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Mississippi wants freedom from century-old plantation dictates

Safely tucked into the quaint corners of Mississippi's constitution are confederate pensions, booms and chutes for logging, and the legislature's power to abolish private corporations at will. But this 1890 blueprint for Mississippi government is not all harmless relic. It also hamstrings state government, critics say, and slows progress in the nation's poorest, least-educated state.

Gov. William Allain and a slew of reform-minded lawyers, businesspeople, and politicians are pitching a major battle next month to win a constitutional convention that could redesign Mississippi government.

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The state's constitution has become the state's biggest hurdle for a segment of civic leaders increasingly frustrated with their state's last-place ranking while neighboring states such as Arkansas and Tennessee move ahead.

``This is a big issue,'' says Brad Pigott, a Jackson lawyer and president of a 1,200-member group working for a new constitution.

``It's not just a matter of making government more efficient. It's a matter of who has power.''

The current constitution was framed chiefly by wealthy cotton planters from the Mississippi Delta, consolidating their power over the black majority and the poor white farmers of the hill counties.

By 1892, the document had successfully disenfranchised roughly half the state's white population and 95 percent of the black population.

It had also clipped the wings of the governor. He can neither appoint a cabinet nor submit a budget. Instead, more than a hundred agency chiefs are appointed by special committees, and each one submits his own budget directly to the legislature.

The upshot is that a legislator from the Mississippi Delta, House Speaker Buddy Newman, arguably wields more real power than the governor and that Mississippi has one of the weakest state governments in the country.

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Governor Allain and others assert that the weak and scattered powers of state government hurt the state in several ways:

Recruiting new industries is cumbersome when they have to deal with between 12 and 18 autonomous state agencies instead of the typical two or three that answer to the governor.

Social service and education agencies, each independent, become top-heavy with administrators.

Mississippi could save $320 million a year by using as few social service employees per resident as Kentucky, Allain's office has found.

Education agencies are not well organized. Mississippi has eight universities, for example, and more Division 1A football teams than any states but California and Texas.

Yet they have not one library with more than a million volumes.

The state's image is tarred with obsolete constitutional passages barring interracial marriages and foreign ownership of land.

In spite of poll taxes written into the constitution, the vast majority of Mississippians won back the right to vote through federal courts in the 1960s.

But the constitution still concentrates real power in the hands of a handful of powerful legislators.

Reform advocates expect strong resistance from many of these legislators next month.

The 1890 constitution has probably never been popular. The politicos who drafted it originally decided not to submit to popular vote for ratification. Instead they simply enacted it. A Teeter poll taken for the Mississippi GOP last July found that 66 percent of Mississippi adults favored holding a constitutional convention.

Reformers won an early skirmish this November when voters decided to allow governors more than one term for the first time since Reconstruction.

A 350-member constitutional study commission is finishing its work this week.

Next month, one bill the legislature will consider calls for a popular referendum in November on calling a convention, then the convention itself in 1988.

Says Mr. Pigott, ``We need to dislodge ourselves from the whole plantation world of 1890....

``Nothing in Mississippi is as simple as a superficial reform for efficiency. It's always all bound up in race or other kinds of politics.''

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