There are some “givens” when a citizen, elected official or journalist thinks about the government of New York State. The governing process is messed up. Special interests dominate legislation and budgets. The opportunities for average Joes or Janes to have some say in things is limited, or maybe non-existent.
The State Legislature has been labeled the most dysfunctional in the nation. Statewide elected officials and legislators have been run out of office. Many have gone to prison.
So it would seem that the time is ripe to go back to the drawing board — re-write, redesign, or in some cases start over in terms of the basic law of the state.
The constitutional process we are now involved in as citizens and voters in New York State is the every-20-years question of whether or not to see a state constitutional convention called. If the voters approve on November 7th then in 2018 we will elect 204 delegates to the convention, which will be held starting in April 2019. Three delegates would be elected from each state senate district and 15 delegates would be elected on an at-large basis.
You might think that the special interests that already have such sway over state laws and budgets would be chomping at the bit at the opportunity to strengthen and reaffirm things that make their interests so special. But here is the irony of the situation. The special interests are lined up, arm-in-arm like a bunch of football players, united in opposition to creating the convention. They are spending tons of money to keep the convention from happening.
The line-up of opponents has brought together such a disparate collection of organizations that you might think that, if they could work together on this, they could work together for real change. But of course that would not happen.
What unites these folks it seems is fear – fear that they might lose what they already have. Fear that the convention would recommend diminishing their current status. Fear that the voters would then approve the convention’s recommendations and actually diminish their current status.
The list of things that a convention might consider would include legislative reapportionment; educational policies; gun control issues; abortion; revenue-sharing and mandate relief concerning local governments; matters concerning public employees, including pensions and how the terms of an existing contract can only be negotiated out rather than die at the end of a contract; mandated health care policies, and so forth. The list is long.
And then there is the ethics issue. If there is one thing that appeals to all segments of the state population it would probably be the strengthening of ethics and election laws. That would include enforcing conflict of interest laws; limiting outside income options for state legislators; reducing the use of limited liability corporations (LLCs) which makes a farce of campaign contribution limits; and strengthening the enforcement powers of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and the state Board of Elections.
All of this is too much to put in jeopardy for way too many special interests.
The proponents and opponents of the convention
We have here a case of history repeating itself. In the 1960’s efforts to promote the convention were championed by Howard Samuels, a millionaire from Canandaigua who had an interest in reforming state government. He also tried for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1966, the last year the statewide candidates were chosen by convention, and he ran in a gubernatorial primary against Arthur Goldberg in 1970 but lost.
This year Howie’s son Bill is leading the charge in favor or the convention. The list of supporters includes the League of Women Voters, the state Bar Association and a few others – the emphasis is on “few.” They have raised some money in support, but not enough to make an impact.
The opponents of the convention, as previously noted, are almost too numerous to mention. Suffice it to say, if it walks like a special interest, and talks like a special interest, that special interest is against the calling of a convention. The opponents have formed a group named “New Yorkers Against Corruption.” How quaint! You can get a look at the list of the group’s 146 members as of September 26th here, in an article which also lists supporters and explains the process.
Money is flowing like water in the special interests’ efforts to defeat the convention call. As of mid-October more than $1 million had been spent. The biggest contributors have been public employee unions, including the teacher unions.
The practical issues – cost and double-dipping
It is estimated that the 1967 convention cost the state, in 2017 dollars, about one quarter of a billion dollars. That includes mostly the salaries of delegates and their staff, as well as the logistics of setting up the convention. A number of the 1967 delegates were state legislators and judges, which allowed them to collect two public paychecks that year. There is no law preventing that from happening again.
A 2019 version of a constitutional convention would not necessarily replicate that kind of spending, but this is, after all, New York State, so it seems likely that history would repeat itself.
It just doesn’t seem worth it
When one considers all the issues that a constitutional convention might consider, and when one considers all the general support some changes in the Constitution might attract, you might think that voting to approve the call of the convention would be worth it. But if a convention is convened and does its work, the conflicting special interests that are today linked arm-in-arm in opposition to the call would split. Whichever special interest won out in the debates about constitutional amendments would invite the wrath of the other side.
Given the current political climate it seems hard to imagine that a convention could come together on much of anything. If it did it would face the choice of packaging everything in one bundle (as was done in 1967) or offering up separate referendum questions for the voters to consider in November 2019. In either case the fighting would be brutal and the lobbying and electioneering would be over the top.
I could see many possibilities for proposed constitutional changes coming out of a convention that would be helpful to the state. But when weighing the possibilities that anything productive could possibly come out of the convention, and considering the substantial costs involved in running the production, I’ll reluctantly vote no.
Having said all that, it may seem somewhat undemocratic to vote against even the chance to make positive change, rather than waiting to see what is proposed and then voting on the merits of the proposals. And it is saddening for someone who spent a career in politics and government because he believed they could be forces for good to conclude that things have deteriorated to the point that this one major democratic mechanism placed in our state constitution to allow correction of basic faults is unlikely to be able to be used successfully.
Democracy in action
I attended the League of Women Voters Hamburg voter forum this past Wednesday. Candidates for County Clerk, County Legislature and the offices of Hamburg Supervisor, Highway Superintendent and Town Council participated. A crowd of about 150 was in attendance.
Sheriff Tim Howard and Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw did not attend, while their opponents, Bernie Tolbert for Sheriff and Vanessa Glushefski for Comptroller, were there. League of Women policies prohibited Tolbert and Glushefski from speaking since there would not be a “debate.”
I think that LWV policy is a mistake. Voters showed up to hear the candidates, and a candidate who for whatever reason doesn’t make an appearance should not, in effect, be able to prevent their opponent from speaking.
Of those who spoke, the most spirited exchange of views was between Democratic supervisor candidate Jim Shaw and his Republican opponent, Dennis Gaughan. Jim is a very long time friend, but regardless, I expect him to prevail on November 7th.
Kudos to both Democrat Steve Cichon and Republican Mickey Kearns for attending the forum as candidates for County Clerk. Kearns emphasized his twelve years of experience in political office. Cichon spoke much more informatively about the work of the Clerk’s office and what he would do to improve its operations. If you’re giving points for the candidate who has taken the time to learn and understand the functioning of the office that is pursued, Cichon has the edge.