Constitutional Convention For Iowa

Although the 2010 general elections appear to be shaping up to be as historic as any in recent memory, we here in Iowa will have an additional opportunity to vote on something that only comes along once every decade.  This year a question will appear on the ballot asking Iowa voters if a state constitutional convention, to propose amendments to the state constitution, should be held.  I hope Iowa voters vote yes.

In 1964 the Iowa Legislature amended the Iowa State Constitution, mandating that this question be put to the voters every ten years starting in 1970.  In the four times that the ballot initiative has come up, Iowa voters have rejected it, usually by wide margins.  This year may be different.

A recent poll by TheIowaRepublican.com showed that 42% of Iowans surveyed support calling the convention and 36% oppose it.  This is without any major groups (until very recently) publicly supporting a convention.  This year had a palpable sense of public outrage at elected officials from both parties; if ever Iowa voters would call a convention to pass needed reform, this could be the year.

If a state constitutional convention were approved by voters here’s basically how it would go:  The General Assembly would be responsible for determining how delegates would be elected.  The folks at CallTheConvention.com (who have studied this more than I have) believe that “the General Assembly will likely simply utilize the existing state senate districts as delegate districts as they did for the 1857 constitutional convention in order to avoid any legal challenges.”  The convention would then craft amendments to the state constitution and each one would have to be voted on by the people of Iowa before being implemented.  CallTheConvention.com addresses some of the most common concerns about the process here.

So, why is all this needed?   There are big, burning, philosophical political issues facing Iowa (and the nation) today and our timid state politicians seem unable or unwilling to address them.  At a time when other state governments were beginning to exert their own sovereignty, challenge federal usurpation and address other important issues, our state legislature was creating a mandate that employers provide special areas for women to express breast milk and creating a new licensing regime for dog breeders.  Were these really the most pressing issues facing the state?

Earlier in the year my state senator’s email newsletter said that he was proudly supporting a bill to restrict “payday lenders” and thereby help the poor.  I wrote him an email detailing how the bill was actually injurious to the working poor and asked him to reconsider his support for the bill.  He wrote me back saying that we’d have to “wait and see how much traction” the issue got.  My, what a principled stance on an issue!  I point that out not because I hope a constitutional convention would address that particular issue, but to illustrate the wishy-washy unprincipled nature of our average politicians.

No, if the people of Iowa want principle, if they want substance, if they want “big ideas,” then they will have to do it themselves.  They have to convene a constitutional convention and circumvent the usual legislative process.  Since the convention would be a one shot deal a person could hardly make a career out of being a delegate, so it will hopefully attract a different sort than the run-of-the-mill politician.

Of the “big ideas” that would be facing the convention delegates, gay marriage would be the elephant in the room.  This is the issue that made the Iowa Catholic Conference become the first major group (that I know of) to support calling a convention.  They hope to have an amendment defining marriage as being between one man and one woman to be put to a vote by the people of Iowa.  Regardless of your stance on that issue, there are many other important issues that could also be addressed.

In a guest column in at SiouxCityJournal.com former Sioux City councilman Brent Hoffman lists five worthy potential amendments:

1. Open government (aka “Sunshine”). Current laws only mandate transparency (e.g. open meetings) at the local level. When a past bill was offered to “unexempt” the Governor and Legislature, State Representative Bill Schickel noted “it was so troubling to legislative leaders that they killed the entire bill.”

2. Recall elected officials. If your State Senator or City Councilman is corrupt or incompetent, you should be able to remove them via a “recall vote.” But the Iowa Constitution doesn’t contain that provision. According to Joshua Spivak at least “26 states authorize the recall in some form.”

3. The ballot initiative. First introduced in South Dakota in 1898, the “initiatve” or “ballot measure” empowers citizens to gather petitions and vote on an issue. Twenty-three states have since joined South Dakota in this “more direct form of democracy,” but Iowa isn’t one of them.

4. Term limits. There are at least “15 states that currently have term limits for legislators” (NCSL). Two of these 15 states are our neighbors: Nebraska and South Dakota. Whether you love or hate term limits, it’s a safe bet this amendment won’t see the light of day without a convention.

5. Budget and tax controls. The “People’s Right to Vote” amendment has never made it out of the State Legislature. Iowans for Tax Relief says this amendment would “require voter approval for most tax and fee increases” (beyond 1 percent of revenues from the previous year). Call it a “veto power” on the legislature’s spending habits.

Hoffman’s theme is enacting provisions that the legislature is unlikely to impose on itself.  Additionally Iowa is one of only six states that has no constitutional provision protecting the individual right to keep and bear arms.  That could surely be addressed at a convention.  My own personal wish list, for what it’s worth, would also include some type of state sovereignty amendment and switching to biennial legislative sessions (like Texas).

Granted, devotees of big government will be elected as delegates as well and will push for amendments expanding government power and probably some really bad ideas.  This is where a little faith in our fellow citizens comes in.  Remember, the proposed amendments must then be voted on by Iowa voters before they are accepted.  As Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference, said recently, “Obviously, there are a lot of other things that could take place at a convention, and we’re just going to rely on the people of Iowa to vote yes on the good things and no on the bad things.” 

Faith in the wisdom of the common man, now that’s something you won’t hear coming from the entrenched power brokers in either major party.  That’s because, as Brent Hoffman points out, “if anyone should be fearful of a state Constitutional Convention, it is surely not the voters. It is the politicians.”

Let’s vote “YES” on the state Constitutional Convention so that we can then vote on the issues that the heels in Des Moines won’t address.

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