Rewrite state constitution? It's a question for voters

February 04, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz |

Maryland voters will choose a governor and all 188 state lawmakers this fall, but they'll also likely face an even weightier decision: Should the state constitution be ripped up and rewritten?

Every 20 years, state lawmakers are required to pass legislation placing a "constitutional convention question" on the ballot. The bill is expected to win easy approval because, as Assistant Attorney General Dan Friedman told lawmakers on Wednesday, "You really don't have a choice."

Once the question is on the ballot, it has a long record of going nowhere - just one has been called since 1867, and the document produced was rejected. But some wonder if citizen activist groups might be able to rally enough support this year for rewriting the state's governing laws.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pan the idea of a convention, though they acknowledge that it's their duty to pose the question to voters.

Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, called constitutional conventions a costly and cumbersome "exercise in futility."

The Senate minority leader seems to share that view. "This obviously is not the time to change the Constitution of Maryland or bear the expense of a Constitutional Convention," Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican, wrote in a recent blog posting.

To call a convention, a majority of the people who vote in the fall election - not just on the ballot question, but everyone voting for anything - must approve. Then, perhaps in a special election, four citizens from each of the state's 47 legislative districts would be elected.

In 1966 - off-cycle and after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Maryland's legislative districts were unconstitutional - voters agreed to an overhaul of the laws. But then they rejected the document produced by the convention.

As a result, said Friedman, who is also a constitutional scholar, Maryland remains governed by a set of laws written in 1867, albeit amended hundreds of times since then.

The age of the document shows. It's considerably longer than the U.S. Constitution, difficult to follow and filled with antiquated language.

Just how much this exercise in democracy could cost the state is unclear. Advocates say it would be nominal, whereas opponents, including Miller, claim it would be way too expensive, particularly in tight economic times.

Already groups are beginning to urge voters to call a convention, dubbing the event "ConCon."

A blog dedicated to the 2010 ballot question launched in April 2009. "It is believed this is the tool, and the only time (every 20 years), that the People can use to actually bring about effective change in our State Government," the site says.

In an opinion piece last month in The Baltimore Sun, the author of that blog, Severna Park resident J.H. Snider, wrote that a convention is the best way for Marylanders to address issues - including campaign financing and term limits - that lawmakers won't touch because of self-interest.

This year, Snider says, is the perfect time to call a convention because the U.S. Census to be taken in April probably will prompt redistricting in Maryland. Convention delegates, he wrote, would redistrict in a more thoughtful way than lawmakers who may be interested only in preserving their own seats.

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