NYS Exposed: Should New York hold a constitutional convention?

October 19, 2017 11:31 PM

In November, for the first time in 20 years, voters will have the option to call for a constitutional convention. It could lead to dramatic changes in the state's constitution. On election day, New Yorkers will make their choice.

"I want people to vote 'yes' on the constitutional convention," said John Bergener.


Bergener is the chair of the Divide New York Caucus. They want Upstate New York to break of from downstate into its own region. We'd get our own government, but lose out on all of that downstate money, about three-quarters of the tax pool, according to the Rockefeller Institute. It would require a change in the constitution of New York, and could theoretically happen at a constitutional convention. It may seem radical, but Bergener will settle for more modest changes.

"Many of the other things that could happen at this convention, we would hope would be term limits, budget reform, ethics reform, because it's obvious that the legislature isn't going to reform itself," said Bergener.

If voters decide to hold a convention, they'll pick delegates in November 2018. Anyone could run, and the convention wouldn't take place until 2019. Any changes the delegates decide on would have to be voted on by you. Mario Cilento thinks there's too much risk. He's the president of the New York chapter of the AFL-CIO, and says there are too many protections in the current constitution.

"All people, all workers, no matter who you are or where you're from in this state: workers compensation, unemployment insurance, the eight-hour day," he described some of those protections.

"Here's the problem," Cilento continued. "The problem is, you don't know as a New Yorker who is going to come in from other states from across this country to try to put money into a process once you have a convention to take what's yours."

Of course, a convention would cost money. How much money really depends on which side of the debate you fall on. There isn't a good estimate out there. But union leaders point out the last time we had a convention in 1967, taxpayers spent millions on it, and not a word of the constitution changed.

With election day approaching, the gap between those who do and don't want a convention is disappearing. A Siena poll released in October predicts 44 percent of voters will vote yes, 39 percent voting no. Those numbers could change, with some still undecided. In fact, the same poll says 49 percent of voters haven't heard anything about the convention yet.

Governor Andrew Cuomo told us he supports the "concept" of a constitutional convention, but he has a big concern.

"The theory is to get citizens there," the governor said. "So you want to have a constitutional convention that elects citizens as opposed to the same people who run the government, the current elected officials. That, there's no mechanism for."

Bergener agrees with the first half of that, but isn't so sure that ordinary citizens can't get elected. He thinks that's exactly who needs to be chosen to make the difference.

"It's the only way we're going to change anything in New York," he said.


Chris Horvatits

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