Special interests push for state convention; Gay marriage foes want issue before voters

Monday, October 13, 2008 11:05 AM EDT
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

It seems like a straightforward question: Should Connecticut hold a convention to make changes to the state constitution?

Interest groups have already raised tens of thousands of dollars to support the cause, however, and supporters and opponents of the proposal are breaking largely along partisan lines concerning topics like gay marriage, tax reform, abortion and immigration.

And with Friday’s state Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage in Connecticut, anti-gay marriage groups are now focusing on the constitutional convention as a possible first step to overturn the ruling.

According to the state constitution, every 20 years a question must appear on the ballot about whether to open up that constitution for possible changes. The last convention, in 1965, addressed the issue of legislative apportionment after state and federal courts said Connecticut’s legislature was not representative.

This year, both sides in the debate are focusing on the concept of direct initiatives, which could allow residents to place questions on the ballot without going through the legislative process. About half of all states, including Massachusetts and California, already allow similar ballot referenda.

Two statewide groups, Connecticut Constitution Convention Campaign and Connecticut Vote No, have formed to advocate for and oppose the convention, respectively. Matthew Daly, chairman of the Constitution Convention Campaign, said that his group is in favor of voter referenda and is “issue neutral.”

“We are looking to implement direct initiative into the state constitution — that’s our singular purpose,” Daly said. “It’s our belief that the current legislature is unresponsive on a number of issues and if we can have a statewide referendum mechanism at the voters’ disposal, they will have a more substantive and meaningful voice to petition their government on issues that concern them.”

Daly cited areas like income taxes, medical marijuana, the “three strikes” law and eminent domain as ones that voters could address through direct initiative. He said that his group has not taken a stance on those questions.

“All of these issues, left or right, would, in our view, be able to be addressed in a more meaningful way,” he said.

But Peggy Shorey, campaign manager for Connecticut Vote No, called the supporters of the constitutional convention “a political group with a specific agenda to ban abortion and ban gay marriage in Connecticut.”

“This is not a real route to change. What we think would come out of this would be politics as usual,” Shorey said. “We don’t think that one group of special interests should be deciding on people’s individual rights.”

The Family Institute of Connecticut, an organization that opposes gay marriage, is also in favor of holding a constitutional convention for the purpose of direct initiative. In the wake of Friday’s Supreme Court decision, Peter Wolfgang, the Family Institute’s director, said he would focus on the constitutional convention as a way to place a gay marriage question before voters, according to The Associated Press.

That has been the strategy in California, where voters this November will see a constitutional amendment question that would reverse the state Supreme Court’s May decision legalizing gay marriage. Other direct initiatives in California have capped and reduced state property taxes and legalized medical marijuana. One of the best known Massachusetts ballot initiatives, Proposition 2 ½, limited municipalities to an annual 2.5 percent tax increase.

As of early July, the Vote No campaign had raised $45,000 toward its effort, with a $40,000 donation from the Connecticut Education Association and $5,000 from Planned Parenthood of Connecticut. The Education Association is opposing the convention because it fears “anti-union and anti-tax” initiatives could reduce funding for public schools and teachers, according to the group’s Web site.

The Constitution Convention Campaign, meanwhile, had received contributions of $1,110 as of July, $1,010 of it from the group’s treasurer, according to campaign filings. The Family Institute of Connecticut had about $1,042 cash on hand at the end of June and had raised $245 between April and June.

Shorey said that ballot initiatives could inject more money into the political process.

“It ends up being a huge expense of money,” she said. “If you look at Massachusetts or California, they spend tens of millions of dollars on every ballot question every year.”

She added that, since state legislators would pick the delegates to the constitutional convention, it would still be subject to the political process.

“There’s other ways to amend the constitution when it is needed so that you don’t need to open up the entire constitution and every right that we have to be able to make individual changes,” she said, adding that the constitution has been amended more than 30 times since the 1965 convention.

Republican Gov. M Jodi Rell has announced her support for the constitutional convention, while other state officials, including Democratic Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, are against the question.

“I don’t think it’s an appropriate investment of state funds for something that won’t necessarily produce any results,” Bysiewicz said. She added that the 1965 convention cost the state $2 million.

Bysiewicz noted that constitutional questions already appear on the ballot — in this election, for example, voters will be asked whether 17 year olds who will be 18 by the time of the general election should be allowed to vote in primaries — and the convention process would be largely governed by the General Assembly. If the question garners a majority of “yes” votes, state legislators would decide the schedule for the convention and choose the delegates.

Following that, any recommendations coming out of the convention would go back to the voters for approval.

Currently, a constitutional question must pass the legislature by a two-thirds vote to appear on the ballot.

The constitutional convention issue is also starting to come up in local races, with candidates and officials taking a stance.

At a recent election forum at the New Haven Pride Center that featured state Republican Party Chairman Chris Healy and Democratic Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo, audience members asked the party leaders about the convention. Healy said he supported holding one because he thinks direct referenda could result in tax reform, while DiNardo said she opposed the convention. Many people in the audience at the event said they think direct initiative could lead to an anti-gay marriage question.

The topic also came up at a recent League of Women Voters debate between State Rep. Steve Fontana, D-87, and his Republican challenger, Veronica Kivela. They also split along party lines.

But Fontana said he has not fielded any questions on the topic from voters, and activists on both sides of the issue said they are working to educate residents.

“People are beginning to find out that this question is on the ballot,” Daly, of the Constitution Convention Campaign, said. “(We’re doing) everything that we possibly can.”

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