Constitutional convention: The General Assembly’s kid brother

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If you like how the General Assembly operates, you’ll love a constitutional convention. On the other hand, if you’re concerned about legislative shenanigans, you should reject Question 3 on November’s ballot.

Question 3 will ask voters if there should be a constitutional convention to revise the Rhode Island constitution. Some have cited a constitutional convention as a cure for what is ailing our state. One could make this argument only by completely ignoring the history of Rhode Island’s last constitutional convention and by pretending that the next one would somehow arise out of thin air, divorced from politics and run by wise statesmen who will have only your best interests at heart.

It’s time to bring some real facts to this debate. Delegates to a convention will be chosen through a similar political process that elects our legislators, and a convention will be filled with all the wheeling and dealing of a General Assembly session. It is also virtually guaranteed that wealthy outside interests will spend millions of dollars to have their ideologically divisive pet projects brought to a convention for approval by the voters, and there is nothing anyone will be able to do to stop that.

Convention supporters, with no evidence other than blind faith, shrug off these fears as unwarranted. So let’s look at what happened at Rhode Island’s last convention, in 1986:

The General Assembly pledged that no current legislator would run as a delegate, but that didn’t stop seven former legislators from winning seats to the convention. At least four relatives of sitting legislators were also elected, including – no lie – the Speaker of the House’s son and sister.

The delegate elections were “non-partisan,” but according to reports, 60 of the delegates had “distinct Democratic backgrounds” or were “active in Republican affairs,” serving on party committees and the like.

The push for a 1986 convention was also supposedly all about “reforming” government. How did that work out?

The most significant and controversial proposal to come out of that convention had nothing to do with government reform, but everything to do with hot-button divisive ideology – it was a constitutional amendment declaring that “life begins at conception,” designed to ban abortions in the state. In fact, the 1986 convention passed not one, but two amendments to restrict reproductive freedom.

While some people claim a convention is necessary to deal with important structural issues that the General Assembly refuses to address, like line-item veto and political redistricting, these issues were also considered at the 1986 convention – and rejected. In fact, the convention came close to approving a constitutional amendment that would have expanded the legislature’s appointment powers over state commissions and agencies; it was the legislature, not a convention, that approved an amendment establishing separation of powers.

Some of the “reform” amendments that actually were approved by the convention – dealing with four-year terms for state officers, legislative pay, and judicial selection reform – were rejected by the voters because they were so watered down. The voters approved these measures in future years, but only after the General Assembly proposed them in revised form.

Fans of the General Assembly will be pleased to learn that at least a couple of the convention’s sessions lasted into the early morning hours.

The convention approved so many constitutional amendments – 25 – that in order to ensure they could fit on the ballot, the amendments were bundled into 14 confusing ballot questions. As a result, if you wanted to support, for example, adding a “free speech” clause to the Constitution, you also had to vote for a bundled provision eliminating legal protection for abortion rights.

A constitutional convention is, in many respects, a concentrated one-time voter initiative process. Divisive constitutional amendments now routinely appear on other states’ ballots, demonstrating that Rhode Island’s 1986 anti-abortion proposal was not some fluke. In the last election cycle, close to $1 billion was spent on referenda campaigns across the country. A Rhode Island convention will be a magnet for that sort of money.  Perhaps learning a lesson from us, not one other state has voted to hold a convention since our state’s ill-fated 1986 effort.

Admittedly, getting structural change through the General Assembly can be painfully slow, but history shows that it has been, and can be, done. As much as supporters of a convention might want to, they cannot turn it into a quick fix that will rise above politics and solve the state’s problems. To the contrary – it will only add to the cynicism so many people harbor about politics, invite outside meddling, and dissuade people from engaging in the real work necessary to reform our legislative process. By urging a no vote on Question 3, it is true that we reject the fantasy of a magic bullet – but at least we avoid a real one.

Steven Brown is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island.

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