New Yorkers have a rare opportunity to literally rewrite the state’s constitution in a way that could put an end to the corruption plaguing us all – and we just might blow it.
Corruption in New York is a big problem that almost everyone agrees needs to be fixed, but members of the ironically-named New Yorkers Against Corruption coalition (NYAC) think we should wait another 20 years to do it.
How it works
In November, when residents head to the polls to vote for local and state officials, they will have an additional choice to make: should we call a Constitutional Convention in New York?
Under state law, every 20 years, residents are asked whether they want to amend the state’s constitution. If that happens, residents would then have to vote in 2018 for delegates to represent them at a constitutional convention that would likely be held the following year.
This would lead to people from all across the state gathering in the state capital of Albany to put together a bunch of amendments which voters would then decide to add to the state constitution. The last Constitutional Convention was called in 1967, but a revised constitution was ultimately rejected. Here’s just some of what we missed out on:
- Redrawing districts to the benefit of one political party, or “gerrymandering” would be illegal.
- There would be constitutional protections against discrimination on the basis of age, sex and physical or mental disabilities – that’s not the case now.
- Medicaid costs not funded at the federal level would be paid by the state, not local municipalities, many of which struggle each year to balance their budgets due to these costs.
- Making access to education a constitutional right, college constitutionally protected, and laying the groundwork for having it be tuition-free.
United in opposition
One would think missing out on these types of policies and the prospect of draining the corruption swirling about Albany like the contents of a backed-up truck stop urinal would be enough to unite people in calling for change, but the state seems divided on whether to move forward with reform or stall a while longer.
Not everyone is making calls to quash the convention before it even gets started – a group called Citizens Union is mobilizing people to vote in favor of the state’s founding document. It’s the members of New York Against Corruption (NYAC), this anti-convention coalition of around 130 groups and organizations, who say that’s a bad idea. Why? Because bad things might, could happen.
“This ballot question … could trigger devastating changes to the state constitution that would harm regular New Yorkers,” the NYAC website warns. “Well-funded special interests and their lobbyists have already joined forces and are ready to spend millions in support of this referendum.”
Sounds like what a bunch of establishment elites scared of a power shift might say, right? Except looking at the groups backing this initiative, one will find bizarre pairings of well-known interest groups from both sides of the political arena – like Planned Parenthood standing with Right to Life, and the New York Progressive Action Network siding with the New York Republican State Committee.
The group’s website lists five specific excuses as to why residents shouldn’t even think about reforming the state constitution using the mechanism built into by law. This should be interesting.
Excuse #1): It’s estimated to cost taxpayers a staggering $300 million.
Last week WGRZ, an NBC affiliate in Buffalo, was asked to fact-check some information circulating on Facebook by people who are seemingly against the convention.
Among the information was the claim that a constitutional convention could potentially cost more than $100 million – a conservative estimate when compared to the $300 million figure touted on the NYAC web page.
As a point of reference, the 1967 convention cost a little more than $7 million, which in today’s money would be around $51.4 million, which is nowhere near the hundreds of millions NYAC claims a convention would cost taxpayers. Plus, the group never says where it’s getting its numbers. Seems legit.
Excuse #2) Will be run by the same politicians, lobbyists and special interest groups who have gamed the system for their own benefits, and led to rampant corruption in Albany.
This seems to fall into the maybe-but-probably-not camp.
Again, if voters decide to have a convention, the next step is to pick the 204 delegates to represent them – three from each of the state’s 63 senate districts (189 in all) and an additional 15 at-large, statewide delegates.
A task force formed by the Bar Association of New York City, which is reviewing the delegate selection process ahead of the vote, notes of the 204 delegates who attended the convention back in 1967, only 13 legislators were delegates.
Voters also have to approve of the delegates in a second round of voting and convention rules mandate partisan and nonpartisan delegates must be selected.
It’s true that incumbent legislators can be selected as delegates – a reasonable concern given the long list of sleazy politicians caught being sleazy in recent years. It’s not the best system, but voters WILL have a direct say in who attends the convention on their behalf. Insinuating otherwise is a bit disingenuous, if not blatantly misleading.
Excuse #3) Delegates to the convention are paid almost $80,000. They also get to hire their own staff, including their friends and relatives.
This is true. Under convention rules, delegates will receive $79,500 which is equal to a New York State Assembly member’s annual salary, meaning legislators selected as delegates are allowed to basically double their salary should they be selected to be a delegate. The NYC Bar brings this up and members of the task force express, “concern,” over legislators being able to get “double-salaries,” but don’t think the rule should be changed. Of course not.
But again, this would be a bigger issue if the convention was likely to be dominated by elected officials – officials who made up around six percent of delegates the last time around – which is very unlikely to be an issue.
Admittedly, being able to double your annual income this way is a bit grimy. Someone should look into getting those rules changed….
Excuse #4) There is no time frame for the completion of the convention process, and therefore the cost could become astronomical.
This, too, is misleading. Technically, delegates do get to decide when to bring amendments to the public for a vote, but the two conventions in recent history haven’t taken more than a year: the ’67 convention went from April 4 to Sept. 26 and the 1938 Constitutional Convention – the last time changes were made – lasted from April 5 to Aug. 26. of that year.
If voters demand a convention, it’s probable delegates would be selected in 2018, discussions would begin sometime in the Spring 2019, and the drafted amendments would be on the ballot during the Nov. 9, 2019 general election.
There’s no reason to assume this won’t be the case. NYAC is implying delegates would hold the convention hostage to enrich themselves, even when they can just deliver amendments that would benefit them under the law for the next 20 years. That is an asinine argument.
Excuse #5) It would be very easy for extremist groups to hijack the convention, and force their radical agenda on all of us.
You’d think with a coalition comprised of people from all walks of life and who find themselves all over the political spectrum would have a clearly defined opponent. Instead, they say YOU should worry about “extremists” and their nefarious agenda.
Please, consider the following…
Isn’t someone who supports relaxing immigration laws viewed as extreme by those who are all about “law and order”? The New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) stands with the Police Conference of New York, Inc. on the coalition.
Wouldn’t tightening environmental regulations be viewed as extreme by those in the agriculture industry? Both the Environmental Advocates of New York and the New York Farm Bureau count themselves members of NYAC.
And while NYAC isn’t trying to hijack anything, they are trying to convince voters to not edit the constitution in a way that could inject equality, justice and accountability into state. NYAC’s clear goal is to leave things as they are. THAT seems like a radical agenda.
What it all comes down to
It’s clear NYAC doesn’t want to see a Constitutional Convention happen for one of two reasons – either because change would likely have an adverse effect on policies members really like and benefit from, or they think the average New Yorker is too stupid to support amendments that would be in their best interests.
Take a look at some of the proposals that could come up at a 2019 Constitutional Convention: legal marijuana, universal health care, reforming the justice system. Many members of NYAC don’t want these policies and it’s clear those that would benefit from them either believe the policies aren’t worth fighting for or have been told they don’t need them.
New Yorkers need to be aware there is a bunch of special interests groups calling themselves an anti-corruption coalition but whose main argument is to NOT fix corruption. They have no hard evidence, only vague assumptions, speculation and scare tactics.
We’ll have to wait until November to find out if that’s all it takes to keep a corrupt system in place for another 20 years.
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