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Alabama's chance for leadership

By Staff
Bailey Thomson , Guest columnist
Alabama's new governor, Bob Riley, has called upon the state's government to be as good as its people.
He knows, as do many other Alabamians, that the state's public life falls short in many critical areas. It neither satisfies citizens' needs nor motivates them to higher achievement. As a result, Alabama often fares poorly in comparisons even with neighboring states, some of which have moved far ahead in both civic and economic development.
This disparity between the basic goodness of Alabama's people and the poor quality of its public sector invites a fundamental question: What can we do in this generation to bring our beloved state into line with at least the South's best performers?
Three years ago, the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama asked a planning committee to think along these lines. What single thing might the chamber, based in Tuscaloosa, advocate to make a great difference for Alabama?
The committee's response was to call for a modern constitution to replace Alabama's 1901 version. Why this remedy?
Quite simply, this antiquated and mean-spirited document is the major impediment to good government and a strong democracy. Unlike many of its 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 from the beginning. Many of its worst features, such as its distrust of local democracy, remain firmly embedded.
The message was well received. In less than three years, constitutional reform has grown from an idea into a grassroots movement. Its champion is Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, led by Dr. Thomas Corts, president of Samford University. ACCR is now ready to assist Gov. Riley and the new Legislature in the next stage of this essential work.
Many of us within ACCR had hoped the Legislature would call a constitutional convention to achieve comprehensive reform. The Legislature, however, has resisted asking voters to delegate power to another elected body, even as most lawmakers concede that Alabama is overdue for major reforms.
Gov. Riley, meanwhile, campaigned for his new office with a promise that he would appoint a blue-ribbon group to propose revisions to the 1901 constitution and submit them to the Legislature. He kept his word. With the first executive order of his new administration, he appointed the Alabama Citizens' Constitution Commission and asked its members to propose changes in five areas.
This limited mission does not mean that reformers should abandon their vision of a constitution that will enable Alabama's progress rather than impede it. Gov. Riley's approach, however, does reflect the reality that reform is more likely to occur on a step-by-step basis than through a single act.
I believe reformers must work within the realm of what is possible, rather than miss the best opportunity in at least a generation to modernize our state. For that reason, I have agreed to serve on Gov. Riley's new commission. Yet my colleagues and I at ACCR will not rest until the Legislature has addressed all the constitutional areas that cry for reform. They include education, government efficiency, economic development and taxation and indebtedness.
ACCR already has created an invaluable model for Gov. Riley's commission to emulate. At the suggestion of former Gov. Albert Brewer, ACCR last year asked 22 people, under the leadership of Sec. of State Jim Bennett, to meet four times around the state, deliberate upon the issues and listen to other citizens.
The group that ACCR convened presented its recommendations just before Gov. Riley's inauguration. In turn, he honored their good work by asking many of these citizen servants to serve on his new constitutional commission.
Gov. Riley says he will ask another blue-ribbon group to recommend reforms of the tax system. He is wise to separate that issue from the immediate and less volatile tasks he has given his new constitutional commission
By far, the new commission's first priority must be to decentralize state 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 its 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.
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 productive 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.
Bailey Thomson is associate professor of journalism at The University of Alabama. He serves on the executive committee for Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform.