Chances are good that the folks reading this have already heard that on the back of the November 7 ballot they will be asked whether to call a citizens’ convention to re-work our state’s foundational governing document. The other half of the electorate, regrettably, still knows nothing about this crucial decision.
At this late date, proponents still find themselves needing to dispel lingering misconceptions proffered by groups and interests dreading a change in their status quo. In response to some very legitimate concerns, and contrary to a bit of fearmongering:
- A state constitutional convention must set its own rules of procedure and hire necessary staff simply so that it can fulfill its obligations; It will probably meet for only five months in 2019, so as to provide the required time period for citizens to study its November ballot proposals.
- In the history of New York constitutions, each succeeding convention actually proposed greater protections than the preceding one, and in no case can a state constitution provide fewer rights than those guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.
- Omnibus proposals are unlikely; we saw what happened when the fine work of the 1967 convention was rejected by the voters because “poison pills” were mixed with good proposals and offered in one “take-it-or-leave-it package.
- A constitutional convention is not a waste of money: Detailed analyses show that in 2017 dollars, the 1967 convention would have cost as low as $47 million, not the “hundreds of millions” price tag bandied about. How much is too much to put aside, out of an approximately $150 Billion annual state budget, to give the people a shot at reforming Albany every twenty years?
- Few legislators will attempt to run for delegate in the same year as their own elections. Judging by the recent controversy over the questionable transferring of leadership stipends, would lawmakers want to again face a dogged press and angry public for doubling their incomes? Even in 1967, out of 186 delegates, a mere 24 were sitting state legislators.
Opponents of a Con Con, many of whom acknowledge that state government is corrupt, argue that the Legislature should drive the process and set the reform agenda before submitting items to the people. How has that been working for us? They contend that gerrymandered, well-financed senators and assembly members, with their unlimited terms of office, are more accountable, while convention delegates, who cannot run for re-election, will be “unanswerable” to the public who put them in their seats.
On the contrary, it is precisely because they will go home after six months that delegates will be insulated from the very special interests, party excesses, campaign money, and toxic political environment that have created the need for a Constitutional Convention in the first place!
Richard L. Taczkowski, M.U.P., is a former town and village officeholder and state Assembly staffer who served as a delegate to the “Critical Choices” Convention held by the New York State Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution.