Three States Weigh Calls for New Charters

 

Hawaii spans eight islands, but has only one school district, four counties and no municipalities. In fact, its capital "city" of Honolulu is actually just part of a county that governs the entire island of Oahu. Critics claim the arrangement, dictated by the state's constitution, gives state lawmakers too much power.

Chief among those critics are Republicans, who hold just seven of the state's 76 state legislative seats. The state's Republican party, led by Gov. Linda Lingle and Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, Jr., wants voters this November to order a new constitutional convention to rewrite the state charter.

Hawaii is one of three states - along with Connecticut and Illinois - where voters will decide this year whether to convene constitutional conventions. The question is on the ballot in all three states automatically, because their state charters specify that voters decide whether to hold new conventions at set intervals.

The gatherings could write whole new state charters or suggest major changes for public review. But voters would have to approve any changes.

All states can call constitutional conventions - often called Con Cons - to rework their charters, and whether to convene one comes up for a vote automatically in about a fifth of the states. Once voters decide to have a convention, the legislature determines rules for selecting delegates. Those delegates then meet to revise or rewrite their state charters.

While specific issues may sway voters to call a convention, delegates have a free hand in setting the agenda.

"The people decide whether to call a convention. The people decide who the delegates will be. And the people decide whether to ratify what the delegates propose. So there's really a lot of popular input," explained Alan Tarr, director of the Center for State Constitutional Studies at Rutgers University-Camden .

But all three convention calls face long odds this year. Nationally, the old-fashioned meetings are falling out of favor. States are updating their constitutions by placing amendments on the ballot for the public to approve, either at the legislature's behest or through a ballot question.

In fact, Georgia was the last state to adopt a constitution created by a convention, and its charter went into effect in 1983, according to Tarr.

And political leaders in all three states are lining up against convening the conventions.

A broad coalition of business, labor and civic groups in Illinois is expected to spend $3 million to defeat the call for a constitutional convention. A similar effort in Connecticut attracted 30 organizations and the Constitution State's most prominent Democratic state officials, although Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell supports a rewrite.

The arguments against holding the meetings are similar in all three states.

Opponents question whether it's worth spending tens of millions of dollars on the gatherings during tight fiscal times for states and their citizens. They warn that special interests could take over the proceedings.

Most of all, opponents object to the possibility that the new constitutions would allow citizens to propose new laws through ballot initiatives, which none of the three states currently allows. Proponents say the resulting laws often hamstring state governments.

The Connecticut Constitutional Convention Campaign is the chief group urging a new convention there, and its focus is solely on securing the ability of citizens to place proposed new laws on the ballot for popular approval, said the group's chairman, Matthew Daly.

"We don't have the mechanism to petition the legislature on issues on the right or on the left," he said.

The governor said she supports the idea of citizens having a major role in government.

"I strongly support any effort, including a constitutional convention, which will increase direct citizen participation in their government," Rell said in a statement released by her office. "However, any recommendation that may come from such a convention must have safeguards in place to ensure that frivolous or specious issues do not waste the time or resources of the people or their government."

But at a rally last week, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D), told a crowd there were better ways to change the constitution, which has been amended 30 times since the charter was adopted in 1965.

Peggy Shorey, campaign manager for Vote No: Protect Our Constitution, said there's no guarantee a convention would bring about the changes promised by its proponents, because delegates may have their own agendas. "Once these folks (the delegates) are in the room, everything is on the table," she said.

In any event, the question of whether to call a convention may be overshadowed by the presidential race and by hotly contested U.S. House races in Connecticut, said University of Connecticut political science professor Howard Reiter. The complicated nature of the convention question makes it tough for voters to understand what's at stake, which could also hinder the proposal's chances, he said.

In Illinois, an ongoing feud among the state's top leaders has hobbled state government. Both proponents and opponents of a new convention have pointed to the legislative stalemate in support of their positions.

Nancy Kaszak, a former Democratic state lawmaker and executive director of the Alliance to Protect the Illinois Constitution, said a constitutional convention would be dominated by the same politicians who now control Springfield. If they're unable to reach a compromise now, they likely wouldn't fare better in a convention, she said.

But Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, who successfully championed a 1982 constitutional amendment to reduce the size of the Illinois House, supports a new rewrite because, he has said, politicians in Springfield have lost touch with ordinary voters.

Kaszak said the persistent problems in Illinois - such as property taxes, education funding or the state's flat tax - wouldn't be addressed in a new convention.

"It's more likely the convention would be dominated with a discussion of gay marriage, abortion and guns than rethinking how our tax structure is. I think you need to put together the political will to pass something like that, you have to do the hard work," she said.

In Hawaii, delegates to a new convention could have their hands full, said Jon Van Dyke, a University of Hawaii law professor.

The delegates could revisit environmental protections in the state. Concerns include the all-too-common extinction of native species and restructuring of the state's freshwater supply to adapt to the demise of the sugar industry there, Van Dyke said.

In addition, Hawaii's congressional delegation has tried to give Native Hawaiians the kind of autonomy Native Americans have on the mainland. But if those efforts fail, the convention could propose giving them specific state rights and protections, he said.

Historically, Hawaiians have been open to the idea of a new convention. The state has had three constitutional conventions since 1950. In 1996, more people voted to hold a convention than voted against it, but the state Supreme Court ruled that blank ballots counted as "no" votes and the call for a convention was defeated.

 
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