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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: The Fight Over The Constitutional Convention Heats Up

New Yorkers have a big decision to make in three and a half months: A decision whether to overhaul their state constitution. That document requires that every 20 years voters get an opportunity to decide whether they want to rewrite the state’s foundational document. This November, voters will get that vote.

Having such a provision is unusual, but not rare in America. Fourteen other states have similar mechanisms in place to periodically ask voters about convening a convention.

Not surprisingly, since it only occurs once every 20 years, the vast majority of New Yorkers don’t know about the vote. In a recent poll, fully two thirds of New Yorkers were unaware of the upcoming vote to revamp New York’s state constitution.

The decision on whether to convene a convention will likely turn on two questions: (1) How New Yorkers feel about the state of their state; and (2) How concerned they are about provisions of the current constitution that could be put at risk if a convention is convened. If voters are more unhappy with the direction of New York than they are worried about jeopardizing popular constitutional provisions that exist, then they’ll vote yes.

The process for convening a constitutional convention contains four basic steps:

  1. New Yorkers vote on whether they want to convene a convention. That will happen this November. If voters choose no, then the process ends. If voters approve the convention, then …
  2. New Yorkers choose delegates to the convention at the November 2018 election. The constitution says that voters will choose three delegates for each of the state’s 63 senate districts and then vote on 15 statewide fora total of 204 delegates.
  3. Those delegates will convene the convention in the following Spring. The delegates can make whatever changes they want to the constitution, there are no restrictions.
  4. Finally, the changes drafted by the delegates goes to the voters for final approval.

This vote is a contentious one, with organizations lining up to battle over the pros and cons. Under New York law, politicians and interest groups that raise or spend campaign donations must periodically report their activities. Last week, New Yorkers got a peek into the efforts to influence the upcoming question to be put to voters on whether they want to convene a state constitutional convention.
The campaign filings last week showed just how intense the upcoming debate will be. A coalition of groups urging a “no” vote on the constitutional convention, which they call “New Yorkers Against Corruption,” disclosed that it had raised $635,000 so far. Much of that was raised from unions: $50,000 from the teachers’ union and $250,000 from a health-care union.

The strange-bedfellow coalition includes Planned Parenthood, the United Federation of Teachers, the Rifle and Pistol Association, the Conservative Party, and many environmental organizations. It’s not just advocacy groups weighing in: In addition, the majority party leaders of the Senate and Assembly have urged opposition. The Senate Democratic minority leader is opposed, and the governor has expressed concerns.

A competing odd couple coalition which calls itself the Committee for a Constitutional Convention, is urging a “yes” vote and has raised $67,000, mostly from individual donors giving small amounts. In addition, a donor to many liberal causes, Bill Samuels, has spent more than $100,000 to support a “yes” vote. Lastly, the leader of the Republican Assembly minority has urged support for the convention.

Supporters argue that Albany’s a mess – corrupt, operating in secret, costing too much and that the state’s basic document is old, anachronistic, and contains provisions that are now considered unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution. Opponents argue that the current state constitution includes provisions that protect the Adirondack Park, require a sound, basic education for children, require that the poor are protected, and guarantee the pensions of public employees.

At New York’s last referendum for a constitutional convention, in 1997, the issue was voted down. Voters were unwilling to accept the risks.

As the battle over convening a convention heats up, with corruption trails upcoming and with a wobbly administration in Washington, we’ll see if New Yorkers have changed their minds.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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