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August 20th, 2010

It Is Our Turn to Step Up To The Plate

By Nathan Tucker

If We the People do not vote on the November ballot for a constitutional convention, we have no one to blame for politics as usual but ourselves.  Regardless of their political stripe, people love to complain about partisan gridlock and the need for reform but, with rare exceptions, is anything actually done about it.  Politicians continue their spendthrift ways, they routinely ignore the voice of their constituents on everything from ObamaCare to marriage, and nothing is being done to check the judiciary.

Fortunately, the Iowa Constitution provides the people of our state with a mechanism to bypass the politicians altogether and hold a constitutional convention to add needed reforms to the state constitution.  We the People begin this process by voting “yes” to a constitutional convention at the ballot box, We the People elect the delegates to the convention, and We the People have the final up or down vote on the amendments proposed by the convention.

This is not a complete makeover of the current state constitution, but simply a process to amend a document that has already been amended 47 times previously.  As each preceding generation has realized, there are times when experience and necessity require changes to be made to the Iowa Constitution, and this is one of those times.  The following are examples of needed reforms that will likely never see the light of day if We the People fail to vote for a constitutional convention in the false hope that the legislature will act on them.

Controlling the Purse Strings.  Though Iowa law requires the legislature to only spend 99% of revenue, this has hardly stopped the General Assembly from continuing to spend our money with very little self-control.  Because this requirement is only a statutory requirement and not a constitutional mandate, the legislature can suspend it or, as is all too often the case, ignore it.

Since the General Assembly refuses to obey their own rules, the only remaining alternative is a balanced budget amendment that reins in their spendthrift ways. The amendment should also provide two enforcement mechanisms—mandatory expenditure cuts to keep the budget in balance, and private suits by taxpayers to enforce spending cuts.

Because a balanced budget amendment does not prevent the legislature from balancing the budget by simply raising taxes, it is also necessary to pass a constitutional amendment requiring the vote of the people before a tax increase of more than 1% takes effect.  Since this would enable We the People to effectively veto the General Assembly’s spendthrift ways, it is unsurprising that the legislature has never acted on it

Checking Judicial Activism.  There are a number of changes that need to be made to our judicial system.  Though touted as “non-partisan,” Iowa’s judicial nominating process is controlled by liberals in the Democratic Party and the state bar association.  We need to bring the process out into the open and put it in the hands of those directly accountable to We the People.  We also need to increase the frequency of retention votes and place term limits on judges.

None of these structural changes, however, allow We the People to quickly correct clearly unconstitutional court decisions.  To that end, the constitution should be amended to allow for the temporary stay of court decisions to provide time for We the People to pass a constitutional amendment—either through the traditional legislative route or by the use of ballot initiatives.

Changing how Government Operates.  There are a number of reforms in the structure of state government that will never be made if the decisions were left up to the General Assembly.  For instance, the constitution should be amended to make open government (Sunshine) laws applicable to both state and local governments (currently it only applies to the later).  Also, the people of Iowa deserve a serious debate over whether we should set term limits for our elected officials (which 15 states do), provide for their removal via a recall vote (which 26 states utilize), and establish the ballot initiative (which 24 states have).

Protecting Rights.  There are a number of issues the constitutional convention must address in the aftermath of recent court decisions.  First among them is giving the people the right to vote on a constitutional marriage amendment that would restore marriage in Iowa to that between one man and one woman.

Secondly, the convention can guarantee rights in the Iowa Constitution that the federal courts have or may soon read out of the U.S. Constitution.  For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. City of New London (2005) that the government could take private property from one person to give to another for “economic development.”

Though the Court ruled that this was permissible under the federal constitution, it was not a constitutional requirement.  As a result, many states, including Iowa in 2006, prohibited this particular use of eminent domain.  However, Iowa only did so by statute, which means that a future General Assembly may repeal or amend it as it sees fit.  A constitutional amendment, therefore, should be passed that would strengthen Iowa’s protection against the seizure of private property by the government.

Similarly, Iowans deserve a state constitutional right to purchase, use, and carry guns, a right which doesn’t currently exist in the state constitution.  Though the U.S. Supreme Court has narrowly affirmed the 2nd Amendment to the federal constitution, there is no guarantee that it may do so in the future.  It is imperative, therefore, that Iowans are guaranteed this right under their state constitution, regardless of how future federal courts may interpret the U.S. Constitution.

In conclusion, there are a number of amendments that are needed to the Iowa Constitution, several of which, due to legislative self-interest, will only become reality at a constitutional convention.  The time is now for We the People to act for change we truly can believe in.  If we fail to step up to the plate and vote for a constitutional convention in November, we no longer have any room to complain when politicians and judges continue to act as they always have.   If We the People are truly sovereign and, as the Iowa Constitution proclaims, “all political power is inherent in the people,” it is time we start acting like it.

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About the Author

Nathan W. Tucker
Nathan W. Tucker is a Davenport attorney and author of We The People: The Only Cure to Judicial Activism. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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