Conning Ourselves 

A state constitutional convention is a cop-out, not a way out.

Suddenly the hottest buzzword amid the four-year gridlock on Capitol Hill is "ConCon."

The term is political shorthand for a constitutional convention, a body to rewrite all or part of a document that has stood pretty much unchanged for over two centuries. And it is a document that has been praised, from Thomas Jefferson on down, as a model of good democracy.

The state Senate, which sometimes debates for hours the time for adjournment, is all set this week to fast-track bills setting up the machinery for a constitutional convention. Almost all the candidates for governor traipsing around on the fringes of the action have given their blessing.

Tennessee hasn't had such a convention in 25 years. On the surface, it sounds like political utopia. Voters get to approve the subject matter then elect the delegates. Then the voters get to decide on whether to accept the convention's recommendations.

There are always arguments that the prestige of the convention will attract some of the state's finest minds as candidates. Since the convention is a one-time thing, the idealists say, there won't be a lot of partisan bickering, delegates won't be shaking down lobbyists for money to run for reelection, and good government will prevail.

It doesn't work that way. The conventions we saw in the 20th century were dominated by, successively, local government pleaders, rural power brokers who didn't like the idea of one-man/one-vote, the Farm Bureau, and the banking lobby.

There are two kinds of constitutional convention -- a limited convention, theoretically confined to specific areas of the constitution (although delegates often stray into other areas), and an unlimited version, which would be the first since 1870. The latter kind would open up the whole constitution, including a bill of rights that is in many ways superior to the federal language. It's amazing, but the ultraconservative Senate is talking seriously about an unlimited convention.

Why the sudden interest in the constitution? It provides political cover and an excuse to avoid doing anything about the state's financial situation for another couple of election cycles. It would keep incumbent legislators from having to confront the dreaded income tax.

Income tax opponents have found a convenient alibi over the last four years in the constitution. They say they can't vote for an income tax because it is unconstitutional, based on a 1932 Tennessee Supreme Court ruling.

There is a legal disagreement about the subject. The last four attorneys general have said the tax would be constitutional if drafted correctly. The traditional way to settle such disputes is to pass a bill and let the courts decide. Every session, the legislature passes bills of dubious constitutionality without blinking an eye or making an excuse.

Income-tax opponents, of course, hope that a convention and a pliable electorate goaded by the talk-show hosts would ban an income tax forever, whatever the needs of future generations.

Sen. Bob Rochelle, the leading income-tax advocate, fears that a convention would be dominated by special interests, which would write into the constitution some of the tax loopholes that protect them now. That, he says, would perpetuate a system where working families bear a tax burden the wealthy can avoid.

"A convention is a cop-out,'' says Randy Nichols, one of the Democratic candidates for governor not enamored of the idea. "We don't have time for a convention. Sometimes people in leadership positions just have to step up and lead.''

Nichols is right, but the legislature may not see it that way. A lot of lawmakers would just as soon get out of the frying pan without getting their hide singed and let the horn-honkers terrorize somebody else on Capitol Hill.

"Let the people decide,'' they declaim. Well, the people have decided in the form of legislative elections every two years. The problem is legislators who won't decide.

Larry Daughtrey writes for the Nashville Tennessean, where this column, in slightly different form, first appeared.


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