Experts, local leaders calling for constitutional reform

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 7, 2005

“What is it that we want to do? To establish white supremacy in this State…We must establish it by law.”

–John B. Knox, President of the 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention.

Those words, delivered during Knox’s convention-opening address, were spoken nearly 104 years ago. But in many ways, the intervening century has not been able to keep Knox’s words or the document he helped draft from haunting the Black Belt to this very day.

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“Alabama’s constitution,” says University of Alabama law professor and constitution scholar Susan Pace Hamill, “is the devil’s handiwork.”

When compared to nearly every other constitution on the planet, it’s also a joke. Alabama’s is the nation’s longest by far, nearly 12 times the length of the average state’s and 40 times the length of the U.S. constitution, and many believe it to be the world’s longest, period (sorry, India). Its more than 740 amendments deal with everything from beaver pelts to exhuming corpses in Madison County to dueling.

But if the devil approves of families in poverty, sick children, struggling education, and a vast disparity between the rich and poor, the statistics say Hamill’s description isn’t far off. As many people know, nearly every study done of Alabama ranks it near the national bottom in poverty, education, and the healthiness of residents.

But nowhere is Alabama’s struggle felt harder than the Black Belt. According to figures from Gov. Riley’s Black Belt Action Commission, the Black Belt unemployment rate is 10.9 percent, nearly twice the national average. A whopping 37 percent of Black Belt children live in poverty, and the average yearly household income in the Black Belt, $22,301, is barely half of what the average American household earns.

According to Hamill, one of many experts that convened at Judson College recently for the Black Belt Rally for Constitutional Reform, grim statistics like that don’t just happen by accident.

“The constitution is THE culprit,” she says. “It was written and continues to be supported by people who say ‘If poor folk have no chance, so be it.’ Their moral values represent an individualistic form of atheism…the constitution should be dead-on-arrival for any Christian or Jew.”

For Hamill and other experts on the constitution, its D.O.A. status begins with its roots in racism. As the above statement by Knox would indicate, the document was drafted as a kind of step-by-step process to ensure white economic, political, and social superiority.

“The negro,” Knox said, “[is] the prominent factor in the issue… There is in the white man an inherited capacity for government, which is wholly wanting in the negro.”

Although the constitution is riddled with this kind of racist language throughout, federal stipulations (such as Brown v. Board of Education) have since nullified nearly all of it in practice, and recent amendments have begun removing the language itself. But according to experts like Hamill, the hate expressed in the constitution lives on and thrives to this very day in its racially-motivated tax structure.

“The framers anchored a deliberately unfair tax structure into the constitution,” Hamill says. “It’s not a coincidence that only 25 percent of the state’s population is black, but half of the residents in poverty are black.”

Lawrence Wofford, Greensboro resident and founder of the anti-constitution group The Democracy Project, agrees.

“The constitution severely limits us all,” he says. But who does it limit the most? Knox said, ‘Then and now, the problem is the negro.'”

The principal unfairness lies with the constitution’s approach to property taxes. Seeking to protect the interests of wealthy white property owners and shift the tax burden onto poor blacks who owned little land, the constitution’s framers made property taxes exceedingly difficult to raise. The constitution stipulates that any hike in property taxes at any level, such as Governor Riley’s failed 2003 Amendment 1, must be voted on by the citizens affected. Not surprisingly, the times when voters agree to raise their own property taxes have proven few and far between.

At the same time, the constitution’s framers called for no such restriction on the implementation of sales taxes, which the state legislature and county governments can raise without any approval from residents. Why? Because both poor and rich alike pay a relatively similar amount in sales taxes. And between the low property taxes and high sales taxes, government funding becomes more and more the responsibility of the poor.

According to Hamill, that dynamic is at its unethical worst in the Black Belt.

“There’s no place where property taxes are adequate,” she says. “But in cities like Tuscaloosa, with malls and restaurants and more valuable homes, they can grasp on the things and hold on by their fingernails, eking out an existence. Rural areas like the Black Belt don’t have those concentrations…the provisions just push them further and further down.”

The biggest losers in the sales/property tax discrepancy? Alabama’s schools, whose funding is hamstrung at the local level and unreliable on the state level.

“Let’s say we wanted to raise four more mills of property tax, to get us from 8 to 12” said Marengo County Superintendent of Schools Luke Hallmark. The Marengo County school system is one of 30 state school districts that, because of the 10-mill fee for participating in the state funding program, must give sales tax money back to the state to receive its funding. “That’s 10 for us to participate in the Foundation program, plus two additional mills to better our school system. But in order to do that, first we have to find a legislator who would sponsor a bill in the state House or Senate for us. Once sponsored, it’s brought before Committee. Then it’s voted on by both branches, and then signed off by governor. And then it has to go to a vote of the people.”

Hallmark said that even county-specific tax increases have had difficulties getting passed recently.

“The trend the last couple of years is for them to be voted down,” he says. “Even in Shelby County, and Trussville. Hale and Perry have had increases voted down not too long ago.”

With almost no way to increase either local or state property tax, Alabama schools have to rely on sales taxes, which unlike property taxes are vulnerable to recessions and other economic factors.

“The state budget is based on what they think their income will be,” Hallmark says. “But with a non-fixed income source, you never know when a recession is gonna hit and the budget will have to be cut. Sometimes they don’t realize the deficits until February or March. You’re already seven months into the fiscal year by that point, so you have to make a drastic cut, to make up for those seven months you were already over budget.”

The cuts, Hallmark said, affect everything from textbooks to bus mechanics to computers in the classroom. If Hallmark had his way, things would be different.

“School systems have taken a hard hit over the last five years,” he said. “It would be nice if we had a fixed-income budget. That way we would know each year what we had to spend. But the only way would be based on property tax.”

Although Hallmark is far from bitter, the difficulty of being able to raise those extra property tax dollars does gnaw at him.

“I we had those 12 mills,” he said, “we could meet some areas of deficiency. I’d like all of our schools to have a band. John Essex doesn’t have one, and A.L. Johnson and Marengo have volunteer directors. It would be great to offer our kids some sort of art program. They could be poets or artists, but we don’t have the resources to let them open up.”

If underfunded schools and racist tax inequities aren’t enough condemnation for the constitution, critics can point to a legislature bogged-down in local matters rather than state ones. Because the framers wanted power centralized in Montgomery (in case areas of the state became too heavily populated by blacks), county governments have to go through the legislative process Hallmark describes above not only for property taxes but many run-of-the-mill provisions like court costs, fire protection statutes, and rodent control. Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform (ACCR) estimate that nearly half the legislature’s time is occupied by matters pertaining to only one county or city, and a full 70 percent of amendments are specific to one area.

“County governments are forced to go hat-in-hand to Montgomery to do things every other county in the Southeast does on their own,” says Hamill.

Tax issues aren’t limited to the property/sales dynamic, either. Property tax shortages have also led Alabama to begin taxing its residents’ income before they’ve even gotten out of poverty. The state threshold for income tax is $4,600 a year, far and away the lowest threshold in the nation and nearly $15,000 lower than even Mississippi’s. In addition, the percentage taxed for the poor is higher; ACCR states that the wealthiest 1 percent of Alabamians pay only 4 percent in income tax, while the bottom fifth of residents pay approximately 11 percent. In the Black Belt, with its higher percentage of poverty, the constitution only makes worse the statewide gulf between the rich and poor.

“The biggest problem,” Hamill says, “is that no one sees it as a problem. They see it as this arcane document that only makes a difference for lawyers. But it’s not. The upper end is the robbing the rest of the state blind…what we have is not working.”