Governor brings campaign for reform to TES

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 7, 2002

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Gov. Don Siegelman brought his campaign for constitutional reform to Troy Elementary on Wednesday, urging support of the local control amendment being considered in the Legislature.

"I’m asking you to call your legislators, your senator and ask them to vote to get the local control bill out of committee," the governor told a group of community leaders and educators gathered at the school.

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The amendment would allow local communities to set policies, standards and procedures for their districts as well as allow local communities to fund education without going through the Legislature. It is part of the governor’s larger campaign for constitutional reform.

"If the people in Brundidge want to put a laptop on every desk, why should they have to go to Montgomery for approval?" Siegelman said.

He attributes that need for "Montgomery approval" to the 1901 state Constitution, which centralized power in Alabama by requiring legislative approval for tax issues and more. "It puts all the power in Montgomery," Siegelman said.

"If the people in Brundidge had the right to put that measure on the ballot, it would drive these people (in Montgomery) crazy," he added. But, "if we can have more local control that means we can have more money for schools."

The issue hits close to home in Troy and Pike County, where a March 12 special election is set for renewal of a school tax. The tax ­ 10.7 mills for city schools, 9.7 mills for county schools ­ provides nearly

$1.1 million annually for each district. The tax has been in place for more than 50 years, and is used for basic operating needs of the schools. The upcoming vote would mean a 29-year renewal.

Local support for the measure is strong, and Siegelman said that type of initiative is in line with his push for local control.

"If those things come from the grassroots, rather than from Montgomery, we can do more for our schools," he said after the press conference.

And doing more for the schools is a major concern of the first-term governor. Since his term as lieutenant governor, Siegelman has worked to eliminate portable buildings at public schools in Alabama; to boost academic standards and accountability; and most recently, to end the practice of proration.

"When you’re talking to people about education, sometimes it feels like you’re hitting brick walls," Siegelman said. "Many of the people don’t get into the schools (to see what’s going on)

but we’re beginning to make headway with the general public.

"Finally, Alabama has established education as a top priority, clearly and hands-down."

But simply establishing that priority isn’t enough, he said. "We’re stopping Alabama from moving backwards, yes, and we have to stop that

but that is not my goal. Our goal has to be to move Alabama forward, and frankly that does mean we need more money for education."

The governor believes that money should come from closing corporate tax loopholes in the Constitution ­ loopholes which he says allowed 619 companies with more than $850 million in total income to pay absolutely no taxes on that income during 2000.

"You can drive any place along the Troy Highway and stop in any business and they’re going to be paying more than any of these big companies," Siegelman said.

Getting those big companies to pay their fair share will require a major overhaul of the 1901 Constitution, he said. And that must be done without the influence of the special interest groups which Siegelman has repeatedly said control the Legislature. He is backing the proposal of the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, which calls for a constitutional convention with delegates comprised of representatives from each of the House districts. He continues to push, though, for provisions restricting elected officials and lobbyists from participating and for having the convention in some location other than Montgomery.

"There’s a very good legislator, who I don’t have any doubt is pure of heart, who said that if you vote for Siegelman’s proposal you’re going to have Bubbas, Juniors and Shorties writing the state Constitution.

"Well, I want the Bubbas, the Juniors, the Shorties and the Willie Maes writing the Constitution, because they’re going to have the courage to close the corporate loopholes."

The Alabama Legislature must vote to put the call for a constitutional convention on the general election this fall. "Let’s get it to a vote," the governor said. "Let’s give the people a chance to rewrite the Constitution. If we don’t like it, we can always vote it down and we’re right back where we started."