Alabama's fight over 'Old South' Constitution

Property tax limits are key issue in revising document

With local property tax-rates frozen under the Alabama Constitution, the Tuskegee elementary school for years has relied on gamblers over at Victory Lane, a local dog track, to provide extra tax revenue for books and teachers' raises.

Principal Joseph Asberry says that's not an ideal way to run a school - especially since the dog track is now closed and his gymnasium and classrooms, as a result, are becoming more threadbare.

It's the kind of financing scheme that many rural Alabama towns have had to survive under because of the state's 1901 constitution, a hand-scripted document that critics say keeps poor blacks and whites indentured to a form of turn-of-the-century "plantation politics."

Now an unusual movement is under way to rewrite the document more than 100 years after its creation, setting up a clash of Old South-New South values.

The state legislature in Montgomery plans to debate a bill on Wednesday that calls for a constitutional convention later this year. This would set up one of the most curious conundrums in the country: Can a one-of-its-kind document written primarily by Civil War veterans provide the kind of guide necessary to keep up with the changes of the modern South?

"A constitutional convention has got a better shot this year than it's ever had," says Bailey Thomson, a journalism professor at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. "Before, it's been governors and legislatures that have tried to fix it. This time, it's a real grass-roots movement."

The move to rewrite the 600-page document is the culmination of a number of contentious issues:

• Some critics want to secularize the constitution's numerous references to "the Creator" - a move that some church groups say is tantamount to inviting evil into the state.

• With its insistence on sales and income taxes to supplant ultracheap property taxes, critics say the Constitution makes it too difficult to raise revenue for schools and development, ensuring Alabama's place as one of the poorest states in the country. Supporters of the 1901 constitution, meanwhile, say that liberal elements are just looking for a backdoor way to raise taxes for everybody.

• With 706 amendments and counting, many also say the old tome is too long, too confusing, and too outdated to apply to modern Alabama; still others complain about the racist and sexist dogmas that, though emasculated, still stare up from the yellowed vellum pages.

"We're better than that now, and we need a new constitution to show it," says Edwin McArthur Sr., a guide at the state capitol in Montgomery

As it stands today, the Alabama Constitution is a one-of-a kind document that came out of the deep South following the Reconstruction. Other Deep South states such as Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi have modified or scrapped their 19th century constitutions in favor of documents that support "home rule" and include equal rights protections.

Alabama's Constitution, however, retains the language of restrictive polling qualifications that made it tough for many blacks and poor whites to qualify to vote. The state also has not made any major changes to constitutional guidelines on how money is raised and distributed. The result: each proposal to raise revenue for expenses - such, as funding mosquito control in Mobile County or bingo operations in Montgomery County - have to be put to a statewide referendum. In fact, 20 more amendments to the Constitution are likely this year alone.

This "vote by the people" strategy, in addition to the Constitution's insistence upon relying on sales taxes for revenue, has made it difficult for legislators to compose statewide education and development policies.

"The framers set out to make sure that local democracy never flourished again," says Mr. Thomson.

The idea of calling a constitutional convention has been broached half-a-dozen times since 1915. Twice, the Constitution has been questioned in front of the US Supreme Court, which called it a "local political problem." Today, with the exception of Republican businessman Tim James, all gubernatorial candidates have come out in favor of a new guiding document.

But those opposed to a convention say it would invite a special-interest free-for-all. A number of black legislators are worried that, just as African-Americans were physically locked out of the 1901 convention, their voice at a new convention would be drowned out by stronger interest groups.

In the end, however, in a state where you might see "Big Al For commissioner" stickers on an old farm truck parked outside the Capitol, conventioneers still have to face the men and women who carved Alabama out of this old Creek Indian country: the farmers.

"We don't see a driving force among the people of this state, that says, 'Oh, we've got to go to the Capitol and fix it; oh, it's the biggest crisis that's ever happened,' " says Paul Till, a spokesman for the Alabama Farmers Federation in Montgomery. "What it is, is a backdoor approach for people who have not been successful in raising taxes any other way - that's the bottom line."

But if Alabamians can't agree on whether to scrap the 1901 document, most say that the Legislature should get serious about revising it, amendment for amendment, to rid it of redundancies and labyrinthine language - if not its notorious notions.

"It is true that it is very long, and does contain sort of language that says you can't have this many chickens unless you trade in this goat," says Mike Shields, campaign manager for gubernatorial candidate James, who's opposed to a convention. "There are very legitimate problems that people bring up, but we think it's naive to think that rewriting the Constitution is somehow going to make it better."

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