SGA leaders outdo state government

The University of Alabama Student Government Association was founded in 1914 with “the supreme purpose of …(training) young men and women in higher principles of citizenship.” In this effort, the SGA has been successful. From Lister Hill to John Sparkman to Don Siegleman, there are many examples of SGA leaders on campus who went on to serve the state in important capacities. They got their start here.

Now, a unique conundrum has developed. Realizing that the SGA Constitution, while only 15 years old, is outdated, James Fowler and other SGA leaders established a committee to propose a replacement. We will vote on that committee’s valuable recommendations tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the Constitution of the State of Alabama, which is 109 years old, continues to ensnarl state and local government. The longest governing document in the entire world, it has 825 amendments. It is three times longer than the Constitution of India (the longest national constitution), 12 times longer than the average state constitution, and 40 times longer than the U.S. Constitution.

Yet, state leaders, including Governor Bentley, have shown no interest in replacing the outdated charter. Whereas our campus leaders realized that there were cracks in the foundation of student government and issued a proposal to fix them; the governor and other senior Republicans insist that the state constitution can be repaired by yet more amendments. Student leaders at Alabama have managed to do, at the campus level, what generations of governors and legislators have failed to do for the state. They have outdone the people they are supposed to be emulating.

It would obviously be much more difficult to rewrite the state constitution than the SGA’s. There are many more commissions, offices and institutions that are governed by the state. There are also many more special interests that would inevitably try to influence the drafting of a new constitution.

Opponents of gambling, for instance, do not want a new constitution because the current one strictly limits gambling. Constitutions, though, shouldn’t be used for determining public policy – they simply define the powers and composition of the organizations that do make laws.

Instead of banning or allowing gambling, a streamlined constitution could make sure that appropriate authorities exist to determine gambling policy.

Our current constitution, though, not only rigorously governs things such as gambling, but it also hamstrings counties and municipalities. That is why, in nearly every election, we have a list of amendments to vote on, many of which deal with specific areas of the state.

I really should not have a vote on local issues anywhere other than Escambia County, where I am from, because I have no knowledge of those issues. Yet, because our constitution is so long and centralizes so much power at the state level, statewide referendums are often required to pass uncontroversial local legislation.

At the same time, the amendments that do address statewide issues are often so obscure or confusingly worded that it is hard to form an opinion. It would be much better to let state lawmakers, who have the time and research capabilities to learn about such issues, make those decisions than uninformed voters. That is, after all, why we elect them.

Many Alabamians have started voting “no” on all of the amendments to protest the constitution. While this trend is unfortunate for localities trying to improve their areas, if most constitutional amendments end up failing, maybe state leaders will finally be spurred to do what our SGA has done and draft a new constitution.

Recently elected Republicans, empowered with a majority in both houses of the legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, should leave their party’s history of opposing a new constitution behind as they consider growing public demands for a new constitution. After running against an inept and corrupt Democratic majority during the last election, the best thing the current legislature and governor could do is call a constitutional convention that would truly restructure the foundations of state government.

Governments are like anything else – periodically, they need to be reformed and renewed. While the U.S. Constitution has remained intact since 1789, it is an anomaly that can be attributed to the brilliance of our founders. There was no James Madison when the Alabama Constitution of 1901 was drafted.

Tomorrow, as the vote to replace our own constitution happens, think about what the result will mean for our SGA. Then imagine the consequences of a similar effort to renew the state.

Tray Smith is the opinions editor of the Crimson White. His column runs on Mondays.

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