By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Lost in the vigorous debates about Medicaid expansion, teacher pay raises, guns in motor vehicles, and the questionable merits of the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards, a committee working in relative obscurity was preparing massive alterations to how the state of Alabama’s government functioned.
The Constitution Revision Committee has been working quietly away from the prying eyes of the media and the citizens of the State of Alabama. In 2012, Alabama voters went to the polls and ratified their first rewrites of several parts of Alabama’s 1901 Constitution. In 2014 the Committee returned with even more rewrites. This time the Committee rewrote entire sections of the Alabama code including the sections on the Executive and Legislative Departments of Alabama government.
Some legislators told the Alabama Political Reporter that they were unhappy with both the process and the finished product that the lawyers at the CRC were dumping on the legislature, then the legislature asked the court for its legal opinion.
Alabama Chief Justice Moore wrote that the process used to change Alabama’s Constitution is illegal, unconstitutional and a “usurpation” of the people’s rights. This opinion validated all the criticisms that have been leveled at the controversial Constitution Revision Committee and put into question all of their work. A conservative group announced plans to sue the state over the constitutionality of the rewrite.
Last week the Alabama Senate Constitution, Campaign Finance, Ethics and Elections Committee voted to carry over the controversial bills that would have rewritten parts of Alabama’s 1901 Constitution.
On Wednesday, March 12, the bills returned to the Alabama Senate Constitution, Campaign Finance, Ethics and Elections Committee, but so did the controversy.
Only Senators: Paul Bussman (R) from Cullman, Dick Brewbaker (R) from Montgomery, Billy Beasely (D) from Clayton, and Shadrack McGill (R) from Woodville were present at the start of the Committee meeting. The four agreed that they could not carry over all the bills without a quorum present. After 20 minutes, Chairman Bryan Taylor arrived from a tense Senate Judiciary Committee meeting so a quorum was achieved and the meeting could begin.
The first bill on the calendar was a constitutional review article SB 253, sponsored by Sen. President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R) from Anniston. Sen. Brewbaker introduced a motion that the bill be carried over. Senator McGill seconded that. The motion to carry over passed.
Chairman Taylor said that all of President Marsh’s remaining bills would be carried over to the end of the meeting, in hopes that he could be there.
The next bill that the committee addressed was House Bill 500, sponsored by Representative John Merrill (R) from Tuscaloosa. Rep. Merrill said that his bill came out of the Fair Campaign Practices Study Commission and deals with outdated language in Alabama’s election laws, Merrill said, “It is a nonpartisan bill,” that passed unanimously in the House.
Sen. Bussman said, “We have heard a lot about whether the changes to the Constitution are constitutional or not.” Is this bill affected by this?
Rep. Merrill said, “No this bill should not be affected.”
Chairman Taylor said that this was a different commission than the constitutional commission.
Senator Brewbaker made the motion that HB 500 be passed out of committee with a favorable report. The Committee agreed unanimously.
Next another of the controversial Constitution rewrite bills, SB 259, appeared on the agenda. Sen. Brewbaker made a motion that it be carried over. Sen. McGill seconded the motion. Bussman voted with McGill and Brewbaker and the motion to carry over the bill another week in committee passed.
Next was SB 276.
Chairman Taylor said that SB 276 was also a recommendation by the Constitutional Commission. He is the sponsor of the legislation.
Chairman Taylor said that this, “Deals with a very small part of the constitution.” Certain exemptions in the tax code are carved into stone by the constitution. The Commission recommended doing away with the exemptions. Senator ward has a bill that would raise the statutory homestead exemption to $30,000. I have an amendment that would raise that to $12,500.
Chairman Taylor said that some people want a larger homestead exemption but he is trying to do a base level guarantee. “Would prevent a future legislature from trying to completely do away with the homestead exemption.”
Sen. McGill asked, “Is SB 276 constitutional?”
Chairman Taylor said that this article is only a couple of sections long and is not like the other amendments which rewrite the executive and legislative departments. “I think it is a different category.”
Chairman Taylor made a motion that the bill receive a favorable report. The motion failed because none of the other senators would second the motion so SB 276 is carried over to next week’s committee meeting.
Senator Beasely then left the committee meeting to go to a meeting of the Senate Agriculture, Forestry, and Conservation Committee. The nine member committee then had just four senators present.
Chairman Taylor announced that they have lost a quorum. All the remaining bills including the controversial rewrites of the sections of the Alabama Constitution dealing with the executive and legislative departments (we think of there being three branches of government, but the 1901 Constitution uses the term “departments” instead) are automatically carried over.
Senator Brewbaker told gathered journalists that he did not believe that the constitutional rewrite amendments could be passed because of the problems that would be caused later if they were ratified by the people of Alabama and then the process was ruled to be unconstitutional. Brewbaker felt that Wednesday’s decision to carry over the controversial legislation effectively ended the prospect of any constitutional rewrites passing in this legislative session.
Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore (R) stated: “Stretching out the constitutional-revision process over a number of years by submitting to the people two, three, or five revised articles per general election under the amendment procedure of § 284 does not change the reality that a nearly total revision of the Alabama Constitution is occurring.”
Chief Justice Moore wrote, “The Alabama Constitution states that ‘all political power is inherent in the people,’ who are the rightful engineers in the constitutional locomotive. Any branch of government that wrongfully seeks to hijack the process of constitutional revision must be stopped before the train runs out of control. For the reasons stated above, I would provide the advisory opinion requested and hold that the proposed amendments are constitutionally invalid because, taken as a group and also as a part of the Act No. 2011-197 revision train, they violate the exclusive prerogative of the people to revise their constitution through a constitutional convention held pursuant to § 286.”
The Legislative Director of the Rainy Day Patriots, Ann Eubanks, told the Alabama Political Reporter, “The opinion of the AL Supreme Court Justices was absolutely correct when they opined that the Alabama Constitution Revision is unconstitutional. Del Marsh’s bill setting up a Revision Committee to change the AL Constitution instead of amending it, was inconsistent with the law.”