The advertised cost of a constitutional convention

In print and TV ads, Constitutional Convention opponents have been claiming that the cost of voting yes for a state constitutional convention on Nov. 6 would be too high.

The $55 million figure being promoted by Preserve Our Hawaii is highly controversial. Hawaii’s last convention in 1978 cost $2.03 million. In current dollars, that sum would be $7.7 million. Preserve Our Hawaii hasn’t cited a source but is presumably working from the Legislative Reference Bureau’s 2008 report requested by the state Legislature’s leadership to provide ammunition to convention opponents.

That report estimated that in 2012 dollars a convention would cost between $7.5 million and $48.8 million. The $55 million figure presumably extrapolates from the upper bound $48.8 million figure. Even then, Preserve Our Hawaii is only quoting the report’s upper bound. A competing 2008 report published by a workgroup organized by Hawaii’s lieutenant governor found the Legislature’s cost estimates wildly inflated.

But costs per se mean nothing. To mean something, they must be compared to something else. The comparisons that the No Coalition’s political research firms have tested as helping their campaign include comparisons to the average Hawaiian’s personal income (far less than a convention’s cost) and some of the most popular government expenditures, such as fixing potholes and paying for more teacher supplies.

But many other potential cost comparisons could be made. One category of such comparisons compares aggregate government revenue to the average individual’s income. Total government spending in Hawaii is approximately $14 billion a year or $140 billion over the 10-year period between convention referendums. With this comparison, a convention’s cost becomes comparable to a rounding error.

Another comparison category is a large individual project. For example, the current estimated cost of Hawaii’s rail project is approximately $10 billion, of which the cost of a convention would be approximately one thousandth of its cost, or about 100 feet of the project’s length.

Another category is state government waste. Americans believe their state government wastes about 42 percent of every tax dollar, which would be more than $50 billion between the decennial convention referendums. A poll asked Hawaiians: “How well do you feel state government efficiently spends our tax dollars?” Fifty-seven percent replied “not well.” If a convention reduced government corruption and its resulting inefficiency by only 1 percent over a decade, it would have more than a 5,000 percent return on investment.

My own favorite category is the cost of a government without democratic checks and balances. Doing away with costly checks and balances, including the two branches of the Legislature, an independent judiciary, and local elected government, would result in a single elected state official.

Just think of all the potholes we could fix if we got rid of all those wasteful democracy enhancing expenditures! Indeed, when dictator Benito Mussolini took over Italy in the 1920s, that’s what he promised: massive public works! (Note: although the Legislature loves to issue reports on a convention’s cost, I haven’t been able to find a comparable report on its own costs.)

Of course, most Hawaiians would recognize that reducing democratic accountability institutions to this bare minimum —no matter how much money it would save — would be penny wise and pound foolish because democratic accountability costs money.

The same can be said for the democratic accountability a convention provides, which is why Hawaii’s framers included this legislative bypass mechanism in Hawaii’s Constitution.

Hawaii’s framers understood that it was essential to provide a mechanism to allow the people to bypass the state Legislature’s gatekeeping power over state constitutional amendments. In comparison to the cost of Hawaii’s other democratic accountability institutions, a convention’s cost would be a rounding error.

Yet another category is the value of passing a specific popular amendment that the Legislature won’t pass. For example, how much would the people be willing to spend to pass state legislative term limits or the citizen initiative? Would they be worth the cost of Hawaii’s last convention in 1978; that is, $7.8 million in today’s dollars?

The list of such alternate comparisons is endless. The key point is that any discussion of a convention’s costs without a thoughtful discussion of its potential benefits is inherently misleading. Moreover, a good-faith discussion of potential benefits should not focus on fixing potholes but on a convention’s potential to help fix Hawaii’s democracy.

Of course, it is in the No Coalition’s interest to focus on a convention’s potential costs rather than benefits. Accordingly, its ad compaigns over recent decades have refused to acknowledge, let alone discuss in good faith, why Hawaii’s framers created the convention process to propose popular democratic reforms adverse to the Legislature’s institutional self-interest.

As the No Coalition’s ad campaign against a convention gathers steam in the coming weeks, observers should be asking themselves: is it promoting the right cost comparison? And what exactly is it that Big Labor and Big Business, the key financiers and organizers behind the No Coalition, fear from a convention? Might it be that the costs they most fear, such as a reduction of their control over the state Legislature, might actually benefit the great majority of Hawaii?

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J.H. Snider, Ph.D., is the editor of The Hawaii State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse.

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