In a state that has been identified as one of the nation’s most corrupt and held in the grip of its most dysfunctional legislature, it is dismaying to see the array of interests lining up against a constitutional convention. Dismaying, but not surprising.
The state constitution requires a referendum every 20 years on whether to hold a convention to consider changes to the state’s bloated and confusing foundational document. The most recent efforts, including the one in 1997, have failed and the usual suspects are lining up again in opposition. By and large, they are people who prefer the status quo – dysfunctional as it is – and who, in many cases, feed at the public trough.
It makes for an odd assortment of bedfellows: groups that oppose and support abortion, labor unions, the National Rifle Association, gay rights organizations, environmental groups … even New York City cops. All of these, for one reason or another, fear the harm that could be done to their issues if language dealing with them is inserted into the state constitution.
Consider the labor organizations. A constitutional convention could upend the Taylor Law, which tilts heavily in favor of unions and away from taxpayers. It’s hardly shocking that they want to protect their advantage, even if it helps to make the state uncompetitive.
The National Rifle Association fears the SAFE Act, broadly supported by New Yorkers, could be inserted into the constitution. Gay rights organizations might well fear loss of rights. Environmental groups worry that the “Forever Wild” clause that protects the Adirondacks could be undone. And so it goes.
Some of this, it is fair to say, traces to the fact that New York’s constitution is a catch-all that stretches far beyond broad concepts of democratic government to include matters that more properly belong in the realm of legislation. The U.S. Constitution organizes government and details the rights of its citizens. New York’s document is less circumspect, giving constitutional standing to issues that are more properly addressed by lawmakers and governors.
There are also worries that Albany’s entrenched interests will gain control of a convention, risking a state that is even more crooked and a Legislature that is even more dysfunctional. It could happen, though there are ways to limit those possibilities.
But rejecting a constitutional convention carries its own risks. In general, it makes urgent reforms even less likely to occur than they would otherwise be. A constitutional convention could reorganize the chambers of the State Legislature to make them more accountable to voters. It could write independent redistricting into the constitution. It could require lawmakers to divulge other sources of income. It could abolish the “LLC loophole” that invites political corruption by encouraging unlimited donations from wealthy supporters. It could, indeed, rebalance the Taylor Law to give greater notice to the interests of taxpayers.
These are some of the issues that New Yorkers will have to consider as they decide how to vote next month on whether to call a convention. If the referendum fails, that ends the matter until 2037. If it succeeds, voters would elect delegates in the November 2018 election and the convention, which could consider any issue it wanted, would begin the following spring. Voters would have final say on any new amendments in the November 2019 elections.
The question of a convention is serious and deserves serious consideration. That work includes taking note of who doesn’t want a convention and the reasons for their opposition.