Mitchell: Rewrite needed, not likely

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 17, 2002

BNI News Service

State Sen. Wendell Mitchell believes in rewriting the state Constitution ­ and he believes in a people’s convention to accomplish it.

He’s just not exactly betting it will happen this year.

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"First of all, I think the people should write the Constitution," Mitchell, D-Luverne, said. "The concern I have, and it probably can be remedied, is that we need safeguards to make sure the people who serve as delegates are not lobbyists, are not people who serve special interests."

The efforts toward Constitution reform in this session of the Legislature are twofold: bills that rewrite some minor aspects of the 1901 document, and a bill that would put the question of whether to hold a convention on the November ballot.

The House has passed six rewritten articles ­ a process, led by state Sen. Jack Venable, D-Tallassee, that they have been through for the past four years.

Those articles, though, don’t touch the meat of what most of those clamoring for Constitution reform want to see, such as home rule and tax reform.

"For the most part, that’s not where your ‘poring over’ needs to be," Mitchell said. "But it’s a start, I think. A lot of this effort was initiated by the hue and cry from newspaper editorials."

The Senate has over the past four years declined to pass those articles ­ which state Sen. Ted Little, D-Auburn, also calls "non-controversial."

But last week, the Senate’s constitution committee passed all but one of the articles, which could set them up for a full Senate vote soon.

In the meantime, said Little, the Senate’s rules committee has called for a rare public hearing on the issue ­ including the House articles and Gov. Don Siegelman’s bill for a constitutional convention referendum.

"What’s happening is, you’re going to see a major public hearing in Montgomery pertaining to the governor’s resolution," said Little, who supports the governor’s bill calling for a referendum on the issue.

"What is comes to is a legislative decision as to which is the priority way to go," Little said, "whether to have a constitutional convention made up of delegates elected by voters, or to have the Legislature rewrite it."

But despite heavy pressure from many of the state’s larger newspapers, it’s debatable whether anything will happen on the issue this year ­ an election year.

Siegelman has made constitutional reform one of his main issues, taking his message on the road as he ties education funding to rewriting the document.

And only one gubernatorial candidate, Republican Tim James, has come out against any kind of revision. Even Lt. Gov. Steve Windom, the possible GOP frontrunner and a Siegelman rival, is for a people’s convention.

Mitchell believes the pressure may not be enough to get meaningful progress toward reform this year.

"My prediction is this will not be settled this year," Mitchell said. "It’s going to take a new Legislature. It’s not going to happen with this one."

However, Mitchell said the resolution to put the question of holding a state convention on the November ballot could pass during this session. He would support such a resolution, but he wonders what some voters will think of it.

"Most everybody’s going to vote ‘yes,’" he said. "The thinking person will ask

‘What are the rules going to be?’ I wish it had more meat on the bone."

Siegelman is now supporting a convention plan proposed by the grassroots group Alabama Citizens for Constitution Reform, but that plan does not exclude lobbyists and elected officials from serving as delegates ­ something neither Mitchell nor Little would like to see.

But Little, who represents Lee, Russell and Tallapoosa counties, believes the pressure from ACCR and others will push some action during this election year.

"I feel that something’s going to happen," he said. "With the pressure that is building up, people are concerned about the Constitution. It’s not their No. 1 issue, but I hope there is an overwhelming belief that we have to do something."