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

In ConCon fight, roles are reversed

 •  Politicians debate need for ConCon in televised forum
 •  Hawaii Constitutional Convention supporters face powerful foes
 •  Hawaii debates need for constitution fixes

By Jerry Burris
Advertiser Political Columnist

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

William Paty, chairman of the 1978 convention, signs the 34 constitutional amendments hammered out by the convention and later approved by voters.


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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

Constitutional Convention members held hands as they sang “Hawai'i Aloha” at the conclusion of a session of the 1978 convention, which met during the summer and produced 34 amendments.


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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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To hear proponents and opponents of a state Constitutional Convention face off on the issues, tune to a live debate tonight at 6:30 televised on KGMB9 and live-streamed on www.honoluluadvertiser.com.

The debate is sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Hawaii and the Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs.

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The last time Hawai'i held a Constitutional Convention, in 1978, the focus was on a political power struggle between the "haves" and the "have-nots."

In many ways, that same picture is emerging today as the state contemplates holding yet another convention to look at, and possibly revise, our constitution.

The big difference is that the forces that want change and those who are comfortable with the status quo have — in many respects — switched sides.

Proponents this year of a Constitutional Convention, ConCon for short, include some conservative groups and the Republican Party, who have made league with political leaders who are deeply frustrated with the ability of the Legislature to deal with today's problems.

Opposing the ConCon are many labor unions and a loose coalition of environmentalists, Native Hawaiian groups and social reformers who fear gains made in the previous two conventions could be lost.

In essence, talk about a Constitutional Convention always divides those who are essentially comfortable with the status quo against those who want change and see no other way to achieve it.

That was certainly the case in 1978: That post-Watergate era ConCon was, above all else, a "people's convention." The ethic of the time virtually demanded that sitting political figures stay out of the way so "the people" could look at the constitution at their own pace and in their own way.

In the end, just three sitting political figures were among the 102 people elected to the ConCon: State lawmakers Donald Ching and Robert Taira, and Honolulu Councilman Kekoa Kaapu. Two former legislators and a few veterans of previous conventions also were elected; in total, a small minority of the full convention.

But if the remaining delegates were new to elective politics, they were far from being short of political ambition. That convention created an entire generation of political leaders who went on to hold office, including former Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris, former Gov. John Waihee, and a host of state and county legislators.


Several concerns dominated going into that 1978 convention, which met over a long, hot summer in the old federal building in Downtown Honolulu, across from 'Iolani Palace. The unions, particularly the HGEA, were concerned that a collective bargaining right for public employees approved by the 1968 convention might be eliminated or watered down. The HGEA successfully backed a strong contingent of convention delegates.

A second force, which ended up being represented by a minority of self-styled "independents" at the convention, wanted political and electoral reform that they believed would open up a closed political system in the Islands. Their causes included open primaries and initiative and referendum.

A third force which featured many youthful, local-born delegates, was concerned that the state's delicate balance of political power might be shifted toward outside or "Mainland" forces. This Islands-first group was opposed to initiative and referendum and was generally skeptical of what it saw as unsuitable "outside" ideas.

As the convention worked its way through the summer, a loose coalition between those third-force, youthful, Hawaiian-rights-oriented delegates and the more established, union-backed delegates took charge.


In the end, the convention surprised itself by enacting 34 sweeping amendments to the constitution that still reverberate today. The unions retained their rights and power while initiative and referendum were turned down.

But in other areas, particularly in Hawaiian rights, environmental protections and constitutional guarantees of social or personal liberties, the 1978 Constitutional Convention produced nothing short of a revolution.

The convention created the groundbreaking and unprecedented state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, embedded protections for Hawaiian cultural practices in the constitution and even declared Hawaiian an official language of the state.

The exact role of OHA, who can or should participate in its activities, and how it should be funded remain in debate to this day.

On the environment, the 1978 delegates placed into the constitution strong new protections for the marine environment, for water (including the creation of a statewide water commission) and for agricultural land. The work of defining and then creating protections for prime agricultural land continues today, about 30 years after the voters approved the idea.

Along the way, delegates imposed a constitutional ban on the construction of a nuclear-fission power plant in Hawai'i without the express approval of a super-majority of two-thirds of each house of the Legislature.


In 1978, many delegates were concerned about Big Brother government and its ability to snoop into the private lives of Hawai'i's residents. For some, this was an issue of being able to smoke marijuana in the privacy of one's home.

Whatever the motivation, the convention declared the "right of the people to privacy," which cannot be infringed without a legal showing of compelling state interest — a very high bar, indeed.

This right has been used on one hand to place a blanket over formerly open government records and on the other as a defense for such social rights as a woman's right to choose and the right of same-sex couples to marry.

In an effort to impose a measure of citizen oversight over the spending habits of elected officials, the convention imposed a ceiling on state spending, and created a special revenue commission to guide lawmakers on how much they could spend and what they could do in times of surplus (give it back to the taxpayers).

While the changes approved by the convention were sweeping, they did not go as far as some delegates wanted.

Concern about the pressures of growth and overdevelopment were at the top of their minds in 1978 and delegates considered, but eventually did not endorse, such things as a ban on the ownership of land or businesses by illegal immigrants, and a quota system for new building permits and utility expansion.

Now, in 2008, the picture is entirely different. Growth is less of an issue while a staggering economy is at the forefront. Energy prices are soaring, and the legal and philosophical debate over the constitutionality of Hawaiian entitlements is working its way up and down the court system.

How would the delegates to a new convention react to those and other 21st-century challenges? These are the questions voters must ask themselves before they vote aye or nay on holding another Constitutional Convention.

Reach Jerry Burris at jrryburris@yahoo.com.