Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of Community Voices about the November ballot question regarding whether to hold a state constitutional convention.

The 17 people who met in March for the “Con-Con Salon” asked some of the basic questions that citizens may want to consider when it comes time to vote on Nov. 6 on whether to hold a state constitutional convention..

• How does our particular law of constitutional conventions work?

• What are the mechanics of organizing?

• What was the social, political, economic, and cultural mood in 1978 that led voters to be in favor of one and how does that inform today’s atmosphere?

Lei bedecked bronze hand of Queen Liliuokalani on the makai side of the Hawaii State Capitol building.
On the makai side of the Hawaii Capitol, the hand of the Queen Liliuokalani statue holds a lei. Voters will decide in November if they want to open the door to changes in state government. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

More to the point of this November’s question, what are the specific arguments for and against holding one, the perceived benefits and risks, and if a con con is authorized, what are some of the possible agenda items that may come onto the table from both center-left and center-right?

The starting point for any deliberation, and for the Con-Con Salon, was achieving a common understanding of legal, procedural, and financial basics.

How Constitutional Changes Happen In Hawaii    

Our constitution can be amended, but it isn’t easy. There are two paths.

The Legislature can initiate a “con con” on its own and place it on the ballot for voters to decide. If nine years go by without the Legislature proposing one, it automatically goes on the ballot so Hawaii’s citizens can decide for themselves.

In this initial determination, voters must approve a convention by a majority of all ballots cast on the question. A blank or spoiled ballot counts as a “no.”

If voters approve one, the Legislature then defines many of the logistical particulars: the timing of a convention, the number of delegates, start and end dates, the budget for the convention and the provision of back-office implementation support.

Some of the participants in the 1978 Constitutional Convention of Hawaii. Courtesy

Once assembled, con con delegates are free to organize their own rules of procedure and take up any issues they choose.

If a con con then produces proposed changes, those go to the voters on a subsequent ballot for approval but there is a high bar to passage. To pass, con con proposals must achieve a majority of “yes” votes from 50 percent of all voters in a general election or 30 percent of all registered voters if there is a special election.

If voters choose not to have a con con, nothing changes. Life goes on under our existing constitutional and statutory arrangements and the power to propose amendments or a new convention reverts to the Legislature.

Con Con Finances

For the 1978 convention, the Legislature allocated $2.5 million. Those projected expenses included the salary costs of 102 delegates, delegate per diems and travel, facility and equipment rentals, printing and binding, and other direct expenses. With the convention limited to 75 days and delegates paid starting the day after the election, monthly stipends were set at $1,000, not to exceed a total of $4,000.

Of the $2.5 million that was budgeted, actual expenses came to $2,032,401. Not included or calculated into the budget were the back office support costs incurred by the Legislative Reference Bureau, the tab for a delegate election, and other related expenditures totaling $568,599. So that $2.5 million turned out to be a reasonably accurate projection by the Legislature.

If 1978 serves as a template, the Legislature and the public can run an annualized inflation factor and anticipate the estimated new costs for a future con con. The true cost, however, rides on a variety of factors, many of which are interdependent with each other. For example:

  • Will there be a separate special election or would the election of delegates be coupled to other ballots?
  • Will there be 102 delegates (two from each district, as was the case in 1978), 51 (one from each district, as was the case in 1968), or some other number and rationale?
  • Will a new convention last two months, three months, one month, or more, or less?
  • Where would it take place? Could existing state facilities be used, are separate facilities needed, or does that decision depend on the length and timing of the convention?
  • How many staff, administrators, and researchers might be needed to support delegate deliberations?
  • What are the anticipated costs of printing and publication?
  • Should delegates be paid the same stipend as a jury member or a legislator?
  • If airfares for neighbor island delegates are paid, how many trips should be budgeted?
  • How much will it cost to document, memorialize and make the proceedings and outcomes fully transparent?

Other questions for the Legislature will arise.

For instance, must everything be done in person or could the internet and/or secure websites be used to reduce some con con costs? Could the Legislature set a shorter time between the filing of papers to run for a delegate seat and the actual election of delegates? And could and should campaign spending contributions be limited to preempt avalanches of political action committees, super PACs and lobbyist monies?

All of these decisions sit with the Legislature.

In the meantime, and in the spirit of a lively and vibrant local democracy, consider asking candidates for office the following: “If voters are in favor of a new con con, what would be your decisions about length, number of delegates and costs?”

Others in this series:

• “Should We Open The Door To Changing How State Government Runs?

“Before Deciding On A New Constitutional Convention, Consider Those Held Before”

“Political Volatility Could Affect Hawaii Constitutional Convention Question”

Editor’s note: Peter Adler was the organizer and moderator for the Con-Con Salon. Jenna Leigh Saito helped capture the discussions in the notes that led to these articles. 

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