Speaker Heastie, right, & Gov. Cuomo (photo: The Governor's Office)
While it will be several months before the airwaves are flooded with special interest-backed ad campaigns warning of the potential “dangers” of a constitutional convention, in Albany, legislative leaders are beginning to speak out on the issue.
On Saturday, February 18, at Black and Latino Caucus weekend, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, had one message for labor union leaders: make sure your members vote “no” on the upcoming ballot question. This November, New Yorkers will vote on a referendum whether to call a constitutional convention -- an opportunity for the public to “take back state government” and update the antiquated state constitution that occurs once every 20 years.
While a Con Con, as it is often called, would provide a chance for enacting reforms on things like government ethics, term limits for elected officials, modernized voting and voter registration rules, and more, it would open up the entire state constitution to change. To some, including government reform groups and Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, this promises an incredible opportunity. To others, like Heastie, it appears too risky.
Like many state and city elected officials who spoke at Saturday’s labor luncheon, Heastie cited threats to progressive institutions posed by President Donald Trump’s administration as he urged union leaders to oppose the convention.
“We are going to need you to remind people that dangerous things can happen,” said Heastie in his remarks. “There are some very wealthy people who want to open up the constitution and really undo some of the protections for labor. We need your help and cooperation to make sure that doesn't happen.”
If voters approve the convention this November, each of the New York’s 63 state Senate districts will elect three delegates in 2018, triggering a convention for the following year. Any constitutional amendments proposed by a convention would need to be approved by voters before they would take effect.
Heastie’s fear that the convention would be coopted by certain interests has been raised by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. But while Democrats say a convention could lead to the dismantling of labor and environmental protections by conservative interests, Republicans say they are concerned that New York City’s progressive interest groups would dominate the convention.
Scott Reif, a spokesperson for Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, said, “The convention could be dominated by New York City special interests, which would be disastrous for Upstate, the Hudson Valley and Long Island.”
Like other lawmakers, Flanagan, of Long Island, has also argued that a constitutional convention would cost millions of dollars at a time when New York has other, more pressing needs, and it is unlikely to produce much change.
Flanagan’s position stands in sharp contrast to that of Assembly Minority Leader Kolb, an Upstate Republican who has been on the front lines advocating for a Con Con, and the reforms it might bring, since 2011. In a column earlier this month, Kolb once again laid out the case for a convention, and urged voters to consider a “yes” vote.
“Voter empowerment is part of the very fabric of who we are as a nation,” he wrote. “There is no more effective way to engage the public than a Constitutional Convention, and there is no place that needs it more than Albany.”
The Assembly member -- who said he is interested in seeing the elimination of backdoor borrowing and term limits enacted in both houses, among other changes --- has spent the last five years campaigning with Con Con advocates like SUNY New Paltz professor Gerald Benjamin and government reform activist Bill Samuels, participating in countless town halls and panel discussions to help get the word out.
“Those who like the way things are, whether it’s the legislature or special interest groups, they’re going to be adamantly opposed to this and that’s just the nature of the beast,” said Kolb. “But people work on fear and people say ‘the sky is falling!’ But it’s all predicated on establishing doubt that it could be worse than what they already have.”
Former State Assembly Ways & Means Chair Arthur “Jerry” Kremer, in a new book analyzing the potential costs and benefits of a convention, writes that in 100 years, only six amendments have been made through the convention and 200 have resulted from individual constitutional amendments. A constitutional amendment requires passage by two consecutive classes of the state Legislature, followed by voter ballot approval the following Election Day.
The last time a constitutional convention was called, in 1967, few changes were made and all those that were introduced were ultimately rejected by the voters. This occurred, at least in part, because many of the Con Con delegates were also elected officials, Kolb says.
While it is against the constitution to prohibit anyone from running as a delegate, Kolb has introduced a bill that would require any elected convention delegate holding political office or certified as a lobbyist to step down from the other positions to serve in that role. “I think that really strengthens a grassroots approach with the delegate selection process,” said Kolb.
Kolb’s concern about the makeup of the delegates is shared by many, including some prominent Democrats, like Governor Andrew Cuomo, as well as government reform groups.
Since his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Gov. Cuomo has continued to express support for a convention, but, unlike last year, the issue was notably absent from his 2017 State of the State policy book and his executive budget. However, the governor did propose several reforms, including the codification of Roe v. Wade, same-day voter registration, and limitations on legislators’ outside income, which he says could be done through constitutional amendment. Cuomo has also indicated that a Con Con may be the only way to enact comprehensive campaign finance reform while Republicans continue to control the state Senate.
During a recent meeting with The Daily News editorial board, the governor waffled slightly on his previous position, saying that he conceptually supports the idea of a constitutional convention, but “you have to find a way where the delegates do not wind up being the same legislators who you are trying to change the rules on. I have not heard a plan that does that."
Even Democratic legislators that are focused on government reform, such as Assemblymember Robert Carroll, newly elected from Brooklyn, and Manhattan Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, have said they are concerned with the delegate selection process, which allows the representatives to be determined based on heavily gerrymandered Senate districts. As a result, reformers fear that that some Republicans might dominate the convention and do away with labor and environmental protections.
Not all Democrats are opposed to the constitutional convention. Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat and longtime advocate for government ethics reform, pushed for a “yes” vote in a June 2016 interview with Effective New York, the think tank founded by Samuels.
“We are in such need of dramatic change in the state that a convention would be a great way to kind of turn the whole thing over and start fresh,” said Gianaris, who also leads the Senate Democrats’ campaign efforts. “It would involve real redistricting reform as opposed to the thing we enacted that won’t achieve the goals we all wanted of a truly independent process. Ethics reforms, including a full-time legislature, pension forfeiture for those convicted of crimes. The list is not short of the things we can do.
Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has hesitated to take a formal position on the issue, and did not respond to a request for comment.
The Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) -- a breakaway group of Senate Democrats that has formed a ruling coalition with Senate Republicans -- came out against the convention earlier this month, citing concerns for labor protections.
Kolb says he’s not worried about how a convention might play out. Regardless of which amendments the delegates propose, the decision would ultimately return to the voters.
“In the end, when I talk to people about it I say, ‘Is New York State working for you?’ And if your hand is up, then you probably won’t vote for the convention,” said Kolb. “But if you think New York State could be better, run more efficiently, run more cost effectively, answer to the people it represents, then here’s an opportunity to see it change.”