Pam Gencarella: Why You Should Care About a Constitutional Convention

Thursday, August 21, 2014


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If you’ve been hearing about the possibility of a Constitutional Convention, but don’t know exactly what the point would be, you’re not alone.

Most people interpret the RI Constitution as requiring that, every ten years, voters determine whether or not to revisit the historical document in order to consider proposed changes to it (you can read about other interpretations here.  So come this November, it will be a ballot question.  You will need to make the decision on whether to hold a Constitutional Convention or not.  Given our state’s precarious predicament of being in last place in nearly every national survey, it seems as if a review of RI’s state constitution may be in order. 

The General Assembly Giveth and the General Assembly Taketh Away

The Sakonnet Toll is a prime example of “what can be legislated in, can also be legislated out”. Prior to the end of the 2014 legislative session, one of the topics expected to be addressed at a Constitutional Convention was repeal of the Master Lever.  The General Assembly did finally vote for repealing the straight party ticket option later in this recent session. (Of course, it won’t be effective until after this year’s election cycle).  But, RI’s General Assembly is notorious for chipping away at any steps that may be taken to move our state forward. So, in this context, think about the fact that there are other good government issues to consider. Consider Voter ID. There are legislators who want it repealed.  There are candidates for Secretary of State who want it repealed. There are legislators who did not support repealing the Master Lever.  A Constitutional Convention provides an opportunity to have RI voters decide whether to memorialize good government practices in RI by incorporating them as amendments to our constitution.

What Else?

At a bare minimum, don’t you think we need to strengthen the authority of our Ethics Commission?  And if so, don’t you think we should do it in less than the 51 years it took to eliminate the Master Lever?

The General Assembly refuses to pass legislation to address this most basic concept.  And look where it has gotten us.  In recent years, would something like 38 Studios have been prevented if RI had an empowered Ethics Commission, giving it full jurisdiction over our elected officials in the General Assembly?  Since there appears to be no serious investigations taking place, we may never know.  Or how about the “Beachgate” situation where a sitting legislator bid on, and won, a state contract, only to bail out and leave it for the sitting Democratic Party chair.  Anything fishy going on there?  Again, we may never know. 

The last Constitutional Convention was held in 1986 where, among other things, the General Assembly was directed to create an Ethics Commission.  While that was all well and good, when it was time to use the powers of the Commission against an alleged violation by then-Senator Irons, the Supreme Court ruled that there was no ‘exception’ in the current language regarding ‘speech in debate’ but that there was, unquestionably, a right to modify the constitution to allow for an exception.  It simply needs to be placed before the people for a vote.  That’s what a Constitutional Convention could provide, explicit language to clarify voters’ intent with regard to the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission.

Last year, Gary Sasse explained why he believes a Constitutional Convention would be a welcome exercise in promoting good government.  Among other ideas, he suggested things like guaranteeing equal opportunity for all kids to receive an adequate education; limiting the length of legislative sessions; having the decennial redistricting process performed by an independent commission, providing the governor with line item veto power; providing meaningful ethics reform; and revisiting the judicial selection process.  This year, the RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity published a list of benefits it believes can be achieved with a fresh look at RI’s Constitution as well as proposed guidelines for holding the Convention itself to ensure the integrity of the Constitutional Convention process. They suggested things like requiring nonpartisan elections of the Convention delegates and barring elected officials from running as a delegate.  Wouldn’t it be great to have more business leaders involved in the political process?

Separately, preparatory Commission hearings have been held recently where voters spoke to many of the same good government ideas that folks have long talked about since the 1986 Convention.

What’s “Process” Got To Do With It?

While it is clear that the legislature has made hundreds of decisions that have led RI to place last in virtually every nationwide survey, what is murkier is how this has been allowed to happen.  The answer is “process”. The General Assembly’s House Speaker has nearly complete control over what the legislature approves.  The problem is, there are supposed to be checks and balances and the government is supposed to be representative of the people.  If one person wields ultimate power, then how can it be representative of the entire state?  It’s because the representatives are elected, but many never have the opportunity for their voice to be heard.  The Constitutional Convention can be a vehicle to bring about more balance and more transparency in our state government. 

Take Ethics Reform for example.  If the House Speaker or the Senate President decides it is not on the agenda, in spite of the outward appearance of breaches in ethics, it’s not on the agenda. After all, there have been two General Assembly sessions where we witnessed the demise of any legislative agreement to deliver on genuine Ethics Reform in RI.  So, why not let the voters decide if Ethics Reform is needed?  And, because ethics is so integral to the process of open government, shouldn’t the voters clarify that they want the Ethics Commission to have jurisdiction over General Assembly members or to remove the ‘class exception’ language that allows for conflicts of interest in the legislature? This can be accomplished through a Constitutional Convention.

When the Speaker sits behind closed doors with perhaps a handful of legislators and others to allocate RI’s nearly $9 billion budget, the governor must either take it or leave it as a complete package.  Why not provide the governor with line item veto authority (like so many other states have) for the budget?

No doubt about it though, process is boring, but it is absolutely necessary to understand the way in which our state government does or does not work for the people.  While there are risks involved in holding a Constitutional Convention, it may be the only way to move RI toward prosperity, through better government. 

Imagine if the legislature were constitutionally bound to develop a vision for RI, a plan that didn’t include a five year budget with $1 billion in projected deficits?  An amendment to our Constitution that provides parameters for a state budget that forced the hands of the Speaker to address known financial problems today, rather than take a “wait and see” stance is really what our state needs.  Or, how about a requirement that all legislation be submitted, along with a financial impact statement and/or an economic impact statement, prior to holding a hearing.  After all, how can legislators vote on a bill when they have no idea what the cost to the state will be nor what the overall economic impact will be.  That is what happened with the Sakonnet Toll.  No economic analysis was performed by the General Assembly.  Those projections were left for the people of the East Bay to calculate.  Hence, the reversal of that legislation.   

Take A Chance

When November rolls around and you must decide whether or not to approve a Constitutional Convention, ask yourself, how has it worked for us so far?  As singer Kelly Clarkson says, “dream of what could be, take a risk, take a chance, make a change and breakaway."

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Pam Gencarella is a member of OSTPA, a taxpayer advocacy organization in Rhode Island.


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