Proposal would curb statewide votes on county matters
by Tim Lockette
Aug 22, 2013 | 3106 views |  0 comments | 65 65 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY – On Election Day 2012, every voter in Alabama got a say on how land can be annexed in Baldwin County, who gets to tax residents of Lawrence County and who gets to run the water works in the city of Prichard.

The state's Constitutional Revision Commission is betting most Alabamians don't really want that power.

The commission, created by the Alabama Legislature to rewrite the constitution of 1901, voted today to approve a plan to make it harder to put county issues on a statewide ballot.

Former Gov. Albert Brewer, who chairs the commission, said most people would like to see fewer amendments.

"The view of the people generally would be that that number should be lower," he said.

Under the state constitution, most of Alabama's county governments have little power beyond the ability to repair roads. Counties often seek legislative approval for changes in local policy, and some of those changes require amendments to the constitution itself.

It's possible for a single county to vote on an amendment that affects that county only — but that can happen only if the amendment passes both houses of the Legislature unanimously. If a single legislator objects, the amendment goes to a statewide ballot. Critics say the system gums up the works of local government, making local changes harder to pass.

The Constitutional Revision Commission's proposal would make it a little tougher for lawmakers to bump a local amendment up to a statewide vote. Under the plan, a local amendment wouldn't appear statewide unless three senators or nine members of the House objected to it.

The idea had broad support on the 16-member commission, with some members saying they wished the measure had gone further.

"I feel pretty strongly that we should stay out of each other's business," said Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, a member of the commission. Todd said only lawmakers in an area affected by a local amendment should have a say in taking the amendment statewide.

Commission member Phillip Brown said there are reasons someone in a distant community might want a say on a local vote.

"You may have an issue with a company that's headquartered in Huntsville, but does business in Birmingham," he noted.

Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, cast the lone vote against the measure.

"When you talk about local constitutional amendments, you are talking about voting to exempt someone from the constitution," he said.

Taylor said he had doubts about allowing individual counties to make that decision on their own.

To take effect, the commission's proposal would have to pass the Legislature and then go to the voters as an amendment.

Today's vote marks the first time the commission has proposed a change related to home rule for local governments — an issue that, some say, is the commission's real reason for existence.

The current state constitution has been amended nearly 900 times, and is by far the longest state constitution in the country. Hundreds of those amendments cover local matters.

Few believe the Constitutional Revision Commission will seriously reduce the size of the document. But some constitutional reform advocates have held out hope that the commission will grant more control to local governments, thus curbing the proliferation of local amendments.

The commission first debated home-rule proposals nearly a year ago, but has yet to vote on a plan to give local governments more power. At today's meeting, Brewer said the commission's time to make a decision on home rule was running out.

"Probably the very issue that caused us to come into being is the issue that will not come into the discussion during our tenure, if we continue as we are," he said.

The commission did vote on other matters today. Commissioners approved proposals to change the constitution's article on impeachments, striking a phrase that allowed the state superintendent of schools to be impeached and adding state school board members to the list of officials who can face impeachment. The state school board is an elected body, and the superintendent is selected by the school board.

Commissioners also voted to keep wording that would allow governors or other state officials to be impeached for being intoxicated. The commission's legal staff had proposed eliminating the wording on the grounds that it was too vague. Commissioner Matt Lembke said constituents would question the motives behind the removal of the wording, particularly if a public official were caught in a drug- or alcohol-related scandal later.

Brewer said a deeper discussion on home rule could come as soon as September, when the commission meets again. He said he hoped for some sort of decision before the 2014 legislative session – even if it's a decision to disagree.

"I want the commission to deal with it," Brewer said. "And if the commission can't make a recommendation, because they're unable or unwilling, I want them to say that."

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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