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RESOURCE CENTER AND ARCHIVES

Itís Really Not A Trivial Mattercomment (0)

March 27, 2014

By Jim Williams


The other day, a colleague at Samford University asked me if Alabama’s constitution is still the longest in the country, which prompted me to delve into that treasure trove of governmental trivia, “The Book of the States.” It’s one of my favorite reference books.

It turns out that Alabama’s constitution, at 376,000 words, is indeed still the longest state-governing document. But that’s not all I found. It is over four times as long as the second-place Texas constitution. And it is actually longer than the combined length of all nine other southern state constitutions.

If you want to understand why this is so, “The Book of the States” helpfully points to our 880 constitutional amendments. About two-thirds of those amendments are local in scope. Instead of creating a framework for the conduct of state and local government, our constitution is a hodgepodge of local exceptions that makes government in every locality unique.  

For example, this year’s Act 14–85 proposes a constitutional amendment allowing the Franklin County Commission to allocate some of its sales tax money to match certain kinds of transportation grants the county might receive from the state.

In other states, there might be standard procedures for managing local matters like this; but Alabama legislators, who are elected to make policy and oversee the state government, spend a good deal of time and effort on such issues. Of course, every locality wants them handled its own way. And so it grows.

In addition to the hundreds of local constitutional amendments, the Legislature has passed more than 35,000 local laws. The state is only beginning to codify these Local Acts of the Legislature so that everyone can know what the law is in a particular county.

The Legislature has set out to modernize the state constitution in a way that might end the proliferation of local amendments. A constitutional amendment proposed in the Senate would allow county commissions to manage some of their own affairs except where specifically prohibited by state law or the constitution. This concept was thought radical when first proposed in the constitutional convention of 1900.  

And, 114 years later, the current proposal has yet to make it to the Senate floor for a vote, and only a few legislative days remain in this year’s session.  

That constitutional table in “The Book of the States” may seem like trivia, but doing something to reform county government in Alabama is really not a trivial matter. 

EDITOR’S NOTE — Jim Williams is executive director for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. Williams may be contacted at jwwillia@samford.edu.

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