For a moment, let’s assume a few things about the Birmingham metro area.
That the Birmingham mayor and council are the best we’ve had in generations.
That the Jefferson County Commission is in peak form.
And, finally, that cooperation among the many municipalities in our metro area is at an all-time high.
Things are better around here–and there are signs of hope. However, even in a perfect “metro” world we would collectively still have a huge millstone around our necks: A lack of home rule in Alabama. Our state is one of the few in the U.S. that gives up very little power to local governments.
As with most of Alabama’s structural issues, we can trace this one back to the 1901 Constitution–an international embarrassment. It’s one of the worst in the world and is by far the longest in the world (approximately three times longer than India’s, the longest national constitution in the world). Our constitution is about twelve times longer than the average state constitution.
Alabama’s constitution has been amended over 900 times in 118 years. By contrast, the U.S. Constitution has been amended only seventeen times since the first 10 amendments, the original Bill of Rights, were adopted in 1791 (almost 230 years ago).
Why and how is this possible in our state? Limited home rule is the main reason. About seventy-five percent of those 900+ amendments cover issues directly related to specific cities or counties. The 482nd Amendment provides just one crazy example: “The Limestone county commission is hereby authorized with or without charge to provide for the disposal of dead farm animals and the excavating of human graves”.
Alabama voters are familiar with these countless obscure amendments that show up on their ballots, but I doubt that they understand the significance of such an irritant. The Alabama state government holds all the trump cards.
According to Dr. Wayne Flynt (Alabama in the Twentieth Century), “To accomplish virtually any change in a county, officials after 1901 had to hold a public hearing, gain the consent of the local legislative delegation, have a bill introduced in the legislature amending the constitution…”
And on and on. You get the picture. Elite Alabamians had codified their long-term dominance over local officials through the 1901 Constitution.
And, from PARCA (the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama): “Most state and national constitutions lay out broad principles, set the basic structure of the government, and impose limitations on governmental power. Such broad provisions are included in the Alabama Constitution. However, Alabama’s constitution delves into the details of government, requiring constitutional amendments for basic changes that would be made by the Legislature or by local governments in most states…”
Also from PARCA: “Amendments establish pay rates of public officials and spell out local property tax rates. A recent amendment, Amendment 921, grants municipal governments in Baldwin County the power to regulate golf carts on public streets.”
Many of you may remember that, in August 2015, Birmingham approved a new ordinance that would incrementally raise the minimum wage of city workers to $10.10. In early 2016 (about a week before the first increment would have kicked in), the Alabama legislature passed a bill to pre-empt the raise. It was fast-tracked and passed both houses within two weeks after it was introduced. No raise for 40,000 Birmingham workers. And our Birmingham mayor and council could do nothing about it.
For many generations, Birmingham-area leaders have been blamed for holding us back. And they usually deserve it because of their frustrating lack of vision and/or common sense. However, until the Alabama Constitution is replaced, ALL of Alabama–including the Birmingham metro region–will be suffocated by a system designed for failure.
It’s pathetic and embarrassing that we’ve operated this way for 118 years. Will it ever end?
And I can’t end any examination of the Constitution of 1901 without bringing up the saddest, most egregious aspect of the document: It is thoroughly racist. Upon being elected president of the convention, John Knox gave a speech in which he, with no hesitation or sense of irony, stated that one of the primary purposes of the new constitution was “to establish white supremacy in this State”. I can’t comprehend why no organization has challenged the document in Federal court on racist grounds. NAACP, SCLC, Southern Poverty Law Center, where are you? You could win this fight in federal court and force Alabama to adopt a new constitution.
Such a scenario would fit us perfectly: In Alabama, we only do the right thing when forced to by the Federal government.
Bill Ivey is a retired coach and History/Government/Economics teacher. He’s currently president of the Birmingham Basketball Academy, which he founded in 2013.