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New York voters have chance to vote on constitutional convention this year

August 21, 2017 05:52 PM

Rochester—When you go to vote this November, flip the ballot over. On the back will be a question about whether you want a state constitutional convention.

It’s becoming a divisive possibility as some believe a convention is an opportunity to take back their government while others say opening up the constitution to changes could hinder or completely take away some of the freedoms New Yorkers enjoy.

Every 20 years, New Yorkers vote on whether to hold a constitutional convention. In 1997, voters said no but this time around in a changing political climate, there is some momentum. A recent Siena poll showed nearly half of New Yorkers don’t even know what the convention is but still might support it.

“How we fund our schools, how we raise and collect taxes in New York State, the power that the governor has versus the legislature, the power the governor has over the budget, all of these things come out of the state constitution and they effect everyday lives in a way even the U.S. constitution does not,” says Tim Kneeland, Director of the Center for Public History at Nazareth College.

New York’s Founding Fathers decided to give taxpayers the option, every two decades, to elect delegates to determine the issues most important to the those who live here instead of lawmakers. “Liberals and progressives may want to have more protections for the environment written into our constitution, more rights for education. Conservatives may want more individual rights and liberties and both probably want to clean up Albany and get rid of corruption,” says Kneeland.

Voters will decide this November whether to hold a convention. If the answer is yes, delegates to the convention will be elected in November 2018. The convention would start in April of 2019 and the work would have to be complete by November of 2019. Any changes to the constitution made by the delegates at that time would have to be approved with a public vote. The last time a convention was held was 1967. All the proposed changes to the constitution were turned down by voters. The last convention that resulted in any changes was in 1938.

“It would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to do what? To do the same things they could do during the normal legislative session and then put it on the ballot as a referendum,” says Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association.

Most major unions in the state are against a convention and have started campaigns urging people to vote no this November. “I think we need stability, I think we need to stick to the system of checks and balances and transparency we have through the NYS legislature,” Urbanski says.

There’s also the issue of cost. If a convention happens, three delegates from each state senate district would be elected to attend. Each would be paid $79,500 regardless of whether he/she works for a week or three months. Theoretically, any NYS resident of age could be elected but at past conventions more than 90 percent of delegates have been state lawmakers and local leaders. Many argue the same thing would happen this time around and those delegates would be double-dipping.

Both the NYS Assembly Speaker and the Senate Majority leader have gone on the record against a convention. Governor Andrew Cuomo has indicated he would support one. “I'm sure that there will be a lot of mobilization to get people to say no....fearful that we could lose what we already have instead of gaining what we could potentially get,” says Kneeland.

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Jennifer Lewke

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