Constitutional Convention: Proposition 1 and what you need to know

IB/Finnegan

Constitutional Convention: Proposition 1 and what you need to know

Story By: LIZ FINNEGAN
11/2/2017


SUFFOLK COUNTY—There’s no question we’re in election season as political signage has been popping up over the past few months on lawns, along roadways and on other public and private properties. However, this year, signs regarding Proposition 1 – one of three propositions that are on the ballot next week – have drawn quite a bit of bipartisan reaction. It’s no doubt it’s something that needs to be carefully considered before heading into the voting booth.

Proposition 1 is calling for approval to hold a constitutional convention in New York State to open up the state’s constitution for the purpose of making significant changes. New York is one of only 14 states nationwide that can call for this type of a proposition to be placed on the ballot. New York has held nine constitutional conventions since 1777, with the document most recently completely rewritten in 1894. The last convention was held in 1967. Since the window is only opened every 20 years, if the proposition is not approved this time, the item will not come up again for a vote until 2037.

Minister Jazz, a spokesperson for NY People’s Convention Group that is in favor of the proposition, said the time is right for it to pass.

“No time ever have so many people been able to contribute to the writing of [our constitution],” Jazz said. She added that in the long history of the convention, only seven women and three people of color have been a part of it, something she expects would change this time around.

Jazz noted that if passed, the process of electing 204 delegates would begin immediately with the process of choosing delegates from each of the 63 Senate districts. Those interested must then collect signatures to be considered for the ballot, after which they need to procure campaign financing similar to running for any political office. Voters then head to the polls to elect delegates in November 2018. Those elected then report to the state capital in January 2019 to attend a training program for the next couple of months to prepare them for the task at hand.  Finally, the convention will be held the first Tuesday in April 2019, also in Albany.

Expenses for each delegate and a staff they are permitted to hire will be paid for by the state along with a legislator’s salary of $79,500 per delegate. They meet periodically to go over changes and make amendments to the constitution; each amendment will need to be voted on by the public that November. “The people will decide on changes,” Jazz said, noting that if approved, all changes would be in place by January 2020.

She said the total cost of holding the convention is estimated to be  $47 million. However, other estimations have put it upwards in the hundreds of millions.

New York Sen. Phil Boyle said he supports the idea of the proposition being placed on the ballot. However, he added, “I have concerns about it, mostly about the expense. And there is no prohibition for [current] legislators to run and then they would get paid twice.”

Most unions are opposed to the convention. Some public employees expressed concern that opening the Constitution could lead to tampering with earned benefits. Dick O’Kane, president of the Nassau-Suffolk Building Trades Council, said he is worried about that as well.

“Anyone who has health benefits and a pension should be concerned about this,” he said. “That means police, firefighters, teachers… This is a boondoggle and it’s very expensive.”

Aside from labor and professional unions, a number of other organizations and major political parties are opposed to holding the convention. They include the Conservative Party, NAACP, LGBT Network, Planned Parenthood and NYS Right to Life, among many others.

“A constitutional convention would mean all of our hard-won state rights and protections would be up for grabs by Albany insiders,” said Irma Solis, Suffolk Chapter director for the New York Civil Liberties Union. “In the era of President Trump, that should worry just about anyone. And thanks to politically and racially gerrymandered districts, those running the convention wouldn’t reflect our state’s diversity. The smart bet for New Yorkers is to vote no on Nov. 7.”   

The New York State Constitution has been amended over 200 times over the years. Sen. Boyle said that aside from the added cost of holding a convention, it is a duplication of services. “We [legislators] amend the constitution [when needed],” said Boyle. He noted that over the years, the public has voted on a number of propositions to amend the constitution. This year, there are two other items on the ballot for voters to consider: Proposition 2 would allow judges to revoke state pension of a public officer convicted of a felony related to his or her duties; and Proposition 3 would create a 250-acre land bank, which would allow local governments to request forest preserve land for projects in exchange for the state acquiring 250 acres for the forest preserves. 

The last time the convention was held in 1967, voters rejected all of the proposed amendments. Many of those opposed said that it was all just a very expensive waste of time. Still, this year’s proposal remains a choice that will require voter participation. And there have been some complaints voiced about where it has been placed on the ballot.

“The proposition is on the back of the ballot,” said Boyle. “However the voter feels about [this proposition], they should just remember to vote on it.”