Bob Davis: Hey, Legislature — Help us help ourselves
Feb 09, 2014 | 3847 views |  0 comments | 28 28 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Guest watch from the balcony as the House opens the session on the first day of the Alabama Legislature on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, in Montgomery. Photo: Butch Dill/The Associated Press
Guest watch from the balcony as the House opens the session on the first day of the Alabama Legislature on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, in Montgomery. Photo: Butch Dill/The Associated Press
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Alabama’s dedicated souls fighting for a new state Constitution are constantly seeking new converts.

If we can only show our fellow Alabamians how the 1901 Constitution limits the state, the tireless reformers exclaim, then we can amass an army that will demand change.

The reform evangelists possess a wealth of evidence, including the 1901 Constitution’s racist beginnings, its vast inefficiencies that waste precious time and money, its top-down rule that severely limits local governments, its ugly version of crony capitalism and the nasty stain it’s left on our state’s reputation.

Getting rid of this monstrosity, this overly amended beast of a Constitution, ought to be easy once enough people see how it impedes progress. And this isn’t some dreamy, utopian version of progress. This is the sort that helps the state’s entrepreneurs, its educators, its blue-collar workers, its farmers and practically anyone else who wishes to see Alabama rise above its bottom-feeder rankings.

We note with sadness, however, that the reformers’ best efforts often fall short. Alabamians are saddled with a sorry history that has left far too many frozen in their tracks — unhappy with the current system but utterly fearful of any replacement.

Here’s a thought: Maybe our reformers could offer the state’s residents a chance to do a little role-playing. Maybe the path to progress is to invite Alabamians to imagine trying to govern a city with 20 tons of state Constitution sitting on their backs.

Here’s a for instance. Pretend you’re a city manager. Your city is losing population. It has weak public schools, too much poverty and, generally speaking, is operated as it was when its population was one-third larger.

Your job, Mr. or Ms. City Manager, is to make changes and make them fast. There’s little time to waste in drafting new policies to face the new reality.

Here’s the challenge. Doesn’t matter what the policies are, in most cases you’re going to have to get the approval of an elected body beyond the mayor and city council members who hired you.

To get anything really done, the city will have to go down to Montgomery, hat in hand. Please, dear Alabama lawmakers, our city would like to adjust Policy X.

Now, you are no longer dealing with a city council; you must win the approval of a majority of the 35-member state Senate and the 105-member state House of Representatives. The vast majority of these 140 lawmakers don’t live in your city, don’t have a vested stake in its prosperity and aren’t accountable to your city’s voters.

By the way, if just a single lawmaker from the county where you work objects, then your policy is almost surely sunk. One voice of dissent, and your idea won’t even get a vote.

That’s some system, eh? The dissenting lawmaker, whose district might not even touch your city, can stealthily override the wishes of a locally elected government.

Welcome to Alabama, a state that crows about its conservatism and then governs as anything but a conservative.

Allow me to explain. A central tenet of true conservatism is that decisions made at the level closest to the grassroots are generally the best. Alabama’s Constitution won’t allow it. It stifles local control in favor of a system that bottlenecks purely local decisions dealing with purely local areas in front of 140 legislators who effectively belong to the world’s largest city council. Think about that the next time you hear a candidate for the Legislature brag about protecting conservative values.

If a city wants to regulate payday lenders within city limits, for instance, it must first receive Montgomery’s blessing. Same goes for any number of rules, regulations and decisions that only apply to one city.

For Brian Johnson, Anniston’s city manager who arrived here less than five months ago after serving in a similar role in a Georgia city, this isn’t some classroom exercise. Johnson is receiving a crash course in how things are done in Alabama.

“It’s blowing my mind,” he said by phone Friday morning.

His appeal to the state Legislature from the city of Anniston: “Help us help ourselves. Get out of our way.”

The difference between Alabama and Georgia, he said, is that Peach State lawmakers didn’t “presume” to have all the answers to cities’ problems. They left the solutions to locally elected mayors and city council members who are directly accountable to local voters.

Sounds like Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform have a new convert.

Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or bdavis@annistonstar.com. Twitter: EditorBobDavis.
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