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by Tom Campbell

Our Constitution in Crisis
September 9, 2004

Anyone who knows Robert Orr knows he is a man of strong convictions. As a Justice on the state’s Supreme Court he proved himself a jurist who abided by the principles and letter of our Constitution. So it was no surprise to see Bob Orr step down from his seat on our highest court to assume leadership of a new organization designed to defend and advocate for that document.

Bob Orr believes that our state Constitution is under assault from many who want to circumvent and deny the rights and principals stated in this rule of law. Our Constitution is threatened by crises on at least two fronts.

The first involves the public purpose provision. Our Constitution specifically states that public money must be used for public purposes, but how is public purpose defined? Is it a legitimate public purpose to give millions to a private corporation to locate a plant in our state? Advocates say that capital investment in buildings and land improvements create a broader tax base and thus generate more in tax revenues. Opponents, such as Orr, say this is highly suspect because these expenditures ultimately benefit a private enterprise, not the public as a whole. The same yardstick must be applied to giving money to non-profit organizations. Are they, in fact, benefiting the public or just a small constituency?

Also at question is Article V of our Constitution that requires that any debt that requires the full faith and credit of the public be voted on and approved by that public before it can be incurred. We have seen an alarming trend toward huge amounts of debt being incurred without any attempt to involve voters, either in debate or vote, using devices such as Certificates of Participation. Advocates claim we are not putting the full faith and credit of the public at risk therefore the practice is permitted. Opponents say this is merely semantics. We will not and cannot allow governments to incur debt and skip out on their obligations, so whether or not we claim full faith and credit, the effect is still the same.

In November a Constitutional amendment on our ballot asks us to further this practice using a new device called Tax Increment Financing. If approved this measure would challenge both the public purpose and Article V clauses of our Constitution.

We believe there is every right to be concerned about the interpretation and implementation of our Constitution and there is no better advocate than Bob Orr to challenge those who would deny or try to outmaneuver the principals stated in this venerable document. It is high time these questions were raised to public awareness and debated in the court of law. We look forward to the debate and subsequent resolution, and we commend Orr for rising to the challenge.