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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, October 13, 2008

Hawaii Constitutional Convention supporters face powerful foes

 •  Hawaii debates need for constitution fixes

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Some say there were clear constitutional issues behind previous conventions, including this one in 1968. But there isn't any single issue or set of issues this year.

Advertiser library photo

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Call for convention up to voters


Political forces are shaping the debate


A look back at the 1978 convention

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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"People have to get angry enough, frustrated enough with government, and then they have to believe that — collectively — we can do something to improve it."

State Rep. Della Au Belatti

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" ... More often than not, what you hear are people expressing frustration with the legislative process and what they perceive to be failures by the state Legislature. I don't quarrel with that, but those are statutory issues, not stuff that should be in the Constitution."

Randy Perreira | executive director of the Hawai'i Government Employees Association

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Hawai'i's two major political parties have taken opposite views on whether to call for a Constitutional Convention, but the division over the November ballot question is less partisan and more about who holds sway at the state Legislature.

A tenuous, largely unorganized coalition of Republicans, disaffected Democrats and independents who have lost faith in the ability of the Democratic-controlled Legislature to change from within have been the most visible supporters of a convention.

Establishment Democrats, labor interests, environmentalists and Native Hawaiians who have greater influence at the Legislature have opposed a convention as unnecessary and a threat to existing rights.

The debate over a convention does not fall neatly down ideological or party lines, nor can it be explained simply as about change vs. the status quo.

Although some want a convention purely as an exercise in democracy, most see it as a venue to advance issues — such as local school boards, term limits, and initiatives and referendums — that have either failed or have not been seriously proposed given the one-party dominance of the Legislature.

Many who are opposed to a convention believe it could endanger rights such as collective bargaining, Native Hawaiian cultural preservation and personal privacy, which are unlikely to be eroded soon at the Legislature.

"This is an opportunity for the people of Hawai'i to get involved in the democratic process," said Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, who wants a convention. "It would be an opportunity for them to set the vision, to set the goals and objectives of the state of Hawai'i in the future.

"They can shape the educational reform that we need, and the governmental reform that we need."

State Rep. Della Au Belatti, D-25th (Tantalus, Makiki, McCully), an attorney, said the call for a convention arises out of a failure of her party and its allies in organized labor to lead. She believes the risks of a ConCon have been exaggerated.

"Are you satisfied with the way government operates now? Can we do better? And is it worth the long-term investment?" asked Belatti, who would like a convention to address local control in public education, a Cabinet-level energy department, and the right to recall state lawmakers. "What we're talking about is a comprehensive review, comprehensive changes that could restructure government."


Randy Perreira, the executive director of the Hawai'i Government Employees Association, the state's largest public-sector labor union, said there were very clear constitutional issues cited before previous conventions in 1968 and 1978.

"Today, there are none," he said. "I have listened to opponents. They have repeatedly said 'It's about time. The world has changed. We need to look at it. It's time to review.'

"Nobody has offered up a substantive constitutional reason — meaning an issue that merits being in the Constitution, or something in the current Constitution that needs to be changed. More often than not, what you hear are people expressing frustration with the legislative process and what they perceive to be failures by the state Legislature.

"I don't quarrel with that, but those are statutory issues, not stuff that should be in the Constitution."

Florence Kong Kee, the executive director of the Hawai'i Alliance, a group that opposes a convention, said people interested in amending the Constitution should first try the process in place at the Legislature. Lawmakers have the authority to place amendments on the ballot.

"Actually, I think there is a lot of confusion," said Kong Kee, a former political director of the Democratic Party of Hawai'i. "I think people are unsure, they don't know. We're trying to get the message out of what a Constitutional Convention is, the cost and what the other options are."


Democrats have a 44 to 7 majority over Republicans in the House and a 22 to 3 majority in the Senate, giving the party the ability to control the legislative agenda and the numbers necessary to override vetoes from Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican.

Republicans, and some dissident Democrats, argue that the House and Senate leadership lacks imagination and can be impenetrable. But other than local school boards, which dominated the public-policy debate in 2003 and 2004, many of the issues suggested as topics for a convention have not been aggressively raised in recent sessions by lawmakers, activists or public-interest groups.

Majority Democrats have also shown they are willing to put constitutional amendments before voters. Since the most recent convention in 1978, according to Senate staff, the Legislature backed 57 amendments and 33 were ratified by voters.

The Democratic Party and labor unions, however, are sensitive about appearing as heavy-handed opponents to a convention. The party would not take a position on a convention at its state gathering in May, instead passing a resolution calling for public education about the risks. In September, the state central committee pushed through a resolution recommending that voters reject a convention.


This week, the Hawai'i Alliance, which is led by former Gov. George Ariyoshi, is expected to announce its partners in an attempt to show that opposition to a convention extends beyond labor. Sources say prominent business, environmental and Hawaiian civic groups will publicly join the effort.

Campaign-finance reports show that the financial backing for the Hawai'i Alliance through the September primary came exclusively from labor. The National Educational Association Ballot Measure Fund donated $350,000, the HGEA donated $10,000, and the Hawai'i State Teachers Association Educational Alliance donated $10,000. The University of Hawai'i Professional Assembly has also donated $10,000, but the contribution will not be reflected until the next round of reporting is made public.

The NEA, the public-school teachers' lobby, gave another $150,000 to the HSTA in September to oppose a convention. "There is no need," said Roger Takabayashi, the HSTA president. "Is our Constitution broken? The answer is no. Can constitutional amendments be done by other means? The answer is yes."

The large NEA contributions, however, pose a contradiction for those Democrats who have argued that one of the risks of a convention is that well-financed Mainland interests would hijack the process.

Fundraising by the Hawai'i Alliance has allowed the group to buy television advertisements and do voter outreach that has so far been unmatched by those who support a convention.

Yes for Constitutional Convention, a Kane'ohe-based group, did not report any fundraising through the primary. Activists have put up Web sites, such as HawaiiConCon.org and Itstime Hawaii.com, to try to jump-start a public discussion, but have had little success.

Several people involved said the disparate interests that favor a convention — which Belatti described as an "uneasy alliance" — have not organized or attempted to operate like a traditional political campaign. No real effort has been made to reach out to two emerging parts of the electorate that might be sympathetic: activists who fought for a ballot question on Honolulu's $3.7 billion mass-transit project; and the thousands of new, mostly younger voters drawn to politics because of Hawai'i-born U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's message of change.

"People have to get angry enough, frustrated enough with government, and then they have to believe that — collectively — we can do something to improve it," Belatti said.


State Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser, D-7th (Kaua'i, Ni'ihau), who opposes a convention, said supporters have been unable to convince people that a convention is necessary. He said that aside from philosophical reasons against a convention, the cost should also be an issue given the downturn in the state's economy.

The Legislative Reference Bureau estimated that a convention could cost between $6.4 million and $41.7 million, while a task force led by Aiona put it at under $10 million. Hooser, who served on the task force, believes a convention would cost at least $20 million.

"We don't need it. We can't afford it. And there is no compelling reason to hold a ConCon," he said.

Former Congressman Ed Case, who favors a convention, said he would like the debate to be more about the structure of government. He believes that the basic rights in the Constitution, for the most part, should be protected and not subject to review every decade.

"What we have to remember is that the Hawai'i Constitution is about far more than that. It's about the structure of government, the operation of government, the distribution of power in government," said Case, an attorney. "Most people think of the Constitution as a source of rights — and it is that —but it's also about how we govern ourselves and that, I think, can stand to be at least considered periodically."

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.