THOMAS SPENCER News staff writer

Publication Date: May 27, 2001  Page: 01-A

When Alabamians went to the polls in November, voters across the state were asked if residents of Fayette County could tax themselves to support their volunteer fire and rescue squads.
They also had to decide whether:
Winston County residents could tax themselves to maintain county roads.
Greene County could change its court costs.
Tiny White Hall in Lowndes County could hold bingo games for charity.
When the votes were tallied, we, the people of Alabama, had approved 40 amendments to the Alabama Constitution, the state's fundamental law.
To the constitution, voters added 19 amendments altering county retirement systems for sheriffs, four creating county economic develop organizations, three allowing individual counties to set their own court costs, two authorizing bingo in specific jurisdictions and one each setting the voting hours for Marshall County, allowing Marion County to establish an agricultural exhibit center authority, setting the membership on the Anniston Water Works and Sewer Board, and banning prostitution in unincorporated areas of Jefferson County. Constitution, Page 10A 1A
The Association for Judeo-Christian Values, which opposes rewriting the constitution, says there is beauty in the detail of Alabama Constitution: evidence that the people of Alabama have a direct say in the workings of their government. Editorialists, academics and politicians who are pushing for a new constitution believe the opposite: that the constitution denies local people control of their own destiny.
Both sides agree that the constitution has become unwieldy, thanks to 100 years worth of amendments touching on subjects such as boll weevil eradication, establishment of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, mosquito and rodent control in Mobile County, and the disposal of dead livestock in Limestone County.
The Alabama Constitution of 1901 is believed to be the world's longest constitutional document, said William Stewart, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama. At 315,000 words, it is 40 times longer than the U.S. Constitution.
State constitutions as a rule are longer and deal with more specifics, but the Alabama Constitution is exceptional in that regard. It is more than 11 times as long as the average state constitution and quadruple the size of the next-longest, the Texas constitution.
Its length and complexity create confusion, as many of the original provisions have been amended to the point of irrelevance. The amendment process itself is confusing: Some local amendments must pass statewide; others must pass statewide and locally; still others are voted on locally only but become part of the state constitution.
"Ideally, a constitution enunciates certain goals and certain principles of the people," said Stewart, a scholar of the constitution. "Alabama has totally gotten away from what is expected of a state constitution."
The Alabama Constitution more resembles a detailed legislative document, and contains exceptions and exemptions to numerous provisions. Many of the details of governance, which in most states are left to the legislature and the city and county governments, are contained in the document.
Its framers, who were meeting in Montgomery 100 years ago today, had in mind the perceived abuses of the Reconstruction era, when government spending, debt and taxes had grown. It was "a negative constitution, designed not to empower but to deny, to inhibit," Stewart said.
While Alabama politicians have voiced their support for the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which leaves powers not granted the federal government by the Constitution to the states or to the people, the Alabama Constitution requires local residents and governments to seek permission from the state for many basic community enterprises. "It says, in effect, you can't do this unless we give you special permission to do this," Stewart said.
Stewart and other critics of the Alabama Constitution would like to see it rewritten with more power shifted to local communities. They argue that local residents shouldn't have to seek the approval of legislators in Montgomery to hold a vote on increased tax support for schools. Rapidly growing counties need the power to zone to balance the interests of economic developers with adjacent homeowners and farmers, they say.
But the profound distrust of government evident in the 1901 constitution remains strong in Alabama. Opponents of a constitutional rewrite favor keeping the strict limits on taxation and borrowing.
Approximately 70 percent of amendments concern additional revenue for schools and for building roads and hospitals. All had to be approved by local officials, by the Legislature and finally by voters, an effective system of hurdles to an expansionist government.
Gary Palmer of the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think-tank in Birmingham, opposes the idea that counties should have powers similar to those of the cities, such as the authority to zone property. Residents choose rural areas, he maintains, because they don't want to be told how to use their land.
Opponents of a total rewrite argue that the constitution can be reorganized - deleting obsolete provisions and arranging local measures by county - while retaining the current constitution's checks on taxes and borrowing.
Those who favor a new constitution believe nothing short of a new constitution can clean up the mess.