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Convention opponents outspend supporters in state referendum

ALBANY – Opposition groups – led by labor unions – have been on a feverish fundraising and spending tear in a last-ditch bid to defeat the statewide ballot question next month.

The chief opposition group – New Yorkers Against Corruption – have raised a total of $1.5 million, according to the latest campaign filing this week.  All but $4,900 of that has come from unions representing health care workers, teachers, state and local government employees.

The union-backed opponents are crushing a hodge-podge of supporters of Proposal 1, which asks voters whether they want a convention in 2019 to consider changes to the state constitution. The money fueling the anti-convention efforts does not include the massive telephone and door-to-door campaign that has been underway for weeks in an effort to to reach the state’s 2.5 million union households.

Four major support groups of Proposal 1 have raised a total of $392,000.

Supporters say lawmakers and governors have failed over the years to enact changes to address various problems in the state, including ethics and campaign finance issues.

Critics say a convention could be an avenue to reverse protections in the constitution, such as environmental standards or workers rights.

The race for donations is especially key in the constitutional convention campaign given that turnout will be low in an off-election year and polls have shown voters know little about Proposal 1.  Additionally, the question being put to voters is on the back of the ballot and both sides in the debate are scrambling to lure their core voters to the polls.

“Voters are, at best, dimly aware of the question. It is like a comet that comes by every 20 years,’’ said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

State voters are asked every 20 years if they want to convene a constitutional convention. A convention has not been held for 50 years in New York.

With tepid and conditional backing of sorts from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and opposition from most key state legislators, Horner said it’s little surprise opponents have more resources than support groups.

“The most organized and motivated voters are going to have the biggest impact, and that’s the unions,’’ said Horner, whose group is not taking sides in the Proposal 1 debate.

One of the more visible supporters of the ballot question – the League of Women Voters – this week reported spending $1,269.86 on its yes vote efforts. The New York State Bar Association, which has 72,000 members, has spent $28,095 to promote Proposal 1.

The New York People’s Convention, a group funded heavily by Bill Samuels, a New York City businessman and promoter over the years of everything from improving how congressional and legislative district lines are drawn to term limits, has raised – and spent -- $251,000 on a Proposal 1 yes effort.

The Campaign for a Constitutional Convention, meanwhile, has raised $96,000 and spent $84,000, according to the most recent records filed with the state elections board.

That group is managed by Evan Davis, a Manhattan lawyer and former top counsel during the administration of the late Gov. Mario Cuomo.

“We’re going to be seriously outspent,’’ Davis told The Buffalo News.

Donations to the central organization formed to defeat Proposal 1 has come from public and private sector unions. Topping the donor list to New Yorkers Against Corruption is 1199SEIU, which has sent $250,000 to the political action committee. The state AFL-CIO has donated $108,000 in cash and in-kind services, $120,000 has come from the New York Pipe Trades union and the Public Employees Federation, which represents white collar state workers, has donated $100,000.

Big money also flowed from AFSCME, the Civil Service Employees Association and the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, a union representing some fire department members in New York City.

“We are all in,’’ state AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento said of labor’s opposition to Proposal 1.

In its most recent filing made public Tuesday night, New Yorkers Against Corruption sent most of its $381,000 in spending to Kivvit, a public relations, lobbying and communications firm with several executives who have been close to Cuomo over the years.

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