Election 2008

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Jae C. Hong/AP

Democrats' ‘Change’ Does Not Extend to Hawaii’s Constitution

October 28, 2008 06:30 AM
by Christopher Coats
As Democrats across the country have come to embrace their candidate’s message of “change,” Barack Obama’s party members in his home state think shaking things up may have its limits when it comes to state issues.

Hawaii’s Constitutional Convention

Faced with a once-in-a-decade option to alter their state constitution, Hawaii Democrats have come out strongly against the possibility of a Constitutional Convention, citing high costs and a lack of clear direction for amendments.

First adopted by the state’s population in 1950, the Hawaii State Constitution is subject to a constitutional convention every 10 years, with an option to open such an event placed on the public ballot.

The option asks only if the public would like to initiate a convention, but no particular amendments to the document are necessary.

This lack of specifics has emerged as the largest obstacle to supporters of a convention and the strongest argument against such an event, with opposition groups arguing that without a pressing need or goal, state money should not be spent on a convention.

With the state facing a projected $1 billion deficit and estimates for the convention varying wildly, from $6.4 million to over $40 million, the initiative’s cost has become one of critics’ strongest arguments.

“Let’s not put things at risk unnecessarily,” Flo Kong Kee, executive director of the anti-convention Hawaii Alliance, told the AP. “This is the wrong time, there’s not a need for it, there’s no compelling reason and it costs too much.”

Critics also worry that the current financial slowdown could have a negative impact on which amendments find their way onto the ballot.

“You have no idea what kind of horse trading might go on, and some of the good things in the constitution might go by the wayside,” said Roger Takabayashi, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association. “Money needs to be better spent elsewhere.”

Calling their arguments nothing short of “fear-mongering,” proponents of the convention, who have been decidedly out-spent in their efforts, insist that more voices need to be added to the debate surrounding state issues.

Opponents express fear at what the public might do,” said Senator Sam Slom to the Hawaii Reporter. “It is troubling that lawmakers who hail the wisdom of voters who vote for them, now fear the same voters’ right to openly discuss other issues that affect the people.”

The convention is not the only avenue to amending the constitution—they may also be introduced in the state legislature. However, pro-convention advocates contend that public officials are too concerned with retaining their own power to introduce new amendments that may threaten their standing.

“Democracy works, certainly, but the ConCon is democracy at a fundamental level,” State Attorney General Mark Bennett, who supports the measure, told the Honolulu Advertiser.

If passed on Nov. 4, Hawaii’s Constitutional Convention would allow the election of representatives from every voting district and any proposed amendments would eventually go before the voters.

Although no specific amendments have been proposed, the issue of education in Hawaii has become a focal point of the argument both for and against the convention.

Hawaii is the only state in the union that hosts a central department of education, which could come under review should a convention be approved. Supporters of a central system have argued that it assures equal educational opportunities to all schools, while critics have said that more power needs to be put in the hands of local communities.

This issue alone has brought in more funding for anti-convention groups, such as the Hawaii Alliance, which received more than $350,000 from the National Education Association to help advertise against the measure.

Background: Hawaii’s last constitutional convention

The last Constitutional Convention in Hawaii was held in 1978, when the state “institutionalized a right to privacy, established Hawaiian as an official language, set up the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, imposed environmental protections and set a ceiling on state spending,” according to the Associated Press.

This convention also established the right for voters to decided whether they wanted another convention every 10 years, though voters have decided against the measure ever since. The current constitution currently states that the Attorney General may personally request a convention during off years if he/she feels the state has gone too long without one.

Related Topic: Other constitutional conventions

While few such conventions have been held in the United States in the last 20 years, Hawaii is not the only one to propose one this year. Both Connecticut and Illinois will host an option, in accordance with state law, which requires its inclusion once every 20 years.

Echoing the Aloha State, Connecticut Democrats have come out against a proposed Constitutional Convention, citing cost as their main argument against the measure. The issue of gay marriage may take precedence as supporters of a convention have been galvanized by their opposition to a state court ruling that found civil unions to be unconstitutional, however “setting the scene for gay marriage in Connecticut starting in mid-November,” according to The Connecticut Post.

Pro-convention advocates see the measure as a “last-ditch chance to limit marriage to between men and women.”

Meanwhile, in Illinois, those who oppose the convention warn that should the measure pass, the constitution could be thrown open to “interest groups and single-issue zealots that have wielded undue influence in the Statehouse.” 

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