Mike Curtin commentary: Ohio Constitution could use some tweaking (Columbus Dispatch 11/15/10)

Mike Curtin commentary: Ohio Constitution could use some tweaking (Columbus Dispatch 11/15/10)

By Mike Curtin The Columbus Dispatch  •  Monday November 15, 2010

Ohio could benefit from a state constitutional revision commission.

The state last utilized such a panel in 1971-1977. It was a success. The commission recommended 18 constitutional amendments, 15 of which were adopted by Ohio voters.

Among other revisions, that effort produced:

  • Tax reform, including classifying real property for tax purposes and taxing agricultural land at current value.
  • Ballot reform, by creating the Ohio Ballot Board to ensure uniformity and requiring the rotation of candidate names on the ballot to ensure fairness.
  • Executive branch reform, requiring election of the governor and lieutenant governor in tandem, and establishing an order of gubernatorial succession.
  • Enfranchisement reform, conforming Ohio law with the federal law granting 18-year-olds the right to vote.
  • County government reform, establishing a permissive, alternative form of county government.

Ohio faces plentiful challenges. Some of them cannot be solved without changes in the state constitution.

Adopted in 1851, it is one of the oldest state constitutions in America and contains many antiquated provisions.

A top-level, bipartisan commission, comprised of state lawmakers, academics and business and labor leaders, would educate and inform all Ohioans of potential reforms to better position our state for the challenges of the 21st century.

Among other topics, the panel most likely would examine tax reform, state and local government reform, term limits, merit selection of judges and reapportionment reform.

Ohio has not thoroughly examined its constitution, its basic governing document, in two generations. A new exam is overdue.

Because of its success, the previous experience should be studied and emulated.

In August 1969, Gov. James A. Rhodes and the General Assembly passed legislation creating a 32-member commission, including 12 state lawmakers.

Ohio was rather late to the game, as the period of 1950-1970 gave rise to constitutional-reform movements in 45 states.

There was widespread recognition that state constitutions contained many provisions that were outmoded.

Ohio’s state leaders also recognized that, in 1972, voters would face the ballot question, which appears every 20 years, of whether to call for a state constitutional convention.

Ohio’s constitutional requirement to ask the voters this question every 20 years follows Thomas Jefferson’s maxim that each generation should have the opportunity to choose its own form of government.

The late 1960s were politically and socially tumultuous, and Statehouse leaders were concerned over the direction a constitutional convention might take. The commission was a way to take the steam out of any momentum for a 1972 convention call.

Interestingly enough, the convention question will appear again in November 2012.

Ohio has not had a constitutional convention since 1912 and doesn’t need one now. But it does need constitutional revision.

The previous commission divided into committees (Executive/Legislative, Local Government, Finance and Taxation), met monthly and held hearings across the state. It published a newsletter to keep the public informed.

The 12 lawmaker members, chosen by legislative leaders, were politically balanced: six Democrats, six Republicans; six Senate members, six House members.

Those 12 chose the other 20 members, who were broadly representative of business, labor, the judiciary and academia.

Political balance is a key to success, because no proposed amendment to the Ohio Constitution will be approved by the voters without wide support.

With the previous commission, no proposal for a constitutional amendment could go to the General Assembly without the approval of two-thirds of commission members.

To put a proposed amendment on the ballot, both houses of the General Assembly must approve it by a three-fifths vote.

The commission was charged with completing its work by July 1, 1979. It actually finished early, delivering a final report to the General Assembly on June 30, 1977. Ohio still benefits from the work of that group.

Another study commission, if carefully selected and politically balanced, most likely would produce timely benefits for Ohio.

Mike Curtin is associate publisher emeritus of The Dispatch.


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