On August 19 and August 21 the Bi-Partisan Preparatory Commission wrapped up its public testimony with its 2nd and 3rd public hearings. The Commission has scheduled a meeting next Tuesday at 3:30 pm to discuss its draft report. No public comment will be allowed.
A total of 14 distinct individuals spoke at the 2nd and 3rd hearings, which increased the total for the three hearings to 23. Of those 23, I counted 14 for, 6 against, and 3 neutral on the subject of convening a constitutional convention.
For those with limited time to watch the hearings, I’d recommend the third one. It was the most comprehensive, with the best balance of pro and con arguments. The first public hearing primarily had pro speakers, the second primarily con speakers. This one, although with more pro than con speakers, was the most evenly balanced.
Here is the detailed scorecard:
|First (August 7, 2014)||
|Second (August 19, 2014)||
|Third (August 21, 2014)||
|Net (total minus repeats)||
Since the mandate of the Bi-Partisan Preparatory Commission is to propose a possible agenda for a state constitutional convention, it would appear that arguing against a state constitutional convention on procedural grounds would be out of order. At the first hearing, the ACLU’s Steve Brown asked the indulgence of the Bi-Partisan Preparatory Commission to raise such issues at the second and third public hearings. That indulgence was granted, and it set the stage for the con arguments presented at the remaining two hearings.
Of course, the Bi-Partisan Preparatory Commission has never paid much attention to the laws establishing it. For example, the law mandated that it publish its report by July 30, 2014. It not only didn’t meet that deadline; in its first four public meetings, it never even acknowledged that it failed to meet it.
John Partridge, a delegate to the 1973 constitutional convention and one of its champions and architects of the clause establishing both a periodic constitutional convention and a bi-partisan preparatory commission in the Rhode Island Constitution, spoke at the August 21 public hearing and explained how far the current Bi-Partisan Preparatory Commission had departed from the Framers’ original vision of the Commission. I quote at length from his presentation here because I believe it to be so important. I also hope that the Commission include it in its report, if only as a footnote.
With regard to Article XIV, Section 2 and the Preparatory Commission, what did many delegates to the 1973 Convention expect would occur? First, we expected that the General Assembly would establish the Preparatory Commission well in advance of the vote on whether there should be a convention, the common thought at that time was a year in advance. Secondly, it was thought that it would be comprised, primarily, of non-members of the General Assembly. I can absolutely assure you that it was not expected there would be General Assembly members in a majority on the Preparatory Commission because many constitutional issues directly affect the General Assembly, creating possible conflicts. Thirdly, there would be a written report given to the voters well in advance of the question being on the ballot. And lastly, it was thought the Preparatory Commission would not take positions with respect to individual issues. The Preparatory Commission would, instead, determine the principal issues that might be considered, suggest pros and cons on those issues so that the issues could be robustly debated. In that regard, it is important that we look at the constitutional language with regard to the Preparatory Commission. Its role was “to assemble information on Constitutional questions for the electors;” not to take positions thereon. I note that many delegates, myself included, did not feel at the time we had the votes for more specificity on some of these points.
None of the Commission’s changes, including the announcement at the first public hearing that the Commission’s report would have to be completed by the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s Voter Information Handbook deadline, were even acknowledged, let alone justified.
My own view is that if the Commission wants to go well beyond its mandate in its report, then it should vote on doing so and explain its reasoning. The Commission currently has a mandate to discuss the pros and cons of particular constitutional convention agenda items. It does not have a mandate to discuss arguments whether a constitutional convention is a good idea. Perhaps that is what the mandate should have been, as that is the decision voters must make on November 4, 2014. But that’s a bit like arguing that because the governor wants to have a line item veto he should be able to have one regardless of what the law says.
On the other hand, the evolution of the public hearings into a pro and con format made them much more interesting and informative. Without such a framing, they would probably have received substantially less press coverage; fewer individuals would probably have testified; and the public deliberation would have been the worse for it. I’d much rather that the various arguments pro and con be exposed to the light of day months before the convention than during the last week when arguments are reduced to sound bites and the rules of the Wild West dictate the outcome.
I hope the General Assembly saves these webcasts and makes them available ten years from now when the next periodic constitutional convention appears on the ballot. The history presented by John Partridge is an important historical document that should be preserved by the Rhode Island State Archives.
As for substantive arguments, I thought the most interesting argument was one that was missing. The groups arguing against a constitutional convention primarily relied on social issues such as threats to women’s reproductive rights and same-sex marriage. But if these arguments were so important, why didn’t groups seeking to restrict those rights appear at any of the public hearings? And why haven’t those groups raised money to support a yes vote? Could it be that those groups understand their own self-interest and know, based on current opinion polls, that Rhode Island voters would never ratify such proposals?
Could it be that Rhode Island’s constitutional convention politics has become a classic case of the politics of false choices? If the Bi-Partisan Preparatory Commission gives equal weight to false and real choices in its report—all in the name of objectivity—it will have engaged in a pseudo objectivity that characterizes much of the worst politics and journalism of our era.
–by J.H. Snider, Administrator, RhodeIslandConCon.info