Alabama voters will get the chance this fall to rid their state constitution of antiquated references to the “telegraph” and use of the gold standard and eliminate racist language adopted during the time of Jim Crow laws that were added to keep black voters disenfranchised.
These proposed changes on the ballot this fall are just the start of a more comprehensive effort to overhaul a 1901 constitution that has grown to close to 900 pages, easily the longest in the nation and the world.
The reason its constitution is so long is because Alabama is one of two states that don't give counties local power to manage their own resources, known as “home rule.” So every time a county wants to enact zoning restrictions or raise taxes, for example, the legislature has to pass a law doing so and then put the question on the ballot. If it's approved, then the change goes into the state constitution.
“It doesn't make sense here,” says Nancy Ekberg, spokeswoman for the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, a nonprofit that has been a leading force behind constitutional reform in Alabama. “But we are stuck with it because the framers of the Constitution wanted to keep all control in the hands of the powerful in Montgomery, our capitol. They were out to restrict power and they did it so effectively that it holds true even today, 111 years later.” she says.
Texas is the only other state that doesn't give counties home rule, she says.
Craig Baab, a senior fellow at Alabama Appleseed, a nonprofit that also has been advocating for constitutional reform for years, estimates that about half of the legislature's annual work load is consumed by this local legislation. But lawmakers typically approve on average just half, thus “requiring the county to return the next year to get its local business enacted.”
Besides taxes and zones, these local amendments, which make up more than 60 percent of the state constitution, deal with such things as solid waste fees, probate judges salaries and even the disposal of dead farm animals and human remains.
Various state politicians likewise have pressed for a more updated constitution, including Forrest Hood "Fob" James Jr., in his first term as governor of Alabama as a Democrat in 1979 (he was then later elected governor in 1994 as a Republican). But the question was how to do it? Some wanted to hold a constitutional convention where the entire document would be overhauled. But those efforts got nowhere.
Instead, a Constitution Revision Commission was created last year and was charged with coming up with recommendations to update the constitution piecemeal. “This is the most efficient and transparent way to do it, article by article,” says state Representative Paul DeMarco, the commission's vice chair.
State tax issues are off the table for fear the commission would never be able to agree on anything, derailing the entire effort.
Headed by former Democratic Governor Albert Brewer, the commission started with the least controversial issues, namely updating provisions on banking (Constitutional Amendments 9) and corporations (Constitutional Amendments 10). DeMarco introduced the legislation removing references to the gold standard and telegraphs that passed both houses and will become law if voters approve them.
A bill sponsored by state Senator Arthur Orr calls for removing racist unconstitutional language from the constitution passed and likewise will become law if voters approve it (Constitutional Amendment 4) in November.
As Stateline has reported, this isn't the first time voters there will decide to remove references to school segregation and poll taxes. In 2004, voters narrowly defeated a similar amendment. There was some concern in 2004 that certain language regarding education could lead to higher property taxes if courts interpreted the provision to require more spending on education.
While voters don't pay a poll tax in Alabama and schools are no longer segregated by race, both references are still included in the constitution. In 2004 and last year, lawmakers passed legislation putting the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot. The education language that raised concerns in 2004 is not contained in this year's amendment.
These three amendments are among several measures expected on the ballot this November. But two months before that, as Stateline has reported, voters on September 18 will consider a constitutional amendment that would transfer nearly $200 million for the 2013 fiscal year and hundreds of millions of dollars more in the following two years to the state's troubled general fund from a trust fund supported by offshore oil and gas revenue.
Some supporters of constitutional reform worry the September vote will draw most voter attention this year and that voters won't really understand the commission's measures presented in November and will just vote “no,” threatening the overall effort. The banking and corporation amendments are not controversial, says Representative DeMarco. If they are defeated, it could be difficult to get the more contentious matters dealing with home rule on the ballot later and approved, he says.