Wednesday, November 4, 1998

Voters soundly reject
the need for a Con Con

By Mary Adamski


Thousands of Hawaii voters changed their minds since 1996 about the need for a citizens' convention to amend or revise the state Constitution.

A Constitutional Convention was rejected by nearly two out of three voters yesterday.

Two years ago, the idea was approved by 163,869 people and won by a 3,700-vote margin, only to be scuttled by the Hawaii Supreme Court, which changed previous practice by ruling that blank ballots count as "no" votes.

This time around, both supporters and Con Con critics said voters were turned off by broad-based opposition -- from the State Federation of Labor, the League of Women Voters, the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs -- and by the focus on hotter issues.

"Between the traditional-marriage amendment and the governor's race, they sucked most of the energy, attention and money away from the Con Con," said Cam Cavasso, executive director of Let the People Decide.

League of Women Voters President Jean Aoki said: "I didn't feel there was much chance of a successful convention. There are too many emotional issues -- same-sex marriage, abortion, gambling. The community needs to discuss them in forums, in study groups, where there is no deadline."

Steve Okino of Protect Our Constitution said the coalition of groups urging defeat of both constitutional questions "was able to effectively communicate the danger of opening up the Constitution."

The change from the 1996 vote shows "it takes time for people to digest ideas," he said. "They recognized the cost doesn't match any benefits; there was no compelling need."

Opponents raised the specter that a Con Con might undo such things as state payments to OHA for the use of ceded lands and collective bargaining gains made by public employees.

Among the opposition was Gov. Ben Cayetano, who estimated the cost of a Constitutional Convention at $15 million.

Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris said: "I think the deceptive advertising that told people it was going to cost $15 million turned people the other way. The last Con Con only cost $2.5 million. The one before that was just held in McKinley gymnasium and cost almost nothing. It could have been done very cheaply."

By putting the marriage question on the ballot, the Legislature demonstrated it can put issues before the people without a costly Con Con, said Russell Okata, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association.

"We fight enough battles in contract negotiations; we don't need another battle to take away employee benefits and rights," Okata said.

Con Con advocate Mark Bennett said: "It is very clear that the people have spoken, and ultimately that is what a Con Con is about. I think it's very unfortunate: We're losing the ability to help turn our state around, to do things politicians won't do to improve the economy and make government more accountable to the people."

Bennett, an attorney, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of convention supporters after the 1996 ballot outcome was overturned by the state Supreme Court.

The decision to count the 45,335 blank votes did not violate voters' rights, said the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in upholding the state court.

More than 25,300 ballots were left blank on the Con Con question yesterday.

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