Time to Update the RI Constitution?

Thursday, April 07, 2011

 

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Rhode Island voters may have the opportunity to update the Rhode Island Constitution, as a bill introduced today at the General Assembly can start the process

The legislation (2011-S 0796), would put in place the constitutionally required 14-member preparatory commission to hold public hearings to discuss issues that could be addressed by the convention, and then put a question on the 2012 statewide ballot that would ask voters whether they want to the state to have a constitutional convention. If voters approve the question, the convention would study the constitution and come back with recommended changes. Any changes would have to be approved by voters on another statewide ballot before they would become part of the constitution.

“The constitution, whether we’re talking about the one that governs our country or the one that governs our state, is supposed to be a living document that reflects the will of the people who live under it. We have an excellent system in place in Rhode Island to ensure the consent of the governed, and that’s our periodic constitutional convention. At least once every decade, our citizens get the chance to decide whether we should perform an in-depth study of the state constitution and suggest changes that make sure it’s still relevant to Rhode Islanders today,” said Senator Paul Fogarty, who introduced the bill.

Constitutional Convention: An Option Every 10 Years

A constitutional convention entails the election of delegates from across the state who come together to examine the constitution and recommend changes to the voters. Under the state constitution, voters are a required to be asked every 10 years whether they’d like to have a convention. Rhode Islanders were asked the question on the 2004 ballot, but rejected it, 48 percent to 52 percent. The question was also rejected in 1994, although little preparatory work was done that time. Rhode Island’s last constitutional convention met in 1986.

“It has been more than a generation since the last constitutional convention, and a number of issues that may best be addressed in the context of a broader look at the full constitution have arisen during that time, such as term limits, linking the governor and lieutenant governor on one ticket, and the health benefits provided to legislators,” said Senator Fogarty. “A constitutional convention provides an opportunity to address constitutional issues such as these in a single forum rather than independent of each other, and for a new generation of Rhode Islanders to weigh in on the state’s guiding framework.”

Prepping the Public

If the General Assembly approves Senator Fogarty’s bill, a bipartisan 14-member preparatory commission that would be in charge of conducting public hearings before voters are asked the question. The commission, made up of four representatives, four senators and six members of the public, would then be required to issue a public report by Sept. 1, 2012, about the issues that were raised during the hearings. That report would be included in the voter handbook that is mailed to all registered voters before the election.

“The preparatory commission would raise public awareness about what a constitutional convention is and what possible issues it could address if it were called, so when voters are asked whether they want a convention, they will be informed about what this opportunity means,” said Senator Fogarty. “In the end, it’s up to voters to decide whether a constitutional convention is necessary right now, and the public hearings would be an opportunity for citizens to air their views on the constitution whether we have one or not.”

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