Ads by unions urge voters to say 'no'


POSTED: Sunday, October 12, 2008

After taking the early lead as opponents of a state Constitutional Convention, Hawaii's public employee unions have launched a massive last-minute advertising campaign.

The advertising blitz came as a surprise to Lt. Gov. James “;Duke”; Aiona, who sees a convention as a way to examine such state government issues as initiative, referendum, term limits for legislators and a unicameral legislature.

The new $370,000 push by labor unions to kill a Con Con is, according to Aiona, “;a vicious distortion.”;

The effort was sponsored by the National Education Association at the behest of the two local member unions, the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly.

The two unions, along with the Hawaii Government Employees Association and several building trade unions, formed the Hawaii Alliance to campaign against holding a convention, according to Flo Kong Kee, the alliance's executive director. She is the former state Democratic Party executive director.

The NEA dumped $350,000 into the alliance, gave another $150,000 to the HSTA Educational Alliance and paid Mae Kim, an NEA organizational specialist in Washington, D.C., $44,366 to help the HSTA Educational Alliance, according to state Campaign Spending Commission records.

Roger Takabayashi, HSTA president, says his union asked for the help because “;Hawaii educators believe that holding a Constitutional Convention with an estimated cost of as much as $41 million during a time of severe state budget shortfalls would cause harm to the state's students and public schools.”;

The NEA initiative, Takabayashi said, is “;to defend against ballot measures that threaten public education.”;

J.N. Musto, the executive director of UHPA, added his union thinks the state Constitution is fine as it is.

“;Should a convention be called, it will not end without some changes being approved,”; Musto said. “;There is no way to know if those proposals will alter the fundamental rights present in our constitution.”;

Aiona, who last year announced his early support for a Con Con, did not expect the union opposition to be coupled with massive outlays for advertising.

“;It is the unions - they are protecting their turf. It is irresponsible and it is sad,”; said Aiona, a Republican who has already announced his candidacy for governor in 2010. “;This shows what happens with a grass-roots campaign running against organized and well-funded special interests. I didn't expect this kind of oomph or muscle behind it. Obviously, this is very important to them.”;

The state GOP made a Con Con one of the planks in their platform endorsed at the state convention. The Democrats discussed it at their convention but could not reach agreement. Later, the Democrats' central committee, a group of party leaders, came out against a Con Con, which by law must be considered every 10 years.

Education is one of the big issues for supporters of a convention. Both Democrats and Republicans say Hawaii's public school system is too top-heavy and centralized.

“;Is the Board of Education truly accountable? We need to examine the BOE,”; said Rep. Della Au Belatti (D, Makiki-Tantalus), an attorney and early supporter of a Con Con. “;We should look at how the money for the schools is budgeted. Is there accountability? Structurally it does not seem to be working.”;

Voters want “;more local control,”; Aiona said. “;They want the ability to move very quickly to make changes.”;

Opponents such as former Gov. George Ariyoshi, who was a member of the 1968 Constitutional Convention, say tampering with the state schools system risks losing the state's ability to provide equal funds for all schools.

“;We have a very centralized school system and I think that should not be changed,”; said Ariyoshi, who is listed as the chairman for the Hawaii Alliance. “;The delivery of social services, health services - people tell us we are fortunate to have this sort of system.”;

He added: “;I fear some of these changes. I don't think we should be tampering with it.”;

Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, also a Con Con opponent, said if change is needed to a specific section of the Constitution, the Legislature could bring it up, debate it, hold hearings and, if it has enough support, pass it and send to the voters as part of the regular November ballot.

For instance, Hanabusa said, this year the Legislature is sending to the voters one constitutional change: reducing the required age to be governor to 25 from 30.

“;Specific issues are better done in the legislative process and then brought out to the public,”; Hanabusa said.


The state Constitution provides broad, fundamental principles of state government. It addresses issues such as campaign contributions, term limits for officeholders and Hawaii's statewide school system. A Constitutional Convention is one of the ways that basic document can be changed.

  What did the last Constitutional Convention do?

In 1978, 102 delegates met from July 5 to Dec. 2. The convention:

» limited the terms of office for the governor and required officeholders to resign before running for another county or state office;

» created the Office of Hawaiian Affairs;

» established an “;open”; primary election and provided for partial public funding of elections;

» gave the counties the power to tax real property;

» restricted nuclear power; and

» provided new ways to protect water, agricultural land and the environment.

  How much does a Constitutional Convention cost?

The 1978 convention cost $2.5 million.

The estimates for a convention now range from $10 million to $41 million, but supporters note that the $41 million estimate includes $20 million to publicly fund the election for delegates. Opponents say that a convention costing less than $10 million will not have enough representatives and will not reflect the entire state.

  What might be changed in a Constitutional Convention?

Supporters say the state should consider a unicameral legislature - that is, with only one chamber - and also limiting the Legislature to meeting every other year. There are calls for term limits for legislators and more openness in state government.

Opponents say Office of Hawaiian Affairs could be limited or dissolved.

There are also concerns that land-use powers could be given to the counties and that the state's broad powers over social service systems, such as hospitals and welfare programs, could be left up to the counties. Because Honolulu has most of the population and business, the neighbor island counties have a relatively small tax base and could not support the same kinds of welfare of health programs that could be afforded by Honolulu.

Anne Lee Feder, author of “;The Hawaii State Constitution: A Reference Guide,”; urges voters to consider whether any problems to be addressed by a convention “;are really a fatal flaw, making it impossible for the government or the governed to be effective.”;

  How can I get more information?

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