Those of us old enough to have taken a civics class know that in government the legislative branch makes laws, the executive branch implements and enforces them and the judicial branch interprets them.

But what if the legislative branch does not make the laws we want? Citizens can lobby their representatives or vote to replace them when an election rolls around.

Next November, however, Hawaii voters will get a once-in-a-decade chance to take government more directly into their hands. That’s when the question of whether to hold a constitutional convention will be on the ballot.

The last time Hawaii had a con con was in 1978, and it was a watershed moment. It led to the establishment of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and other far-reaching changes in state governance.

Opening day of the legislature on the House of Representatives side. 21 jan 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Opening day of the 2015 Hawaii Legislature. A constitutional convention could take up issues that legislators haven’t. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A recent Civil Beat Poll found two-thirds of registered Hawaii voters want another con con. They also want citizen initiative, referendum and recall; term limits for legislators; a statewide lottery; all-mail voting; and medical aid in dying.

Many of these issues are introduced nearly every biennial session of the Legislature, but most are never even given a hearing.

In the case of medical aid in dying, it was passed solidly in the Senate last session but held for unsatisfactory reasons — and without even a vote — in the House.

All-mail voting has passed both chambers the last three sessions, only to die mysteriously in conference committee.

Reinventing Government

These are sometimes complicated, sometimes emotional issues. Another idea we polled, allowing for recreational marijuana, was opposed by 55 percent of respondents.

But if legislators refuse to act on these matters, a con con could allow the people to go over their heads. And remember, whatever comes out of a con con would still require voter approval.

We acknowledge that a con con could have unforeseen consequences. But it also could be a way to reinvent government and instill much-needed enthusiasm in a jaded electorate.

The Nov. 2, 1976, vote for a con con was 74 percent in favor to 26 percent against.

Anne Feder Lee wrote in her 1993 reference guide to the Hawaii state constitution that the strong support in 1976 was attributable, as one source put it, to “a desire to slap back” at the Legislature. Another contributing factor may have been “amorphous public dissatisfaction with government following Watergate.”

Sounds a lot like today, doesn’t it?

A con con can also bring forth new leaders.

Of the 102 delegates to the ’78 con con, only two were incumbents and two were former legislators. There were more women and more young people than the previous two con cons held in 1950 to prepare Hawaii for statehood and in 1968.

Hawaii voters rejected holding additional con cons in 1986, 1998 and 2008.

Frankly, it may be time for anther constitutional convention even if legislators finally act on the aforementioned issues next session. An argument can be made that the state government is in need of a good shakeup after inadequately addressing massive problems such as the housing shortage and homelessness.

But if lawmakers again fail to do the public’s bidding, that just might seal the deal.

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