Last week the Rockefeller Institute of Government, in partnership with several other organizations, kicked off a campaign to inform the public about their ability in November 2017 to start the process of changing the way New York state is governed with a constitutional convention. While it may seem early to start that discussion, with a recently released Siena Poll showing only about 2 percent of the state’s residents have a great awareness of their ability to vote for a convention and what could occur, even now it may be too late to educate the public enough to have one.
Unlike the federal Constitution, New York's has a provision, like 14 other states, to allow for a regular review of the state’s constitution. In New York’s case, it is every 20 years. Voters will go to the polls in November 2017 and decide whether or not to have a convention. In 1997, strong lobbying efforts by special interests against having a convention convinced voters to not approve holding a convention.
Historically New York has changed its constitution on two major occasions in the last 120 years. In 1894 a whole new constitution was written and then approved by voters. Roughly four decades later, in 1938, a series of amendments were approved (others were not). Since then, specifically a complete overall of the constitution proposed in 1967, was defeated by voters.
It is likely that the fear mongers will be out in full force soon to campaign against holding a convention, as they did in 1997, largely to protect their own turf and interests. For example, they will work up environmentalists over the 1894 “forever wild” provisions, which could change with a convention, which did much to protect the state from clear cutting and the natural devastation that came from large corporations a century ago. But the world has changed, and much of what isn’t allowed because of those provisions would never likely ever occur in the current pro-environmental activist climate.
Yet that won’t stop those who have other interests they want to protect, that have nothing to do with the environment, for example, to glom onto the fears about removing the “forever wild” protections as a way to get voters to oppose convening a convention, that is long overdue and more than necessary.
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New York is in serious need of having a full discussion over a plethora of subjects that can only really happen with a constitutional convention. They range from getting rid of our “pay to play” governmental system and creating independent redistricting to the long overdue need for the ability of the public to have the right of initiative, recall and referendum. A convention could discuss these topics and put proposals forward for the public to approve enactments and changes.
In many cases, while the Legislature and other state officials talk about making these changes, they are mainly touted as a way to get votes or to generate campaign donations. A convention that would have to put its work before the public for an up or down vote (either as a whole as done successfully in 1894 and unsuccessfully in 1967 or in part, as was done with amendments in 1938) would still be required. But until voters get a chance to vote on changes, expect opponents of change to prevent anything getting to voters in order to protect the status quo.
It is interesting to hear people who opposed positions in this column in 1997 supporting the calling of a convention, now feel that is the only way to effectuate change. They may be late to the party, but they have seen since 1997 that Albany is more than broken, and this may be the only way to fix it.
One need look no further than the recent games being played by the Assembly on a constitutional amendment to take pensions away from elected officials convicted of the misuse of their office to see that the only way to fix the system may be to re-do it all together.
The work of the coalition to build civic engagement and participation is important work that the public needs to pay attention to. They will have much to overcome, from the forces that like the system they way it is.