Except for members of the Alabama Legislature, it has been fashionable for political do-gooders in our state to support constitution reform. The reasons have been well established. The Alabama Constitution of 1901 is archaic. It’s long, the longest in the world, in fact. It has institutionalized racism. It was written by the moneyed special interests for special interests. It consolidates power in Montgomery where it is easily manipulated. And so on and so forth. Editorial pages throughout the state have pounded on the issue. There’s a non-profit that lobbies for reform every year, and fails. Bumper stickers abound.
I have a proposal for all the people who feel so strongly and work so hard on this issue. Don’t. It’s not working. It’s a waste of time, at least the way you’re doing things right now.
And besides, I believe some of the critics of constitution reform might have a point. If the state were to convene a convention and begin the process of writing a new document, what’s to guarantee that process or the new document would be any better? In fact, with the state of political corruption in Alabama, I’d bet money it would be worse.
I got a message last week from a law student at Alabama who’s helping a progressive non-profit tackle this issue. She was curious how limited home rule had prevented the Jefferson County Commission from solving its financial crisis. This is a point Commission President Bettye Fine Collins has made repeatedly. If the county had the power to govern itself completely, the occupational tax issue never would have been a problem. The trouble, though, is that several legislators, Rep. John Rogers chief among them, have used the commission’s foibles as an example of exactly why the county shouldn’t have home rule. With six commissioners convicted on corruption charges or awaiting trial, how do you counter that argument?
It’s a zero sum game. Whether the decisions are made at home or in Montgomery, corruption is in the room. All this work to change the locus of control is meaningless.
Do something else.
Of course, I didn’t always feel this way. When I was still in college, I worked for a small weekly newspaper in Bessemer. There, I’d spend a lot of time at the Bessemer Cut-Off Courthouse talking with Mac Parsons, a circuit judge and former state senator.
I was naļve then. So much so that I thought I’d discovered half the problems with our state all on my own — the 1901 Constitution that cripples us, the regressive tax structure that gives to the rich and robs the poor, the PAC-to-PAC transfers that make campaign money laundering so easy. I was ready to fight hell with a water pistol, and I was miffed that Parsons, who had been an advocate for most of those things in the legislature, was not more impressed by my enthusiasm.
If you talk to Parsons for five minutes, you might think he’s a little nutty. If you talk to him for 10 minutes, you’ll realize he might be a genius. He said some things to me then, and I wished I’d been a better listener.
This is the first thing he said: “The problem with all of this is that you get these young politicians. And they say, ‘I'm going to Montgomery and I'm going to reform the tax code.’ Or, ‘I'm going to Montgomery and I'm going to rewrite the Constitution.’ Or, ‘I'm going to Montgomery and I'm going to ban PAC transfers.’ And they go to Montgomery. And six months later, they're sitting on the 50-yard line at the Alabama-Auburn game with an ALFA lobbyist, an AEA lobbyist and a trial lawyer. And the trial lawyer leans over and says, ‘What was that you said about Constitution reform?’ And the ALFA lobbyist says, ‘What was that you said about tax reform?’ And the AEA lobbyist says, ‘What was that about PAC-to-PAC transfers?’ And suddenly this young legislator gets amnesia.”
The other thing Parsons said to me was this: “If you really want to change Alabama politics, forget about all that stuff. What you need to do is give the Ethics Commission subpoena power and a budget to hire a 50 or more investigators whose job it is to bring in corrupt politicians. If you did that, Alabama would change pretty quickly.”
I'm confident now that he was right. The reason that none of these reform efforts go anywhere is that the legislators are not responsive to their own constituents and responsive to the folks who do them favors and give them cash.
Alabama cannot or does not police and prosecute public corruption on the local level. For the most part, corruption is left to fester until it’s too big for the feds to ignore. Only then, does someone take care of it. But lower down the political food chain, corruption is still there.
In the past, it has fallen to the media to expose this corruption. It festered in the two-year college system for decades until the Birmingham News began to drag it into the light. However, something else worries me deeply. The newspapers that were exposing that corruption are less and less able to do so anymore. I think I do an alright job covering Birmingham City Hall and the Jefferson County Commission, as do the other reporters who cover those beats. But what about the other 30-some municipalities in Jefferson County? What about all the public officials, departments and jurisdictions that have escaped the gaze of the watchdog press?
We live in a state where the cosmetology board has subpoena power, but the Ethics Commission does not. Alabama needs ethics reform right now, and not the warmed-over stuff Gov. Bob Riley pushed this session. We have to have a state agency that polices and prosecutes politicians. Otherwise, everything else — constitution reform, tax reform, campaign finance reform — it’s all going nowhere. In fact, isn’t that the reason it’s never gone anywhere before?
Judge Parsons tried to explain that to me 10 years ago.
As Edward R. Murrow once said, the obscure takes time to see, but the obvious takes longer.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to email@example.com