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June 2017

 

Save our state from an expensive, superfluous soiree
Cynthia Eaton

 

NoNewYorkConvention.org
The website NoNewYorkConvention.org offers information on why academics and unionists in particular should vote NO on the Constitutional Convention ballot question this November.

Having attended several informational meetings about the New York State Constitutional Convention in the past year, I've grown even more aware of the urgency with which we must share knowledge about this November ballot question.

Below I share some basic facts about the Constitutional Convention as well as the reasons why the FA believes the only logical vote is a resounding NO on November 7, 2017.


A Constitutional Convention primer

First, let's address what's in the state Constitution that we might care about. Our state Constitution addresses the following issues, among others:

  1. workers' right to organize and collectively bargain (Article I §17)
  2. prevention of diminishment of public employee pensions (Article V §7)
  3. right to a free public education (Article XI)
  4. social welfare; duty of the state to care for the needy (Article XVII)
  5. right to unemployment insurance (Article VII §8)
  6. workplace safety protections (Article I §18, Article XIII §14, others)
  7. "forever wild" conservation protections for the Adirondack and Catskills parks and other public lands (Article XIV)
  8. construction and building trades' right to a prevailing wage (Article I §17)

What is a Constitutional Convention?

The New York State Constitution provides in Article XIX for two methods of amendment:

    Legislatively Referred Constitutional Amendment: Changes take place after a proposal made by the Senate or Assembly, passed by two successive and separately elected legislatures, then ratified by the electorate

    Constitutional Convention: Changes can result from a Constitutional Convention if a majority of voters approve the automatic ballot question that appears once every twenty years: "Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?"

The Convention would be a meeting of elected delegates to open up the current New York State Constitution and debate and propose revisions and amendments to it. This can include proposals to delete current language.

Delegate selection

Delegates would be elected to the Constitutional Convention in the 2018 general election in accordance with general election laws (unless the Legislature amends and creates another method).

Number of delegates

There are three delegates to the convention from each of the 63 Senate districts. Add to that 189 delegates another 15 at-large delegates, and you have a total of 204 delegates.

Convention timeline

Delegates would convene on the first Tuesday in April 2019, and amendments would be submitted to voters in 2019 or later (but no sooner than six weeks after the Convention).

In 2020—or later, depending on how quickly or slowly the Convention delegates work—any approved amendments would take effect in January of the following year.

Delegate compensation

As per Article XIX §2, the delegates would be compensated the same amount as an assemblymember, which is currently $79,500 plus per diem. With 204 delegates, the minimum total to New York taxpayers is $16.2 million per year.

As noted below, there is no limit on how many years the Convention might last.

Convention operations

The Constitution provides few directives about Convention operations, but it does allow Convention delegates to "determine the rules of its own proceedings, choose its own officers, and be the judge of the election, returns and qualifications of its members." Further, the Convention determines when to adjourn and whether amendments will be submitted to voters in parts or as one package.


Previous conventions

The following table shows the results of previous Convention votes.

In the six votes since 1914, only three times did the voters (narrowly) approve a Convention, and as a result of those three Conventions only once did voters accept some of the proposed amendments.

year pass/ fail % yes votes % no votes results of convention
(if held)
1914 pass 50.2 49.7
  • 1915 Convention: voters reject 33 constitutional language changes and 5 amendments
1936 pass 54.2 45.7
  • 1938 Convention: voters accept 6 but reject 3 amendments
1957 fail 47.5 52.4
  • n/a
1967 pass 53.3 46.6
  • 1967 Convention: voters reject major revision of Constitution
1977 fail 40.3 59.6
  • n/a
1997 fail 37 62.9
  • n/a

What supporters and opponents are saying

This is NOT a "people's convention"

There's a YouTube video going around that claims a Constitutional Convention is really a "people's convention," implying that concerns of everyday New Yorkers will finally be attended to if we vote yes.

However, United University Professions (UUP) notes that during the 1967 Convention, 80 percent of the elected delegates were political leaders and party insiders. The Speaker of the Assembly at the time served as Convention president. UPP continues, "Every politician who ran that year won a delegate seat, and all of the convention leaders were sitting legislators."

The people with the money and means to get themselves or their allies elected to this Convention will likely be the same political insiders who already control the process. Elected officials and legislators can—and will very likely—run as delegates, thereby doubling their salaries and earning extra pension credits.

