Monday, June 11, 2007

PA Convention Precedent

Editorial on the mark: no guarantee a PA Constitutional Convention can be limited once it gets going, as precedent was set. Some will continue to claim the 1873 convention was itself "illegal." Really, that is a bogus argument as the PA Constitution is silent on who may or may not "call" a convention.

See Hoar's classic work on state conventions, noted in our sidebar.

The following is a Sentinel Editorial

A reflection upon a Pa. convention
By The Sentinel, June 8, 2007

Last updated: Friday, June 8, 2007 10:30 AM EDT

In the wake of the legislative pay grab a couple of years ago, there was a bumper crop of people forming organizations to lobby for government reform.

Some of their demands for change appeared to fall on deaf ears. Others, particularly the lawsuits to turn back the pay grab, didn't come out quite the way the plaintiffs expected after the state courts had completed their work.

So it's not surprising that there has been something of a drumbeat for a state constitutional convention. The amendment process is protracted and difficult, and the changes people have proposed would take a number of amendments to become law.

By contrast, a constitutional convention would put everything into play at once and create an opportunity for dramatic change. The final product then would be put before voters for approval.

That's the background against which the state House's State Government Committee approved a bill this week to create a 15-member committee to undertake a year-long study of the current state constitution. The bill appropriates $475,000 to finance a report that would be turned over to the governor and Legislature.

State Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, who sponsored the bill, told the committee it's “high time” to discuss the future of the commonwealth. By contrast, our own state Rep. Glenn Grell, R-87, found the bill “too wide-ranging” and voted no. He felt an existing committee, the Joint State Government Commission, could handle the job since it consists of both House and Senate members.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, R-15, has drafted a bill calling for a constitutional convention but has not yet introduced it, according to the Associated Press.

The AP reports that all the constitutional conventions held in Pennsylvania have been initiated by the Legislature, which is ironic given the calls for one coming from grass-roots activists this time around. Voters themselves have turned down referendums to hold conventions five times between 1921 and 1963.

It's probably a good thing that Evans' bill has the momentum for now. Constitutional conventions have few rules, and attempts to limit their scope have not always been successful. The 1963 convention stuck to its brief to examine governmental administration issues and followed a prohibition against discussing a graduated income tax.

Back in 1873, however, the delegates made changes to the declaration of rights against the guidance of the Legislature. So there is precedent for the delegates to do whatever a majority of them chooses to do.

We think it unlikely that the General Assembly would call a constitutional convention without giving it a specific agenda. On the other hand, we can imagine Evans' proposed commission taking its good old time to write a report and blunting the momentum for a convention.

In the end, we think legislative leaders are unlikely to sign off on anything that might get too far out of their control. So if a constitutional convention is called, we'd expect it to have a very specific set of issues to address. Whether they'll be able to do anything about that 1873 precedent is another matter, however.

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