On November 7th, Election Day, the citizens of New York State will be asked to decide whether or not a constitutional convention—which would start in 2019—should be held. This question—“Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?”—automatically appears on the ballot every 20 years. The issue seems simple enough. After all, what could be more reasonable than (you’ll pardon the expression) assessing the constitution on a regular basis? Scratch the surface of that “reasonable simplicity,” however, and you’ll find that the implications of holding a constitutional convention are more far reaching than you might think. More to the point, even a cursory look at those implications ought to persuade you to vote no on November 7th—which is what NYSUT and the NCCFT are urging you to do.
The first thing you need to know is that there are two methods for amending our state constitution: holding a convention and passing an amendment. Constitutional amendments are proposed in the legislature, voted on in the legislature, and then placed on the ballot for an up or down vote by the people of New York as part of the normal course of legislative business. This process has been used nearly 200 times since the last time New York State’s constitution underwent a major revision in 1894. Since 2013, there have been five proposed amendments, each one targeted at a very specific issue:
- To allow casino gaming in New York State, passed in 2013
- To sell specific lands within the constitutionally protected Adirondack State Park, passed in 2013
- To increase the mandatory retirement age for state judges, not passed in 2013
- To create an independent commission on redistricting, passed in 2014
- To allow the Senate and the Assembly to “go paperless,” passed in 2014
In contrast, a constitutional convention will open up the entire constitution for revision, every word of it, which makes it a perfect opportunity for people who are not our friends to try to move their agenda forward. Among the things that the constitution guarantees us as citizens of New York States and as active and retired public employees are:
- The right to a free public education (Article 11, § 1);
- A prohibition against reductions in public pension benefits (Article 5, § 7);
- The right to workers compensation (Article 1, § 18);
- The right to be a member of a union and bargain collectively
(Article 1, §17); and
- The right to expect the state to provide for social welfare needs (Article 17, § 1)
Any of these could be revised at a constitutional convention, or even eliminated outright. It’s true that any such changes would need to be approved by the voters, but it’s also true that convention delegates themselves would determine whether amendments would be voted on individually or as a single package. In other words, an amended constitution could be presented to the voters in such a way that, for some people to get the changes they want, they would be forced to vote for changes that would hurt other New Yorkers. It’s not hard to imagine the kind of horse trading that could result in such a situation.
Indeed, the entire process of choosing delegates, along with the cost of a constitutional convention—which is estimated to be about $50 million— provides another reason to vote no on November 7th. If the ballot measure is approved, we will need to elect a total of 204 delegates to the convention, three from each of the state’s 63 senate districts (elected by voters in those districts) and 15 at-large delegates (elected by voters statewide). Those delegates will collect the same salary as a member of the New York State Assembly. More to the point, if past conventions are any predictor of what this one will be like, if approved, it’s more likely than not that those who are elected as delegates will already be on the public payroll, as sitting members of the State Legislature, political party leaders, judges or other public officials; and since convention delegates are allowed to collect both their salaries, taxpayers would be paying the same person twice.
This would not be as troubling as it is if there were a strict deadline for when a constitutional convention has to finish its business, but there is no provision for such a deadline anywhere, not in the constitution and not in State law. In theory, then, the convention could drag on—you could even argue it’s in delegates’ financial interest for it to drag on—much longer than it otherwise would. Factor in the possibility that voters might reject any changes the convention proposed—which is what happened after the 1967 convention—and that translates into an awful lot of taxpayer money lining delegates’ pockets, while the we would be left with nothing to show for it
The 1967 convention also offers a good example of why a constitutional convention can be dangerous. The delegates to that convention decided that voters had to accept or reject the entire package of amendments with an up or down vote. We were not allowed, in other words, to accept some changes and reject others. One of those proposed amendments was a repeal of the Blaine Amendment, which prohibits the use of state monies to assist religious schools. It so happened that the voters rejected all proposed changes, 72% to 27%, but if they had not, if enough people had been persuaded to vote yes because of some of the other proposed amendments, public education in New York State would look very different than it does now—and that difference would almost certainly not be a good one.
If you’d like some more information, or if you would like to take action, here are some resources:
- A fact sheet with the basic information about a convention and how it works
- NYSUT’s Point/Counterpoint with information to help you respond to those in favor of a convention
- A sample letter to the editor that you can use
The most important thing is to remember to vote NO on November 7th. (Remember to turn your ballot over; the question about the constitutional convention appears on the back of the ballot.)