What would be their motivation to clean up dirty politics in New York State?

UUP also identifies some of the financial and logistical restraints making this an unlikely "people's convention":

  • People from an established party need 1,000 signatures to run (and the party apparatus can help get signatures). Individuals independent of a political party need 3,000 signatures to run.
  • Of the 204 prospective delegates, 15 are at large. At-large candidates need 15,000 signatures to run.
  • Thanks to Citizens United, corporate special interests can spend unlimited money getting their delegates elected. The odds are stacked against ordinary citizens being elected as delegates.

For example, a major supporter of the Convention is Reclaim NY, funded and directed by ultraconservatives Rebekah Mercer (chairperson and treasurer) and Jennifer Mercer (director and secretary), daughters of Long Island hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer. Rebekah Mercer is a top conservative political donor and fundraiser for the Heritage Foundation and Federalist Society, relying on money from her father's hedge fund.

Also supporting Reclaim NY's push for a Constitutional Convention is Steve Bannon, whose name does not appear in the public Reclaim NY website but the group's IRS 990 filing clearly lists Bannon as director/vice chairman. The New York Times reported in March how Bannon has made millions working alongside people like the Mercers in "shaping right-wing thought," which includes the decimation of public education (see: Betsy DeVos) and unions.

A massive waste of taxpayer money

As noted in the table above, of the last three Constitutional Conventions, voters only once accepted the changes proposed as a result of each expensive convention. Talk about a waste of taxpayer money!

In 1967 Convention delegates presented their proposals to voters as an all-or-nothing package, which many saw as a way to push through a repeal of the Blaine Amendment (Article XI §3) prohibiting state aid to religiously affiliated schools. Voters rejected that major revision of our state Constitution.

Also galling to some voters is that elected delegates can hire whatever staff they want and pay that staff whatever they want, all on the taxpayer dime. So the politicians and people connected to those politicians will be making a nice extra income at our collective expense.

We already use a better way to revise our Constitution

Adding to the wastefulness of this is the fact that, as noted at the top of this article, we already have a way to revise our Constitution, and we've already put it to good use. We don't need this expensive, superfluous soiree.

We can change the Constitution legislatively through a Senate or Assembly proposal that gets passed by two separately elected state legislatures, then placed on the ballot as a referendum. Once ratified by the electorate, the Constitution is amended.

This method has been an option for New Yorkers since 1894. We've used it about 200 times since the last major rewrite of the Constitution, and it doesn't cost a cent. Recently this method was used for the 2013 casino referendum and will happen again this year for the referendum on reducing or revoking the pensions of government officials who have been convicted of felonies.


We need to spread the word!

Here's the problem: In a May 15-21, 2017, Siena College poll, while 67 percent of those polled had heard nothing about this issue, 62 percent still supported the idea (22 percent were opposed and 17 percent had no opinion).

Complicating matters is that this is an off-year election, so fewer voters get out to the polls.

Complicating matters even further is that the ballot question will probably appear on the back of the ballot, where even fewer voters tend to cast their opinion; the drop off averages between 15 to 27 percent. This becomes problematic if the well-funded right truly mobilizes their base.

We need to spread our message about protecting our students, our work, our rights and our land.

People think our pensions are safe in New York because we're a blue state, a strong union state. But Wisconsin was a labor stronghold too, the first state in the country to give collective bargaining rights to public employees, yet Governor Scott Walker used "divide and conquer" strategies to pit worker against worker and defeat unionism by setting up "right to work" legislation, despite research showing that "right to work" lowers wages for all workers, union and non-union alike.

The National Education Association is warning that "right to work" legislation is spreading across the nation, fueled by billionaire donations. And the American Federation of Teachers is speaking out against the national "right to work" legislation proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Yes, changes need to happen in our state—but not at the risk of losing our already hard won protections. We need to save what's worth saving and use the legislative referral method to effect positive change.

If you care deeply about any of the protections currently in our state Constitution for free public education, labor, social services and our massive state parks, do your part today to educate your family, friends and neighbors to VOTE NO on the Constitutional Convention this November.

Otherwise a bunch of well heeled, well connected New Yorkers will use this expensive, superfluous soiree to dance away laughing with the most fundamental rights that protect teachers, students and workers—and we'll have to pick up the tab.