New Con-Con: Should We, Or Not?

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - October 22, 2008

No, I’m not writing about rail transit this election week eve. I’m writing about the other ballot question - the one that will decide whether or not we hold a state constitutional convention.

This presidential year I’ve spent more than my share of ink and air time railing against those who say - after months of expensive, coast-to-coast campaigning - that they remain undecided about which candidate they will vote for Nov. 4.

Yet here I sit, two weeks and a day or two from the voting booth, still undecided about how I’m going to vote on holding a constitutional convention.

I’m aware that, on this issue, many voters simply haven’t had the time, inclination or opportunity to learn as much about the issue as they’ve had to hear about the presidential qualifications of John McCain and Barack Obama.

But believe me, I have. Therein rests my dilemma.

I have, for example, listened to Della Au Bellati, a young attorney and first-term state representative from Makiki, who has been arguing eloquently for ConCon. Bellati spent these past two legislative sessions feeling the frustration of being in the Democrats’ minority faction, and she feels we need another body wherein reforms can be realized.

In a recent debate, Bellati said: “We are encouraged every year to visit our doctors for annual physical checkups to see if things are working properly. The ConCon is government’s annual (actually, decennial) physical checkup. Would you go 30 years without a physical checkup? That’s essentially what we’ve done.”

A point to ponder.

But then I’ve listened to my former University of Hawaii-West Oahu colleague, political scientist Anne Feder Lee. Lee literally wrote the book on Hawaii’s constitution: The Hawaii State Constitution: A Reference Guide (Greenwood, 1993). So far as I know, Anne has no ax to grind in this debate; but she has lent her opinion to the anti-ConCon Hawaii Alliance.

In an Alliance television advertisement, Lee declares: “I’m voting ‘no’ on ConCon. There are three questions we need to ask: Is our state Constitution broken? Is there a legal problem with our Constitution? Do the benefits justify the cost? I believe the answer to all three questions is no.”

State Attorney General Mark Bennett disagrees. I heard him recently on PBS-Hawaii’s Island Insights. Bennett, with his usual cogency, argued public safety, local school boards, energy independence and healthcare (in the form of tort reform), term limits for legislators and a balanced budget could all be addressed in a constitutional convention.

Most tellingly, he pointed out that Hawaii escaped initiative and referendum (the bane of California’s civic life - my thought, not Bennett’s ) by the inclusion of a decennial constitutional review. And he also argued that Hawaii’s people are fair, judicious and highly unlikely - in convention - to deprive their fellow citizens of rights contained in our present constitution.

Attorney Tony Gill, who appeared on the same program, wasn’t so sure about the security of our civil rights - and he made persuasive arguments about the need to maintain a “lean” constitution. Programmatic legislation, Gill argued, was the province of the people’s elected representatives in the Legislature. Frustrated Republicans, like frustrated first-term legislators (my thought, not Gill’s) should run candidates who support their views for the Legislature, rather than leaving so many seats uncontested as they did this election year.

I agree, but I also remember the 1978 constitutional convention and the degree to which it revitalized Hawaii’s politics. It gave a platform to a whole new generation of state politicians, including the state’s first Hawaiian governor - John Waihee - and a mayor who did much to improve the face of Honolulu, Jeremy Harris. It also gave us a slew of new and often reform-minded legislators.

And the convention debates - on issues from initiative, referendum and recall to the creation of an Office of Hawaiian Affairs - stirred us all. Thirty years after the adoption of the product, I think little damage was done to our civic life and some good realized.

So where does that leave me on ConCon come Nov. 4? I don’t know. I’ll probably decide inside that curtained booth in the Palisades Elementary School cafeteria. So much for following the debate.

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