(Photo: Neil Abramson)
HB 456 by Democrat Rep. Neil Abramson would have appointed a panel to assess whether the state needed a limited constitutional convention, originally focusing on revenue and finance, local government finance, retirement systems, and higher education organization and finance. If deemed wise, the panel would join delegates elected from House of Representatives districts to work on a document incorporating any changes that voters could approve.
While the bill covered appropriate subject matter, it erred in stumping for the 27 superdelegates representing special interests, elected officials, and academia both to set the agenda and to participate in deliberations. This passed along too much power to entrenched interests. More appropriately, it could have replaced them at the convention with additional delegates elected from the 39 Senate districts. Further, delegate election could have excluded any state or local elected official who had served in the previous six years, to ensure, unlike the last such effort in 1974, that those with ties to government organized along the lines of the present arrangement that has proven lacking do not have outsized influence over the product.
Instead, not only did the House committees that dealt with the bill fail to make such a change, one made matters worse by excluding the area most in need of reform, retirement systems. Still, amendments on the floor could have put the bill into a helpful form.
But that hope quickly evaporated when state Rep. Jay Morris, in questioning Abramson during the bill’s presentation, claimed that those part of the system, legislators, actually would produce a better fix, using the existing method of the Legislature proposing amendments. Morris incredulously suggested that special interests would have more sway over delegates than current legislators. Abramson pointed out that delegates more likely could vote their consciences, and even if a document catering to special interests came forth, the people could defeat it.
Morris’ complaints especially seem hollow considering that in 2015 for his reelection, approximately $49,000 of the almost $134,000 he raised (including in-kind) came from interest groups, corporations, and limited liability corporations not associated with solo practitioners. State Rep. Sam Jones followed him and said that special interests would “hijack this convention;” of the more than $35,000 he raised in 2015 for his reelection, over $30,000 came from this group of special interests. State Rep. Pat Smith also joined in with Jones’ argumentation;” she raised about $23,000 in 2015 for her reelection of which over $21,000 came from these special interests.
Perhaps aware how this line of reasoning could backfire so badly, state Rep. Chris Broadwater asked Abramson whether he thought delegates could be bought, drawing a parallel that as representatives received special interest money and did not sell their souls for it, neither would delegates. Abramson wholeheartedly agreed.
In the end, even in its substandard form, not even half the membership voted for the bill’s passage; it required 70 affirmative ones because of its subject matter. Even though most of the majority Republicans in the chamber voted for it, a handful like Morris defected and almost all Democrats voted against it. Which goes to show that, despite rhetoric complaining about the current Constitution, particularly House Democrats have little stomach to make needed changes to it.