"On the surface, home rule seems non-controversial," said former Gov. Albert Brewer, who chaired the commission. “But when you get deeper, you see that there's a lot of opposition.”
The commission was created by the Alabama Legislature in 2011 to review and rewrite the entire 1901 constitution, piece by piece. The commission's revisions required approval by the Legislature, and passage by voters as amendments, before they could become part of the constitution. Last year, voters passed two of the commission's amendments, which reworded the document's obsolete articles on corporations and banking.
The commission’s is not the first effort to rewrite the 376,000-word constitution. Written by white leaders — one of them an Anniston attorney — at the turn of the 20th century who made no secret of their desire to disenfranchise black voters, the constitution still contains provisions calling for school segregation and a poll tax, even though those provisions haven't had legal force since the 1960s. It also contains nearly 900 amendments, with roughly a dozen new amendments facing voters every election year.
That profusion of amendments is due in large part to a lack of home rule by local governments. While cities have control over many aspects of government, Alabama's counties are largely governed from the state capital, with laws or amendments required to change county policies.
Advocates of constitutional reform had hoped the Constitutional Revision Commission would change that. For months, the commission debated home rule proposals. One would have created different classes of counties, based on population, with different powers. Another would have given county commissions power to pass local policies pending later approval by the Legislature. Yet another would have given counties the power to reject changes to local policy made by the Legislature.
No one proposed giving counties the power to raise taxes. The Legislature prohibited the commission from changing tax-related rules in the constitution.
In its final meeting at Samford University on Wednesday, the commission adjourned without adopting any of those proposals. Instead, commission members voted unanimously to send the Legislature recommendations on how they might grant the county commissions more "administrative powers."
"We're not offering a specific text on this proposal," said Samford University law professor Howard Walthall, who advised the commission. Walthall called the commission's proposal "recommendations at the concept level."
Home rule appeared on the commission's agenda several times in the past year, but commission members could never agree to bring the matter to a vote. Initially, the idea drew opposition from residents who felt home rule would open the door to taxation by counties. In later meetings, commission members seemed unable to agree on which proposal they should move forward with.
"This commission never got a handle on home rule in the traditional sense," Brewer said. For most Alabamians, he said, home rule means a chance to get obscure local issues off the ballot.
The commission has approved other changes that could make local control a little easier for counties. Over the summer, it approved a proposal that would make it tougher for the Legislature to put local issues on a statewide ballot, as opposed to a local ballot. On Wednesday, commission members approved changes that would require counties to advertise bills three weeks before they come to a vote. Counties are now require to advertise those bills for four weeks before a vote.
One member, Rep. Patricia Todd, said the advertising requirement itself amounted to an unfunded mandate. Local bills are often proposed by lawmakers instead of county commissioners, but county commissions often have to pay to advertise them, she said.
"Even though they're not proposing the legislation, and may not support the legislation, they have to pay the cost of an ad," she said.
Todd made a motion to eliminate the requirement that bills be advertised in print — as opposed to the Internet — a measure she said would save counties money. No one seconded the motion.
The commission also made other housecleaning changes Wednesday, such as moving regulations on swine, catfish and boll weevils from the legislative article of the constitution to a "miscellaneous" section.
"We didn't make drastic changes to the constitution," Brewer said. "We didn't feel drastic changes are necessary."
Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.