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Viewpoints: Should voters approve a constitutional convention?

Yes: Citizens need to seize opportunity for change

By Peter J. Galie and Christopher Bopst
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

Are you satisfied living in a state:

• Having a bloated, 50,000-word constitution that is a concatenation of oddities, anachronisms, contradictory provisions and material declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court?

• In which legislative leaders are allowed to accumulate unchecked power absent controls such as term limits or limits on leadership terms?

• In which a greater number of legislators and state officeholders than in any other state – more than 30 in the past decade – have been convicted, sanctioned or accused of wrongdoing?

• Where bipartisan gerrymandering and the financial support that comes with office frees legislators from meaningful competition, making it more likely that a legislator will leave office under criminal prosecution, threat of prosecution or death than by being voted out of office?

• That consistently ranks in the bottom 10 for voter turnout, and refuses to implement changes that would encourage greater participation?

• That makes it difficult if not impossible for citizens unconnected with the mainstream political parties to gain access to the ballot as candidates?

• With a state judiciary that its former chief judge called the “most un-unified, dis-unified, fragmented, cumbersome, complicated, antiquated trial court system in the United States,” and which costs the state, litigants, businesses and municipalities an unnecessary half-billion dollars per year in inefficiencies?

• In which a lieutenant governor who assumes the governorship has the right to select his or her replacement lieutenant governor free from any legislative or voter consent?

• Having state and local finance policies that are mired in the 19th century?

• In which opaque budget practices and reliance on questionable accounting practices create the illusion of fiscal responsibility but threaten the state’s long-term financial health?

• In which local governments enjoy little fiscal autonomy over measures having significant local impact and are hampered by unfunded mandates from Albany?

• Having a constitutional right to play bingo but no constitutional right to clean air and clean water?

• In which the inequality in education funding between the wealthiest and poorest districts ranks among the worst in the nation?

We are not satisfied with these things, and we have no reason to believe any of them will change if left solely in the hands of the State Legislature. That is why we believe New York needs a constitutional convention.

Voters this November will have the opportunity to decide whether the state should convene what would be its 10th constitutional convention. If voters approve, delegates would be chosen in November 2018. The convention would begin meeting in April 2019. Any changes to the constitution would have to be submitted to voters for approval, most likely in November 2019.

Throughout New York’s history, constitutional conventions have not only been responsible for the insertion of almost every right – individual or collective – found in the state constitution, they have been far more successful than the Legislature at proposing the kind of structural changes to government that are so desperately needed today. Why is this? A constitutional convention:

• Is a unicameral body, so there is no need for passage by multiple houses.

• Is called for a specific purpose and goes out of existence when that purpose is accomplished, freeing delegates from the pressures of re-election campaigns.

• Does not use a seniority rule for the appointment of chairs and leadership.

• Allows judicial, executive and local government officials to participate jointly in its deliberations.

• Limits the power of political leaders and parties. Convention officers do not have the political and legal influence that leaders of the Legislature wield.

• Lacks an institutional memory. Nearly all of the delegates to a 2019 convention will be new to the game, since the last one was held 50 years ago.

• Proposes only constitutional changes and focuses exclusively on that task unencumbered from the responsibilities that are part of the Legislature’s day-to-day duties.

There has been much misinformation circulated about a constitutional convention. Some believe public employees could lose their pensions. (Incorrect: All existing employees’ or retirees’ pension rights are vested under state and federal law upon entering the pension system and any change would violate the U.S. Constitution.) Some say a convention would be dominated by reactionary forces that would attempt to curtail our rights. (Highly improbable given that Hillary Clinton won the state last year by more than 22 points.) Some say conventions are do-nothing boondoggles. (Historically inaccurate, as six out of nine conventions had their work approved in major part, and even the three “unsuccessful” conventions spawned later legislative amendments.) Some say a convention will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. (Laughable given that the 1967 convention and preparatory commission spent just over $55 million in today’s dollars.)

The Legislature, over the last 40 years, has not demonstrated the ability or willingness to solve the problems that have plagued our state, and there is no reason to believe a miraculous transformation will take place in the next 20. This is our opportunity to try another method of reform. Don’t let fear paralyze and divide us. Hope inspires and unites. We choose hope.

Peter J. Galie and Christopher Bopst are authors of “The New York Constitution” and editors of “New York’s Broken Constitution.”

