Convention question not simple one

(Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of stories on statewide ballot questions voters will consider.)

Battle lines have been drawn over the referendum on holding a constitutional convention in Rhode Island.
Supporters see an opportunity to tackle thorny issues such as the line-item veto and redistricting. Opponents are concerned about a host of issues, including attacks on civil liberties, the projected $2.5 million cost and a dampening effect on business due to uncertainty over potential rule changes.
Websites and campaigns on both sides have been organized to help sway voters on Nov. 4. RenewRI, a nonpartisan group with 15 members, is advocating for the convention, while a coalition of 43 groups named after its website, rejectquestion3.com, wants to see the Election Day ballot question defeated.
Every 10 years, Rhode Island voters get this opportunity to consider a constitutional convention.
If approved, a constitutional convention would allow delegates to raise issues ranging from whether to grant governors the line-item veto to creating an independent redistricting commission – constitutional issues that would ultimately be drafted as amendments and put to voters for approval, according to the Bi-Partisan Preparatory Commission for a Constitutional Convention.
Led by lawmakers and co-chairmen Rep. Cale Keable, D-Burrillville, and Sen. Michael McCaffrey, D-Warwick, the commission met in July and August on the subject, receiving testimony for and against from a wide array of groups and individuals. Its report is available on the General Assembly website under “special reports.”
Gary S. Sasse, a co-chairman of RenewRI, says the 38 Studios debacle in particular makes a constitutional convention a valuable and efficient way to restore confidence in government in Rhode Island.
“We feel there’s a link between the political health of the state, and the economic and business health of the state,” said Sasse. “If companies don’t have confidence state government is being run effectively and honestly, they’re not going to come here. We feel the only recourse left is to have a constitutional convention.”
Two of the issues Sasse said the group believes could be addressed, though RenewRI is not taking explicit positions on them, include the line-item veto and redistricting. The line-item veto, for instance, could be “a tremendous negotiating tool for a governor,” Sasse said. “To have use of a line-item veto would give the governor some clout to deal with ‘midnight surprises’ [from lawmakers] and strengthen the governor’s hand.”
And if voters approve the constitutional convention on Nov. 4, RenewRI would encourage those who had opposed it to run for delegate seats along with supporters, Sasse said.
Ken Block, who unsuccessfully ran as a Republican gubernatorial candidate, says a constitutional convention is needed. Some of the issues he would like to see addressed include the line-item veto, reducing the number of legislative seats and providing greater transparency for data for state programs that rely on taxpayers’ money.
The convention “is necessary because our General Assembly has proven extraordinarily reluctant to make the kind of good-government reforms necessary to move Rhode Island into the 21st century,” Block said. “For example, it took 51 years for the General Assembly to pass a bill to get rid of the master lever [in the voting booth]. We can’t afford to wait for that kind of time frame for some of the other reforms.” Lawmakers recently passed a law eliminating the master level for 2016.
“The great thing about a constitutional convention is, no one person has the power to prioritize,” Block said. “All you can do is propose [amendments] and you get a chance to vet them all. My personal barometer on [which issues] should or should not come in is basic: We should only deal with issues that deal with the framework of how we govern ourselves. The convention should not dictate policy because that’s what the legislature is there to do.”
As part of the “rejectquestion3” coalition, Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, said his organization is opposed to the constitutional convention because members believe it would pose a threat to civil liberties.
“I’m concerned that a whole array of civil rights and civil liberties could be put on the table,” Brown told Providence Business News. “We saw it in [the] 1986 [constitutional convention] with reproductive freedom, criminal justice and voting rights – amendments restricting civil liberties were all passed in that convention. It’s pure folly to think that won’t happen with a convention again.” When delegate elections were held for the 1986 constitutional convention, voter turnout was only 18 percent, Brown said, “so you aren’t having broad-based elections for these delegates. The politics of a constitutional convention are no different than the politics of a legislative election.”
Brown is also concerned about the role out-of-state money could play in political campaigns to “push pet projects,” he said.
Cost is also an issue. While Sasse maintains a constitutional convention is more likely to cost about $1.9 million, rather than the state-projected $2.5 million, Brown said any amount of money “could be better put toward many other things.” But he added, “The mischief that could come from the convention is our biggest concern.”
Also opposed are a wide variety of labor unions and such groups as Planned Parenthood of Southern New England and the Rhode Island affiliate of the National Council of Jewish Women.
In response to union opposition, the nonpartisan Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity, a self-described free-enterprise think tank, launched a campaign calling a vote for a convention a blow against special-interest politics.
And then there is Keable. Despite his role in bringing the issue forward on the commission when asked to by House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, Keable personally opposes a constitutional convention.
“One of the most important things for businesses is to have a stable environment where they know what the rules are going to be, and there’s no need to be tinkering with the document that is the core of our form of government,” Keable said.
Besides also being a “poor use of resources,” the constitutional convention is one which every state has a mechanism to call, but no other state has in decades, he said.
“The last state to have one was Rhode Island in the 1980s and that speaks volumes,” Keable said. “We don’t want to be known as the state that is constantly changing its constitution.”

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