To believe that a mass gathering of political insiders will be some kind of magical cure to all of the problems and shortcomings of our state government, to believe that it will cure all our disappointments and frustrations, is not just overly optimistic. It’s foolhardy.
Voters should not be duped into believing that a statewide constitutional convention will be anything more than more of the same.
They should vote down the proposition when it comes before them on Nov. 7 and instead rededicate themselves to improving state government by promoting new ideas, putting pressure on their elected officials to act, and by voting into office individuals who will serve them best.
A convention that could change the way our government works is a great temptation.
The governor and the Legislature have largely failed to give us the government we want. Our taxes are among the highest in the nation. The billions we spend on economic development have produced few jobs. Our business climate continually ranks near the bottom of the other 50 states. Our schools are the most expensive in the nation, but produce far from the best results. Citizens continue to leave the state in big numbers, seeking not only better weather, but a better way of life. And every few weeks, it seems as if some state politician is being hauled off in handcuffs for some kind of corruption in office.
Why not just throw a Hail Mary pass by holding a constitutional convention and hope for a big score?
What have we got to lose?
That’s a legitimate question. And it’s one that supporters of the convention idea want voters to have in their heads as they go to the polls.
But the deck is heavily stacked against the likelihood of the convention producing the positive changes people really want.
Everything New York state residents want from a state constitutional convention they can get right now without it. There’s no guarantee -- in fact, it’s an unlikely possibility -- that any of the reforms residents seek from such a convention would actually come about. It’s just as likely that if voters open this
Pandora’s Box to change, they may get some changes they don’t want.
So what’s in the way of a successful convention?
The truth is no one knows what will come out of it. There’s no agenda for the convention. No plan. No rules. No budget. No guarantee of transparency. It’s a total crap-shoot that could backfire heavily.
Let’s start with who will be participating.
It seems like if you put ordinary people in as delegates, then regular people would get things done for regular people. But that’s not what’s likely to happen.
Each Senate district in the state will get to elect three delegates. In addition, there will be 15 at-large delegates from the state. People like the governor are likely to run for a seat.
There’s a lot at stake in a convention, and everyone is going to want a role. Given what might be added or taken away through a convention, those seeking those highly coveted seats are likely to invest big money in candidates.
The delegation is likely to include state legislators or surrogates for the politicians, who might fear the convention could strip them of power and influence through term limits, limits on campaign contributions and other restrictions. Does anyone believe that anyone associated with state government is going to go to a convention with the intent to reform the state budget process or impose term limits or restrict big money influences that they all enjoy?
The delegate slate also could include special interest groups and lobbying organizations and big business hoping to gain or retain influence.
In 1967, the last time a convention was held, two-thirds of the delegates were lawyers, 13 were sitting legislators, 32 were former legislators or members of Congress and one fourth were judges. So instead of a group of citizen delegates, we’re likely to wind up with the same morass we have now, with the potential to do even more harm than if they followed the existing legislative process.
As such, a constitutional convention convened for the purpose of enacting change could end up as a case of “Be careful what you wish for.”
Environmental groups fear that big money interests could strip way environmental protections like Forever Wild restrictions in the Adirondacks and Catskills. Women’s rights groups fear the convention could wreak havoc on reproductive rights and other existing protections. Employee unions fear the convention could result in a reduction in their pensions or a loss of bargaining power. Upstate residents might rightly feel a shift in power to downstate interests, where two-thirds of state Senate districts are located.
The convention will also be expensive. Estimates range from $50 million to $350 million. That’s to cover the cost of paying the delegates and housing them and feeding them for months, as well as the cost of staffs and consultants and legal experts. It all adds up. In this economic climate, with all the needs this state has, is a convention that may not produce anything of value worth that kind of expenditure?
And remember, whatever can be done at a convention can be done through the existing legislative process. Case in point: There are two statewide constitutional amendment proposals on this year’s election ballot, one addressing government corruption and another addressing the environment.
The last convention didn’t even result in any changes. The list of amendments proposed from the convention was rejected by voters. They spent all that money, took all that time, and accomplished exactly nothing.
Lawmakers have the power to propose amendments to the state constitution, with voter approval.
They have the power to enact ethics and campaign finance reforms. They have the power to change the budget process and cut taxes and do all the things we want. They can enact more protections for the environment.
If you want those changes, don’t take a chance on an expensive, pie-in-the-sky, hope-against-hope convention run by the same elements that run state government now.
Get involved. Vote. Be active citizens. Demand more from your existing representatives.
Vote no on the constitutional convention on Nov. 7.