 

No: Risks and cost outweigh any potential benefit

By Richard Lipsitz Jr.
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

On Nov. 7, New Yorkers will be asked a question they are asked every 20 years: Should New York State hold a constitutional convention? A constitutional convention, or con con for short, is a process that would allow delegates to rewrite the New York State Constitution. New Yorkers have the choice to vote yes or no on the ballot question, Proposition 1, on Election Day.

The problem with a constitutional convention is that there are no rules and no certainties. We don’t know anything about the process, who will be delegates, how long a convention would last, or how much a convention will cost. We don’t know which issues will be left alone, or put on the chopping block. There are no restrictions on a convention because delegates – who are unknown right now – will set their own rules. This simply leaves voters with too many questions, and no clear answers.

One thing we do know is that delegates will be the same politicians and lobbyists running Albany right now. Just look at the last convention in 1967. The vast majority of delegates (nearly 80 percent) were part of the political establishment, including current and past elected officials, appointees and their inner circles.

If the New York political establishment can’t get anything done right now, how can we trust them to get anything done at a constitutional convention? How can we be sure that they’ll act in the best interest of New Yorkers – and not their wealthy, special interest influencers?

The state constitution was put in place with the purpose of protecting everyday citizens. The Western New York Area Labor Federation, of which I am president, represents over 100,000 hardworking New Yorkers whose livelihood and retirement are defended and honored in this document.

Every article and amendment is up for grabs if we have a convention, including rights that defend workers, our children’s education and our environment.

Articles I and V protect workers from wage theft and hours exploitation and defends workers’ rights to collectively bargain and receive benefits. Article XI guarantees that every child in New York State receives a sound education. And Article XIV protects our state lands, including the Adirondacks and Catskills.

We already know there are powerful, well-funded groups looking to delegitimize the rights of workers and aggressively deregulate working standards for their benefit. Working people from across the country have fought and won battles against these forces, including increasing the minimum wage, ensuring paid family leave, improving insurance benefits for the unemployed and continuing to protect the fair compensation of workers.

But through a constitutional convention, these special interest groups will spend huge sums of money to influence the process with the aim of compromising and outright eliminating these protections in one fell swoop. This will directly impact New Yorkers from all walks of life – including our teachers, our nurses, our firefighters, our police, our construction workers and so many more.

In addition to our rights, the state’s public lands are also at risk. The state constitution contains safeguards that protect public land from development and misuse. The protections that have defended the Adirondacks and the Catskills for decades could be severely rolled back if developers are able to exert their influence on the delegate selection and ultimately the amendments and revisions they propose.

The state constitution also protects voter ID laws that expand access for all New Yorkers, aid and care for low- and middle-income New Yorkers to keep them out of poverty, and funding for our schools.

On top of all the unknowns and risks, a constitutional convention would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Delegates would earn nearly $80,000 in addition to their current salaries, which is well above what the average New Yorker makes in a year. Considering all of the things we could use that money for – public education, access to health care or critical services for firefighters and the police, to name a few – this seems like an unfair burden to place on New York taxpayers.

When considering the risks and the enormous costs associated with a convention, it’s clear New Yorkers have very little to gain and so much to lose.

Some who are urging a yes vote have argued that a constitutional convention would clean up the corruption and ethics problems that plague Albany. But a convention will only exacerbate the problem by putting even more power in the hands of corrupt Albany insiders, leaving regular citizens with even less of a say in our democratic process.

There is already an effective mechanism in place to amend our constitution – and it’s been done over 200 times since 1894 through actions originating in the Legislature. A convention will needlessly open the door for politicians and lobbyists, and the special interests who fund them, to further abuse their power.

With little to gain and so much to lose, a convention is a costly risk New Yorkers cannot afford to take. There’s just so much we don’t know and too many players we can’t trust. If history is any indication, a convention will be a blank check for political insiders to rewrite our constitution – allowing special interests to gamble and trade the rights of New Yorkers to their benefit.

That’s why I’m urging every New Yorker to vote no on Proposition 1. Make sure you show up at the polls this November, vote no and urge your family and communities to do the same. We have the power to protect our rights, and ensure corrupt insiders don’t get the constitutional convention they desperately want.

Richard Lipsitz Jr. is president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation.

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