Every Election Day is important, and Nov. 7 is no different. There aren’t a lot of high-profile contests, but voters will still be choosing village mayors and town and county officials. A major issue, which has escaped voters’ attention until now, is the vote to decide whether New York state should have a new constitutional convention.
The last convention was held in 1967, and its work product was voted down by large numbers. In 1977, another convention vote failed. Around the country since 2010, voters in 11 states have rejected convening rewrites of their constitutions. It is my strongest hope that this measure will be soundly defeated on Election Day.
Over the past four months, I have traveled around the state speaking to numerous groups, and I’ve taken part in nine debates. No one has offered to pay me, nor would I have accepted any money. I strongly believe that a constitutional convention would be a waste of taxpayer money, and would be nothing more than a carbon copy of a regular legislative session. A 2019 convention, if approved this year, would mean double pay for the elected officials who attend and double pay for the lobbyists who would love to get on the gravy train.
As a member of the State Assembly in 1967, I took the time to watch the convention at work. It was dominated by elected officials from every level of government. It generated some good ideas, but it was manipulated into one proposition that failed. There’s no reason to believe that another convention now would have a different result.
The current Constitution runs to 200 pages. It protects our parks, our jobs, our housing and our quality of life in hundreds of ways. There are two legal procedures to amend it. The State Legislature can do it, or we can elect delegates. Over the past 100 years, the Legislature has amended the Constitution more than 200 times, in many significant ways. This year, thanks to the Legislature, voters will also be asked whether elected officials who commit crimes related to their public office should lose their pensions.
A small handful of well-meaning groups are supporting a convention because they think the current Constitution should be completely overhauled. The average convention runs for about four months, and if you think the Constitution can be totally remodeled within that time frame, I have some swampland to sell you in Louisiana. The groups that oppose the idea are a mixture of every flavor of politics, including the Conservative Party, Planned Parenthood, the National Rife Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and numerous environmental groups.
The union movement has spent lots of money to oppose a convention, for good reasons. Pensions for active and retired members are protected by current law, so union leaders are looking out for their members by opposing a convention. Its supporters have criticized the involvement of unions, as if their money comes from some suspicious source, which is a cheap shot.
The supporters of a convention truly believe that there is no chance that it would be hijacked by groups with carloads of out-of-state money. But thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling, in the Citizens United case, that the government cannot restrict independent political expenditures, there are unlimited funds being spent around the country to interfere with state laws. The proponents of a convention can’t guarantee us that it would be free of outside interference, so why bother?
New York last voted on whether to have a convention in 1997. The idea was soundly defeated because of the expense and the public’s desire to leave well enough alone. The estimated cost of a convention is $50 million to $100 million, and could go higher.
The cost notwithstanding, I would strongly support it if I thought it could be a meaningful event with great results, but that just isn’t the case. That’s why I’ve traveled around the state urging a “no” vote. It’s the wrong time in history to turn our state upside down.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.