Getting a fix on the Con Con
As citizens of our country, our most critical ballot choice this year is who will lead our nation. But as citizens of our Hawaii, it is whether we will convene a constitutional convention.
Less than six months from that crucial choice, the too-frequent question remains: What's a Con Con? Let's start from the beginning.
Our Hawaii Constitution is the document we, Hawaii's people, have adopted that sets forth, subject to our U.S. Constitution and laws, the principles and structures by which we consent to be governed. It sets out our core values, confirms our basic rights, organizes our government, provides for elections, sets the basics for raising and spending public funds, mandates a statewide public education system, provides for resource protection, establishes Native Hawaiian entitlements and governance, and outlines many other key undertakings. The success or failure of our efforts to provide collectively for our Hawaii are framed and driven by the ground rules of our Constitution.
Our Constitution was not intended to be easily changed, swinging with the normal cycles of public opinion. But neither was it intended as a static, never-changing compact, inflexible to changing times and needs and requiring outdated or unworkable approaches. So it provides that it can be amended, but only if we voters approve proposed amendments put to us by (1) our Legislature, or (2) a convention of elected delegates assembled to review our Constitution and propose revisions (a constitutional convention, or Con Con).
We voters also decide whether to convene a Con Con. The question can be put to us in any election by our Legislature, but we get the choice in any event every 10 years. As it has been 10 years since our last vote, we will decide this November. If we say "yes" (and "yes" votes must outnumber "no" and blank votes together), the Legislature sets the number and election of delegates, the Con Con meets and proposes revisions, and we voters have the last word.
That is what happened in our Con Cons of 1968 and 1978 (our last). If we vote another this year, the likely process will be delegate election in early 2010, a summer Con Con, and a vote on proposed revisions in the fall 2010 election.
Why is this vote so crucial; why is a Con Con so critical?
First, at our half-century mark of Statehood, and with three decades of rapid-fire change since our last review, the time is simply overripe for us to take a big-picture, all-inclusive look at whether our compact is up to the challenges of the next generation. Does, for example, our Constitution adequately express our core values, give us a fighting chance at preserving our Hawaii, protect our citizens, assure productive, accountable, transparent and ethical government, and sustain our host culture? Or can we do better?
Second, there are key constitutional provisions and issues that should at least be revisited. Legislative term limits, judicial selection, government budget balancing, local school districts, Office of Hawaiian Affairs/ceded lands, worker rights and environmental protection are just a few.
Third, our stagnant political culture needs new blood and an outside look in. Neither the usual institutional inertia nor our own government's track record indicate a willingness or ability to consider afresh how we can do better.
But, some say, we shouldn't "take the risk of opening up our Constitution." Yes, it shouldn't be amended lightly, but that doesn't mean it can't be improved or even systematically and holistically evaluated, and the argument certainly disrespects our final decision as voters on any Con Con-proposed amendments.
Others say a Con Con will be "hijacked by special interests" (sometimes supplemented with "from the mainland"). Aside from the increasingly counterproductive "I'm local, you don't count" theme, the argument ignores our special interest-dominated current government and the rare opportunity for citizen intervention presented by a Con Con.
"It'll cost too much" is another counter, now playing out in politicized competing cost studies by the governor and Legislature. But is $10-20 million (and perhaps far less) too much to review the more than $10 billion we now spend annually on state and county governments? Or when compared against the incalculable value of protecting and preserving our Hawaii?
At its core, though, our Con Con choice presents a referendum on whether we are satisfied with the status quo and believe it is delivering and will deliver what we want, or whether there's a better way forward. And it also asks us to dare to consider change, and to believe that we can in fact face our challenges, review our assumptions, adjust our course as needed, and control our own future. That's why it's our Hawaii's most crucial vote this November.
What's needed for now, though, is an accelerating public discussion of the Con Con to provide a fully informed choice. Community resources include www.hawaiiconcon.org, an information/networking site whose participants (you) determine its content. The site's motto - It's Your Con Con. What Do You Want To Do With It? - says it all.
Ed Case is a resident of Kaneohe and Honolulu lawyer who served in the U.S. Congress (2002-2007) and Hawaii state Legislature (1994-2002).