It’s been nearly 80 years since New York state’s constitution has seen any significant reforms.
This November, voters have a chance to change that.
As required by Section 2 of Article XIX of the New York State Constitution, voters decide if the state will hold a constitutional convention every 20 years. That ballot question comes up this November.
Among various political organizations and lobbying groups, the topic is hotly contested. But according to a Sept. 5 Siena Research Institute poll, only about one-fifth of New York voters have heard at least some about the Constitutional Convention vote. Meanwhile, 58 percent say they’ve heard nothing at all. And experts say that even those that are well-informed about the convention are unlikely to vote in November.
“This is the challenge,” said Jim Malatras, president of Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government. “The Constitutional Convention is only as good as the people who are participating in the process. If there isn’t full participation … that’s a lost opportunity, because then, really, the people aren’t making the decision.”
On Nov. 7, voters will have the opportunity to decide whether or not a constitutional convention will take place. If the measure is approved, voters then choose 204 convention delegates in November of 2018, 15 statewide delegates and three from each of the state’s 63 senate districts. The convention itself would take place in Albany on April 2, 2019, where delegates would either draft a new constitution or write amendments to the existing document. Any changes would once again go back to the voters in November of 2019 and, if approved, go into effect in January of 2020.
“Ultimately, the people are empowered to the entire process,” Malatras said. “It doesn’t stop if you vote yes. In fact, it just begins the process.”
New York has had 12 constitutional conventions between the drafting of the original document in 1777 and 2016. The current constitution was written in 1894, with significant revisions made in 1938. Some amendments have been made since that time, but the basic structure has remained the same. Residents voted against holding conventions in 1957, 1977 and 1997.
Meanwhile, voters did OK a convention in 1965. State legislators put a referendum asking for one on the ballot in 1965 after changes to voting rights at the federal level invalidated some of New York’s constitutional provisions. The convention took place in 1967 — but it wasn’t what advocates had hoped.
“It was a turbulent time,” Malatras said. “People had a largely negative view of that convention.”
The ’67 convention, according to critics, was run by “political insiders” and special interest groups.
“The convention itself was controlled by the speaker of the Assembly, and then his majority leader was the majority leader of the convention,” Malatras said. “It was their house. They control the resources.”
And then the proposed reforms — including an independent redistricting commission, a clean air and water fund, voting rights to those 18 and older, more equitable school funding, anti-discrimination legislation and restrictions on state aid to church-run schools — were presented as a package rather than individually.
“The whole thing was voted down,” said 129th District Assemblyman William Magnarelli (D-Geddes). “We spent, at that time, almost $50 million worth of taxpayer money for nothing.”
It’s the 1967 debacle that makes many leery of another convention.
“The 1967 convention was anything but a ‘people’s convention,’” said Anthony Figiola. Figiola is the vice president of Empire Government Strategies, a lobbying group working to oppose the convention. “In 1967, 80 percent of the delegates were politically connected.”
Figiola said he fears another convention will be more of the same.
“Anyone who tells you that this will be a people’s convention is delusional,” he said. “There is every indication that this could become a runaway convention.”
Because of those concerns, a wide range of special interest groups have aligned to oppose the convention. Members of the New Yorkers Against Corruption coalition include such varied groups as political committees (of both parties), labor unions, church councils, business groups, NAACP chapters, Planned Parenthood and Right to Life groups.
Tom King, president of the New York State Chapter of the National Rifle Association, said the current state of New York state government does not inspire confidence in the potential success of a constitutional convention.
“The Constitutional Convention… would work very similar to the New York State Assembly and the New York state Senate and the governor’s race,” King said. “They’re decided by voters, but the politicians in New York state are much more involved in this electoral process, and they already have people on the ground in place to help them elect who they want, rather than who would be best for the state.”
Former Adirondack Council board member Jim Sonneborn said the coalition opposes the convention because its members doubt it will represent the interests of the people.
