Alabama Constitutional Commission debates veto override power
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Jul 01, 2013 | 3793 views |  0 comments | 132 132 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — The committee charged with rewriting Alabama's 1901 Constitution rejected a proposal Monday to increase the vote margin required for the Legislature to override the governor's veto.

By a voice vote, members of the Constitutional Revision Commission rejected an effort to change the Constitution to require a three-fifths vote from lawmakers to override the governor's veto of a bill.

Under current law, a simple majority of lawmakers can override the governor's veto.

Two Alabama governors, current Gov. Robert Bentley and former Gov. Albert Brewer, have seats on the Constitutional Revision Commission, which is charged with an article-by article rewrite of the state's founding document. The commission's recommendations must be passed by the Legislature and approved by the voters as amendments in order to take effect.

Bentley typically sends a delegate to the commission, but made a point of attending the Monday meeting. He said he supported the plan to make it harder to override future governors.

"Only five states have a veto as weak as the governor's office does," Bentley said. Bentley asked the commission to amend its proposal so that any change to the veto override would occur in 2018 or afterward. Bentley's term ends next year; if re-elected, he would have only one more term, ending in 2018.

"That takes me out of it," he said.

Some of the lawmakers on the commission had misgivings about the change. Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, said the veto override allows lawmakers to protect their constituents. DeMarco noted that lawmakers are the only people elected at the local level to represent an area's interests at the state level.

For his district, DeMarco said, "I'm it, and there's nobody else."

Sen, Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, supported the effort to increase the bar for veto override. Taylor said the governor’s veto could protect residents statewide from poorly-considered laws.

"There is the flip side of the coin in terms of protecting the state as a whole," Taylor said.

The commission, in a voice vote, rejected a motion to add the three-fifths requirement to its recommended changes.

Sidestepping segregation vote

The commission voted to approve some changes to the Constitution’s article on education and the Declaration of Rights, which is essentially the state version of the Bill of Rights.

Most of those changes were relatively minor. Among other things, the commission removed a number of references to “man” and replaced them with “person.”

The commission sidestepped some of the thornier issues in both articles, including changes to Section 256, which orders the establishment of separate schools for white and black children. That wording hasn’t been enforced since the end of segregation, but reformers have long argued that its existence in the state’s founding document is an embarrassment.

Alabama voters have twice rejected amendments that would have erased the wording.

According to commission documents, Section 256 also contains wording that declares the Constitution does not establish a right to an education. A 2004 amendment that altered that wording failed largely because critics said it would create a state obligation to fund schools equally. A 2012 amendment, which left the no-right wording intact, failed because of critics who maintained it would leave Alabama children without a right to education.

The commission has been searching for a way to split the difference. After reviewing the education language in other states’ founding documents, a commission subcommittee proposed scrapping all of Section 256. The proposal would replace the section with Twitter-length statement that the state will “establish, maintain and organize” a school system.

Subcommittee chairwoman Vicki Drummond said commission members had the chance to make history with the new wording.

“We have an opportunity to correct this in the Constitution if we can find acceptable language,” she said.

Still, commission members struggled to find that acceptable language Monday. Commission member Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, made a bid to add wording that would guarantee “uniform” and “thorough” schooling. DeMarco, the Homewood legislator, said he’d need more time to study that. Another commissioner, Greg Butrus, said there was still debate about what the current wording of Section 256 actually says. He said the commission should seek an opinion from the Alabama Supreme Court on the ruling.

The commission voted to postpone a decision on Section 256 until its August 8 meeting.

Equal protection

Commission members also postponed debate on Section 1 of the Declaration of Rights, which mimics the “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” passages in America’s founding documents.

A subcommittee recommended the addition of an equal protection clause similar to the one in the Fourteenth Amendment. But that subcommittee rejected a proposal from the group Alabama Appleseed to add a ban on laws that discriminate by race, sex, religion or sexual orientation.

Commission member Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, said it was the sexual orientation wording, and recent court decisions on same-sex marriage, that caused the panel to shy away from the a vote on the topic.

“They just want to wait until that cools down,” said Todd, the only openly gay member of the Legislature.

Todd told The Star last week that she intended to bring up the sexual orientation clause in the Declaration of Rights debate. On Monday, she said she didn’t intend to raise objections in a way that would slow down the commission.

“I’d be happy if we just got what’s in the (U.S.) Constitution,” she said. There’s no explicit mention of sexual orientation in the U.S. Constitution.

The commission did approve a proposal to make a series of of smaller changes to the Declaration of Rights. That proposal left intact the state’s ban on gay marriage, which is in the Declaration of Rights.

Todd cast the only “no” vote.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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