ALBANY — Every 20 years New Yorkers are asked to vote on whether the state should hold another constitutional convention, and for most citizens of the Empire State it’s not an easy decision.
“When was the last time you saw many conservatives and Planned Parenthood on the same side of an issue,” said state Sen. James Tedisco of the state’s 49th Senate District. “You also have environmentalists and the [New York] Rifle and Pistol Association working together to encourage people to vote no. It makes for some pretty strange bedfellows.”
Simply voting along party lines or taking the usual liberal or conservative position won’t help you here. Like Tedisco said, the two coalitions forming on each side of the issue, which will be Proposition 1 on the Nov. 7 ballot on Election Day, are an extremely mixed bag.
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Aligning themselves with Planned Parenthood and pushing for a no vote on the proposition is the New York Right to Life Committee. Also in that group is the state’s Republican Party and the left-leaning Working Families Party. Joining them are the United Federation of Teachers and numerous environmental groups, while among those advocating for a yes vote are the New York State League of Women Voters and the New York State Bar Association.
For some of those groups, reaching a consensus was not an easy thing to do. The Schenectady Chapter of the League of Women Voters, for example, decided on a no vote but that decision was not what the state group came up with.
“Everyone has their own opinion, and all of the local leagues discussed it and gave their recommendation to the state league,” said Cheryl Nechamen, president of the Schenectady group, which has more than 150 members. ” We had our own meeting, and our recommendation was that we did not support it. We really thought the process of selecting delegates needed to be updated, and there wasn’t enough time to do that. So most of us were opposed to the convention, but once the state [organization] reaches a position we accept it.”
Those supporting a yes vote are interested in seeing campaign finance reform as well as changes in redistricting, term limits and the legalization of marijuana. There are many, however, who also support those same issues but will vote no to a convention.
“There are meaningful things a convention could do, things like term limits, but I just don’t see that happening,” said Alan Chartock, president and CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio. “I’d like to believe a convention could lead to something, but it could also be a magnificent waste of money. It could be billions of dollars out the window for nothing. It could have been money spent on roads or education.”
Chartock also said the state Legislature can amend the constitution during the regular course of its activities, although he concedes getting anything passed in Albany is a difficult proposition. Sharon Stern Gerstman, president of the New York State Bar Association, agrees that politicians don’t enjoy visiting thorny issues like term limits and redistricting, and that’s why a convention is the way to go, she said. She says concern over citizens losing some important rights at a new convention are overblown.
“There are groups out there playing to people’s fears, and they’ve done it with a lot of misinformation,” said Gerstman, a Buffalo attorney whose group would like to see several changes to the state’s court system. “In every constitutional convention we’ve had in the history of our state, the new convention has added rights, not taken away any. People are concerned about the Forever Wild clause, or having their pensions taken away. That’s not going to happen.”
Tedisco is still hopeful that state leaders can change things through normal legislative action.
“We already have a process that allows us to change things legislatively, in an open way with the public watching us,” said Tedisco. “I want to know more about this convention and how we’re going to choose delegates, but right now I am voting no. If you have a convention and certain individuals or interest groups get in control then watch out. You’ll end up getting more than you wished for.”