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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Politicians debate need for ConCon in televised forum

 •  In ConCon fight, roles are reversed

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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High-profile opponents and supporters of holding a Constitutional Convention sparred last night in the first of two live television debates on the topic this week.

State Senate President Colleen Hanabusa and state Sen. Gary Hooser went up against convention supporters Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona and former U.S. Rep. Ed Case in the one-hour KHON2 program, which touched on how much a convention would cost, how it would affect a wide range of issues and how delegates would be chosen.

"For too long, government has failed to address longstanding issues," Aiona said in his opening statement. "This is your last chance at a Constitutional Convention for 10 more years. Without the people's voice, our government doesn't run as well as it should."

Aiona added that some of the questions that could be taken up at a Constitutional Convention include whether the state Department of Education should be de-centralized, creating "local school boards more responsive to ... communities," and whether the state attorney general and schools superintendent should be elected, instead of appointed.

Hooser countered that with the state's budget woes and downturning economy, this is no time to be spending millions on a Constitutional Convention. "We don't need it and we can't afford it," he said. "There's no compelling need that's been presented."

Hooser also said a convention would be a forum for special interests to bring in potentially harmful changes, adding that "it's no secret" the Republican Party is pushing for a convention.

Questions posed to participants last night came from viewers and moderator and KHON reporter Gina Mangieri. A second live television debate on the pros and cons of a convention is set for tonight at 6:30 on KGMB9.

Most viewer questions last night were on the mechanics of a Constitutional Convention and why one would be needed. Viewers also asked how a convention would affect education, healthcare, Native Hawaiians, the military, newcomers and the counties.

Voters will be asked on Nov. 4 to vote "yes" or "no" on whether to convene a Constitutional Convention.

The state Legislature has the power to organize a convention or to place amendments before voters, but if no convention is held within a decade, the lieutenant governor can put the question before voters.

The last Constitutional Convention in Hawai'i was held three decades ago, after voters supported it. The convention resulted in a host of changes and additions to the state Constitution, including the requirement that the governor submit a balanced budget.

Opponents of holding a convention say there is no need for one, pointing to the lack of a single issue or set of issues behind the call for considering changes to the state's governing document.

They also say it would be a waste of money.

"The Constitutional Convention is not warranted at this time," Hanabusa said in her opening statement last night. "Since statehood, we've had two conventions. I believe it is a fine document."

But supporters say the constitution is overdue for a comprehensive review.

"Why is it necessary?" Case said. "Because there is no other real opportunity to step back, take a little bit of a breath and look at the big picture of where we've been, where we are, but more importantly where we want to go. That doesn't happen at the Legislature."

There are disagreements about how much a Constitutional Convention would cost. The Legislative Reference Bureau has estimated a convention could cost up to $41.7 million. A task force set up by Aiona estimated it would cost from $2 million to $11 million.

Case said the convention does not have to cost upwards of $20 million. And, he added, "you have to spend a little money to save a lot of money." Aiona said a convention could be held for less than $10 million.

But Hooser said the convention would cost at least $20 million if "done right." "Where are we going to get that money?" he asked. "Are we going to take it away from our schools that are already stretched?"

Support and opposition for the convention is largely along party lines. The Democratic Party of Hawai'i has come out against the convention, while the Hawai'i Republican Party supports it. Case, a Democrat, said the issue shouldn't be about "partisan politics." He added, "It's about a people's audit of our government."

Reach Mary Vorsino at mvorsino@honoluluadvertiser.com.