“This is a group of people who doesn’t have a high degree of confidence that, if you agree to put a group of politicians and elected officials in a room with a bunch of lobbyists, you’re going to come up with something better,” Sonneborn said. “I defy you to find anyone who thinks it’s going to come out better.”
Opponents also pointed to the cost of a convention as a deterrent.
“This is a very, very expensive proposition,” King said. “This is likely to be a process that lasts for two or three years, and it’s going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. New York State can’t afford that.”
Figiola pointed out that the costs include salaries for 204 delegates — they earn the same as a sitting state legislator — as well as per diems, lodging, food, transportation and printing costs. Then delegates can hire a full staff and even special consultants.
Sonneborn said those expenses don’t guarantee a better outcome.
“I think you’re going to spend an awful lot of money and you’re going to end up with something that’s worse than what you have,” he said.
Even state legislators are worried about the cost.
“There is not an abundance of money rolling around for us to just have a blank, open checkbook to say, ‘Yes, let’s have this convention,’” said 128th District Assemblywoman Pamela Hunter (D-Syracuse). “The little money that’s available for municipalities, I’m sure would like to have clean water, that would like to have bridges repaired, roads fixed, transportation system, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on something that there is no guarantee [will happen].”
Instead of a convention, opponents say changes to the state constitution should be made through the public referendum process.
“[This process] has successfully amended the constitution more than 200 times,” Figiola said.
But convention advocates point out that the traditional process hasn’t netted the changes they’re looking for.
“For the last 30 or more years, we have been trying to get changes in our legislature … all these good government type issues that we have been pushing, pushing, pushing for so many years, and we just can’t get it through the legislature,” said Laura Ladd Bierman, executive director of the New York chapter of the League of Women Voters. “So our thought is that here is a different way of trying to get it through the legislature. Will it work? We don’t know, but we think it’s worth the gamble.”
The LWV is one of the top proponents of the convention, along with the New York State Bar Association and the New York City Bar Association. They join a number of PACs formed specifically to lobby in favor of the convention.
“We just can’t get these good government issues through the legislature without it,” Bierman said.
The Rockefeller Institute’s Malatras acknowledged Bierman’s point — there are some things the legislature just won’t do on its own.
“One of the main reasons we have a constitutional convention is because of ethics reform,” he said. “The legislature and the executive have not reformed themselves… That’s why regulators regulate banks, and that’s why regulators regulate insurance companies, and that’s why you have outside people to do those types of things.”
In addition, Bierman said that many of the concerns with the convention could be allayed by reforming the delegate selection process.
“Right now, the way the delegate selection is set up, there’s a lot of party control of the delegates,” she said.
Bierman said the selection process is controlled by statute and can be changed at any time by the state legislature. The League, in an official statement, requested the following changes to the selection process:
“Delegates should be elected by a fair nonpartisan process that complies with federal voting rights provisions and eases ballot access to encourage participation by racial and other minorities. Public financing should be provided for candidates and their positions on issues and convention goals should be widely publicized to enable voters to cast informed votes at their election. Statewide office holders, state or federal legislators, and state judges should not serve as delegates.”
“If those changes were made, it truly could be more of, as often people call it, a people’s convention,” Bierman said.
She noted that a convention would be unlikely to group potential amendments together, as happened in ’67, and people will once again have a chance to be heard.
“Those amendments have to come back to a ballot,” she said. “The people have another chance to say, ‘No, we don’t want that change.’”
But opponents fear these good government groups are being naïve.
“I think the League of Women Voters has historically been a pretty nifty organization,” said the Adirondack Council’s Sonneborn. “I think that they’re dealing with the theoretical and not the practical. I’m dealing with the practical.”
Whether you’re for or against changes to the state’s constitution, Malatras strongly encouraged voters to head to the polls on Nov. 7 to make themselves heard.
“This is a chance for you to actually participate more directly in your government,” he said. “That is a unique opportunity that New York has had that other states don’t.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.