At first blush, the idea of a Constitutional Convention seems in keeping with the democratic principle of citizen participation in government.
In actuality, a Constitutional Convention is an unnecessary expenditure of taxpayer dollars and a potential vehicle for special interest groups to accomplish their goals at the expense of all other citizens.
During a recent public appearance by a number of delegates to the state’s last Constitutional Convention, former Rhode Island Senate Minority Leader Lila Sapinsley said she was “sorely disappointed” by the process and outcome of that 1986 session. It is unnecessary to spend $1 million to $2 million on a convention, she said, “when we have a General Assembly that’s perfectly capable of making constitutional changes.”
I agree wholeheartedly, although I would like to point out the current estimated cost of a convention is closer to $2.5 million. In a difficult economy, at a time when every dollar spent on a Constitutional Convention is money that cannot be spent on other pressing budgetary needs – such as education and infrastructure – cost is a very relevant objection to holding a convention.
More importantly, though, no other state holds a Constitutional Convention. The last convention anywhere in our nation was held in Rhode Island in 1986 – nearly 30 years ago.
I also am concerned that special interests – one group, several groups, a small collection of strident individuals – could hijack the convention and call for changes to the Rhode Island Constitution that actually weaken the rights of the citizens of our state. Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union has expressed concern that a Constitutional Convention – depending on its makeup – could place before voters issues that could put civil rights at risk.
I do not disagree that, on occasion, good ideas about constitutional changes arise. Separation of Powers was one such idea. Yet that important constitutional change was presented to voters not as a result of a convention, but through the normal legislative process of discussion and debate and vote by the individuals the citizens of Rhode Island had elected to represent them. That normal process of governance – by a duly elected body chosen by voters – can bring about constitutional change in a far more open process than through a special convention of delegates. And whether by the legislature or a convention, any proposed changes will still require passage by the state’s voters.
If voters are unhappy with the legislature, they have the opportunity every two years to make changes to that body. Former State Senator Thomas Izzo, who also was a delegate to the 1986 convention, said citizens are better served by putting their efforts into electing members of the General Assembly who support good government laws.
Supporters of a Constitutional Convention, who tend to also be detractors of the General Assembly, express concern about the likelihood of the legislature accomplishing any good for the citizens of the state. In a recently published opinion piece, H. Philip West, formerly of Common Cause, urged people who are fed up with the General Assembly to vote for a Constitutional Convention because, he suggests, the legislature hasn’t fixed any issues of concern to the citizens. I disagree. In addition to the aforementioned Separation of Powers matter, the General Assembly has eliminated the master lever from future state ballots. The legislature also, a number of years ago, undid voter passage of an issue generated by the 1986 convention – regarding voting rights of prisoners. Brown, the ACLU executive director said, “It took 20 years to undo the damage to voting rights.”
West also pointed out in his opinion piece that a Constitutional Convention is necessary because the General Assembly has failed to restore Ethics Commission power over the legislature. In fact, legislation that would have done exactly that was on the cusp of passage earlier this year. It was the recalcitrance of one special interest group, Common Cause, which derailed enactment of that bill simply because the group would not accept any language other than precisely what they, alone, demanded.
I think it is clear that Rhode Island does not need to spend $2.5 million to bring constitutional issues before voters when that can be done by the elected members of the General Assembly who are beholden not to one particular agenda, but rather to all the voters in their district. I urge Rhode Islanders to vote no on Question No. 3.