At the November 2017 election, voters will be asked if they want to convene a constitutional convention for the purpose of amending the state constitution. Pursuant to an existing provision in the constitution, this question appears on the ballot every twenty years.
As November approaches, there has been little, if any, discussion about why we would want to convene a convention. What in the constitution needs to be amended? A constitutional convention is a very rare event. In the past 100 years, there have been only three, with the most recent in 1965, which ended as a fiasco when all its recommendations were rejected by the voters. As a matter of fact, there have been only nine conventions in our history, dating back to 1777.
If a convention were to be convened, what would it do? There are no pressing issues that have been identified as needing to be amended. There has been no commission established to identify and examine what those issues might be.
Conversely, there are important existing provisions in the constitution that are important to the quality of life in New York that could be subject to amendment, or elimination. These include: free public education; the right to belong to a union and bargain collectively; provide social welfare; the integrity of public pensions; workers’ compensation; and environmental protections including “forever wild”; among others. The delegates to a convention set their own agenda, and can recommend changes to any provision in the constitution.
The convening of a convention would most certainly be a costly event. The 1965 convention cost $10 million, which equates to $75 million when adjusted for inflation in 2017 dollars. There most likely would be additional staff and other expenses beyond what occurred 50 years ago. Plus, there is no way to know when the convention would end, as delegates stay convened until their “work is completed”. It is therefore, not unreasonable to assume that the cost of convening a convention could reach $100 million.
On the other hand, if there are provisions in the constitution that need to be amended, there already exists a mechanism to do that. The constitution may be amended if a proposal is passed by two consecutively elected legislatures, and approved by voters. As a matter of fact, since 2013 there have been eight proposed amendments to the constitution, with seven being approved by voters (including casino gambling). This procedure works just fine, and is certainly a more efficient, and less costly, approach to amending the constitution.
Finally, if there were to be a constitutional convention, it would be dominated by the same elected officials we have now. At the 1965 convention, 80 percent of the delegates were public officials. Furthermore, those officials would be drawing two public salaries (double dipping is not prohibited), and have this higher amount factored into their retirement benefit. Delegates to a convention would be paid the same salary as members of the legislature – $79,500.
For all these reasons, the Retired Public Employees Association opposes the convening of a constitutional convention and urges the public to vote “NO” on the November 7, 2017 ballot question.