Conventional wisdom

A debate at SUNY Sullivan on the pros and cons of a New York State constitutional convention was held on October 11 between convention expert Gerald Benjamin and union organizer Michael Grubiak. Benjamin favors a convention; Grubiak does not.

After the debate, two people told The River Reporter their opinion about the merits of the convention had been swayed by Benjamin. We didn’t hear anyone say the same of Grubiak.

The opposition fears that important rights could be stripped from the constitution should dark forces capture the process; rights such as those related to pensions and union organization and so on. But as a practical matter, that has never happened before through a New York State convention. There were nine conventions between 1776 and 1967, and not once in all of those conventions has an amendment been passed and adopted by the voters that took away a right that had been previously established.

In fact, the opposite is true. Benjamin said it is a constitutional amendment that requires the state to provide every child with an education. He said, “We have an obligation in this state to protect the poor. Some people are afraid we will remove that obligation. I don’t think we will.” There is a constitutional right for labor to organize. “New York has never diminished rights constitutionally,” he said, “but it has often enhanced rights.

The debate was organized by Sullivan County Legislator Catherine Owens, who asked the question whether a mechanism could be drafted in a constitutional convention that would allow residents to get an issue onto the ballot through a process of petition. The answer was “yes.” A petition and referendum process such as exist in other states could be adopted. This would allow voters to bypass the elected officials on a regular basis. It is unimaginable that our current elected officials in Albany would grant such powers to the voters through the legislative process of adopting a constitutional amendment; therefore the only possible chance of New York residents gaining that power is through a constitutional convention.

What else would likely be debated at a convention? The relationship between state and local governments would likely be scrutinized, especially the authority of the state to saddle counties, towns and villages with unfunded mandates.

Also, the fact that the state has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the country, with only 19.7% of voters casting a ballot in the 2016 primary election, could be addressed. This could have and should have been dealt with by the legislature with early voting, same-day registration, and “any-reason” absentee balloting as other states have adopted. But the New York State legislature had refused to address this issue, and a convention could be the best way to attack the problem.

Then there is the issue of misconduct. Since 2000, at least 34 state legislators have been arrested, indicted, convicted, or otherwise forced to leave office because of bad behavior. The legislature has resisted the adoption of meaningful ethics reform measures.

There is also the matter of the LLC loophole, which allows Limited Liability Corporations to donate unlimited amounts of money to political candidates. The loophole was created by the board of elections in 1996, when the board decided to treat LLCs as individuals rather than corporations or partnerships. The legislature could have closed this loophole at any time, but the senators, assembly members and the governor have chosen let it live and corrupt the state election process.

Opponents of the convention say that this convention will follow that pattern set by the one in 1967, in that the delegates will  mostly be people who already hold elective office. But since the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, New Yorkers are mobilized in a way they have not been in many decades. And if the voters decide they don’t want politicians to control the process, they won’t vote for politicians to become convention delegates.

Delegates may have three chances to vote in this process. The first is whether to have a convention, and that vote comes this year. If the answer is “yes,” the election of the delegates to the convention will come in 2018. The convention would then be held beginning in April of  2019. The voters would then vote to adopt or reject any recommended changes to the state constitution in 2019.

People in the 19th century created the requirement that New York State voters be asked if they want a convention every 20 years as a way of giving voters more control over their democracy. In 1977 and 1997, the voters said “no.” In 2017, it’s time for voters to say “yes,” and then to carefully consider who they will send to Albany to make what could be very important suggested changes to the constitution. After which, they would still have to vote regarding whether to adopt any proposed changes to complete the process.

In the words of Benjamin, “If you vote ‘no,’ you’re saying, ‘you’re a very sick patient, live with it.’”


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