Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Four states to weigh calls for constitutional conventions

The latest edition of Stateline, a newsletter published by the Pew Center on the States, includes this story about four states considering ballot questions to undertake a process of rewriting their state's constitution.  Although there was an effort to place a similar measure on the ballot in California, it was not successful in qualifying for the ballot this year.  The Stateline story, by Melissa Maynard, does an excellent job of considering the pros and cons of undertaking such a process. Excerpts are below.

The measures in Iowa, Maryland, Michigan and Montana would be on the ballot this year with or without the Tea Party movement, however. Those four states are among the 14 that ask voters at set intervals of between 10 and 20 years whether they’d like to write a new constitution.

During a busy election season, the constitutional convention ballot questions have received surprisingly little attention. Many voters are likely to hear of the issue for the first time when they step into the voting booth, even though a “yes” vote could have far-reaching consequences and allow a full-scale overhaul of everything from term limits to the fiscal relationships between state and local units of government.

In the past, voters confronted with the question of whether to call a constitutional convention have tended to say no. The most recent convention to be triggered through this mechanism was Rhode Island’s in 1986. But at a time of economic angst, high unemployment and distrust of government at all levels, anything could happen. In Michigan, supporters of calling for a constitutional convention include the outgoing governor, Democrat Jennifer Granholm.

Opponents of calling a convention in Michigan have said it wouldn’t be worth the estimated $45 million cost of bringing delegates together for weeks or perhaps months to hammer out a new document. There’s also a fear that a convention, especially in an angry political environment, might end up doing more harm than good. “I’m really scared by what might happen if there were a convention,” says Michigan state Representative Jim Slezak, a Democrat. “You don’t want bad decisions made based on something that happened a month ago or a year ago instead of focusing on what’s happened over the course of the last 30 years.”

The protocol for throwing a convention and chartering a new constitution varies significantly by state. One common feature is that the delegates of the convention don’t get the last word: Voters must approve the new constitution before it can take effect.

In Montana this year, the idea of holding a constitutional convention isn’t generating much enthusiasm. In part, that’s because the state’s 1972 constitution is among the country’s youngest. It’s also a source of state pride. Montana’s constitution is distinctive in its emphasis on environmental protections, for example. The last time the automatic call for a convention came up on the ballot in 2000, it was rejected by 86 percent of the voters.

Dorothy Eck of Bozeman, Montana, now 86 years old, was among the 100 delegates who produced the state’s 1972 constitution. She remembers the process as challenging but rewarding. “The smartest decision we made was to seat everyone alphabetically, so that you had people from both parties working together,” says Eck, a Democrat who served in the legislature for 20 years before retiring in 2000. “I sat with Republicans on both sides of me. On my left was a Republican who really thought through the issues and was helpful.”

Eck worries that a new constitutional convention might jeopardize some of the provisions that she and her peers worked so hard to put into place, especially the provisions related to government transparency and the environment. “A convention is a hard thing to do, and it was difficult here,” she says. “It’s a threat to everyone’s interests.”

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