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House expected to consider constitution reform measure

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama House is expected to take up an old issue Tuesday that's been on the agenda of lawmakers and governors dating back to 1915 — rewriting the state's bulky 1901 constitution.

On the work agenda in the House is a bill that would set a referendum for state voters to decide if they want to call a convention to rewrite the constitution that's been amended almost 800 times.

It's an emotional issue that's expected to spur heated debate, with proponents saying the 1901 constitution is outdated, too long, hamstrings local governments and contains language that disenfranchises blacks and women. Opponents say a convention would be controlled by special interest groups and could produce a document that removes any mention of God, legalizes gambling and raises taxes.

Similar bills calling for a vote on a constitutional convention are introduced during almost every session of the Legislature, but this will be the first time one has been debated on the House floor since 2002.

The sponsor, House Speaker pro tem Rep. Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham, said the key to the fate of his bill is whether there will be enough support to get past a procedural vote required to officially bring the measure up for debate. He said all the bill does is allows Alabama voters to decide if they want to call a convention to write a new constitution.

"You've got people out there who see the boogeyman behind every rock. The only thing this bill does is give the people a chance to decide if they want a new constitution and vote yes or no," Newton said. "If the vote is no, that's the end of it."

One outspoken opponent of a new constitution, Sandra Bell, president of the Alabama Association of Judeo Christian Values, said the 1901 Constitution protects the rights of citizens and should not be rewritten. Bell plans to hold a news conference at noon Tuesday in front of the Alabama Statehouse to speak against the bill.

"If you think your tax problems are bad now, you've seen nothing," she said, referring to what she feels will happen if a convention writes a new constitution. "Taxes will be horrible. Your property will be taken away from you."

University of Alabama political scientist William Stewart said he doubts Newton's bill will pass the Legislature, but he said it's an issue lawmakers can plan to deal with again in the future.

"It's an issue that's not going to die. The weakness of the Alabama Constitution is only going to get worse as more amendments are added to it," Stewart said.

Lenora Pate, co-chair of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, said she's optimistic this may be the year the Legislature takes a positive step toward a new constitution.

"I believe the time has come," said Pate, who said she won't give up if the bill is voted down. "We're in it for the long haul. We're not going to back down. I think the legislators will trust the people and let them vote."

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, two delegates from each of the state's 105 House districts would be elected during the regular primary in June. One male and one female would be elected from each district.

The delegates would then meet in October at the Statehouse 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.

One lawmaker, Rep. Jay Love, R-Montgomery, said he plans to vote "no" and prefers a plan being pushed by Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, for lawmakers to rewrite the constitution article by article. He said he fears the convention would be dominated by special interests and that many current members of the Legislature would end up being delegates.

"And they are going to be beholden to the same special interests the current legislators are beholden to?" Love said.

The Senate sponsor, Sen. Ted Little, D-Auburn, said he knows government would operate more efficiently with a streamlined constitution. He deplored all the local matters added to the 1901 document.

"This constitution has amendments that deal with everything from mosquito control to the removal of dead animals," Little said.

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

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