RI ConCon Issue Simmers At Statehouse

Aug 19, 2014

As the battle over whether to hold a Rhode Island Constitutional Convention simmers on the back burner in the dog days of August, the debate is taking shape.

A battle is brewing over a Constitutional Convention at the Statehouse. Some view it as an important legislative tool, others a way to easily put controversial measures on the ballot.
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

Every 10 years, Rhode Island voters must decide whether to hold a so-called ConCon, which is comprised of citizen delegates elected from Rhode Island’s 75 House districts. This time, the discussion is largely along ideological lines, with more conservative groups favoring a convention and liberal and moderate organizations opposed.

A commission gathering views from voters met again this afternoon at the Statehouse, taking testimony from the pro and con sides of the ConCon.

In 2004, the ConCon ballot initiative met narrow defeat. The last time a full-fledged convention was held was in 1986.

The major arguments against such a convention come from groups who believe a ConCon would cause more problems that it is worth. They point to the 1986 confab, where the biggest takeaway was an anti-abortion amendment that was blatantly in the face of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the 1973 Roe V. Wade ruling that legalized the medical procedure.

The measure would have banned all abortions in Rhode Island and defined life as beginning with conception. When that question was put to voters in the fall of 1986, it went down to a resounding defeat by a margin of about 2 to 1.

The other side has been represented by such groups as the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, which argues that Rhode Island voters have scant faith in the General Assembly’s ability to get things done. Such conservatives argue that a ConCon provides a check on legislative authority by going directly to voters.

Here’s what we do know: Assembly leaders frown on a ConCon. Larry Berman, spokesman for House Speaker Nick Mattiello, D-Cranston says the speaker opposes a ConCon because it could be captured by special interest groups.

``He believes we should be very careful about amending the Constitution,’’ said Berman, ``The speaker believes that change is better done legislatively.’’

What the issue comes down to is that those who believe they can get a reasonable shake with the Assembly don’t see the need for a ConCon. Those who do not believe the Assembly is responsive to citizen needs want a ConCon.

One element, big money interests from outside Rhode Island, would play a larger role this time around than  in the 1980s, said Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. That’s because special interest groups, fueled by the national loosening of campaign finance rules (i.e. Citizens United) have more influence these days.

In recent years, the Assembly has responded to citizen concerns and has taken some bold steps, including the 2011 special pension session that cut benefits for state retirees and public school teachers. The Assembly also repealed master lever voting beginning in the 2016 election cycle. And lawmakers approved gay marriage after a protracted debate.

Yet, lawmakers have declined to enforce strong ethics laws on themselves, which has led to criticism from some good government .

Those against the ConCon fear that, as was the case in the 1980s with abortion, delegates would find themselves pressured by anti-immigrant, anti-abortion and anti-labor groups financed from outside Rhode Island.