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The Many Reasons a Constitutional Convention is a Bad Idea

posted on 02/01/2017

How bad could a Constitutional Convention be for New Yorkers? Let us count the ways. 

Against the current political backdrop of public anger at government, few solutions might appear more appealing than a no-holds barred Constitutional Convention, where everything is on the table and all change is possible. While the issue is not exactly burning among New York residents right now, it is likely to heat up before November, when voters will decide if Albany will spend an estimated $300 million to hold one. In a statewide Sienna College poll conducted in June, respondents supported holding a convention by a 68-19 percent margin.

But would the reality of a convention fulfill the promise? People fed up with corruption and dysfunction in Albany could be surprised to learn that convention delegates would likely be the same lawmakers and lobbyists the public is angry about. If you don't trust the prominent and behind-the-scene faces in Albany now, just wait until they go behind closed doors and start monkeying with the Constitution. The state Constitution mandates that voters decide every 20 years whether to have a Constitutional Convention. That referendum falls on this year's election date, Nov. 7.

Under that law, voters would choose delegates in November, 2018 – three from each of the state's 63 state Senate districts and 15 at-large delegates. In April, 2019, the convention would be held in April, 2019, with the proposed changes being coming up for a general vote the following November. The state held its last Constitutional Convention in 1967, and delegates made several proposed changes to the Constitution. Voters rejected each of the proposed amendments in the general election. In 1997, New York voters rejected a convention, partly because of unified opposition by labor unions.

"It's crucial that we get the word out that this could be a debacle for the public interest – in particular for educators and the children they instruct," said CSA President Ernest Logan.

While advocates believe a convention would give citizens a chance to "take back their government," making sure the final document reflected the public interest would be no mean feat. The entire document would be up for review. Delegates would be free to rewrite, delete or add anything. Extremely wealthy individuals and corporations would have the money to employ the lobbyists and influence the politicians to make sure their interests become law. These people are not interested in cleaning up Albany's ethical mess – they are the ones who benefit the most from the system's dysfunction.

The stakes in a Constitutional Convention are immense for public employees who rely on collective bargaining – union members. Educators work hard, often under difficult conditions, and they have a right to expect that state government will honor the Constitutional commitments regarding salaries, benefits and retirement. While it is not a certainty, remember that an open-ended convention could let the enemies of public education target much of that. Who, after all, opposes unions and fair compensation for public employees more than the billionaires who want to privatize education? Those same billionaires would undoubtedly be well-represented at a convention. In fact, it's not inconceivable that the right to a public education itself could be threatened. In its current form, the state Constitution reads, "The legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated." A convention could conceivably gut that provision, and in the process upend the underlying rationale for the 2005 Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision by Justice Leland DeGrasse. The jurist held that the state's constitution was not being followed and ordered the state to provide New York City's schools $5.63 billion for operating expenses and $9.2 billion for facilities.

For the general public, there is one reason that is bound to resonate across the entire ideological spectrum: Cost. The last convention cost more than $45 million. In today's dollars, that would be nearly $340 million.

"More than $300 million on a convention!" said Mr. Logan. "Despite Donald Trump's claims to the contrary, many of our schools are strapped for cash. That's a huge sum of money that would be better spent on public education, supporting children in homeless situations, providing support for people who are suffering, providing parenting classes to prevent abuse. This convention would be a terrible waste."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, trying to straddle various political fault lines, has in the past spoken favorably of a convention. Recently though, he made no mention of one in his 2017 agenda. While political obserers took this as a hopeful sign, the Governor has been known to change his mind abruptly.

CSA opposes the Convention, as do other unions including the United Federation of Teachers and the New York State Retired Teachers' Association. Supporters range from good-government groups to some of the most powerful corporations and wealthiest people in the state – even if their names are not public. For example, the Committee for a Constitutional Convention is peopled with partners from Wall Street law firms and charter school advocates, as well as environmental organization officials and academics.

For more on why a Constitutional Convention is a bad idea, click HERE.