March 28, 2002
Most people have probably already figured it out. And for those who haven't yet caught on, it is just a matter of time before they know what the rest of us know--the call for a constitutional convention is really a call for higher taxes.
From the beginning, those pushing to replace Alabama's 1901 Constitution have been extremely careful about what they have said concerning the issue of taxes. Polls show that the majority of Alabamians are opposed to raising taxes. So the media and other supporters of a new constitution have gone out of their way to avoid linking a new constitution with a tax increase.
But if you keep up with what the proponents of a constitutional convention have written and said, it becomes evident that their agenda for writing a new constitution is much greater than simply removing racist language from our Constitution or making it more concise.
For instance, in an article that he wrote for Alabama Heritage (Fall 2001), former Gov. Albert Brewer lamented the limitations placed on state debt and on the state's ability to raise personal income taxes and property taxes. Brewer contends that because the Constitution requires the approval of the people to raise these taxes, Alabama is overly dependent on sales taxes.
Brewer also complained that the Constitution's mandated requirement for citizen approval before the state can incur debt restricts Alabama's ability to engage in internal improvements. He said that it was an embarrassment that the state had to get the approval of Alabama's citizens for the incentive package for Mercedes.
This is where the positions of those calling for a constitutional convention appear to be confusing, if not outright contradictory. From the very beginning the leaders calling for a constitutional convention have been emphatic that they want average citizens to have more say in government. If that is true, why complain about the fact that the current Constitution already empowers the people to restrict the amount of debt the state can incur and limits how high the state can raise their taxes?
Other proponents of a constitutional convention have repeatedly stated that a new constitution should be silent on the issues of taxes. But this statement also contradicts the proponents' claims that they want the people of Alabama to have more say in state government.
Moreover, this statement goes against the grain of the anti-tax trend in other states where people are amending their state constitutions to limit their state government's ability to raise taxes. In states that have Initiative and Referendum, citizens have successfully petitioned to place constitutional amendments on ballots that limit the ability of state and local governments to raise their taxes.
Recent examples include referendums in Arizona where citizens passed a freeze on property tax assessments, and in Oklahoma where voters defeated a measure to allow large counties to raise local property taxes. Even in liberal Massachusetts, citizens passed a referendum to amend their state constitution that forced the state to reduce the personal income tax to five percent by 2003.
Perhaps the most interesting dilemma the proponents of a constitutional convention face is how to reconcile their complaints about low property rates with claims that they want local people to have more say in local affairs.
The single biggest complaint raised by those demanding a new constitution is that Alabama has the lowest local property tax rates in the nation. Yet local property taxes are determined by a vote of the people at the local level.
If a majority of people wanted to raise local property taxes, they could vote to raise them. But the truth is that most Alabamians oppose raising their taxes. A few weeks ago Walker County residents voted to defeat a referendum to raise local property taxes. The same week, Huntsville citizens voted by a wide margin to defeat a referendum to raise their property taxes. In both cases, people were exercising their constitutional rights to participate in their local government. Isn't this exactly what the proponents of a constitutional convention and a new constitution claim they want?
It appears that the advocates of a new Constitution want to empower local people to have more say on most issues, but not on taxes. On that issue, they just want us to pay the bills.
Gary Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute.