AN OPEN LETTER TO GOVERNOR DON SIEGELMAN
by Charlotte Ward,
President of the LWVAL
February 10, 2000
The LWVAL wrote to Gov. Siegelman regarding the "critical need for revision of the Constitution of the State of Alabama."
Dear Governor Siegelman,
Alabama students have shown some improvement in their standardized test scores in recent years, but the state government consistently ranks at the bottom in nearly every measure of efficiency of operation and responsiveness to the needs of Alabama citizens. Alabamians didn't have to see those surveys to know that their government is a mess. Their apathy in voting and their unwillingness to take proposals such as the lottery at face value show clearly their distrust of state government. Yet citizens often respect their own legislators as men and women truly committed to doing a good job. It isn't the people, it's the system. And the cornerstone of the system is the Constitution of 1901.
We have known this in Alabama for a long time. The League of Women Voters of Alabama and its eight constituent local leagues have been studying and supporting constitutional revision since the 1960s. We cheered the adoption of the Judicial Article. But then the process came to a halt. Now, more than thirty years later, it is clear that Alabama's progress in every aspect is hindered by the 1901 Constitution.
Our constitution is not merely outdated. It was wrong to begin with. As any historian knows, it was written for the purpose of keeping power out of the hands of the blacks and poor whites and in the hands of the well-to-do white plantation aristocracy, and subsequently the wealthy businessmen and industrialists. All power was (and is) centered in Montgomery; towns and counties have so little home rule that a constitutional amendment is required to allow a community to vote to tax itself to build a new school or sewer system.
The lack of home rule means that legislators in Montgomery must spend a great deal of their time dealing with local matters that should be in the hands of the County Commission or the City Council, rather than on matters of statewide concern that are ostensibly their primary responsibility. This can have the effect of leaving them open to undue influence from well-financed statewide lobbying groups with their own agendas for the taxes, schools, and courts that affect every citizen.
The other glaring fault in Alabama government is its grossly unfair and unwieldy tax system. Again, much of the fault lies with the constitution, which "legislates" some taxes and allows local governments to enact only the most regressive of all taxes, the sales tax, without a constitutional amendment. And in Alabama, we pay sales tax on necessities such as food at the grocery store.
We are sure that you, as an elected official of the State of Alabama, know all that we have said. More and more citizens are recognizing these truths, too. Whether it is done by a convention called for the purpose or by legislative revision, article by article, a more effective constitution is essential to progress in Alabama. We urge you to begin immediately to institute the processes that will give Alabama a new and workable constitution in the foreseeable future.
Alabama citizens in growing numbers and in great diversity--from a Chamber of Commerce to the Business Council of Alabama, to your own appointees to the Alabama Commerce Commision to ordinary citizens who are tired of being last in everything--want a better state government and recognize that the key to it is a democratic and workable consitution. A step that can move Alabamains beyond their frustrations with state government and their cynical distrust of all politicians toward the conviction that our state can solve its long-neglected problems is not quixotic. It is an act of enlightened leadership.
Charlotte R. Ward