Interview with Steve Frias, on the Work of the Constitutional Convention Preparatory Commission

At the end of last week, Anchor Rising had the opportunity to interview Steve Frias, who served on the preparatory commission for the Rhode Island Constitutional Convention referendum, about exactly what it was that the commission did…

Anchor Rising: What has the preparatory commission for a Constitutional Convention done?

Constitutional Convention Preparatory Commissioner Steve Frias: Essentially, we had five meetings, and we have concluded our business. The first meeting was an organizational meeting. We had three meetings to take public comment, as to what kinds of issues people believe will come before the Constitutional Convention if one is conducted. Some members of the public used the meetings as an opportunity to speak out in favor or against a constitutional convention. We had one more meeting this week, where we finalized a report, that was approved, and will be on the General Assembly’s website and possibly the Secretary of State’s website, some of which will probably be incorporated into the voter handbook that the Secretary of State issues before the November election. We have concluded the work that we were assigned to do.

AR: Was the report adopted unanimously, or were there any dissenters?

SF: There are 12 people on the commission, and I was the one dissenter on the final vote.

AR: What’s in the report, and what was the reason for your dissenting vote?

SF: The report is about five pages and it’s a very limited report, in my view. A large chunk of it deals with what issues were raised by the people who came before the commission, as to what would be the possible issues at a constitutional convention. For instance, people mentioned line-item veto; people mentioned making the General Assembly fully subject to the Ethics Commission, as it once was; bracketing of governor and lieutenant-governor; voter initiative, issues of that nature. The report has a listing of all the types of issues that were brought up in public comment that could be discussed at a convention.

My problem with the report is that there is an entire section about the cost of a potential convention. My view of this starts with the resolution passed by the General Assembly, which says our duty is to assemble information on Constitutional issues. It is my opinion that it is not our responsibility to assemble information on the appropriation costs associated with a Constitutional Convention.

I also indicated that I did not believe this was a fair analysis of financial cost. First of all, one of the most interesting people who came before us to testify was Jack Partridge, an attorney who was a participant in the 1973 convention. He pointed out that convention cost only about $20K, which increased for inflation would be a little over $100K. So I pointed out that this document has no discussion of the 1973 convention. It’s only discussing the 1986 convention, and voters deserve to know a range.

Furthermore , this document doesn’t indicate how amendments could be proposed that, if adopted, would save taxpayers money. A line item veto — as was pointed out at public comment — could save money. Elimination of the lieutenant governor’s office, also raised as a possible Constitutional Convention issue, would save money. Those costs would actually offset the costs of a convention. A participant from the 1973 convention agreed that an amendment from the 1973 convention which eliminated the ban on lotteries brought in a lot more revenue than $20K, which was the cost of the 1973 convention.

That was the main reason. I had a few other problems with the language of the conclusion, but the main point I was making was that I didn’t think the discussion of the cost was appropriate, and it was not as balanced as it should be. In the end, they voted down my amendment trying to make the cost discussion more balanced, but the chairman included a reference to the 1973 convention costing about $20K.

To me, that’s still inadequate, and that’s the main reason I voted against the report.

AR: Were there any general themes in the public commentary?

SF: Let me break this up into two types of groups. There are those who came before us who were opposed to a Constitutional Convention. Their arguments were basically twofold. Don’t do this, because it could harm civil rights. They cited the right to abortion as an example. I pointed out through questioning and others pointed out during public comment that there was an attempt to put a pro-life amendment in the Constitution in 1986, but the voters voted it down anyway. And even if it had been approved, it would have contradicted the US Constitution, and we’re still protected by the US Constitution, regardless of what happens at a state constitutional convention.

Another argument that came up is that you don’t want to have a Constitutional Convention because they’ll be a lot of out-of-state money influence. My counter-argument, in the questions I asked as a commission member, was that the General Assembly has put amendments on the ballot that caused a lot of out-of-state money to come in here, such as casino questions, and even then Harrah’s went down in 2006.

What I found interesting was that the people who were in favor of a Constitutional convention didn’t just make general arguments of reform, like term limits and restoring the Ethics Commission and bracketing and voter-initiative. There were people, for example, who made arguments for putting specific things like a right to a quality education into our constitution. Another interesting topic that came up was opposition to moral obligation bonds.

AR: Any surprises in the public commentary?

SF: One thing that I learned at the hearings was that there is a legal argument that people who are currently in elected office are, possibly, prohibited by law from serving at a constitutional convention, because it would be dual office holding,

AR: What do you think people might learn from reading the report that they might not learn otherwise?

SF: That the 1973 Convention was really cheap.

AR: Care to make a prediction about what would happen, if the election were held today?

SF: Obviously, this is a guess. The last polling I saw, at the beginning of 2013 if I recall correctly, was about 40% in favor, with 25% against. In 2004, it barely failed, 52% – 48%, and I think there’s more public disapproval and dissatisfaction with the way that Rhode Island’s going now then there was in 2004. The more people are dissatisfied with the status quo, the more they are going to want to vote for a Constitutional Convention, to make some real changes.

AR: After Rhode Island primary season is over, what should we expect the campaign for a constitutional convention to look like?

SF: People against the convention, I think, will basically focus on the issues I’ve already mentioned. They’ll talk about the potential cost of a convention. They’ll make the Pandora’s Box argument, which is that a Constitutional convention could make radical proposals that people won’t want. Their message will focus on how people’s rights could be taken away from them. The counter-argument to that is that everything that comes out of a convention has to be approved by the voters. Opponents of a convention will also make an argument about potential out-of-state money influences. However, Rhode Island has had campaigns where big out of state money has been involved, like with Harrah’s in 2006, and it went down to defeat by a large margin.

On the pro-side, there are several arguments. First, this is a chance for the people themselves, outside of the General Assembly, to make changes. It’s going to be promoted, and should be promoted, as a way for the people to express their will more directly in the governing process. Second, there will be an argument that there are reforms that people want in this state that are not happening, because the General Assembly refuses to give them serious consideration, for instance, the line-item veto. Rhode Island is one of the few states not to have it. On Ethics Commission jurisdiction, the Supreme Court made their decision in 2009, I believe, and five years later, while there have been votes on it in one chamber or another, it hasn’t been adopted yet. Voter initiative is another issue. A majority of states have voter initiative; it’s been before the General Assembly multiple times, but never adopted.

This is a way for the people to amend the Constitution, and get things into it, that the General Assembly has shown by its behavior in recent years that it is just not willing to do.

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