Convention support split along party lines

The Democratic Party of Hawai‘i’s central committee on Saturday overwhelmingly approved a resolution saying there was no need to hold an expensive constitutional convention, urging voters to reject a proposal on the Nov. 4 general election ballot.

But Republicans say a “con con” would be an effective legislative tool to implement real change in a lopsided state government.

“We understand there are Democrats on both sides of this issue, but we feel that our constitution is one of the best constitutions in the United States from the perspective of environmental protection, worker rights, native peoples and privacy, and that those important protections should remain in the constitution,” state Democratic Party Chair Brian Schatz said in a phone interview yesterday.

At the convention, delegates would be able to make permanent changes to the constitution outside of the standard legislative process.

“That’s why stakes are so much higher, and that’s why voters, in their wisdom, have rejected constitutional conventions for the last 30 years,” Schatz said.

Under the state constitution, voters are asked every decade whether to have a constitutional convention, or con con as it is often called, to review the state’s principal governing document. The last constitutional convention was in 1978. Voters opposed calling conventions in the 1980s and 1990s.

For some, that special “super-legislative” power is not a deterrent but part of the appeal.

“Legislators are not always the agents for the county that they might be. Sometimes, for political or other reasons, they fail to carry out some of the things that the people would like to see done,” said Walter Lewis, a proponent of the constitutional convention.

He will be joining state Rep. Hermina Morita, D-14th District, a vocal opponent of the constitutional convention, at a public forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Kaua‘i from 2 to 4 p.m., Oct. 4, at the Kapa‘a Public Library.

While the Hawai‘i Republican Party enthusiastically endorsed holding a constitutional convention at its state convention in May, Democrats opted against taking a firm position on the issue at that time.

“What’s happened between then and now is that no one really has come forward with a compelling reason to have one, from the Democratic point of view,” said Tony Gill, chairman of the O‘ahu Democrats. “So that’s the change. It’s now time for the party to weigh in.”

Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona, a Republican and an early supporter of a constitutional convention, said it was a shame that some “Democratic Party insiders” decided to change the position approved by delegates at the party’s state convention.

“By opposing the people’s convention, the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i wants our citizens to believe they are incapable of making the changes they want to see in government,” Aiona said in a statement.

The convention would give people the power to bypass the Democratic-controlled state Legislature and “improve our public education system, bring about greater transparency and accountability in government and give local communities a greater say over the types of services they receive,” he said.

Other Republicans saw the opposition to the convention simply as an obstructionist move by Democrats.

“It’s the same political movement by the Democrats to object to everything the governor and lieutenant governor do,” said interim Kaua‘i Republican Party Chair Ron Holte. “Everything they have proposed in any sector, (the Democrats) have been against it. That’s a fact.”

“The perception of the Democrats that don’t want it is that the Republicans are trying to push it because they can’t get anywhere politically in terms of getting their agenda passed because of the lopsided makeup of the Legislature,” said former Kaua‘i Republican Party Chair and current Kaua‘i County Council candidate Ron Agor. “They’re feeling the Republicans want to change things through the constitutional convention because of that. It’s not true.”

Democrats disagreed with that characterization.

“All the people I’ve talked to and all the research I’ve done (has shown) that there is no compelling, urgent need to hold the convention,” said state Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser, D-Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau. “Our state budget is in terrible shape right now, and we’re going to be cutting back on services. Basically, we don’t need it and we can’t afford it.”

The Democrats’ resolution claims that the cost of a convention — estimated by the Legislative Reference Bureau to run somewhere between $6.4 million and $41.1 million, depending on the number of delegates and scope — would compete for funding with other state programs during an economic downturn.

A task force led by Aiona found that a convention could be held for less than $10 million.

“The numbers in my mind are a relatively small fraction of the cost of running our government,” Lewis said. “The modest potential burden for taxpayers is justified by the benefit.”

Schatz said his opposition was not rooted in economics.

“My personal view is not about cost,” he said. “I understand why that is a compelling part of the discussion for some people, but I think that the reasons for supporting a constitutional convention, or not, should be based on what you think of the current constitution. That’s the basic question. Do you like the current constitution?”

For more information, visit www.hawaiiconcon.org, www.itstimehawaii.com or hawaii.gov/ltgov/concon.

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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