Over four years ago, I wrote a Community Voice piece in Civil Beat posing this question: Does Hawaii need a new constitutional convention to find an updated consensus of values for the state?

In that article, I wrote that, “Perhaps, another constitutional convention or ‘ConCon’ needs to convene to recognize a new consensus of values.” At the time, I was concerned that the Hawaii State Legislature has forgotten the accomplishments of the 1978 Constitutional Convention and the intention behind several environmental protection measures that were passed that year.

Looking back now on that piece in today’s political climate, I now believe that the question of whether or not a ConCon should be convened may be answered with one word: No.

The Legislative Reference Bureau says a ConCon would cost millions, a price the author believes is a waste of resources. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

I believe that today’s political climate makes opening up our state constitution a risky endeavor as special interest groups from the mainland may be able to fund delegates, and by extension purchase access to our constitution. Furthermore, I’m concerned that the extreme political divisions and partisanship we see today would prevent elected delegates from truly working together to pass meaningful laws for the public’s best interest.

Ultimately however, I think voters should consider three questions when deciding how to vote: Is the cost too high? Does it really empower the people? Can a new ConCon succeed today? In those questions, we can debate whether our future, Hawaii’s future, will be better shaped by convening a constitutional convention.

Is The Cost Too High?

One big question that needs to be addressed is the price tag on convening a state constitutional convention. This will ultimately be footed by Hawaii taxpayers.

There seems to be a variety of numbers being thrown about, but they typically range from a low figure of of $7.5 million to a high figure of $55 million. This is based on a study conducted by the Hawaii Legislative Reference Bureau in 2008, the last time the question of a state constitutional convention was on the ballot.

The ultimate decision of the cost however, will be up to our Legislature. As a body, it will determine the amount of state funding that will provide the necessary facilities, equipment and staffing should a constitutional convention pass on the ballot.

Voters will have to determine whether they want their state taxpayer dollars should pay for a constitutional convention at a time when our state needs to invest millions of dollars in both disaster relief for communities affected by the storms we’ve weathered, as well as emergency preparation and response for future natural disasters. Also, during a time when we can’t pay our teachers competitive salaries and rebuild our aging infrastructure, it doesn’t make sense to invest money towards a lawmaking convention where success is not guaranteed.

It is imperative that voters consider the financial costs of a constitutional convention and whether such a venture should be given priority over other public services. As a millennial, I feel there are other noteworthy priorities that can use an extra $55 million or should not see its funding cut in order to pay for a constitutional convention.

Does It Really Empower People?

This is a difficult question. Op-Eds in West Hawaii Today and the Garden Isle have framed the constitutional convention as an opportunity for voters to take back the government and putting power back in the hands of the people. These newspapers refer to ConCon as “lawmaking without the lawmakers.”

I believe this is misleading. The process to organize a constitutional convention does not prevent our political institutions and lawmakers from influencing the system.

This is an era where special interest groups have been shown to have an increasing amount of sway in our state politics.

As a newsletter from the Legislative Reference Bureau’s Public Access Room points out, “If the electorate approves the convening of a ConCon, the Legislature then decides the number of ConCon delegates, the areas they represent, and the manner in which the ConCon shall convene.”

In other words, the constitutional convention is not an escape from our Legislature. The Legislature will, in fact, determine the parameters.

This is also an era where special interest groups have been shown to have an increasing amount of sway in our state politics. And these groups are always present every election cycle and legislative session. What stops these same groups and more special interests from the mainland to pour more money into supporting delegates with the idea that a constitutional convention may result in permanent, long-lasting changes far beyond one cycle.

Thirdly, if these interests succeed in funding delegates’ campaigns, they will have control over the constitutional amendments that Hawaii residents may vote on. Contrary to the idea of lawmaking without the lawmakers, these delegates will be serving as de facto legislators, and voters will not have the power to draft amendments.

Even if the public succeeds in electing delegates who have the public’s best interest in mind, it is likely we will see a constitutional convention group that is comprised of vastly different ideologies, viewpoints, and loyalties. In today’s political climate, we see legislative bodies in the county, state, and federal levels that are extremely polarized and unable to produce any significant accomplishments. This is evidenced by multiple public opinion polls that show Congress and our Legislature with an approval rating below 30 percent.

The constitutional convention pretty much acts as a short-term legislature; therefore, there is no guarantee that convention delegates can escape the unfortunate norms of our permanent legislative bodies.

Can A ConCon Succeed Today?

In line with the question of whether or not special interests may creep their way into the convention is the reality that many elected officials and organizations recognize: Opening up our state constitution puts many rights and privileges that we take for granted under risk.

The range of these privileges are numerous. Our state constitution protects land and natural resources, Native Hawaii cultural practices and collective bargaining rights for unions. It also protects long-standing entities like the Hawaii Employees’ Retirement System from being raided. All of these protections were passed during the 1978 Constitutional Convention, which is largely seen as a major success in Hawaii’s political history.

Opening up our state constitution puts many rights and privileges that we take for granted under risk.

However, given my reflection of today’s political environment, there is no guarantee that a constitutional convention can produce similar results as prior conventions. In fact, a new constitutional convention could actually reverse the protections and constitutional guarantees that we enjoy. It would be unfortunate to see the past work of the 1978 Constitutional Convention be erased because of the special interests and political norms that dominate our government institutions today.

It is understandable that the voters would be supportive of a new constitutional convention because of the successful precedent that was established by the 1978 Constitutional Convention. However, we need to recognize how different the issues, political behaviors, and lawmaking process are today compared to 50 years ago. After evaluating these differences, I concluded that a new constitutional convention cannot accomplish our desires and uphold the protections that we hold to be important.

This general election, voters will have to determine whether to move forward with a constitutional convention. By asking these three questions, I hope voters will come in with a healthy understanding of what may be potentially gained and what is at risk with a ConCon vote.

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About the Author

  • Kendrick Chang
    Kendrick Chang is a senior at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and grew up in East Oahu. At GWU, he is a political communication major in the School of Media and Public Affairs and president of the Hawaii Club. He is also a youth advisor for the Livable Hawaii Kai Hui and a member of the Save Ka Iwi Coalition and the Hawaii Kai Lions Club.