Constitutional Convention for New York on Tuesday's Ballot

Assemblyman Thiele says he is personally opposed

Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution and amend the same?

This is the first of three questions that will be put to New York State voters on Tuesday, appearing on the flip side of the election ballots. 

The State Constitution requires that every 20 years voters decide if a convention should be held to amend it. If a majority votes no on Tuesday, there will be no convention. If the yeas prevail, three delegates from each senatorial district will be elected in November 2018, along with 15 at-large delegates who will be elected statewide. The delegates would convene in Albany in April 2019. 

Amendments adopted by a majority of delegates would be submitted to voters in a statewide referendum, at an election held at least six weeks after the convention adjourns. Any amendments that voters approve would take effect the following Jan. 1.

Should voters decide in favor of a constitutional convention, the delegates will wield significant power. They will appoint any officers, employees, and assistants that they deem necessary, and set their compensation. They will also determine the convention’s expenses and the rules of their proceedings. Delegates would be paid the equivalent of an Assembly member’s salary, $79,500, plus travel and other expenses. 

The last state constitutional convention, in 1967, spanned five and a half months. In that year’s general election, voters rejected all of the delegates’ proposals. New Yorkers voted against calling a constitutional convention in 1977 and 1997. 

The question of holding such a convention is controversial. Proponents say that new rights and safeguards for democracy, such as fair campaign finance, nonpartisan redistricting, rights to clean air and water, and protection for women’s right to choose could be gained by holding one. Opponents argue that rights already in the State Constitution, such as free and public education, safeguards for public employee pensions, and a ban on public funds for religious schools, could be lost. 

Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele has not taken an active role in the debate but is personally opposed to a constitutional convention. “It’s not about whether or not you support reform, I do,” he told The Star on Tuesday. “It’s not whether positive changes to the constitution can be made — that could happen, too. But I don’t think this mechanism, the way it’s set up, is going to yield that reform.” 

One problem, said Mr. Thiele, is that the delegates would be chosen under the same election and campaign-finance laws by which senators are elected. Absent restrictions on who can be a delegate, he said, the body could comprise “political leaders, lobbyists, governors’ appointees, people that have a vested stake or interest in the status quo.” Instead, he said, “It should be more a people’s convention.” 

“If I thought that this convention would yield reform, I would support it,” Mr. Thiele said. “I do support a bill that would put limitations about who could be elected as a delegate.” Should voters approve a convention to revise the constitution, he said, “I would push for legislation that’d put in place some limitations on who would be delegates” before the convention took place.

Convention opponents also fear that “it’s going to open up some constitutionally protected benefits for employees of the state, municipalities, and others,” said East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell. “So unions are strongly opposed to it. Things like the retirement system and other things are protected in the constitution now, and unions fear that protection will be lost.”

“I don’t believe there is a strong consensus of opinion for this,” Mr. Cantwell said, “nor have those who support it made a case for it, frankly.”

The East Hampton Town Republican Committee has not taken a position on a constitutional convention, said Reg Cornelia, its chairman. Speaking for himself, he said such procedures are liable to abuse. “It depends on who runs those conventions — for all we know, they could come out with ‘The Communist Manifesto,’ ” he said. “We got lucky with the Founders, they wrote a brilliant constitution.” New Yorkers “might not be so lucky, although it seems like people are fed up with Albany.”

The East Hampton Group for Good Government has likewise not taken a stand,  said Arthur Malman, its vice president. Mr. Malman said Tuesday that he had yet to study the issue in depth.

The question was the subject of a debate last month at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Amagansett, hosted by the East Hampton Democratic Committee. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, argued for a “no” vote, while Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union of New York City, presented the opposite view.

Citizens Union was formed as an independent political party in 1897 and repurposed itself, in 1908, as “a nonpartisan force for good government to avoid the problem of party patronage,” according to its website. It strongly urges New Yorkers to vote in favor of a constitutional convention, which it calls a once-in-a-generation occasion to “open” the State Constitution and “make much-needed reforms to improve the performance of our State government, strengthen the integrity of our political institutions, and reform our broken 20th-century voting and electoral systems.” 

New York State United Teachers, a federation of unions representing more than 600,000 current or retired school faculty, administrators, and other employees, as well as health care professionals such as nurses and technicians, is equally determined in its opposition. In its November-December periodical, it calls a constitutional convention a wasteful and costly exercise that “would be controlled by Albany politicians and insiders.” The right to join a union, retirement security, health care, and children’s access to quality public education would be threatened by a convention, it argues. 

“Unions have been very organized against a constitutional convention,” Mr. Thiele said, “primarily because of their concern that the guaranteed protection of pension benefits could be altered.” But, like the adage about politics in general, this ballot proposal has made for strange bedfellows, he said. “You’ve got groups that are usually allies that aren’t, and groups that are usually in opposition that are. The landscape is interesting, but after I carve all that away, without putting limits on the rules for delegate selection . . . and it’s probably costing a lot of money in the process.”

Citizens Union acknowledges a possible threat to protections codified in the Constitution, but “we believe that this risk is worth taking, as it provides the opportunity to construct governmental systems that improve representative democracy through increased accountability, transparency, effectiveness, and ethical conduct.”

Senator Kenneth P. LaValle Jr. said that, as a state senator, “We cannot promote any constitutional issue that’s on the ballot.” He did say, however, that those in favor of a constitutional convention “have to put forth a pretty good argument, because of the cost.” But most important, he said, “People need to make a decision and vote.”