In SJR82, state Sen. Marsh, R-Anniston, proposes establishing a 16-member commission “to consider reviewing the Constitution” and then “create a public awareness of and educate the public on the changes recommended.” The final task is turning over the reforms to the state Legislature. The deadline for the commission’s work is 2014.
Points to Marsh, the Senate’s president pro tem, for tackling an important issue. The 1901 Constitution has been a stone around the state’s neck for so long that reformers are willing to try anything.
Marsh is showing himself to be politically aware of the pitfalls. For the commission’s ideas to become a reality, however, more political considerations ought to be made.
The commission’s membership should look more like Alabama in all its diversity and less like Montgomery’s political players. As proposed, commission members and their appointees will be almost exclusively Republican. The constitutional rewrite should not be conceived by this era’s fat cats; the commission should represent all of the state’s wide diversity, including race, gender, income level, ideology, region and background.
The document written by 1901’s powerbrokers put us in the mess we are currently in. It is a product of its time and values. Alabama’s powerful were looking to reassert themselves after the Civil War and Reconstruction. As a result, they rigged a system where their power and influence was secured. Alabamians without a seat at the table were cut out.
The most racist and cruel of the Constitution’s dictates have been rendered a dead letter thanks to forces largely outside of the state. Yet, what remains is the core of a fetid system that makes it (a.) hard to develop the state’s economy, (b.) difficult for a local government to exert local control over local matters and (c.) nearly impossible to reform itself.
That’s not to say that the Constitution is an out-of-control monster acting independently of its masters. The Constitution’s beneficiaries quite enjoy the status quo. For 100 years they have played the Alabama public to perfection, trotting out scare stories each time reform is placed on the table. Their fear-mongering is as predictable as it is untrue. A new Constitution will remove God from the state government. Or, a new Constitution will take away your rights. Or, the trump card, constitutional reform means your taxes will go up.
Marsh seems determined to avoid the tax trap. “Taxation is excluded from the consideration by the commission at this time,” his proposal declares.
It’s not a bad idea. While the tax system within the Constitution is upside-down, plenty of other sections of the document need rewriting. Alabama didn’t create the world’s longest constitution merely on tax policy. Many of the 800-plus amendments meddle in what are purely local affairs. Others make it unnecessarily difficult for a community to develop its local economy or for the Legislature to smartly budget its resources.
The unfair tax code will eventually need addressing. The bigger point is Alabama needs a new constitution that delivers democracy to the state.
A more diverse constitutional commission will make that work easier.