Alabama Constitutional Revision Commission mulls home rule option
by Tim Lockette
Jan 11, 2013 | 3406 views |  0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — Alabama’s counties could get the power to ratify — and by implication, to reject — some changes the Legislature might require of them, under a new proposal presented Friday to the commission that is rewriting the state’s constitution.

The same proposal would give counties more power over their own affairs, pending ratification by the the Legislature. The proposal is the newest of three plans the state’s Constitutional Revision Commission is considering for giving “home rule” powers to Alabama’s counties.

“This would be a form of checks and balances,” said Howard Walthall, a Cumberland School of Law professor who is advising the commission.

The Constitutional Revision Commission is a 16-member committee that has been appointed to reshape the Alabama Constitution of 1901, article by article. This year, the commission is expected to rewrite the Constitution’s wording on local government.

Alabama grants its counties few powers, and has required state laws or amendments to be passed for matters as simple as the establishment of a county insect control program. It’s one reason the 1901 Constitution has swelled to 376,000 words. County commissioners and constitutional reform advocates have been pushing for more county home rule for years.

The commission had been considering two proposals for home rule, one drafted by the Association of County Commissions of Alabama and another drafted by the anti-poverty group Alabama Appleseed. But on Friday, the commission’s staff unveiled four options.

One, called the “delegation” option, would directly delegate powers to counties. It bears some resemblance to the Alabama Appleseed proposal. Another option, called the “interim powers” option, would let counties run their own affairs while the Legislature is out of session, with lawmakers able to review those decisions while in session.

Commissioners quickly rejected the “classification” option, a plan that would have created different classes of counties, based on population, each with a different set of powers. Some said that proposal wasn’t really a form of home rule.

“Creating a classification system is just another fiction,” said Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, a commission member. He said the system would give the appearance that the Legislature was passing statewide laws when in fact it would be passing laws aimed at single counties.

The remaining option — ratification — would allow county commissions to ratify any state law that would change their makeup or basic functions. In turn, the proposal would give counties the power to legislate local matters, but those decisions would require ratification by the Legislature when it’s in session.

Walthall described ratification as a “collaborative” approach that lets county commissions and lawmakers check each other’s powers.

Sonny Brasfield, director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said the proposal was “the heart and soul of home rule.” He said county commissions need to be able to reject unwanted changes to their own structure and staff.

Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, disagreed. He pointed out that the Legislature created a county manager position for Jefferson County after the county’s debt crisis began.

“Generally it’s been one of the best things for Jefferson County, despite opposition from the County Commission,” he said.

The commission deferred a vote on the remaining three options until its next meeting in February. Whatever the commission decides, its recommendation will go to the Legislature for approval. If it passes, it will take the form of a constitutional amendment to be voted on statewide — probably in 2014.

Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.
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