrage requirements of the 1901 Constitution have been voided by federal law and court rulings but, as the movie contends, serious problems remained.

The primary reason for the Alabama Constitution’s staggering length is that counties, in particular, are not granted any real legislative authority. All individual county matters are to be determined by the state legislature.

St. Clair County Commission Chairman Stan Bateman speaks to this issue at some length in “It’s A Thick Book.”

“I have to decide what the people who elected me want me to do, and then I have to put it into words for our legislative delegation. Then they take it to the Local Bill Committee, which isn’t really a committee at all, it’s just a room with a computer in it. All of the members of the delegation have to vote in favor of it just to get it out of committee.”

This is particularly maddening for Bateman, because St. Clair County’s delegation includes two senators and four representatives, only one of whom actually lives in St. Clair County.

If a local bill requires a referendum after it is passed by the legislature, it must pass both houses unanimously to be voted on locally. Otherwise, local issues must be voted on statewide.

For example, Bateman said, in 2004, a proposal for the city of Trussville to annex a portion of St. Clair County was put on the statewide ballot. Although voters in Trussville and St. Clair County approved the measure, it was defeated statewide by a margin of 2-1, largely by people who didn’t know anything about the issues involved.

“Also,” Bateman said, “a lot of times the legislature has already decided what we’re going to do with some of the money before we actually get it. Say I’m asking for a new tax, and one of the members of the delegation decides he wants 20 percent of that money to go to the senior center, and another one says okay, but I want 20 percent to go to the sheriff’s office, too,” he explained.

The problem is made worse still by the fact that the legislature is only in session for three months out of the year. If a need arises after the session adjourns, according to the movie, it can be a minimum of nine months before any action can be taken to address it.

The number of amendments stems directly from the lack of home rule, which is not spelled out explicitly in the constitution, but is not granted, and is therefore largely non-existent.

According to Auburn historian Wayne Flint, there are 100 constitutional amendments dealing exclusively with the salaries of an elected official in one jurisdiction only. Another 18 amendments allow bingo games for charitable purposes in one location only.

Another factor in the ever-growing document’s tremendous length is the fact that Alabama’s tax code is embedded in the constitution, meaning that any changes will require amendments. Most other states leave tax policy in the legal code, where it is more easily amended.

Although Alabama has some of the lowest taxes in the nation, according to the film, the problem is with the type of taxes.

Property taxes in Alabama are generally low because large agricultural and timber property are assessed on use rather than actual market value, and are taxed differently than residential property.

Ideally, the film contends, property, income and sales taxes should be more or less equal. In Alabama, the overwhelming majority of tax money comes from sales taxes, which is a problem for several reasons:

Primarily, sales tax is unreliable and prone to drop when the general economy takes a downturn. Historically, this has led to pro-ration when projected income falls short of actual.

Sales taxes are also regressive, meaning that those with the lowest incomes will pay out a larger portion of their money in sales taxes, since sales tax represents a larger percentage of the overall pie. Sales tax also covers only goods, such as food and medication, which poor people will have to buy first, rather than services, which represent a larger portion of the spending for wealthier people.

What To Do?

As Kuykendall indicated earlier, ACCR advocates calling a convention with elected delegates to draft a new constitution. Opponents of a convention general mention concern about “special interests” taking over the proceedings, but as the film points out, the centralization of all power with the legislature in Montgomery was actually meant to secure and make permanent the “special interests” of the day, meaning they only needed access to 140 legislators all in one building, rather than hundreds of municipal officials in 67 counties.

A recent effort to redact the current constitution, removing antiquated, racist language, failed a few years ago due to concerns that stripping language requiring segregated schools would create a right to a free education, which would then cause the courts to mandate tax increases without the required popular referendum. As a result, the segregationist language remains in place, although it is now unenforceable.

Other organizations have argued that a convention could possibly remove references to God or open the door to legalized gambling, although there is no reason to think elected delegates would actually do these things.

By the end of the film, Lehe has spoken with state officials in the offices of the governor, attorney general, secretary of state and, for reasons which are not entirely clear, the state Department of Transportation. He has listened to hours of advertising for the Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo on Dauphin Island and, at the end of the day, still cannot get anyone to send him a hard copy.

The last person he speaks with recommends that he look up ACCR, who might be able to provide him with a copy.

On the Web:

ACCR: www.constitutionalreform.org

“It’s A Thick Book:” http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4332178818631634021

About Chris Norwood
Chris Norwood is a staff writer for The Daily Home.

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