On Nov. 7, the voters will make an important choice on whether to hold another state constitutional convention, which if approved would take place in April 2019. Voters beware, many of the groups advocating in favor of this ballot proposition are representing narrow interests, masked under the thin veil of good government.
Our state’s constitution requires that every 20 years, voters get the opportunity to choose whether or not to hold a constitutional convention. During the past 112 years we have held four conventions (e.g., 1894, 1915, 1938 and 1967) and their accomplishments are debatable. However, there is one indisputable fact that ties them together, they were carbon copies of a typical legislative session, driven by politics and tilted to benefit the political elite.
Unlike in years past, there is no pressing public issue that is creating a wave of support for a convention. In fact, the most recent Siena College poll shows that more than 71 percent of New Yorkers have no idea there is even an upcoming vote.
Leading up to the Convention of 1894, the country was mourning the loss of President James Garfield, who was killed by an angry campaign worker who did not receive a government job. New Yorkers felt there was work to be done especially in passing civil service laws to end patronage and nepotism. In 1938, New York was recovering from a world war and the Great Depression, and many felt it was crucial to rebuild the national infrastructure and strengthen our laws.
Advocates for a convention will tell you that the only way to pass ethics reform is to have a convention, because the legislature can’t get it done. Not true, this year the legislature proposed an amendment that would to take away the pensions of legislators convicted of a felony. Many of these same proponents believe we need radical changes to our constitution, pushing to abolish the State Senate on the grounds that the Republicans who control the Senate with a group of independent Democrats are an impediment to getting progressive laws passed. Again, an empty argument. This month the legislature enacted, without a costly convention, an important progressive judicial reform that will raise the age of adult criminal prosecution from 16 to 18 years of age.
There is another group who wants to abolish the state, in a plan that is a better fit for a mini-series on AMC. A disparate group of land owners, who want to keep their tax dollars, seek to abolish the government and form regional frontiers with a figurehead, played by Pierce Brosnan, in the role of Governor for the regions.
All of these groups fail to recognize that past conventions have been riddled with rigged agendas and political patronage. In fact, in 1938 lobbyists were allowed stand on the convention floor and debate proposed amendments. Anyone who tells you that this will be a people’s convention is delusional. In 1967, 80 percent of the delegates were politically connected and 45 percent were current or former public officials who were able to collect a second salary, allowing them to double dip to boost their state pensions.
Constitutional conventions, which run concurrently with a regular legislative session, are not cost-effective. Not only are the delegates well paid, they get to hire staff. There are 204 delegate spots and they all need help. Administrative, legal, and research are just some of the staffing positions that have been filled in past conventions. Then you add per diems, food, transportation, lodging, and printed materials to the bottom line. You can even hire a special consultant or two.
The only stimulus for the economy is that the lobbyists can charge their clients another fee to represent them at the convention.
Thankfully, there is an alternative to this government boondoggle. During the last century, New Yorkers have amended their constitution 200 times by public referendum. Voters have shown time and time again that they can make intelligent choices and as such there is no reason to have a convention. The voters have elected 218 state officials, including the Governor, to represent their interests. The current democratic process allows the people to engage their government at the ballot box.
If the pro-convention advocates really want to change our laws, they can take a drive up to Albany like the rest of us and spend some time advocating for real reforms.
Anthony Figliola is Vice President of Empire Government Strategies and co-author of Patronage, Waste and Favoritism – A Dark History of Constitutional Conventions.