Gary Sasse: Is a Constitutional Convention Really Needed?

Wednesday, November 06, 2013


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One year from now Rhode Island voters will be asked whether or not they wish to convene a constitutional convention. If the General Assembly does its job we will not need a costly convention. If the legislature punts there is a safety valve that allows the people to convene a convention.

The Ocean State’s economic health is linked to transparent, responsive and efficient government. The recent performance of state government reveals that there is a need to amend Rhode Island’s fundamental law. Therefore the following constitutional questions should be discussed during the next legislative session.

1) Should a financial accountability amendment be considered to give the Governor line item veto power over appropriations?

2) Should the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches be reformed by making it harder for the General Assembly to override a gubernatorial veto? This could be accomplished by requiring a two-thirds vote of the members to override.

3) Should the Constitution guarantee equal opportunity for all kids to receive an adequate education?

4) Should the governor and lieutenant governor run as a team?

5) Should judicial selection process be revisited to reduce the potential of cronyism in judicial appointments?

6) Should a time limit be places on the length of legislative sessions?

7) Should the decennial redistricting process be performed by an independent commission so politicians could no longer pick their voters?

8) Should the Ethics Commission have full jurisdiction over the General Assembly?

In Rhode Island there are two methods to amend and revise the Constitution. The first is for the General Assembly to propose amendments and submit them directly to the people for ratification. The second method is to submit the following question to the voters: “Shall there be a convention to amend and revise the Constitution?”This question must be placed on the ballot at least once every ten years. If a majority decides to hold a convention then the legislature provides for the election of delegates. In both 1994 and 2004 the voters rejected calling a convention.

Experience suggests that having the General Assembly place amendments directly on the ballot is the most direct route to amend the State’s Constitution.

During the 1990’s legislatively initiated amendments resulted in landmark constitutional reforms affecting all three branches of state government. The terms of the governor and other general officers were lengthened from two to four years, and term limits and recall provisions were imposed. The size of the General Assembly was reduced from 150 to 113 members, and the system of compensating legislators was revised. The method of selecting the judges was changed. In the case of the Supreme Court, the nomination of justices was taken from the General Assembly and placed in the hands of the Governor acting in response to recommendations of a judicial nominating committee.  Separation of powers amendments were approved, and Rhode Island’s quintessential parliament supremacy gave way to recognizing three separate and distinct branches of government.

In addition to structural changes amendments were adopted that have had an impact on fiscal and social policy. The Constitution now requires both statewide and local referenda to authorize expansion of gambling. The impact of this amendment was evidenced when the voters in Lincoln authorized table games at Twin River while residents of Newport said “no" to gambling expansion at Newport Grand.

Seminal amendments passed in 1992 and 2006 limited state spending. As a result state spending was restricted to 97% of revenues, a budget reserve account was established and procedures were put in place to limit debt. Just imagine how much worse our financial position might be if was not for these reforms aimed at preventing overspending.

By any standard there had been a remarkable record of constitutional modernization since 1990. These accomplishments occurred without holding a constitutional convention. In comparison the last convention produced dismal results.

Rhode Island’s last constitutional convention was held in 1986. It proposed 14 amendments. Eight of which were adopted by the voters. The convention’s recommendations, while important, were not as critical to the state’s well being as those subsequently placed on the ballot by the General Assembly. They addressed matters such as clarifying the Governor’s responsibility to propose and submit a budget, the privileges to shore access, providing for public libraries, and felons holding office and voting.

The most noteworthy amendment that the convention recommended and the people adopted was directing the General Assembly to create an Ethics Commission. This amendment empowered the Ethics Commission to adopt a code of ethics, and disciple public officials found in violation of that code. Later the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that members of the General Assembly had immunity from the action of the Ethics Commission when performing their “core legislative acts”.

Those opposed to holding a convention argue that focused constitutional changes have been accomplished without a constitutional convention. They note that once a convention convenes its scope cannot be limited and special interest can set and control the agenda.

Proponents contend that the General Assembly has blocked citizens from addressing important issues that conflict with the interests of legislative leaders. Examples of such issues include, term limits, the drawing of legislative districts, ethics reform and line item vetoes. They contend that a convention empowers the people to consider important matters that have repeatedly failed to advance in the legislative process.

In a few months we will know if the General Assembly had the political will and vision to place meaningful constitutional amendments on the November 2014 general election ballot. If the General Assembly fails to do the people’s business, voters will have no choice but to call a constitutional convention with all the risks that it may entail.


Gary Sasse is Founding Director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University. He is the former Executive Director Rhode Island Public Expenditure and Director of the Departments of Administration and Revenue.


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