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Should Rhode Island Have Another Constitutional Convention?

Voters in Rhode Island will decide whether to bypass the legislature and hold another state constitutional convention. Critics worry it would only serve special interests and threaten people's rights.

ELECTION 2014: This article is part of our coverage of ballot measures to watch.

Earlier this year, after federal and state investigators raided the office of Rhode Island House Speaker Gordon Fox, prompting his resignation of the speakership, retired Providence police officer Ted Collins had this to say to the Boston Globe: “This General Assembly of ours needs a good enema. But the reality of this situation is, it’s not going to happen.”

Maybe. But maybe the upcoming election will give voters a chance for a major, um, procedure, should they choose to hold a state constitutional convention.

The Ocean State is one of a handful in the union that periodically asks its voters whether they’d like to hold another constitutional convention. The question appears on Rhode Island’s and four other states' ballots every 10 years, every 16 years in Michigan and every 20 years in eight other states. It’s rare that voters actually want to hold a convention though. In fact, Rhode Island was the last state to do so, voting 30 years ago to hold what’s colloquially referred to as a “con-con.”

The debate on whether or not Rhode Islanders should hold another convention has been fierce this year. Proponents say the convention would be a chance for people to push changes the state’s General Assembly has been reticent to take up. Changes include a line-item veto for the governor, thwarting special-interest legislation; ethics commission jurisdiction over assembly members and term limits for members. J.H. Snider, president of the nonprofit reform group, who has written extensively on constitutional conventions, said the idea of periodic state con-cons took off in the 19th century around a mistrust of legislators. That’s why he thinks there’s a chance Rhode Islanders vote this year for a convention.

“Right now, there’s high unemployment and economic dissatisfaction,” Snider said. “People vote their pocketbook and when feel they’re doing worse than other states, they’ve more likely to consider comprehensive change.”

Rhode Island has had more than its fair share of hard times and political scandals. In 2010, the state issued $75 million in bonds at a time when it had one of the worst employment rates in the country so that former Boston Red Sox ace Curt Schilling could relocate his gaming company from Massachusetts to Providence. Lawmakers thought he’d unleash the world’s next major video game empire and save the state's economy. Instead, the company went bankrupt and left Rhode Island on the hook to bondholders. A 2010 headline in Newsweek asked “Is Rhode Island The Most Corrupt State?” It referenced politicians like former Providence Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci, who served four years in federal prison on a political corruption conviction in 2002. Amazingly, Cianci is running for mayor again this year.

But critics warn a constitutional convention will merely be a way for special interest groups to push their agendas. If voters approve a convention, the state would have a separate election next year to choose 75 convention delegates to represent each of the state’s districts. Just about anyone could run and critics say that opens the door to extreme ideas because the delegates don’t have to worry about accountability and reelection. Tom Izzo, a delegate in the state’s 1986 convention, told Rhode Island’s NPR affiliate that’s exactly what happened 30 years ago. “Folks who ran as delegates had agendas that they wanted to bring forward,” he said. “All those other special interest groups will put candidates out there. And where you have a very limited time to vet those candidates you don’t really know.”

Civil rights groups and civil liberties unions often oppose con-cons because they say the conventions threaten long-fought-for rights of minority groups. They point to three amendments that came out of the 1986 convention: one, an anti-abortion amendment was not subsequently approved by the state’s voters. But two other amendments, one that denied bail for certain drug crimes and another that expanded the number of people who couldn’t vote because of a criminal record, were approved by voters (along with six other amendments addressing legislative ethics, re-codifying the constitution and supporting libraries.) Jim Vincent, president of the Providence NAACP, said the last convention’s amendments had a significant adverse impact on racial minorities. And even though the amendment limiting voting rights was repealed in the 2000s, political divisiveness has worsened. “Since 1986, the politics over hot-button social issues and campaign spending has only gotten uglier,” Vincent wrote this month in an op-ed for the Providence Journal. “There is no limit on the amount of money that outside special interests can spend to persuade delegates to support constitutional amendments and to get those amendments approved.”

Others dismiss such arguments as scare tactics. A Providence Journal editorial published the day after Vincent’s op-ed cast convention opponents as alarmists who believed “that Rhode Island citizens are a bunch of yahoos who cannot be trusted to do the right thing.”

A January 2013 survey of about 500 Rhode Islanders by Public Policy showed 40 in support of a convention, 25 percent opposed, and 35 percent undecided.

Liz Farmer, a former Governing staff writer covering fiscal policy, helps lead the Pew Charitable Trusts’ state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource.
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