Merits of Proposed Constitutional Convention Debated

Along with candidates for local elections this November, New York voters will have the chance to vote on a proposal that could potentially change the state constitution.

The proposition, which will be on the back of the ballot, will ask voters whether they want a constitutional convention. If voters approve the measure, delegates would be selected in 2018 and the convention would be held in April 2019 with possible amendments to the state’s founding document on the ballot that year.

The state board of elections is required to put forth the question on the ballot every 20 years and for the last five decades voters have demurred with the last convention held in 1967. Delegates could include current lawmakers and the cost of the convention would be in the millions.

While the process might be straightforward, opinions from public officials, concerned citizens, and advocacy groups widely vary.

Assemblyman Kevin Byrne, a Republican, is against a constitutional convention because while a convention might look good, he doesn’t believe it’ll rectify the state’s problems. Issues that plague New York could still be solved by the state legislature during session, Byrne noted, like the pension forfeiture bill for corrupt lawmakers that will also be on the ballot this fall.

He encouraged voters to educate themselves on the issue before going to the poll this November.

“Because it sounds really good at first glance,” Byrne said. “But you’re talking about a lot of taxpayer money out here that could ultimately just go to more special interests and politicians and could even make things worse.”

He has sponsored a bill with a Democratic assemblyman that reads if there is a constitutional convention, NYS legislators couldn’t collect an additional salary from their delegate duties.

The Lower Hudson Valley Progressive Action Network’s executive board voted unanimously to oppose the constitutional convention and vowed to work to defeat the proposal. The organization claimed the convention would roll back legislative gains that are already in place.

LHPVAN claimed a “People’s Convention” would more likely be controlled by big money and special interests. The organization argued donors from right wing groups, for-profit schools, the fossil fuel industry, and big pharmaceutical companies could reap the benefits of the convention instead.

The group pointed to possibly losing money for public schools, less environmental protections, and loss of pension and benefits protection for union members.

LHVPAN co-chair Andy Falk, a Patterson resident, noted many rights New York citizens have are stronger than federal laws and it would be “naïve” to believe a convention would only yield positive outcomes. The funding for a convention would be better spent in other areas, Falk said, like education.

“Albany is infamous for its dysfunction,” Falk, a Democrat who has run for the state legislature before, said. “Based on what we have, we should expect a similarly broken system in a constitutional convention.”

Mahopac Teachers Association president Thomas McMahon said most unions in the state oppose the possible convention.

He noted that while unions might get some concessions, a convention could also lead to losing some of the hard earned battles they’ve won in the past. A convention could decimate laws that make New York one of the strongest union states in the country, McMahon said. “It’s like playing a game of bingo. You might get four things that you really like, but you might also get four things that you really don’t like. And that’s the problem with a constitutional convention.”

McMahon noted he and many union members across the state would be working to inform voters about the convention vote and the perils surrounding it. “Our biggest obstacle is letting people know it’s on the ballot,” he said.

Two major statewide organizations that support a constitutional convention are the League of Women Voters and New York State Bar Association.

NYS League of Women Voters president Dare Thompson said state leaders have failed to enact meaningful reform to make democracy work in New York. If voters approve the convention, it would send a “strong message that they are fed up with corruption and dysfunction in Albany,” Thompson said.

Eileen Reilly, the president of the Putnam League of Women Voters, noted there are many laws that need repair. That includes voting reform, fair legislative redistricting, ethics reform, modernizing the court system, and strengthening the state bill of rights.

“Albany’s been broken for a while now,” Reilly said.

One concern Reilly has is the convention becoming a “partisan event,” but she stressed voters have the final say over any changes in the state constitution.

“There are changes that are necessary to improve our lives and we can control it by staying involved and voting,” Reilly said.

The state bar association house of delegates voted 111-28 to endorse the constitutional convention. Bar association president Sharon Stern Gerstman said there are shortcomings in the state constitution that need to be handled.

“A convention would focus public attention on ways to modernize and improve the operations of state government, especially our court system,” Stern Gerstman said.

The chair of the committee on the NYS constitution, Henry Greenberg, called the state constitution “broken in significant respects.”

“It is a 52,500-word behemoth, filled with minutia and obsolete provisions,” Greenberg said, “and even (has) sections that the US Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional.”

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