Much of the opposition to Hawaii holding its first constitutional convention in 40 years has centered on its supposed expense.

But a high-end estimate of the cost is based on the assumption that the state would do something it’s never done before: fully fund the campaigns of hundreds of candidates to be ConCon delegates.

The real cost depends on decisions the Legislature would make if voters approve the ConCon in the Nov. 6 general election. Supporters say it offers a once-a-decade opportunity to achieve reforms that the Legislature has been unwilling to make, while opponents say it could imperil reforms made at previous ConCons. 

The main opposition group is a political action committee called Preserve Our Hawaii. It is running a 30-second TV ad that puts the convention’s cost at $55 million. “Where’s that money going to come from?” its narrator asks.

A screenshot of the Preserve Our Hawaii ad, which asserts a state constitutional convention would be too expensive.

The ad doesn’t cite a source, but Preserve Our Hawaii representatives confirmed to Civil Beat that their dollar amount comes from testimony delivered by the state’s Legislative Reference Bureau earlier this year.

The LRB used its own detailed study from 2008 to support that testimony. It found a ConCon would cost as much as $42 million that year. Thus, the LRB testified that a convention would cost about $55.6 million in 2022, based on inflation.

What the LRB’s testimony doesn’t mention, however, is that its 2008 study also found that the ConCon could have cost as little as $6.4 million in 2008, depending on how it was run.

The decade-old study considered multiple scenarios: how many delegates would participate, how they would be elected, where the ConCon would take place, as well as how much operational support and public outreach would be needed.

But one variable above all others swung the price dramatically.

To arrive at its most expensive cost estimate — the one being used by Preserve Our Hawaii — the LRB assumed that 300 to 600 candidates vying for 102 delegate spots would all rely exclusively on full public financing for their campaigns.

For a ConCon in 2010 or 2012, that would have cost an estimated $20 million, representing nearly half of the total ConCon price tag. It’s the most expensive line item in the study by far.

Currently, however, the state only provides partial public financing to election candidates who qualify — usually about a 10 percent to 15 percent match of the funds those candidates raise on their own, according to state Campaign Spending Commission officials.

The Legislature would have to take action to allow the full public financing suggested in the LRB report. A pilot program in Hawaii County did provide full financing to council candidates there who qualified, so long as they didn’t raise their own money — but that program expired in 2014.

Using the Hawaii Campaign Election Fund, the state disburses about $200,000 per year on average to help publicly finance campaigns in Hawaii. The fund’s balance was $1 million as of June 30, nowhere near the amount outlined in the LRB report.

LRB representatives did not return a call Thursday requesting comment.

The pricey estimate that the LRB included to fully finance delegate campaigns could be seen as a way to help keep special interests out of the ConCon. That’s been a chief concern cited by ConCon opponents.

Full public funding could help curb outside influence, said Corie Tanida, executive director of the government transparency group Common Cause Hawaii, but she cautioned that it ultimately depends on the details. Plus, that public financing wouldn’t stop super PACs from trying to sway voters during the campaign to elect certain ConCon delegates, she added.

Honolulu mediator Peter Adler has estimated the ConCon could cost closer to $20 million. The last ConCon in 1978 cost less than $3 million.

On Thursday, Adler said the cost is simply unknowable because of too many variables.

The Legislature would have to make key decisions first, including the number of delegates and the venue. Until then the cost estimates remain “back-of-the-envelope kind of stuff,” Adler said.

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