Thursday, October 30, 2008

Why Connecticut Needs a Constitutional Convention

A new UConn poll from the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut shows that 50 percent of voters support a constitutional convention to amend the state constitution, while 39 percent oppose the measure. Even more dramatically, the poll shows that sixty-five percent of voters support citizen ballot initiative, always an admission that state legislators, the prisoners of special interests, no longer represent the will of the people.

According to the poll’s director, Christine Kraus, "The constitutional convention question appears to be a referendum on the performance of the General Assembly."

A ballot initiative would, in essence, transform the entire population into a citizens’ action group. It is for that reason opposed by – guess who? – Tom Swan, the executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, among others. Swan, Ned Lamont’s campaign guru, fears that a convention might propose a direct initiative ballot that will tamper with campaign finance reforms he supports. Special interests will always oppose the general interest, and use the organs of government to effect its purposes.

Opponents of the convention – the usual crop of government dependent pensioners -- have flooded the state with expensive ads suggesting that such a convention might spell the end of representative government as we know it. The politics of fear in Connecticut is very much alive.

Spokeswoman for the anti-convention coalition Peggy Shorey said, "I think there is a greater understanding now we're voting on whether we should open up the entire constitution to potentially a radical overhaul.” One newspaper correspondent feared that a run-away convention might possibly repeal the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Newspapers in the state that oppose such interventions have not scrupled to fan the flames of such fanciful musings.

Connecticut survived such threats in 1965 when, during the state’s last constitutional convention, delegates elected by the people proposed that voters should be asked once every 20 years if they should convene constitutional conventions. The people of the state voted to affirm the measure, which only then became a part of the constitution.

It should be noted the convention delegates managed to restrain themselves from repealing the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The convention itself was an exercise in representative democracy, and those involved in arranging the convention, the very pillars of the economic and political culture of their time, approached their work with craftsman-like precision.

While it is technically possible for a constitutional convention to “radically overhaul” state government, this is unlikely for three reasons: 1) members of the convention may, if the legislature so wishes, be selected by the state legislature, which has not in the past been over eager to radically overhaul state government; 2) the last constitutional convention, whose delegates were popularly elected, was measured and responsible; and 3) any measure passed by the convention will be subject to ratification by the entire state population.

Citizens in Connecticut, as suggested by the poll, are leaning towards ballot initiative and referendum. Ballot initiative, it has been said, will deprive the legislature of its traditional representative roll. This may be true only under one narrow set of circumstances. An initiative may repeal the general sense of the legislature on a specific issue only when the sense of the legislature is not representative of the general will of the people – in which case the ballot initiative will serve as a corrective to a legislature that is non-representative.

Instances such as this have arisen in municipalities during fiscal budget battles. Budget referenda questions that appear on ballots in Connecticut municipalities, where they are allowed, are initiative ballots in this sense: They direct representatives of the people in the towns to submit lower budget and reduce spending.

The social architects among us who hope to effect national change this year will resist to the death any successful attempt made by taxpayers to keep the money they earn from the sweat of their brows in their own treasuries, when such funds could be used to promote special interests dear to their hearts – the very definition of an arrogant selfishness that despoils the wealth of individuals, states and nations.

This moment – this precious moment that will allow the citizens of Connecticut to wrest their future from special interests and a bought political establishment – will not come again for twenty years.

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