Bailey Thomson Professor
Journalism Department
Box 870172
University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
Tel: 205-348-8617
Fax: 205-348-2780

 

Tuscaloos Rotary Club
Jan. 7, 2003

Good Enough for Alabama

By Bailey Thomson

Over the holidays, our family was blessed by the arrival of a young house guest from Costa Rica. Our church, First Presbyterian, is sponsoring her visit.

She is here for surgery that will help correct the injuries and disfigurement she suffered more than two years ago. Because of that terrible incident, she now wears a mask and a floppy hat to conceal her features.

Three doctors in our church have volunteered to treat her. Many more people have worked hard to bring her here.

Our guest is overwhelmed by this outpouring of love. She also expresses delight that people are kind to her in stores and other public places. They do not point or make fun of her, as sometimes happens in her native land.

I relate this story simply to underscore a generalization: Alabamians are by and large “good folks.”

They will help you if you are down. They empathize with suffering. And they are warm to strangers, even from a faraway land.

Unfortunately, we cannot offer such high praise for our democracy. For reasons that have much to do with history and divisive politics, our public life falls short in many critical areas. It neither satisfies our needs nor motivates us to higher achievement. As a result, we often fare poorly in comparisons even with neighboring states, some of which have left us far behind in both civic and economic development.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports, for example, that Alabama lost 12,200 people during the last two years. Yet we are the geographical heart of a booming region. Why are people going elsewhere?

Gov.-elect Bob Riley often points to progressive states such as North Carolina to explain how Alabama might change under enlightened government. By contrast, I know of no politicians outside of our state who hold up Alabama as an inspiration.

This disparity between the basic goodness of our people and the poor quality of our public sector invites a fundamental question: What can we do in this generation to bring our beloved state into line with at least the top performing states within our region?

Three years ago, the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama asked a group of us to think along these lines. What single thing might we advocate to make a great difference for Alabama? Our response was to call for a new constitution to replace Alabama’s 1901 version.

Why this remedy?

Quite simply, we saw this antiquated and mean-spirited document as the major impediment to good government and a strong democracy. Unlike many of our more successful neighbors, Alabama has largely failed to modernize its basic charter. Instead, our state had resorted endlessly to patching a constitution that was obsolete the day it began. Many of the worst features, meanwhile, remain firmly embedded.

Our chamber group followed the good work of others over the decades who called for comprehensive reform. For example, Judge Conrad Fowler, who is now retired in Tuscaloosa, headed a commission in the early 1970s that proposed a model constitution. Unfortunately, our Legislature failed to seize that great opportunity, with the exception of adopting a new Judicial Article in 1973, which voters ratified.

Our group could count on something new: Support for reform was growing within business circles. In fact, business leaders often were far ahead of the politicians and most academics in sensing the possibilities once our state got its house in order.

To a large degree, that support from business people helped germinate the seed we planted through the chamber’s auspices. In less than three years, constitutional reform has grown from an idea into a grassroots movement across the state.

It has strong and, as far as I know, unanimous support from the state’s daily newspapers. And it now ranks high on virtually every list of top issues facing our state.

Of equal importance, public opinion surveys show that a majority of Alabamians say they favor constitutional reform. Moreover, Alabama's voters in November approved by an extraordinary 81 percent an amendment that guarantees their right to ratify any new constitution.

Thus I believe the first stage has been successful. None of us on the chamber’s committee had any illusions that public awareness alone would achieve our mission. But we knew we had to build a strong case for reform, as well as create an organization that would carry that message to the people.

Today that group is Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform. With the help of some outstanding leaders such as Dr. Thomas Corts of Samford University and former Congressman Jack Edwards of Mobile, ACCR has won hearts and minds across the state, as evidenced by the strong support it enjoys from its more than 2,000 members.

Having laid the groundwork, ACCR is now ready to assist Gov. Riley and the new Legislature in the next stage of this essential work. From now on, we are likely to see reform broken into its key components and dealt with in that fashion.

Many of us had hoped the Legislature would call a constitutional convention. Philosophically speaking, I like the idea of citizens electing delegates to organize their government and protect their rights.

The Legislature, however, has resisted giving up its power to another elected body. Mr. Riley, meanwhile, says he prefers that a blue-ribbon group draft the proposed changes and submit them to lawmakers.

So I think we must work within the realm of what is possible. ACCR already has submitted a number of names for the governor to consider in appointing his new commission. More important, we have created an invaluable model.

