The White Plains Examiner

Excitement, Fear Grows About Chance for Constitutional Convention

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It’s taken nearly all year for citizens to take notice, but with time dwindling until Election Day an increasing number of voters have realized that a critically important proposition which comes up just once every 20 years is on the ballot.

On Nov. 7, New York State residents will decide whether they want to schedule a Constitutional Convention to potentially make sweeping changes to the state constitution.

Depending on who you speak with, opinions range from ridding Albany of much of its corruption and dysfunction to irreparably damaging life in New York if a convention is convened.

Morgan Pehme, communications director for NY People’s Convention, a Manhattan-based group advocating for a convention, said there is good reason why disparate groups that hardly agree on anything — Planned Parenthood and Right-to-Lifers, the Working Families Party and the NRA – are advocating for a No vote.

The major political parties and special interests and their allies wield disproportionate influence in Albany and dictate what key public policies and issues are raised, he said.

“What is the common thread? They are the groups that have the power in Albany and they are very content keeping things the way they are,” Pehme said. “But in our view, New York is one of the most corrupt and dysfunctional state governments, and the status quo is hurting New Yorkers. We have tried through the regular legislative channels (to have) such a resistance and to make a difference and Albany has simply thumbed its nose.”

Many others, though, are actively working to defeat the proposition. Bruce Campbell, a board member with the Lower Hudson Valley Progressive Action Network (LHVPAN), the Westchester-Putnam chapter of the state group, said too many hard-fought gains could be lost in a single convention. That could include dismantling the pension system, sabotaging environmental protections to ensure clean drinking water and many others.

“If you have a convention it opens it up to changing everything, including things that are in the constitution that protect a lot of working families that would be under attack at a convention,” he said. “I think a lot of the people who want changes in the constitution want a kind of a panacea, they see it as an easy thing.”

Campbell said while much good came out of the 1894 and 1938 conventions, it was a different world that didn’t have so-called “dark money” trying to heavily influence elections.

Stripping away pensions is one of the scare tactics the opposition has used, Pehme argued. He said people already in a pension system are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, although it is theoretically possible for future workers to miss out on that benefit.

The state is up to Tier VI in the pension system, which is far less robust than the original state pensions, Pehme said.

Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti (D-Pleasantville), who is against a convention, said special interests with deep pockets would likely tilt the delegate balance by being able to put up their candidates and push them through.

He said extremists could take over and could make revisions.

“The dreams of reform are likely to be shattered by the nightmare of the election results,” said Abinanti, who will be speaking about the proposition at the Mount Pleasant Democratic Committee meeting on Nov. 2 at Tesoro d’Italia restaurant in Pleasantville. “In simple terms, because who gets elected as delegates will determine what the convention will do, and in big money times, it’s going to be big money delegates.”

He advocates individual constitutional amendments passed by the legislature and proposed by voters. There have been more than 200 of those passed in the past 100 years, and another, Assemblyman David Buchwald’s pension forfeiture bill, is up for a vote this year.

But Alan Rothstein, the interim executive director of the good government group Citizens Union, said those against the convention are the ones pouring in the money. In fact, Pehme estimates that the No camp could outraise the Yes side by as much as 10-to-1.

Rothstein said while there have been many propositions over the years, no major changes such as campaign finance reform, early voting or overhauling the state’s court system ever gets accomplished legislatively.

“For major structural reforms, this hasn’t happened,” Rothstein said of individual amendments passed by the legislature to put up to the voters. “They amend the constitution frequently, but not in a major way, not in regard with how the government works.”

How Does a Constitutional Convention Work?

If the Nov. 7 proposition passes, there will be elections in each of the state’s 63 senatorial districts next November to determine the three delegates who will represent each district.

Any citizen can run to become a delegate from their district as long as they gather 1,000 signatures from members of their party if they are a Republican or Democrat. Independents would need 3,000 signatures or signatures equaling at least 5 percent of the voters in the last gubernatorial election in their district.

Another 15 at-large statewide delegates would bring the total to 204.

A convention would convene on Apr. 2, 2019, and likely last up to six months, although there really isn’t a time limit. However, a convention would have to be completed in time to get whatever questions are on the ballot for the 2019 general election.

Delegates would be paid at the same rate as a state legislator – a $79,5000 salary – for the duration of the convention, he said.

Cost estimates from anti-convention groups are pegged the expense at as much as $300 million while pro-convention advocates argue it wouldn’t exceed $100 million.

Martin Wilbur

In a previous post of this story, it was incorrectly reported that the Working Families Party, the NRA, Planned Parenthood and the Right to Life advocates were in favor of a Constitutional Convention. They are all opposed to the convention. The Examiner regrets the error.

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