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Debate Over Constitutional Convention Held In Plattsburgh

New York State Capitol
New York State Capitol

A Siena College poll released today showed New York voters oppose Proposition One on Tuesday’s ballot — the question over whether the state should hold a constitutional convention.  A recent debate in Plattsburgh focused on the “con-con.”
Whether New Yorkers should hold a constitutional convention has been inscribed in the state constitution since 1846. As they do every 20 years, voters will decide on November 7th whether the state should hold what is being referred to as a con-con.  The idea was debated by SUNY New Paltz Political Science Professor Dr. Gerald Benjamin and Adirondack Council Spokesman John Sheehan at Clinton Community College in Plattsburgh recently.

Dr. Benjamin, a supporter, is a constitutional scholar and began by stepping out of debate mode to describe what a constitutional convention is and its history in the state.  “We will have a referendum on state government that's what we're being asked to do. The New York State Constitution has two paths for changing: one through the state legislature and one by the process we're talking about. Through the state legislature can call a constitutional convention and the last convention we held in 1967 was called by the legislature.  Or it can offer amendments to the Constitution for the public to ratify.  Alternatively we could automatically call a convention, that's what we’re talking about today. At the end of the day any changes proposed must be ratified by the public.”

The Adirondack Council, the state’s largest environmental organization, opposes a constitutional convention.  Sheehan says there is a need for reform but he’s concerned about using a convention toward that end.   “We are much more comfortable working in a atmosphere where we are amending the Constitution in a specific and surgical way.  We are concerned that in a constitutional convention rather than making surgical change what you're doing is potentially blowing up the entire system.”

Sheehan added that a key reason he is opposed to the con-con is the possibility that the Forever Wild clause of the state constitution could be altered.  “Six times since 1995 we have managed to make small exceptions to the Forever Wild clause that helped communities in certain ways and at the same time benefited the forest preserve. In a constitutional convention we don't have any guarantees that that sort of thing will happen.  The Forever Wild clause could be changed, eliminated, weakened in some way that we could not fix later on.”

Benjamin says a convention is needed to make needed fundamental changes to New York state government.  “When I'm talking about fundamental change remember I'm talking about ethics, campaign finance, making the legislature deliberative and accountable, making elections fair and competitive, cleaning up the judicial system and making local government actually work. We've had these things before us for decades and they haven't been touched and they haven’t  been touched because there are entrenched interests that protect them. So to make the state government fully democratic,  fully responsive and fully capable we have to have this convention. Are there risks to the convention? Yes.  I think the risks have been overstated.”

Sheehan doubts that a con con is the only way to eliminate the legislature’s entrenched power.  “The previous conventions did not do away with the legislature's entrenched power. I don't believe that another one will and there's a reason why. Delegates are elected by Senate district. If you're electing delegates to the convention from those same Senate districts we will get a convention that looks very much like the state legislature that we're concerned about.”

The full 90-minute debate will be posted on the MountainLake PBS website later this week.

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