Speaking out in support of a state ConCon
By Peter Kay and state Rep. Della Au Belatti
Each week Editorial and Opinion Editor Jeanne Mariani-Belding hosts The Hot Seat, our opinion-page blog that brings in elected leaders and people in the news and lets you ask the questions during a live online chat.
On The Hot Seat last week were Peter Kay and state Rep. Della Au Belatti, co-founders of www.HawaiiConCon.org, a new online community of citizens trying to jump start the conversation on whether Hawai'i should convene a Constitutional Convention.
Here is an excerpt from that Hot Seat session. To see the full conversation, go to The Hot Seat blog at www.honoluluadvertiser.com/opinion and click on "The Hot Seat." (Names of questioners are screen names given during our online chat.)
Reader: Local interest in the presidential election process is extremely high, for good reason. It should help increase voter turnout in November, which makes it an ideal time to put various issues on the ballot.
Debate about the need for a Constitutional Convention has been muted. What is the argument you most hear about not making a ConCon vote one of them, and how do you counter it?
Rep. Della Au Belatti: The most common arguments I hear against a ConCon "yes" vote is that "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" and "What is the flaw with the constitution that needs fixing?"
First, looking back at history, we came out with a pretty good document from the 1978 ConCon. When I review the literature of the 1970s, there wasn't anything terribly broken or flawed with the constitution in 1978. People were, however, very disappointed with the way government was functioning, there was a clamor for more transparency and better government, and there was a lot of anti-development activism. Does this sound similar to today?
Second, most veteran legislators and strong interest groups pose the "what is flawed" question. Since 1978, the Legislature has proposed 52 amendments. Of these, 37 were ratified by the voting public. Isn't it about time that we take a big-picture look at what has happened to our constitution over the past 30 years, what it can become and then what we can collectively develop rather than just allow legislators to decide what goes through the amendment process in a piecemeal fashion?
Third, ultimately the ConCon is an opportunity to come up with an even better constitution to reflect some of the important changes that have developed over the past 30 years. We need to take this time to comprehensively review, examine, update and strengthen our constitution.
Reader: The divisions between Democrats and Republicans are deep. Is the Constitutional Convention issue an area where politics need intervene? The Legislature already has the ability to place amendments to the constitution on the ballot. Is legislative indifference to the ConCon issue a result of it not wanting its powers usurped, its possibly dysfunctional nature, a lack of understanding of the process, or is the term "indifference" unfair?
Rep. Belatti is in her first term. I admire her willingness to address the need for considering change. How has her perception of the Legislature changed during her time in office, and why is this a cause she has chosen?
Belatti: The ConCon will be a place for more people to get involved in the politics of the time. I don't believe legislators are indifferent they are carefully watching the ConCon debates and the outcome. There is a range of opinion among legislators (in strong support; with ambivalence; and in strong opposition). I urge you to call your representative or senator and ask them for their opinion.
I have been very disappointed in the lack of public discussion about the important decisions made by our Legislature and the inordinate amount of focus by elected folk on protecting their own office at the next election. For this reason alone, I think it is extremely important that we have a ConCon.
Ni: I'm concerned that fringe elements will try to hijack this and promote their own narrow agenda. Would the new constitution have to be approved in total, or would each new part, or each new section within a part, be voted on?
Peter Kay: That is a fantastic question and is precisely why www.hawaiiconcon.org exists. Special interests have power when they can shut others out of the process. By creating a Web site that lets all citizens participate, the only thing that can work against our people is that if we don't participate, and if that happens, we probably won't have a ConCon anyway.
Ni: I understand that there are no bars on public officials participating except the governor/lieutenant governor; I also heard that there was a campaign in the media to shame elected officials from running as delegates for the '78 ConCon, and by and large that worked. Do you think such a campaign will work this time?
Kay: I personally don't think there is a lot of "love" for today's elected officials and if we work hard today to "brand" this upcoming ConCon as one that the people have already started (this is why we started www.hawaiiconcon.org), then I think we'll have a pretty good chance at keeping this a people's ConCon, thereby minimizing elected officials' involvement as delegates.
Chloe: If a ConCon were to be held, what would be your top three topics for discussion?
