Nothing but a con: Why a con con would be bad for New Yorkers

In the first-ever comprehensive study of Constitutional Conventions in New York, new book shows a history of waste, self-dealing and out of control costs

The history of constitutional conventions in New York is full of cronyism, waste, runaway costs and questionable ethics, a warning to voters who will be asked to approve one next year, according to the newly published “Patronage, Waste and Favoritism: A Dark History of Constitutional Conventions.”

Voters will be asked to decide on Nov. 7, 2017 whether to hold a constitutional convention to change portions of the state constitution. Such a vote is required every 20 years. The book’s researchers found that previous conventions produced few results and served as little more than duplicate legislative sessions, dominated by the same insiders, special interests and sitting lawmakers themselves.

The book, which involved years of research into archives throughout the state, found that past conventions produced very few actual changes and did little to benefit the public. Legislators and other elected officials serving as delegates are also able to “double dip,” collecting two salaries and significantly boosting their pensions as a result. In addition, all 189 delegates would likely be able to hire staff and, in some cases, retain consultants.

“Our in-depth study concludes that the public has gotten little to no value out of the majority of conventions, which served primarily to benefit the few at the expense of the many,” said Arthur “Jerry” Kremer, former New York State Assembly Ways & Means Chairman, together with members of his firm, Empire Government Strategies, authored the book. “Some may argue that conventions could be used to address the ‘dysfunction’ in Albany but our study finds a con con to be just as dysfunctional as any legislative session might be.”

The last convention was in 1967 and turned out to be one of the least effective in state history. Voters rejected every single one of the proposals that came out of that gathering. It cost $47 million ($336.5 million today, adjusted for inflation) while producing zero changes to the constitution. In the end, both political parties opposed the results of their own work, declining to support the final proposals, as did most newspaper and civic groups in the state.

The research conducted by Empire found that, with the exception of the 1938 convention, gathering have been hobbled by partisan fighting, narrow self-serving agendas and little progress on the very issues that bedeviled the Legislature.

The authors concluded that rather than amend the constitution through a convention, voters have a far better choice: Statewide referendum. In the past 100 years, over 200 amendments have been made to the constitution through this process, including seven since 2013. It is a more direct and far less costly was to accomplish these goals.


About the authors:

Arthur “Jerry” Kremer is the former Chairman of the Assembly Ways & Means Committee. He is a partner and chair of the Municipal and Regulatory Affairs Department at Ruskin Moscou Faltischek P.C., and is President of Empire Government Strategies. He was elected to 13 terms in the Assembly and has also served by appointment of the Governor to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Capital Review Board and the Public Authorities Control Board.

Anthony Figliola is Vice President of Empire Government Strategies. He is the former Deputy Supervisor for Economic Development in the Town of Brookhaven. He is also co-author of the report Tax Amnesty – Past Successes, Failures and New Opportunities, which identified over $2 billion in unpaid taxes and fees owed to the State of New York.  The report provides a comprehensive analysis on how some of those moneys can be recouped through an aggressive tax amnesty program.

Maria Donovan is an attorney with has significant experience in the fields of public policy, communications, radio, non-profit organizations, legislative analysis and issue advocacy. She is currently Special Counsel to the Mayor of Mount Vernon, NY. Previously, she was Director of Research & Policy at Empire Government Strategies. She also worked at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.

Why Not a Con Con?

Civic participation is the cornerstone of our democracy. It is the reason why the founders of the great State of New York wrote into its constitution that residents be given a choice every 20 years to hold a constitutional convention.

Unfortunately, hosting a conclave of civic-minded people to discuss, debate and ultimately decide to change our constitution is an exercise worthy of consideration that is better in theory than in practice.

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10 Things to Know About the Constitutional Convention

1. The law provides two methods to amend the constitution; either by statewide referendum or by the convening of a convention to revise and amend the document.

2. As per the constitution, every 20 years, residents are given a choice as to whether they want to hold a constitutional convention or not.

3. A statewide referendum is the alternative to a Constitutional Convention. This process allows a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on an individual ballot question.

4. Constitutional conventions are mini-legislative sessions. They are held in Albany and the delegates are voted in the same way state legislators are.

5. A convention comes at a significant cost to the state, including the additional pension credits that sitting politicians gain.

6. The New York State Constitution has been amended over two hundred times in the past one hundred years.

7. Many delegates at the Constitutional Convention are able to use the process as a way to promote their pet causes while collecting a paycheck from the state.

8. A statewide referendum has been used to make changes to the constitution seven times since 2013.

9. In the 1967 Constitutional Convention, the most recent one to be held, voters rejected all proposals as a result of the convention.

10. In 1977 and 1997, voters said ‘no’ to holding a Constitutional Convention.