Debating a Constitutional Convention

Following Jack Wagner’s announcement that he supports a Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention (he is, I believe, the only candidate for PA Governor to yet endorse a Con Con) has cause some debate on the “Pandora’s Box” of a Constitutional Convention.

Joseph Collins, who blogs at Alabama in Between as well as PA Water Cooler, suggests that a convention could result in the loss of gun rights and a California-style “loose” initiative and referendum. Rep. Gordon Denlinger fears the creation of a progressive income tax and elimination of a balanced budget requirement; he also suggests there is no way to limit a convention.

Let me offer a few facts:

First, it is possible to limit a convention – the 1967-1968 PA Constitutional Convention was so limited. And there are ways to enforce such a limit, as is covered in pages 83-86 of the report Pennsylvania Citizens’ Guide to a Constitutional Convention.

Second, all current proposals call for a limited constitutional conventions. The most sweeping convention legislation, Senator Folmer’s SB 340, would take Article I, the Declaration of Rights, off the table. The other convention bills have even stricter limits over what may be discussed.

SB 340 would require first a vote of the people to call a convention, would elect 3 delegates per state senatorial district (thus might expect similar representation), would require two-thirds of delegates to support any change to the Constitution, and then would require voter approval of the revised Constitution.

With those limits and processes in place, it is unlikely to result in the drastic changes those on the right or on the left fear. Gun rights would be taken off the table for a convention to address, and I don’t know that many of the other changes identified would get support of two-thirds of the delegates to support (and I would add that the “balanced budget provision” has little value, being as the state borrows for the capital budget, including corporate welfare, is borrowing to pay unemployment benefits, and can even borrow short term to pay its bills).

In fact, it is more likely that a Constitutional Convention would be too limited and too constrained to result in meaningful change.

Let me also address the issue of Initiative and Referendum. Mr. Collins, as do many others, cite California as an example of what to fear from I&R. But 24 states have citizen-led initiative and referendum processes, and California is only a model of what not to do. I&R would empower citizens to serve as a check on legislators.

In fact, I&R is tied to lower spending per capita and is the likely the only way things conservatives have pushed for – like term limits, a marriage amendment, spending limits and Rep. Denlinger’s own part-time legislature proposal – will ever come to fruition. And for those on the left – I&R has been used for education funding reform, environmental laws, and redistricting reform.