Constitutional reform rises to forefront

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 10, 2002

Staff Writer

Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman officially opened the 2002 Legislative Session Tuesday night with a speech filled with campaign-like promises, including a new constitution for the state.

But local lawmakers aren’t ready to commit to Siegelman’s challenge.

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During his State of the State address, which officially opened the Legislative Session, Siegelman attacked the 1901 Alabama Constitution.

"Alabama’s at a crossroads and we have a choice," Siegelman said. "We can do the same old things in the same old way or we can fight for a new beginning. I choose to fight."

In regards to the constitution, Siegelman said the "system didn’t make sense in 1901 and it, certainly, doesn’t make sense today. Enough is enough."

State Sen. Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne, said constitutional reform ­ which has been on legislative calendars before ­ is expected to be just one of the hot topics of discussion during the next 30 days.

"It is not unusual for big issues to be debated for several sessions before final action is taken," Mitchell said.

He said discussing issues over and over may seem like "a very inefficient way to do business, but I have learned in my long tenure in the legislature that it would be very easy to pass a

bad bill and it benefits everyone to see a large issue scrutinized and examined very carefully."

Last year, advocates of rewriting the 1901 Constitution of Alabama were pushed against a wall, bringing the issue to a standstill by the Alabama Senate. Actually, revision of the constitution has been mentioned by almost every governor since 1915.

"Until about two years ago, it was a non-issue among my constituents," Mitchell said of constitutional reform.

Since then, he has had "a large number" of constituents mention constitutional reform to him. but those individuals "generally have no fixed opinion about whether it should be changed or how it should be changed."

Like Mitchell, State Rep. Alan Boothe, D-Troy, has heard very little talk about the constitution outside of Montgomery.

"I haven’t had any of my constituents talk to me about it," Boothe said. "It doesn’t seem to be a burning issue with my constituents."

In talking with other representatives from Southeast Alabama, he gets the impression it is the same story in other areas ­ constituents are not expressing too many opinions when it comes to the constitution.

Mitchell said it is his opinion the media and current administration have made constitutional reform an issue in the past three years. Most arguments are not about the fact the constitution needs revisions; rather, they are about how the changes will be made. Some, like the governor, have been calling for a constitutional convention like the one during which the document that governs our state was written more than 100 years ago.

"I think a Constitutional Convention is the most representative way for the people to write the constitution," Mitchell said.

However, he also acknowledges some "pitfalls" by doing it that way.

He fears special interest groups will "probably spend money trying to get certain people elected who see their narrow point of view."

Boothe agrees there need to be changes, but he is still uncertain about how those changes should be made.

"You have to be careful before you change the document that governs our state," Boothe said. "Certainly, it needs some changes."

Over the years, that document has grown and is, now, almost 40 times as long as the United States Constitution.

Alabama’s constitution has 18 articles and more than 600 amendments with more being added each year. The state is adding amendment at a rather rapid pace ­ 48 in 1998 and 50 were on the ballot in 2000.

It has also been pointed out the constitutions of the United States, Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi, along with the original one written for Alabama, all fit inside the state’s current constitution with extra space to add another one or two, maybe three.

In addition to constitutional reform, budgets and other issues must be dealt with during what Mitchell expects to be a "lively session."

The legislative session, which can be a maximum of 30 days long, could last until April 2.