A Constitutional Convention is the process by which a constitution is reformed. New York’s constitution, one of the longest constitutions in the world, requires the voters to decide every 20 years whether or not to have a special convention. The next vote is scheduled for November 7, 2017.
ARE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTIONS A GREAT WAY TO REFORM STATE GOVERNMENT?
Not exactly. Constitutional conventions are mini-legislative sessions. They are held in Albany and the delegates are voted in the same way state legislators are.
They are rarely successful. Our current state constitution dates back to 1894. There have been other Constitutional Conventions since then: in 1915, 1938, and 1967. Of those, only 1938 developed changes that voters approved.
ARE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTIONS THE ONLY WAY TO REFORM?
Actually, New York has another system to reform its Constitution and it costs less and delivers better results. It’s called the Referendum process and it works like this: The state legislature passes an amendment. Two subsequent state legislative sessions vote to approve the amendment and then it is sent to the people to vote on. Over 200 amendments to the state constitution have been approved in this way and the taxpayers don’t have to foot the bill for a Convention.
BEING A DELEGATE SOUNDS TIME-CONSUMING AND DIFFICULT, WILL ONLY SERIOUS POLICY PEOPLE APPLY?
Actually, being a delegate to the state constitution convention is a pretty good deal. Delegates are paid the same level as an Assembly member (currently $79,500 per annum). Travel costs to Albany are covered and so are housing expenses.
IS A CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION COST-EFFECTIVE?
Constitutional conventions are not cost-effective. Not only are delegates paid well, they get to hire and pay staff. There are 204 delegate spots and they all need help. Administrative, legal, and research are just some of the staffing positions that have been filled in past conventions. Then you add per diems, food, transportation, lodging, and printed materials to the bottom line. You can even hire a special consultant or two.
Paying for a Constitutional Convention is the equivalent of paying for a few months of a legislative session. For example, the 1967 Convention paid delegates the same rate as an Assembly Member – $10,000/year. Today, the cost will be $79,500, per delegate (prorated for time worked). The cost for one in 2019 is sure to be dramatically more.
AT LEAST IF TAXPAYERS VOTE AND PAY FOR IT, THEY WILL GET TO CONTROL IT, RIGHT?
Unfortunately, that’s not correct either. In the tradition of other conventions, the body organizes itself. The delegates get to decide everything from the rules, to the hiring, to committee membership and qualifications.
WELL AT LEAST ELECTED OFFICIALS WON’T BE RUNNING THE SHOW, RIGHT?
Elected officials love Constitutional Conventions. Who else has the time, money, and political connections to get the necessary signatures to be on a ballot? Plus, the Convention must start on April 1st which is right in the middle of the legislative session. Lucky Legislators get paid twice to be in Albany – once for their legislative sessions and once for their delegate salary.
SO WHAT’S THE GOOD NEWS?
The good news is New York voters are smart. Since the current 20-year cycle came into play, every call for a constitutional convention has been answered by a resounding “NO”. The last thing reform-minded citizens want is a lengthy legislative session that doubles elected officials’ salaries while producing no real reform.