Two questions: What is a Con Con? Why should you care?
Voters will face several important Charter and Constitutional amendments this November. The mother of them all is the question: “Shall there be a convention to propose a revision of or amendments to the Constitution?”
So, to be clear: in addition to voting for the Kauai mayor, County Council members, the governor and numerous other elected positions, the general election ballot will contain questions asking voters to decide on whether or not to amend both the County Charter and the state constitution.
These are foundational documents upon which all state and county law is based. My rule of thumb is that if I don’t understand the question being posed, or have doubts or reservations, then I vote “No.” Guessing or going “eeny meeny miny moe” and then voting on a Charter or Constitutional amendment is not an acceptable manner in which to vote. Please, if in doubt, vote “No.”
While the populist grass roots advocate in me is drawn to the romance, the adventure and the possibilities of a yes vote, the pragmatic idealist in me says: ”Don’t be foolish. We already have a strong and good constitution. Why risk it all for a maybe?” Vote no.
So, what would actually happen should a yes vote prevail?
During a special session of the Legislature in 2019, the existing House/Senate would establish the number of delegates and the manner in which they are elected (at large or by district), staffing, and budget for the Con Con. There could be 25 delegates, or 100 — the number and manner in which they are elected is up to the Legislature.
Proposed budgets for a future Con Con range from $7.5 to $48.8 million, as per the Hawaii State Legislative Reference Bureau. Delegates would be paid, neighbor-island delegates would receive a travel allowance and per diem. A location sufficient to house the delegates during the up to four-month process would need to be identified (with suitable office space, telephones, computers and staffing).
Based on the rules established by the 2019 legislature, there will then be an election of Con Con delegates. As in a normal election, candidates would file and campaign under rules of the campaign spending commission and office of elections.
In past Con Cons there was no prohibition against legislators themselves running for these positions.
In the 1968 Con Con, about one-third of the convention delegates were legislators; a majority of the rest were closely connected to the Legislature. In 1978, fewer legislators served on the Con Con. As is true in all elections, existing political incumbents and former office holders have a much greater chance at being elected than the grassroots citizen advocate.
The Convention is convened after the delegates are elected. The delegates divide into factions, select their own leadership, form committees, and proceed to develop proposed constitutional amendments. The majority of delegates will decide which proposed constitutional changes will be placed on the ballot and which will not.
At the November 2020 general election, the proposed Constitutional Amendments approved by the majority of the delegates would be placed on the ballot for voters to approve or not.
Without question, in our now “post Citizens United world” organizations and interest groups with money will then form Super Pacs and drown the airwaves with “vote yes and vote no” messages.
And for what? To possibly achieve a few improvements to the constitution while risking all of the good things now contained within it?
Our Constitution currently contains strong language protecting the environment, indigenous rights and working men and women.
Imagine an amendment that proposes to change a simple word like “shall” to “may” in Article XI Section 1 of the existing constitution. You can be sure this provision will be the number one target of big business and development interests.
“For the benefit of present and future generations, the State and its political subdivisions shall conserve and protect Hawaii’s natural beauty and all natural resources, including land, water, air…All public natural resources are held in trust by the State for the benefit of the people.”
Likewise, there is no doubt that large corporate landowners will go after Article XII Section 7, the provision that protects Native Hawaiian gathering rights.
“The State reaffirms and shall protect all rights, customarily and traditionally exercised for subsistence, cultural and religious purposes and possessed by ahupua‘a tenants.”
The privatization of water rights will also be on the table and aggressively pursued by industrial agriculture and big development, now protected via Article XI Section 7.
“The State has an obligation to protect, control and regulate the use of Hawaii’s water resources for the benefit of its people.”
And a target too tempting to resist, and the holy grail for the Koch Brothers of the world is the basic right for working people to organize. This is currently protected by Article XIII Section 1 and Section 2 (combined here). Large national right wing groups with access to unlimited funding, will see the relatively small Hawaii media market as an inexpensive opportunity to set an example for the rest of the continent.
“Persons in private and public employment shall have the right to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining …”
The above four constitutional provisions represent just a few of the many invaluable— and some would say, sacred — protections that exist in the Hawaii Constitution.
Voting yes to a Con Con on Nov. 6 is like putting everything on the table, and risking it all on the roll of the dice.
To be clear, I am not risk averse and have taken more than my share of chances over the years. I have won some, and lost some. But in each case, I was risking only my own future.
This is entirely different, and there is much more at stake. The safety and well-being of too many are at risk here.
Please join me in voting no on Con Con.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.