- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Rhode Island voters would decide whether to call the state’s first constitutional convention in 30 years under a ballot question endorsed Wednesday by the state Senate.

If voters approve the referendum, special elections would be held in each of the state’s 75 House districts to pick convention delegates, who would meet to consider proposed changes to the state’s most significant political document. Any amendments the convention recommends would have to be approved by voters.

Supporters pushing for a convention say possible changes include term limits and increased ethics oversight of lawmakers, along with a prohibition on straight-party voting and changes to the legislative redistricting process.

Democratic Sen. Paul Fogarty of Glocester sponsored the resolution calling for the referendum. He said he’s been pushing for a convention for years, and that a convention would be a more effective way to handle the many proposed constitutional amendments that come before the legislature each year.

“Let the people decide,” Fogarty said.

The House of Representatives will also consider whether to ask voters to authorize a convention, said Larry Berman, spokesman for House Speaker Gordon Fox.

It’s probably a moot point: Secretary of State Ralph Mollis intends to put the question on the ballot if the legislature doesn’t.

Rhode Island’s Constitution requires voters to consider holding a convention every decade. The last two times they were asked, in 1994 and 2004, they rejected the idea. The last time Rhode Island held a constitutional convention was 1986.

The Senate also approved legislation Wednesday that would create a bipartisan committee tasked with preparing for a possible convention. The group, which would consist of four state representatives, four senators and four members of the public, would hold public meetings this spring and summer to study possible topics of a convention.

Critics of the call for a convention point to the potential cost of holding such a gathering - which would require staff and attorneys - and the fear that special interest groups could attempt to manipulate the convention by pushing delegate candidates with narrow agendas.

John Marion, executive director of the government-watchdog group Common Cause Rhode Island, said his organization opposed calling a convention in 1994 and 2004 but hasn’t taken a position yet this year.

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