Pro And Con On the ConCon

Oct 24, 2014

When Rhode Islanders head to polls next week, they will face an important issue that has not drawn much attention. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay looks at the Constitutional Convention question.

Our small state is holding a big election on Nov. 4. Statewide and federal offices are all being contested. Every General Assembly member confronts voters, who will also elect mayors in the Rhode Island’s two largest cities, Providence and Warwick.

Tucked near the bottom of this long ballot is Question 3, which would create a Constitutional Convention to consider changes in the document that is the foundation of state government.

While this is obviously an important topic, many Rhode Islanders have no clue about how they feel about the question, which in our state’s argot is known as the ConCon. A recent Brown University poll showed 42 percent favor a ConCon, 27 percent are opposed and 31 percent don’t have an opinion. (This survey of 1,129 voters carries a margin of sampling error of roughly 4 percent).

So 10 days before decision time roughly a third of the deciders don’t have much of a clue. Hopefully that changes quickly.

Here’s how it works:  If adopted, 75 delegates would be elected, one from each Rhode Island House district. These delegates would convene in a convention to decide on constitutional changes that would then be presented as ballot questions to voters at a general election. The constitutional changes would occur only if voters approve them.

On the surface, this appears to be a reasonable process anchored in that venerable New England tradition of Town Meeting, a form of direct democracy that has been abandoned in most parts of southern New England, but lives on in New Hampshire, Maine and especially Vermont, where it is a March tradition as embedded in the state’s culture as maple sugaring.

The groups battling in this intense pro and con ConCon campaign have their slogans, but they are mainly fighting about their views of democracy. Where you sit on the question of how responsive and responsible is the General Assembly determines how you stand on the ConCon.

If you think state lawmakers will never tackle issues that diminish their power, then you probably support a ConCon. Such groups as the R.I. Center for Freedom and Prosperity argue that a ConCon is needed because the Assembly will never give fair consideration to term limits for lawmakers, imposing ethics rules on the Assembly and bolstering the powers of the governor by  giving the state’s chief executive a line item veto over the state budget.

Restraints on state taxing and spending, which Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the freedom and prosperity group, says the state’s insider political class refuses to even discuss, could also be taken up by a ConCon.

Those against the ConCon assert that such a confab is going to more trouble than it is worth. Today’s political culture is a century removed from Norman Rockwell’s iconic freedom of speech illustration of an ordinary citizen speaking as an equal  to the town leaders at a Vermont meeting. A ConCon, say such groups as the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the AFL-CIO would lead to a flood of unregulated special interest money flowing from around the country to buy an election in Rhode Island. Think the right-wing Koch Brothers against left-wing George Soros.

Opponents also point to the disaster that was the last ConCon, held in the 1980s. That led to a divisive 1986 election on whether to tack onto the Constitution an anti-abortion amendment that was blatantly in the face of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in the Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized the medical procedure.

It is naïve to think that the anti-abortion forces, or the movement to repeal gay marriage, won’t be a part of a ConCon debate. Especially in our state, where the famously outspoken bishop, Thomas J. Tobin, of the Rhode Island’s largest church, uses every election to lobby for the Catholic Church’s dogmatic views on social issues.

The Assembly leadership is staunchly against a ConCon. In favor of their stance is the argument that lawmakers do listen to public opinion and act on it. The Assembly in recent years has tackled successfully such big changes as state pension overhaul, addressing the Separation of Powers issue and making same-sex marriage legal.

Yet, the Assembly too often gives their opponents a hand up. From the police raid on Speaker Gordon Fox’s office, to the sleazy way the 38 Studios fiasco was pushed through the Statehouse, voters have too often been burned by the Smith Hill cabal. Not to mention the end runs around the judicial selection system that hands out magistrate jobs to the favored few.

Rhode Islanders need to thoughtfully confront this issue. If you don’t understand the issue or can’t get beyond the slogans, perhaps the best thing for the rest of us is simply to skip voting on the ConCon. There are plenty of other questions and candidates on next week’s long ballot.

Scott MacKay's commentary runs every Monday at 6:35 and 8:35 on Morning Edition and at 5:50 in All Things Considered. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics' blog at RIPR.org