Hawaii voters are about to choose between hope and fear.

They can call for a state constitutional convention in the hope of improving life for the island’s residents. After all, ConCons in 1968 and 1978 produced positive changes in our government.

Or they can reject a ConCon and give in to the notion that the people of Hawaii have somehow become untrustworthy. As in, today’s hapless residents might just undo those accomplishments of their predecessors in the ’60s and ’70s.

Myriad fears have been raised about what convention delegates might do in 2020 if we don’t flee right now from the scary prospect of holding another ConCon.

Instead, let’s walk across the dark room, open the creaking closet door and see what those fears are really all about.

Flick on the light, and the first thing you’ll notice are some of Hawaii’s prized possessions from ConCons past.

  • Collective bargaining rights for public employee unions.
  • Powerful acknowledgement of the islands’ heritage through the establishment of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and preservation of the Hawaiian language.
  • Protection of important agricultural land and the enshrinement of water rights.
  • Checks on state government such as term limits for governors and lieutenant governors and the requirement of a balanced budget.

These could all be at risk at another ConCon, opponents have said.

Technically that’s true, but can you really imagine a majority of elected delegates wanting to overturn any of these accomplishments? And remember that the constitutional amendments they propose would still be put to a vote of the people.

Opponents will tell you these are unpredictable political times when outside interests can spend unlimited amounts of money to influence both a ConCon and subsequent votes on constitutional amendments. Even the ultra-rich, ultra-conservative Koch brothers have been invoked as potential island bogeymen.

This is still Hawaii, folks, not Trump country. Of course we’d need to go into another ConCon committed to preserving the best of what’s already in our constitution.

Then we can set about to making it better. Because with the lights on, it turns out this supposed closet of horrors is actually full of sparkling potential.

And that’s what scares defenders of the status quo. If they’re unwilling to share some of the policymaking power that they currently monopolize, their fears are as legitimate as they are self-serving.

Entrenched powerbrokers are not necessarily bad people. It’s only natural that they want to defend a system they’re comfortable with.

Like in many parts of America, that system entails Big Business and Big Labor bankrolling big politicians at all levels of government. The general populace is more out of the loop in Hawaii than most places, however, because of Democrats’ one-party dominance and our lack of statewide citizen initiative/referendum/recall to go over our leaders’ heads when necessary.

Regardless of the political landscape, if Hawaii was being run well enough we’d be justified in passing on the once-a-decade chance to hold a ConCon.

That is hardly the case in a state where luxury condos keep getting built instead of desperately needed affordable housing, where many residents are forced to work two or more jobs to avoid living in homeless encampments and where we imperil our future generations by woefully underfunding public education.

We’ve got plenty of things to be afraid of in Hawaii, but they don’t include letting a new group of engaged citizens have a crack at proposing solutions.

Still, the urge to protect the status quo is powerful, and the election will turn on the ability of the elites to convince other people to fear the unknown of a ConCon. Union leaders are solidly in step with the opposition campaign, but some of their rank-and-file members might not be.

Are the Waikiki hotel workers who went on strike Monday morning enjoying the status quo? How about our schoolteachers, who are among the lowest-paid in the nation when cost of living is figured in?

This is still Hawaii, folks, not Trump country. Of course we’d need to go into another ConCon committed to preserving the best of what’s already in our constitution.

Union opposition to a ConCon can border on the irrational.

Statewide teachers union president Corey Rosenlee is campaigning for voter approval of another constitutional ballot measure, this one to authorize the state to collect a tax surcharge on certain properties to better fund public education. If the ConAm loses, he said, there is no “Plan B.”

And yet he opposes holding a ConCon because of concerns that collective bargaining rights could be lost.

The fact is, a ConCon opens the door to several “Plan B’s” for public education.

For instance, Hawaii could dedicate a certain percentage of its budget to school funding.

Residents supported the notion of a state lottery by a wide margin in a December Civil Beat poll, but legislators have refused to establish one. Lottery revenue — a lot of it no doubt coming from tourists — could be devoted to public education.

As we’ve said before, a ConCon would be a smashing success if the only thing it proposed was to give Hawaii a statewide citizen initiative process like those offered in every other western state.

That would be a game-changer, because when politicians know their control over pubic policy has limits, they’re going to be more open to doing what the people want.

You’ll be hearing more from ConCon opponents, who appear to have all the money in this campaign. Their first TV spot began airing Monday and it exploits a simple fear: that a ConCon would cost too much. They put the figure at $55 million, without citing a source. Keep in mind that the last ConCon in 1978 cost $2.5 million.

But hey, Halloween is coming up. Why let facts get in the way of a good scare?

Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to news@civilbeat.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes.

You can also comment directly on this story by scrolling down a little further. Comments are subject to approval and we may not publish every one.

How much do you value our journalism?

Civil Beat focuses exclusively on the kind of journalism most at risk of disappearing – in-depth, investigative and enterprise coverage of important local issues. While producing this type of journalism isn’t cheap, you won’t find our content hidden behind a paywall. We also never worry about upsetting advertisers – because we don’t allow any. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on donations from readers like you to help keep our stories free and accessible to everyone. If you value our journalism, show us with your support.

About the Author