Belatti: I think we need to look at some "good government" reforms (right-to-vote matters, such as Election Day registration, comprehensive publicly financed elections, strengthening government ethics, more transparency of government decision-making process); looking at whether the balance of power between the executive, legislative and judiciary branches are properly balanced; and looking at how the constitution may be more responsive to our dramatically changed world (technology advances; issue of energy security and sustainability; the problem of global warming).
Ted: Since you believe a ConCon should be held at this time to re-examine the document in light of events or changed circumstances since the last ConCon, what would you like to see changed/added/ deleted?
Belatti: There's a lot that needs to be reviewed. We should re-examine the article on the Board of Education. Is it time to correct the way the members are elected so as to represent the Neighbor Islands? Is it time to consider an appointed board? What about regional school boards? I don't have a position on any of these, but would like to see the discussion more broadly in the community.
We could look at whether the Legislature is properly structured and functioning. For some, this may be a manini change, but we could extend our legislative session from 60 days to 90 days this could have the very real positive effect of having more transparency to the legislative decision-making process.
While I don't support initiative and referendum, I would consider the merits/demerits of recall. As a community, we have experience with recall at the county level in Honolulu. I think this reform could bring a little more accountability to our electoral process.
Nahoaloha: Our state constitution is fairly progressive some would say it already goes beyond the "just the basics" framework of most constitutions. What changes do you hope a ConCon can make that are both necessary and could not be accomplished through ordinary legislation?
Belatti: There are some changes that are so antithetical to a politician's interests that may never see the light of day. For example, Election Day registration has been attempted at least two sessions in a row, and stronger government ethics reforms. There's also altering the length of a legislative session the Legislature can do this by rule, but is very unlikely.
An Energy Resources Commission, along the lines of a Water Resources Commission, could be a structural change added to the conversation.
Citizen: Who opposes the ConCon?
Belatti: This is a hard one to pinpoint because the opposition has been very quiet. But we can just look to past opposition from unions, big business, environmental groups, civil rights groups in fact, it is probably safe to say that groups that benefit from the way government operates now are in opposition.
This is not to say that, if a ConCon is passed, these groups will not and should not actively participate in the ConCon process. These groups absolutely need to be involved, and I predict will be involved in helping shape the conversation and select delegates just as these groups were involved in 1978.
Debra in Kailua: What are politicians afraid of regarding a ConCon? Should not the merits of their positions on whatever the issue may be stand on its merits?
Belatti: First, it is not just politicians who are afraid of ConCon. There are very powerful interest groups against ConCon. These include unions and big business go figure that alliance. I think it is the uncertainty that unsettles all these groups from politicians and interest groups who are comfortable with the status quo.
Joyce: What did it cost last time? How much is too much? The economy is terrible.
Belatti: For the 1978 ConCon, the Legislature appropriated $2.5 million toward the convention. The actual expenditures totaled a little over $2,032,401. If these costs were adjusted for inflation, the Legislature has determined that the cost would be $6,579,742.
How much is too much? For an event that will have occurred only once every 30 years, $10 million is probably a reasonable estimate. We'll see what the lieutenant governor's Task Force and the LRB come up with in the next few months.
Citizen: I see that a previous ConCon was held at McKinley High School. We can make the salaries of delegates the same as jury duty. Just some examples of how to keep the cost down.
Even if it costs us a few bucks, I'd like to hear all the debate in a ConCon that would be relevant for legislative sessions.
Bea: I think a large part of the conflict seems to be that voters don't trust elected officials to "do the right thing" and ignore special interests' money and government/public policy-makers don't trust the people to make decisions for themselves. And it seems the issue of the next ConCon is lying at the intersection of both. With civic participation at its all-time low and mistrust of our elected politicians at its all-time high, is now a good or bad time for our next ConCon?
The risks to holding a ConCon are pretty big; how can you justify holding one as a tool to increase public engagement?
Kay: I think that we, as a people, stand on the edge of something incredible. There stands a fork in the road of our destiny before us: one path says "More of the same." The other path says "Time for a change." Both paths have their own risks and rewards. www.HawaiiConCon.org is a breath of fresh air that says, "Let's do it differently this time. Let's allow EVERYONE to get involved with something that really matters."
I think that if you ask the average citizen's opinion on how well our government operates, I would be willing to bet that the "approval ratings" would be very low. If that's not a good reason, I don't know what is.