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Voters To Consider Opening State Constitution To Change

On the ballot


October 18, 2008

It sounds like a simple, innocuous question.

"Shall there be a constitutional convention to amend or revise the constitution of the state?"

But that question could have huge ramifications if Connecticut voters decide Nov. 4 that the state should indeed hold its first convention since 1965 which would be only its fourth in more than 370 years. The stakes are so high that more money is being raised to defeat the ballot question $830,000 and counting than on any state Senate or House race in Connecticut.

With a potential rewriting of the state constitution at stake, supporters and opponents are gearing up for a battle in the 17 days before the election.

Some proponents of the measure, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Family Institute of Connecticut, want a "yes" vote because they believe that a convention could lead to a ban on gay marriage. That issue took center stage last week when, in a 4-3 decision, the state Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. That ruling moved the constitutional convention from a sleepy, academic issue for many and thrust it squarely into the spotlight.

But the question goes far beyond gay marriage. If the door was opened by a convention, referendum issues could cover anything from collective bargaining to eminent domain reform to a tougher "three strikes" law for criminals. Convention delegates could also bring up California-style propositions on issues like capping property taxes or allowing voters to overturn unpopular rulings by the state Supreme Court. Massachusetts voters are to decide Nov. 4 whether to eliminate their state income tax.

Convention delegates also could consider a referendum to allow "direct initiative" a mechanism for citizens to bring issues directly to referendum in the future.

With key issues in the balance, a coalition of 45 organizations has raised $830,000 for a "no" campaign that started this week on television and is hitting a wide range of voters watching programs like "Wheel of Fortune," "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," "Judge Judy," "60 Minutes" and this week's presidential debate.

Virtually all of the major funding for the "no" campaign is from public school teachers' unions the National Education Association ($325,000); the Connecticut Education Association ($315,000); AFT Connecticut ($105,000); and $10,000 each from the professors' unions at the Connecticut State University system and the University of Connecticut. Most of the remaining money comes from the Connecticut AFL-CIO, AFSCME Council 4, Planned Parenthood of Connecticut and Love Makes A Family a group that favors gay marriage.

By contrast, the supporters of the "yes" coalition have raised less than $12,000.

The television campaign has prompted a verbal brawl, each side deriding the other as representing narrow special interests.

"They've made all sorts of misrepresentations in their TV advertising," said John Woodcock, a former Democratic state legislator and a leader in the "yes" coalition. "They've called the yes people anti-children, anti-teachers, anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-education, pro-big-business and on and on. ... The 'nos' have soiled and undermined the constitutional process by their lies, by their distortion, by their innuendo and by their scare tactics, and that will continue for the next 17 days."

Woodcock added, "We are being outspent 83 to 1. It's the individual vs. behemoth special interests. It's grass roots vs. the establishment. It's classic David vs. Goliath."

But Peggy Shorey, the campaign manager for the "no" coalition, said the TV campaign is necessary because many voters across the state are unfamiliar with the ballot issue.

"Voters have a real reason to be concerned about the idea of a convention," Shorey said. "It's something that could put our rights at risk. ... There's no compelling reason to spend millions of dollars on a big political convention."

John Yrchik, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, said teachers are concerned about education policy, labor rights, property taxes and environmental regulations.

"We don't know who the delegates [to a convention] will be," Yrchik said. "It's a lot like driving down the road in the dark with your headlights off."

None of these issues, however, would be decided easily. Anyone wishing to be a delegate would need a two-thirds vote by both chambers of the legislature, which is controlled by Democrats. After that selection, two-thirds of the delegates would need to agree on the various issues. They could decide, for example, to avoid any discussion at all on gay marriage or term limits.

Pros And Cons

The question is on the ballot this year because of a decision at the 1965 convention to revisit the issue approximately every 20 years. The question was defeated in 1986 by some of the same groups that oppose it now: the American Civil Liberties Union, the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association, Connecticut Citizen Action Group, Planned Parenthood, National Council of Jewish Women and the teachers' unions, among others.

Opponents of the measure say Connecticut voters do not need a direct vote on the issues of the day because they have elected a governor and a state legislature to do that.

"I think it's a mistake," said Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams. "We have a representative democracy that's worked and served Connecticut very well."

"You could wind up with the kind of train wreck that we see in California and the huge budget deficits." Williams added, "The state constitution that we have right now has served us very well."

But Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute, said citizens are routinely shut out of the process at the Capitol and are subject to the power of a handful of legislators, including the leaders of the House and Senate. Those leaders can "run out the clock" at the frenzied end of the legislative session each year and ensure that certain controversial issues are never debated or called for a vote.

"This is really our best hope for the people to have a direct say," Wolfgang said. "This is really our best shot."

Asked if he had concerns that a convention might support issues that the Family Institute strongly opposes, Wolfgang said, "Considering that we have a small handful of four un-elected judges who just undemocratically forced same-sex marriage on the state of Connecticut by judicial fiat, it's a chance we're definitely willing to take. Let's empower the citizens."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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