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Legislature sends amendments to voters

By MARY SELL and CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

Alabama legislators passed hundreds of new laws this year, but they also sent several decisions to Alabama voters in the form of proposed constitutional amendments.

Here are the statewide ballot proposals, and some local ones, and when they’ll be on ballots, according to the Alabama Secretary of State.

On statewide ballots

A constitutional amendment about the Alabama Constitution

It is well known that Alabama’s 1901 Constitution is the longest in the nation and longer than most other countries’. It currently has 946 amendments, but the next one could lead to a reorganization of the document. 

House Bill 328 by Rep. Merika Coleman would authorize the Legislature to recompile the Constitution during its 2022 Regular Session. The reorganization would include arranging local amendments by county and deleting racist language from the document.

The Constitution still has references to separate schools for white and “colored children” and laws against marriages between “any white person and a negro…” Similar ballot referendums to rework the Constitution failed in 2012 and 2004.

The amendment passed unanimously by both the House and Senate and is on the ballot in the November 2020 general election.

Only citizens vote

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, sponsored a ballot measure “to provide that only a citizen of the United States has the right to vote.”

“This bill affirms that to vote in Alabama elections, you have to be a resident of Alabama and a citizen of the United States,” Marsh said upon passage of the amendment last month. “One citizen, one vote is something we hold sacred as Americans, and I don’t know anybody who disagrees with that.”

The amendment will be on the November 2020 general election ballot.

Judiciary changes

Also in November 2020, voters will see an amendment to make several changes to the administration of the state’s court system.

Currently, the Alabama chief justice appoints the administrator of courts, the executive who oversees court operations. Senate Bill 216 would change that to allow the full Supreme Court to make the appointment, potentially cracking down political or personal favor appointments for the state’s top judicial staff job .

“There’s been a lack of consistency with the administrator of courts,” bill sponsor Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said. “There have been 11 in the last 22 years.”

Orr said the proposal allows for a renewable contract for the administrator, “but it’s not at the whim of the chief justice.”

The amendment also expands the membership of the Judicial Inquiry Commission — the body that investigates complaints against judges — from nine to 11.

And, if approved by voters, the constitutional amendment strikes the Legislature’s ability to impeach judges. The Judicial Inquiry Commission and the Court of Judiciary would be charged with removing judges.

Another court-related amendment would extend the time appointed circuit and district court judges could fill a vacancy. Under current law, district and circuit judges appointed by the governor to fill a vacancy serve an initial term of one year until the next election for that office. This amendment would change that initial term to two years, or until the next election, whichever is longer. House Bill 505 was sponsored by Rep. David Faulkner, R-Vestavia Hills.

K-12 education governance

A proposed constitutional amendment from Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, would allow voters to scrap the elected State Board of Education and replace it with a commission appointed by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate. 

Marsh and Gov. Kay Ivey are teaming up with a group of lawmakers to sell the plan to voters, who will see it on the March 3, 2020 ballot.

“Since taking office, I’ve made improving education a top priority,” Ivey said in a recent written statement. “As a former teacher, I recognize that strong leadership and a strong plan are necessary components to improving our education system.”

The constitutional amendment also does away with the board-appointed state superintendent position, instead creating a “secretary of education.” Alabama is one of only six states with an elected school board appointing a chief state school officer.

Marsh’s proposal comes after several years of squabbling at the State Board of Education, which coincided with Alabama’s decline in education rankings. He said an appointed commission would lead to a more professional and less political group of policymakers. 

“If we have a school board that is made up of qualified individuals who are held accountable, we can increase local control, reduce the amount of time the Legislature spends on education reform and put the power back where it belongs, in the hands of educators,” Marsh said at a recent press conference touting the bill.

As a State Board of Education meeting Thursday, one member said the Legislature doesn’t understand the hard work the board does for teachers and students.

“We need to let them know across the street (in the Alabama Legislature) that we are wonderful people and we are here for our children, and we don’t have any hidden agendas,” board member Jackie Zeigler, R-Mobile, said.

“If they want the board to stay how it is then they need to show it at the ballot box, and I really do have trust and faith that they will vote what they believe is the best option for students and the schools,” said member Cynthia McCarty, R-Anniston.

Board member Yvette Richardson, D-Fairfield, also sees the benefits of an elected school board but says it will come down to what the voters think.

“By being on the state school board I see the importance of being elected because I represent seven counties and 14 school districts so that is a lot of people to represent,” Richardson said. “So, I am definitely in favor of putting the entire subject matter out to the constituents to let them decide.”

The amendment includes two other key provisions that could appeal to different constituencies. One first requires the newly-constituted commission to begin the work of replacing the state’s Common Core-based education curricula standards, which could be seen as a win for many conservatives who have sought to repeal Common Core.

Another requires the new commission to reflect the racial makeup of the state’s public school population, which will lead to at least one more and perhaps two more African American represented at the state level. There are currently two black School Board members. This provision was popular with black lawmakers during legislative debate and could prove decisive for the plan should black voters support it. Senate Bill 397 passed unanimously in the Senate and by a 78-21 margin in the House.

Lauderdale and Franklin counties on statewide ballots

Several House members sponsored county-specific constitutional amendments to clarify that church members in their local counties can use deadly force if threatened. Only two — Lauderdale and Franklin counties — made it through the Legislature. But because one House member voted against the proposals, they’ll now be on ballots statewide in November 2020.

Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, said he wanted only Franklin County residents to make the decision for that county.

“Not only should Franklin County be voting on it, but it will cost a lot of taxpayer money to advertise it statewide,” Kiel said on Friday. “That is a consequence of one legislator, not from Franklin County, who decided to vote against it.”

Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, was the lone dissenting vote.

The county constitutional amendments were proposed after a statewide bill appeared in danger of failing for a fourth year in a row. Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, said the legislation clarifies the state’s “stand your ground” law applies inside houses of worship. It says a person is presumed justified in the use of force if they or someone else is in danger.

Opponents of the proposal, including Democrats, said it’s not needed because the 2006 “stand your ground” law already applies in churches.

Kiel on Friday said he thinks the Franklin County amendment will be approved by statewide voters.

“It may give the statewide legislation some traction,” he said.

On local ballots

Lauderdale County does have one local amendment on the 2020 general election ballot. The proposal from Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals, repeals previous amendments creating a Lauderdale County Judicial Commission that made recommendations to the governor when there were circuit and district court judge vacancies in the county.

“The governor would interview who she wants and make a decision,” Sorrell said about eliminating the commission. That’s how it’s done in most counties, he said.

St. Clair County will have a local amendment on the November 2020 ballot to allow a new special public school district ad valorem tax in each school district in the county, subject to an election in the school district. The amendment does not apply to the Leeds and Trussville school systems.

A Calhoun County constitutional amendment would change existing law that restricts bingo games within 1,000 yards of a residence or residential area so that municipalities could allow games on a case-by-case basis. Bingo games in unincorporated areas of the county within 1,000 feet of a residence would still be prohibited.

But whether the amendment will be on only Calhoun County ballots or statewide ballots is still pending action by the Legislature, according the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office. An election date is also to be determined.

An Etowah County amendment on the March 2020 ballot says all money received by the county sheriff for feeding prisoners be deposited in a special account and used for feeding prisoners. Any excess funds could be used for law enforcement purposes by the sheriff and for school resource officers. Former Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin pocketed more than $750,000 in money meant to feed county prisoners.

A statewide law approved this year prohibits Alabama sheriffs from keeping jail food money.

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