Vote this fall on RI constitutional convention

The Rhode Island State House in Providence.
The Rhode Island State House in Providence.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) – Rhode Islanders may soon get a chance to play Founding Father when they decide whether to hold a constitutional convention to consider overhauling the state’s primary political document.

Term limits for state lawmakers. The elimination of straight-ticket voting. A smaller legislature. Enhanced ethics oversight of lawmakers. These are just a few of the tweaks sought by groups pushing for a convention, which would be the first in Rhode Island since 1986.

“There are a number of issues that are not being dealt with by the General Assembly – this would be an alternative,” said Margaret Kane, president of the government watchdog group Operation Clean Government. “We’re the most business unfriendly state. We’re on every bad list you could imagine. This would at least give us a chance to change some of these things.”

The Rhode Island Constitution can be amended in two ways: by ballot referendum or through a constitutional convention, where 75 locally elected delegates would gather to consider revisions that would later have to be approved by voters.

The constitution requires a referendum on holding a constitutional convention at least every 10 years. The last two times voters were asked – in 1994 and 2004 – they dismissed the idea.

Supporters like Kane, however, predict this year may be different, and they point to frustration with entrenched political leaders who continue to struggle with turning around the state’s lagging economy.

Critics say there’s a danger to tinkering with the constitution. Steven Brown, executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said delegates might seek to distort the constitution by pursuing a narrow agenda or by putting questions of basic civil liberties up for a vote.

Delegates to the 1986 convention recommended several changes to the constitution, including one that would have declared that human life begins at conception. The proposed amendment – strongly opposed by abortion rights supporters – was defeated by voters, but Brown said it shows the need for caution before authorizing a convention.

“Once a constitutional convention is called, it can do whatever it wants,” Brown said. “If you put a big group of people together and their sole mission is to amend the constitution, they could do a lot of harm.”

The state Senate last week voted to put the question of a constitutional convention on the ballot, and the House is expected to follow suit. Even if the measure fails in the House, Secretary of State Ralph Mollis intends to place the question on the ballot.

The Senate also voted to create a commission tasked with reviewing suggested changes to the constitution before this fall’s vote.

“Rhode Island in 2014 is not the same as it was in 1986,” said Sen. Paul Fogarty, D-Glocester, the sponsor of the legislation. “There may be issues that are important to Rhode Islanders today that weren’t as relevant a generation ago. Maybe people would like to see term limits or have the governor and lieutenant governor run as a ticket.”

If voters authorize a convention, special nonpartisan elections would be held next year to pick delegates in each of the state’s 75 House districts. Those delegates would gather in 2016 to consider changes to the constitution, which would go to the voters in the 2016 general election.

The government watchdog group Common Cause Rhode Island urged voters to reject calls for a convention in 1994 and 2004 but hasn’t taken a position on this year’s question. Executive Director John Marion said his organization is waiting to see what proposed constitutional amendments lawmakers vote to put on the ballot this year before weighing in.

Several changes to the constitution have already been suggested:

- Eliminate straight-ticket voting: Operation Clean Government and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Block have pushed lawmakers for years to eliminate the option of straight-ticket voting, known as the master lever, because they say it confuses voters and helps the Democratic Party maintain its dominance.

- Ethics oversight: State lawmakers have been largely shielded from scrutiny of the state Ethics Commission since the state Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that lawmakers were immune to ethics complaints prompted by their votes or comments during legislative discussions. Legislative efforts to close this loophole with a constitutional amendment have failed ever since.

- Redistricting: Right now the process of redrawing the state’s political districts is controlled by state lawmakers. Groups like Common Cause would prefer that an independent commission do the work to prevent gerrymandering of districts.

- Other ideas: Term limits for lawmakers, consolidation of government services, a line-item veto for the governor, a reduction in the size of the General Assembly and changes in the way the lieutenant governor is elected have been proposed.

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