Reform battle heats up

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 14, 2002

BNI Newswire

The lobbying began as soon as spectators and participants walked into the Alabama House chamber Wednesday for a public hearing on a proposed constitutional convention.

Opponents of reform passed out bright green stickers reading "Keep our Constitution" while proponents of a convention wore stickers saying simply "Yes."

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But while the hearing, called by House Rules Committee Chairman Jack Venable, D-Tallassee, gave everyone who wished a chance to speak out, both sides had some big guns to state their cases.

Proponents, who were introduced by state Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, a House co-sponsor of legislation calling for a convention question on the November ballot, included Gov. Don Siegelman, former Gov. Albert Brewer and Secretary of State Jim Bennett.

Meanwhile, the Christian Coalition, the Eagle Forum and ALFA representatives spoke against a convention.

Most of the opponents of a convention were against any kind of major reform, although some, including Gary Palmer of the Alabama Family Alliance, said reform could be achieved through the amendatory process.

For proponents, who say the state needs a new Constitution in part to fund schools properly and to give local governments more control, the emphasis was simply on putting the question of a convention to a vote of the people.

"I’m here to represent the Bubbas and the Juniors and the Shorties in Alabama," said Siegelman, reusing a phrase he has used often since first publicly backing a convention in January. "I also represent the working families of Alabama."

"The Alabama Legislature has had 100 years to fix this document. They simply haven’t gotten there yet. I say give the people a chance. If we don’t like what the convention produces, we can vote it down."

Siegelman asked lawmakers to vote out of committee a House joint resolution to put the convention question on the ballot in November, the first step toward a convention.

But opponent Dante Piccini of Mobile warned proponents that a convention could become their own "Frankenstein, a Frankenstein that will leap off the table and devour you."

"Ask yourselves this question: ‘What is it I can’t do because the Alabama Constitution stands in my way?’" said Piccini, who was successful in getting Mobile County Republicans to sign a resolution against a convention.

But proponents of reform said the Constitution does stand in the way of local control.

"It’s one of the most frustrating things for a local official to have to come to Montgomery for approval," said Secretary of State Bennett, who previously served as a legislator. "I remember well all the local issues we were asked to consider. … This guidebook for governance is clearly losing coherence."

But opponents of reform said the current Constitution does the job of limiting government’s power.

Steve Gregory, an attorney for the ALFA Alabama Farmers Federation, one of the state’s most powerful lobbying groups, said the job of state constitutions is to limit the "powers of sovereign government."

"The longer (the Constitution) is coordinates with the limits on sovereign government," he said, answering critics who contend the 1901 document is too long.

Gregory also said he wants proponents to explain their arguments for a new Constitution.

"If it’s about taxes, let’s make that clear," he said. "If it’s about home rule, let’s make that clear.

Reform opponent John Giles, president of the Alabama Christian Coalition, said the constitution debate is similar to the fight over gambling three years ago.

"This whole debate is over raising taxes, legalizing gambling and unlimited home rule," said Giles, who doubted whether "average Alabamians" would give up their lives to devote to a constitutional convention.

Still, constitution reform proponents said putting the question of a convention to voters is the best way to gauge their opinions and give them a chance to decide.

"I can think of no more significant thing than to allow voters to decide on this issue," Bennett said.

"It’s time to bring this effort to the voters. I trust the people to do what is right."

Venable, who for the past decade or so has sponsored rewritten articles in the House, called the public hearing. After Wednesday’s nearly two-hour hearing, he said he was pleased with the turnout.

The House Rules Committee will vote on the proposed bill next Tuesday.