As Featured in Smithtown Matters
By Anthony Figliola
This year, one of the most important legislative issues that will confront Albany legislators will be to approve a ballot proposition slated for November 7, 2017, to hold a constitutional convention.
On its face, a convention makes sense given the many issues that have stalled in Albany’s black hole of bureaucracy over the years. The problem with this philosophy is that it ignores the history of past conventions and the powerful role that politics played in the process.
History has shown that a con con is nothing more than a carbon copy of a typical legislative session. In short, it’s a $335 million plus workforce development initiative for the politically connected.
Many good-government groups who have pushed for ethics and campaign finance reform in New York are keen to support a convention, because their efforts over the years have been thwarted by the culture of the status quo. Many reformers naively accept the premise that seizing on a possible vote for a New York Constitutional Convention (e.g., vote slated for November 7, 2017) will force the state legislature’s hand to pass meaningful reforms. In theory, it makes sense, but the one variable that will dilute this purist approach is politics. The same people who are impotent on the issue of reforms are the same folks who will set the rules, select candidate delegates and ultimately run the convention.
History shows us that while some worthy policies were developed and ratified by the voters, much of the conventions were riddled with rigged agendas and uncontrolled costs. It is important to note that in past conventions, elected officials, including state legislators, have served as delegates at the convention. These pols essentially “double dipped”, collecting two salaries that significantly boosted their government pensions.
Let’s not forget the lobbyists who love the idea of a conclave, so they can charge their clients another fee to represent them at the convention. The 1967 convention charged taxpayers more than $45 million ($335 million in today’s dollars) and very little was achieved that could not have been accomplished through a statewide referendum.
Constitutional conventions are not cost-effective. Not only are the politically connected delegates well paid, they get to hire staff. There are 189 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.
Historians and legal scholars will point to the 1894 convention that brought us the “Forever Wild” amendment, which protects the Adirondacks from development or the 1938 convention that authorized public funds for low-income housing, all of which were important pieces of legislation. Other conventions in 1915 and 1967 produced nothing for the voters.
Legal scholars have also argued that a conclave could develop critical judicial reforms, such as streamlining the court system and adding an amendment that would guarantee legal aid in civil cases. These proponents have an opportunity every year during a regular legislative session to educate the public, in order to galvanize support for specific constitutional amendments to be brought to the voters.
In developing the convention rules, many supporters have stated that there will be checks and balances in the rule making process that will give the power to the people. History has proven that nothing could be farther from the truth.
It has been almost 80 years since a convention has produced any constitutional amendments, because politics has been the poison pill.
There is a less costly and more effective approach to changing our constitution and that is the public referendum process, which has successfully amended the constitution more than 200 times. In fact, the constitution has been amended seven times in the last few years using this process, which included the voters approving casino gambling.
Voters seeking good government solutions can’t afford the luxury of another convention.
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