At the suggestion of former Gov. Albert Brewer, ACCR formed its own Citizens Commission for Constitutional Reform last year, chaired by Sec. of State Jim Bennett. Two dozen citizens met four times around the state to deliberate and invite public comments.

This commission included Alabamians from many different professions and political philosophies. They shared, however, a deep commitment to developing the best ideas for improving our state’s civic sphere.

Later this month, the ACCR commission will present its recommendations to Mr. Riley. As part of that work, ACCR asked our state’s leading scholars in this field to conduct studies on various issues, ranging from home rule to tax reform and economic development. The work they have produced marks a new milestone in scholarship on Alabama’s constitution.

While ACCR has been busy with this project, other groups have pushed to modernize our system. Again, we are seeing strong leadership from within the business sector.

Consider tax reform. In many ways, it has been the most difficult issue, because those who defend the current system often have used it to frighten people into opposing all constitutional reforms.

Why is this? Because much of our regressive tax code is embedded in the state constitution.

The constitution goes into great detail, for example, in describing the income tax and the property tax. These taxes are underutilized mainly because it would take constitutional amendments to change them. State and local governments have turned instead to the regressive sales tax. The constitution is largely silent on this method, which explains why rates have soared to nine and ten percent.

These circumstances make for what is probably the least fair tax system in the nation, with the burden falling disproportionately upon the poor. This system also has failed to meet our state’s basic needs, particularly with public schools.

As the Public Affairs Council likes to point out, Alabama’s state and local governments collect the lowest tax revenues in the nation, when population differences are factored into the comparisons. Thus if Alabama collected taxes at just the rates Mississippi imposes, our state would have $800 million more each year for schools and other services.

Indeed, a reckoning is at hand, as our state government projects that its budget will fall $250 million in the red this year. Even higher deficits are expected in 2004.

All the more reason, then, to push ahead for a tax system that is both fair and effective.

The leadership comes from Tuscaloosa’s own Bill O’Conner and a group of top corporate executives. They have amassed a war chest of several million dollars to take this fight to the Legislature and then to the electoral arena.

Their efforts are light years from the old coalition of Birmingham business interests and Black Belt planters who were largely responsible for the 1901 constitution. They wanted low taxes along with cheap and docile labor. The document we have today still reflects their mentality. It even prohibits the state from engaging in internal improvements.

Enlightened business people in 2003 understand the necessity of investing in our people along with our physical infrastructure. These men and women are hardly glassy-eyed idealists. Every one has said they are willing to pay higher taxes in return for assurances the money will be spent wisely. Here is an opportunity finally to bring our system into line with modern expectations and needs.

By an equal measure, we are long overdue for decentralizing government so that counties may finally govern themselves if they so choose. The 1901 constitution put power in the hands of a relatively few in Montgomery, so distrustful were these framers of democratic government. Today, we see the absurd outcome in the form of dozens of amendments that regularly seek to patch the old constitution.

Our counties, for example, lack the power to pass ordinances. Without the Legislature’s permission, they cannot perform even some basic tasks of government, such as pest control. Worse, they do not have planning powers that would help assure orderly and cost-effective growth. In fact, Alabama is the only Southeastern state that denies its counties this critical tool.

Mr. Riley already has said our counties need more local authority. In advocating home rule, he will be up against some legislators, particularly in rural areas, who do not want to surrender their virtually dictatorial powers over their counties. He may also face opposition from the powerful Farmers Federation, which heretofore has resisted both home rule and a more equitable tax system.

But I believe Mr. Riley was on target recently when he advised Alfa to get ready for some new ideas. It may take a conservative Republican to break this long-term impasse and finally push Alabama into a modern frame of mind.

So I am hopeful, as we enter this new quadrennium, that we are going to see some major constitutional reforms. As is usually the case in public affairs, we may have to go about this work in unexpected ways. And there will always be new challenges.

But for the first time, at least that I can remember, we are having a genuine conversation in our state about the future. We are learning to deliberate as citizens about our needs and choices, as opposed to recoiling in fear and postponing the inevitable.

Bob Riley is taking office in financially difficult times, but what an opportunity he has to capitalize on these rising expectations. What an opportunity he has to be the kind of bold and imaginative leader that so many people yearn to see in Alabama.

I want us citizens to help Gov. Riley reach those goals. And I want Alabama to take its place in our region as not only a state where good people live but also as a good state in which to live.

So let’s resolve at this start of this propitious New Year to finish the job we started almost three years ago. Our state deserves it. Our community deserves it.

Most of all our citizens deserve it.

We can be a beacon not only for one grateful visitor from Costa Rica, but for people everywhere who have a passion for democracy.

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