It’s an issue that only comes up every 20 years, but in a divided electorate this year, the question over a Constitutional Convention has brought together divergent sides to find common ground.
A panel discussion on the Constitutional Convention was held last Sunday at the Hudson Lodge with members of various organizations as members. The event was hosted by the group Indivisible CD-19 NY.
An opportunity to vote on the Constitutional Convention is proposed every 20 years to decide if one should be held to consider making amendments to the state Constitution, according to the New York State Board of Elections website.
If there is a majority vote in favor of a convention, three delegates from each state senatorial district and 15 at-large delegates will be elected in November 2018. In April 2019, amendments adopted by a majority of the delegates will be submitted to voters for them to approve or reject in a statewide referendum, according to the board of elections.
Zack Smith, who is on the steering committee of Indivisible CD-19 NY, moderated the discussion. The panel consisted of Melissa Tierney Servant of New York State United Teachers, Conor Bambrick of Environmental Advocates of New York, Michael Kink of Hedge Clippers, and Howard Lim of the New York State Conservative Party. Erika Lorshbough, of the New York Civil Liberties Union, was expected to speak, but had to cancel due to illness, Indivisible CD-19 founding organizer Gianni Ortiz said.
Environmental Advocates opposes the convention and Bambrick said the main reason comes down to priorities. In the assembly Democratic conference, the priorities are education, health care, housing, education and the environment, Bambrick said.
“When you’re talking about a Constitutional Convention, this is something that takes sort of everything and puts it all out on the table,” Bambrick said. “Policies can be considered really across the board. It’s not just environmental policies or labor policies, it’s tax policies and spending policies.”
A convention would make it harder for politicians to be accountable on issues by groups like Environmental Advocates, Bambrick said.
“With the budget, at least we have accountability,” Bambrick said. “These legislators know they have to come back and face the voters.”
Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long voted for a Constitutional Convention in 1965, but then voted against the proposed changes in 1967, which many voters did statewide. A 2019 Constitutional Convention would be made up mostly of liberal Democrats, Lim said, and the amendments they would come up with would steer the state in a socialistic direction.
“The 1967 ConCon was a complete waste of time and money and the Conservative Party believes a 2019 ConCon would only be worse,” Lim said. “The Conservative Party believes that nothing good would come out of ConCon.”
Many opponents of the convention want to keep things in the state as they are, Lim said.
The state constitution has strong protections in place for teachers’ pensions, and Servant said pensions could be in jeopardy for teachers who start after a 2019 convention. United Teachers opposes the convention in order to protect all of its current, past and future members, and Servant said the union serves all, not solely its members.
“We’re afraid that the constitution’s going to open everything up and our money’s all going to go away,” Servant said.
The estimated cost of $100 million that would be spent on a convention could be better spent on fixing up hospitals and for unfunded mandates coming down from the State University of New York for public education, Servant said.
“We just think there’s a better use of that money,” Servant said.
Proponents of a convention argue political change needs to happen in Albany, and while Kink said he agrees with that, he opposes a convention because the current political climate could take a bad situation and make it worse. Billionaires and forces of division and hate are the most powerful political forces in the country, Kink said
“We’ve seen it in the Hudson Valley, we’ve seen it in New York and we’ve seen it around the country,” Kink said. “Regular people are not in the ascendance.”
Kink recommended voting no on the convention, but also recommended that audience members take a realistic look at it.
“We have rules for our government that could be rewritten to benefit billionaires,” Kink said of a convention.
Smith recently participated in other talks about the convention. The previous panels Smith attended were one-sided and consisted of members of stereotypically liberal and conservative organizations, he said.
“We wanted to see both sides,” Smith said of Sunday’s panel. “The Constitutional Convention question has historically been a progressive issue and this year it’s one of those rare issues that gets broad consensus on the conservative and liberal side.”
Polling has indicated that many people do not know anything about the convention and Smith said people will forget about it since it is only a matter discussed every 20 years.
“Any time you can actually talk to people about the convention, it’s good education,” Smith said.
While the concept of a people’s convention does not seem feasible, Smith is optimistic that campaign finance and voting reforms, which are popular with voters, can be passed in the next few years.
“We’ve seen an awakening. There’s a lot more participation in the political process,” Smith said. “In 2018, 2020, we’re actually going be able to elect, especially state senators, who are going to be willing to actually implement the policies that the voters want.”