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Constitutional convention sparks debate about govt. reform

Backers argue convention would empower voters, while critics claim special interests would dominate

As the November election date draws closer, the debate has heated up over ballot Question 3, which asks voters whether the state should host a constitutional convention to amend the state’s constitution.

While supporters of the initiative argue the convention provides an opportunity to decrease government corruption, increase citizen involvement in politics and initiate new legislation the General Assembly might not otherwise take up, opponents are expressing concern over the potential influence of outside interest groups and the possibility that the convention could undo recent legislation.

The Rhode Island Constitution dictates that the question of hosting a constitutional convention must appear on the ballot every 10 years.

During the last convention, voters elected 100 delegates from the community in 1985 for a convention that convened a year later, costing Rhode Islanders $1,920,960, adjusted for inflation.

Article XIV, Section 2 of the Rhode Island Constitution states that another election must be held following a convention for voters to approve any amendments or revisions to the constitution.

In 1986, voters approved 8 of the 14 amendments placed on the ballot, including a rewrite of the present constitution.

Randall Rose, main organizer of Just Reform RI — a progressive group advocating for citizens’ rights during the constitutional convention — and a member of RenewRI, a coalition of pro-convention groups and people, said “the state legislature is working well for insiders, but not for the rest of us.”

“We want to reduce the power of the statehouse and give more power to the voters,” Rose said, adding that legislators might not enact laws that would undermine their own authority. “We need reform so that they are more accountable to voters.”

Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island and a member of the anti-convention political action committee Citizens for Responsible Government, said supporters of the convention have failed to provide sufficient evidence of the measure’s benefits.

“The constitutional convention was created to deal with government reform — that’s not what happened,” Brown said. The General Assembly should be able to perform the same functions as the delegates, he added.

A constitutional convention, Brown said, “serves as a distraction from the hard work needed to get a good legislature. People think a convention is a quick fix. It won’t be.”

Brown pointed to examples of what he called “dangerous” actions taken by the 1986 constitutional convention — two anti-abortion amendments. A convention today would be the “perfect opportunity for out-of-state interest groups to bring big money into Rhode Island,” he said.

“Every amendment has to be ratified by voters. It can’t go forward if it violates the standards of the U.S. Constitution,” said Tim Duffy, a member of RenewRI and executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees. “If people are worried this will infringe upon marriage equality, the Supreme Court just shut that down.”

Even advocates for the convention have conceded that outside spending has an influential role in politics. But Gary Sasse, founding director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University and a member of RenewRI, said he thinks the convention “may give us the opportunity to challenge what big money is doing in government.”

“This is one of the few times people can get involved,” he added.

“It’s ironic how people running campaigns about how elections can be bought are the ones buying the election,” Rose said.

As of July 2014, Citizens for Responsible Government had raised $59,000, which it has used to campaign against the convention, according to public campaign finance records from the Rhode Island State Board of Elections.

Brown now estimates the total fundraised to be “around $60,000 to 70,000,” coming from a number of organizations, including Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, United Nurses and Allied Professionals and the United Food and Commercial Workers Defense Fund.

RenewRI received a $23,000 contribution from donor John Hazen White to pay for two billboards placed on Interstate 195 in favor of the ballot question, Rose wrote in an email to The Herald.

He added that Just Reform Rhode Island and RenewRI together have raised under $100,000 in the campaign for the convention, as compared to the just over $100,000 raised by groups opposed to the question. “If the issue was just about campaign funds, we would lose,” Rose said.

Citizens for Responsible Government has run one untelevised video ad on the Internet, which has been accused of raising fears about big money, Brown said.

“Rhode Island’s constitution isn’t for sale,” said Jen Stevens of Rhode Island Pride, an organization that advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the state. The organization has allied with anti-convention groups, Stevens said, to prevent outside money from influencing delegates to undercut recent legislative initiatives, such as same-sex marriage.

“Delegates are left unchecked with no obligation to represent voters, and that’s a dangerous situation, especially for minority groups,” she said.

Brown cited the appearance of Grover Norquist, president of anti-tax lobbying group Americans for Tax Reform, at a pro-convention luncheon last week as an example of the influence of outside interest groups.

Issues raised about how the 1986 convention was run have influenced the discussion of the potential convention. In an op-ed in the Providence Journal, Brown wrote that “the General Assembly kept a pledge that no current legislator would run as a delegate. Instead, seven former legislators won seats to the convention. At least four relatives of sitting legislators were also elected, including — no lie — the House speaker’s son and sister.”

Rose said the 1986 convention could have been organized better and suggested publicizing a list of delegate candidates without connections to the legislature.

Brown said in 1986 voters were aware that delegate candidates had ties to politicians, but did not prevent their elections. “There’s no reason it’d be different this year.”

Sasse said he did not think it was a problem to have people connected to government working with private citizens during a convention.“There’s a difference between running for office and running for a delegate position at a constitutional convention. Insiders and outsiders should have the ability to run.”

He added that a convention “encourages citizen participation” because there is no pressure to run again. “There were over 560 people who ran in 1986, and most weren’t tied to legislature,” he said.

There has been a more vigorous debate about the convention this year than in the past, in part because of voters’ frustration with the Assembly, Brown said.

Sasse said the results of a poll conducted by RenewRI with the polling firm Fleming and Associates found that 82 percent of voters surveyed did not think their state government was effective.

“A lot of people understand that there’s a lot of power corruption,” Rose said. Convention supporters advocate for protections for people in government speaking out against corruption and utilize those people to help “clean up government,” he added.

Rose said he doesn’t think changing the values of politicians and the state is as easy as convention rejectors would like to think. “I know there’s money in politics, but if you want to change campaign finance reform, the constitutional convention offers more idealistic people.”

“Most people are not aware of the question,” Brown said of the ballot question, which he said leads people initially to support the measure. “Once the process is explained, they grasp just how much of a potential threat a constitutional convention is to civil rights.”

Education reform is an important issue that supporters of the convention believe would be easier to raise during the convention than in the legislature. The R.I. Association of School Committees advocates for changing Article XII of the state constitution, which does not guarantee students the right to an equal education, Duffy said.

One concern is that communities that do not generate enough revenue from property taxes cannot provide students in public schools with sufficient resources.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court held in the City of Pawtucket v. Sundlun that Article XII did not “guarantee an ‘equal, adequate and meaningful education’ … because at the time there was no requirement that public education be provided at all in the state,” Duffy said.

Previous efforts to pass education reform legislation through the General Assembly failed, Duffy said. “We can try to get it back on the ballot in 2016, but the only way to guarantee students those rights is through a constitutional convention,” said Duffy. “We get one bite at the apple every 10 years.”



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