Riley: Now is the time to revamp constitution
Jonathan McElvy, BNI News Service
Editor's Note: This is the second story in a series addressing Alabama's fiscal crisis and how government officials are tightening the state's financial belt through massive and immediate agency cuts. The series also details efforts to rewrite the state's 1901 Constitution and how officials hope to offset a $500 million shortfall in revenues.
Here we go again.
As one political analyst in Alabama has dubbed it, the "whipping boy" is strapped to the hitching post and everybody's in line to take a swat.
On at least 10 previous occasions, governors and state leaders have honed in on the "whipping boy" – Alabama's 1901 Alabama Constitution – in an effort to either rewrite or reform the document. Gov. Emmet O'Neal, who tackled the job just 14 years after the document was written, made the first reform efforts in 1915. Today, Gov. Bob Riley has made no secret about his desire to reform the 102-year-old document.
This time, "Failure is not an option," said Pepper Bryars, Riley's deputy press secretary.
The public seems to agree.
According to a Birmingham News/Hunstville Times poll, 56 percent of Alabamians recently said they support a rewrite of the state constitution, even though the latest effort to change the constitution does not seek a complete rewrite.
Maybe more important – for the Riley cause, at least – is specific data from that poll.
Of the 400 registered voters polled, 74 percent support limited home rule; 70 percent support tax reform if it leads to better schools and improved services from the government.
As that survey indicates, momentum for reforming the state constitution has snowballed in the past three years. Whereas Alabama political platforms in the past focused on education, crime prevention and infrastructure, political platforms today add constitutional reform to that list.
"The issue has come into the forefront of political debate," said Kathy Bowden, executive director of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform. "In the past, I think there has been a lack of education. The more people hear about it, and the more they decide it makes a difference in their lives, they're for it."
The need to reform or rewrite the 1901 Alabama Constitution doesn't make for great barbershop banter. To some, old racist language in the document is embarrassing, though not life-threatening. Those amendments with racial implications have long been ruled unconstitutional, and linger only as reminders of the document's checkered past.
Maybe the second greatest argument against the current constitution is the document's length: 661 amendments in a spellbinding volume of more than 700 pages. Unless you're toting the document around in a book bag all day, though, size hardly seems like a reason to spend the money it would take to revise the document.
"It's hard to explain why we need the change," said Bowden, whose organization began in 2000. "You can be as simple or as complex as you want to be."
In simple terms, Bowden said change is necessary to improve life in this state.
"If you want better schools, you're interested in a new constitution," she said. "If you think there ought to be better financial management in government, then you're interested in a new constitution. If you think the government ought to be better organized, if you want a better job, if you want to make sure there's a good foundation for your kids so your child will stay in Alabama beyond high school or college, then you're interested in a new constitution."
Even still, those answers hardly appease the inquisitive citizen. How can changing an antiquated document really make life better in Alabama?
There is an answer.
Over the past two months, Gov. Riley has turned his staff in to a group of auditors, looking for ways to cut expenses from state government.
"Gov. Riley… has no military experience, but he runs an operation like a general," said Bryars, the deputy press secretary. "He has told his staff, his troops, to focus on saving every dime we can; to pretend you're never going to get any additional revenue, because if you do, you'll take your eyes off the ball."
To some extent, that strategy has worked. Riley and his staff have met the projected $500 million revenue shortfall facing the state with expenditure cuts of nearly $130 million. That money, it seems, could go a long way toward solving the prison funding crisis, or maybe even slash the number of pink slips teachers receive next year.
Not so fast, says the 1901 Alabama Constitution.
In Alabama, 92 percent of all state funds are earmarked for certain agencies. In more simple terms, $100 saved in the tourism department capital improvement fund can only be spent in the tourism department's capital improvement fund.
"The governor is saving the money within these different agencies, but because it's earmarked, it has to stay in that agency," Bryars explained. "We're having a crisis in the prison system, a crisis in the public safety system, but the money we're saving in the Department of Tourism and Travel cannot be sent to help immediately with the Department of Corrections.
"Even though we can save money, the [constitution] prevents us from prioritizing the money," Bryars said.
While some arguments against the 1901 Alabama Constitution seem petty, using money wisely does not fall into that category. And if Alabamians want a more efficient government, constitution reform appears vital.
"In the past, people just haven't trusted Alabama's government," Bowden said. "The whole thing Gov. Riley is working on with accountability, that's absolutely it. People do not trust the governor or the legislature, given this history of this state."
As citizens build a trust for state government, Bowden said, they'll better understand the pressing need to reform the Alabama Constitution.