Blueprint for Reform

Blueprint for Reform

 Every 20 years, Ohio voters decide whether to authorize a citizens' convention that would update the state constitution or even write a new one. The next opportunity to revisit Ohio's fundamental law will come this November. Ohioans should prepare themselves to take advantage of it.

The last time voters invoked the option was in 1912. That year, a constitutional convention approved such useful measures as the initiative and referendum, which enable voters to enact laws directly and to affirm or repeal laws passed by the General Assembly.

Over the past century, though, Ohioans have repeatedly rejected statewide conventions in favor of various blue- ribbon panels that proposed constitutional changes to lawmakers and ultimately to voters. There is such a body this year -- the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission, composed of 12 state legislators and 20 other Ohioans whom the lawmakers will appoint.

The panel will be in business for the next decade. Commissioners deserve every opportunity to pursue the thorough reforms that Ohio's constitution, enacted in 1851, needs. But if they show an unwillingness or inability this year to do that job, then voters will have to take the process into their own hands.

The current constitution is larded with obsolete language and special-interest provisions. It needs a top-to-bottom review of the powers and duties it defines for state government, not just patching and tweaking.

Opponents of a constitutional convention warn of the dangers of a "runaway" process, in which extremist interest groups would seize control and ram through ill-advised constitutional amendments. They contend that convention delegates would not be as qualified or experienced as the experts on the commission in proposing reforms.

Such an alarmist, and elitist, viewpoint seems to underestimate the capacities of Ohio's citizens, especially when you consider the recent performance of the General Assembly. Commission members will have to show, not merely assert, that their way is better.

Commission advocates note that its bipartisan composition will prevent it from offering overtly partisan proposals (of course, the same kind of structure prevented the congressional budget "super-committee" from doing anything). Any proposed amendment must attract the support of two-thirds of the panel's members, another supposed check against one-sided proposals that voters likely would reject.

Three credible northwest Ohio lawmakers sit on the panel: outgoing Republican state Sen. Mark Wagoner of Ottawa Hills and Reps. Matt Huffman of Lima, a Republican, and Dennis Murray of Sandusky, a Democrat. The quality of the other commission members the legislators on the panel will name will provide an immediate clue to its seriousness. So will the openness, or secrecy, with which it does its business.

Most important, though, will be the quality of the constitutional reforms the commission proposes. Some possibilities: A more-effective means of drawing the state's congressional and legislative maps than the current outrageous political gerrymanders. A fairer method of school taxation. Meaningful, not partisan, changes to election rules. A better way to select state judges.

Any one of these reforms would be a big job, and lawmakers have shown a distressing tendency in recent years to expect voters to do the heavy lifting on difficult issues. If the modernization commission defaults on its duties, voters must be ready to step in.


The Toledo Blade Company