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Students rally at Capitol for a new constitution

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — About 120 college students from across Alabama rallied on the steps of the state Capitol Wednesday in hopes of urging legislators to begin the process of rewriting the 105-year-old Alabama Constitution.

The students are supporting a bill sponsored by House Speaker Pro Tem Rep. Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham, that would allow Alabama residents to vote on whether to hold a convention next year to write a document to replace the state's 1901 Constitution, which has been amended almost 800 times.

"I believe the root cause for most of the problems in this state is the constitution,'' said Jesse McDaniel, a graduate student in public administration at Auburn University. "I don't see why they won't at least let the people vote on whether they want a new constitution.''

There have been unsuccessful efforts to rewrite the Constitution for more than 50 years, but Newton said he believes his bill has a better chance this year. The bill has been approved by a House committee and Speaker Seth Hammett has said he expects the measure will come up on the House floor for debate.

Opponents of constitutional reform have said they believe a convention would be controlled by special interests and could lead to Alabama residents having to pay higher taxes.

Newton said he believes his bill could come up for debate in the House as early as next week. The 79-year-old speaker pro tem told the students that the constitution is filled with archaic and racist language.

"I don't want you to have to defend a constitution full of racist language,'' Newton told the racially mixed group.

For two hours before the start of Wednesday's rally, some of the students stood on the steps and read parts of the constitution. One of the rally's organizers, University of Alabama senior Matthew Lewis, said the students only had time to read amendments pertaining to two of Alabama's 67 counties. Lewis said he thought it would be possible to read the entire U.S. Constitution in less than two hours.

Lenora Pate, co-chair of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, told the students a new constitution would help the state improve its standing in education and other areas.

"Alabama is destined to be number one in more than just football and the alphabet,'' Pate said.

Under Newton's bill, voters would decide during the presidential preference primary in February if they want to call a convention. If voters approve calling the convention, delegates would be elected during the regular primary in June. The delegates would then meet in October at the Statehouse in Montgomery to begin work on writing a new constitution. During the general election in 2010, voters would decide whether or not to ratify the new constitution.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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