When New York voters head to the polls on November 7, Election Day, printed on their ballots will be the question, “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?”
A "yes" vote would trigger a state constitutional convention process that could lead to major changes to the New York constitution.
While the first New York Constitution dates back to 1777, the version used today was adopted in 1894, with significant modifications made following the 1938 constitutional convention. Of those in support of a convention, some simply want New Yorkers to have the chance to debate key aspects of the antiquated, 52,500-word document, while others have clear policy agendas, like government ethics reform. There are many more mainstream ideas being discussed, but also a variety of more radical proposals that could be on the table if a convention were to be called.
The debate over whether to support a “yes” vote for a convention largely revolves around the potential to enact long-sought policy measures lawmakers seems unwilling to implement versus fears that hard-earned protections could be dismantled.
Advocates of various political affiliations see the constitutional convention as an opportunity to push for changes to redistricting, campaign finance, and term-limits for legislators -- not to mention a comprehensive rewrite of the at-times illegible constitution document that has many vestigial pieces.
At the same time, many labor unions and leading lawmakers are voicing their opposition to a convention. Of Albany’s five legislative conference leaders, only Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb has consistently backed a convention. Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he supports holding a convention, Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he does not.
Due to the democratic nature of a convention, people from all over the state and across the political spectrum frustrated by a lack of movement on their priorities in Albany are seizing on the opportunity to promote their causes, and are considering running their own delegates -- representatives will be elected in 2018 if a convention is approved this November.
Often, proposed constitutional amendments are framed in terms of “rights,” as in the right to clean air, the right to clean water, the right to hunt or farm, the right to equal treatment, the right to have a pension, and so on. Also being introduced, though, are some more unorthodox, even seemingly outlandish constitutional changes, like legalizing recreational marijuana, a dramatic restructuring of the state Legislature, or the splitting up of New York State.
Organizations (and individuals) pining for a convention are not necessarily powerful or well-funded -- anyone with internet access can start a political action committee -- and more radical proposals would be likely be countered at a convention by moderates with other priorities or competing interests.
The multi-phase process is also designed to prevent the convention from being hijacked by a single fringe agenda. If a majority of voters say “yes” to the convention question, which appears on the ballot once every 20 years, the following Election Day, New Yorkers elect delegates to an Albany convention, who would then be charged with crafting amendments to improve and streamline the constitution. The final, key step would be that any proposed constitutional changes coming out of a convention go to voter referendum the following year.
As a result, New Yorkers should not fear the exchange of ideas that a ConCon would allow, according to SUNY New Paltz Professor Gerald Benjamin, a constitutional scholar and longtime convention proponent.
“There’s no common agenda for a constitutional convention. Lots of people support a right to clean water, for example, and some other people think it would lead to excessive litigation. My view is that a convention cannot and will not produce radical solutions,” Benjamin said. “There are going to be 10,000 proposals, and each will be deliberated.”
A recent Siena College poll found that a strong majority of New Yorkers, 62 percent, from across the political spectrum support holding a constitution convention, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernize the lengthy, outdated New York State document that is the foundation of state law. Two-thirds of Democrats, 55 percent of Republicans, and 59 percent of independents polled said they support a ConCon.
But the same study found that New Yorkers are mostly uninformed about a convention; only 13 percent have heard a “great deal” or “some” about it. The disparity between the two sets of poll responses may indicate voter frustration with their state government, which has been home to a seemingly endless torrent of corruption scandals.
At the same time, powerful labor unions are spending big money to convince voters to reject the convention in November. While support of a ConCon remains strong, even among union families, according to the latest poll, labor organizations like the United Federation of Teachers and SEIU-1199 have already launched campaigns to sway New Yorkers towards a “no” vote.
“Support for ConCon has remained consistently strong over the last couple of years,” said Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg, in releasing the latest poll. “But the question remains, will that support stay strong as voters hear more about ConCon, particularly as we move into the fall and various interest groups start spending money to educate voters – both in support and opposition – about ConCon? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, we've compiled a round-up of 10 of the more intriguing proposals that have emerged ahead of the upcoming referendum, ranging from bold to bizarre.
1. Reforming the Court System
While the New York State Bar Association has not taken a position on a constitutional convention, in February, the NYSBA issued a report highlighting how an overhaul of the state constitution could go a long way towards streamlining the state’s notoriously complicated court system. A constitutional rewrite could simplify everyday legal processes related child custody, traffic tickets, business disputes, and more.
"The potential to simplify the state's court system, promote access to justice and reduce unnecessary costs and inefficiencies make the issue of court consolidation one that is ripe for consideration at a constitutional convention, should voters choose to hold one," the report says.
2. Home Rule
The constitution’s “home rule” statute, which dates back to 1963, says that anything not explicitly stated as purview of cities in the state constitution is placed in the authority of the state. Many issues impacting New York City fall into this grey area, including mayoral control of New York City schools and city speed limits. Cities are left disempowered and at the mercy of the state on many issues affecting local constituents. Local leaders, like the mayor of New York City, are then reliant on votes from far-off legislators related to especially parochial matters.
One proposal, laid out by Effective NY, a liberal think tank, would change the wording of the statute to grant cities power unless specifically restricted by the constitution (like the United States Constitution’s ninth amendment, which grants states any powers not explicitly granted the federal government). Other states, like New Jersey and New Mexico, already have provisions defaulting control to municipalities.
3. Unicameral Legislature
Does New York State really need two legislative houses? Some point to gridlock in Albany as a byproduct of the fact that New York has two legislative houses that often pass conflicting measures.
Nebraska is currently the only state that has a unicameral Legislature, or a Legislature with one house.
In 1962, the Supreme Court “one man, one vote” ruling required districts in both legislative chambers in state houses to be divided by population rather than geographic districts. The decision led to redistricting, which allowed Democrats to retake the state Assembly, although legally-dubious gerrymandering has allowed Republicans to retain control of the Senate, though currently by a sliver of politicking that is beyond district lines.
According to Professor Benjamin, of SUNY New Paltz, there is no rationale for bicameralism now that both houses are selected by the same formula.
“The idea there is that bicameralism suggests that there are different bases of representation. The Senate is a territorial and the House is population-based representation. Before 1960, you could have two different bases, but now it’s no longer defensible,” said Benjamin.
While some argue bicameralism is necessary to give Republicans a voice in the legislative process, Benjamin says GOP lawmakers should compete for the majority.
Some who are interested in unicameralism take a different view. Last year, Assemblymember Mark Johns, a Rochester Republican, proposed legislation to eliminate the Assembly and instead increase the numbers of Senators from 63 to 75, though the bill never made it to the floor and no companion bill has been presented in the Senate.
4. Make Lawmaking Unpaid
In the past two years, already waning public trust in the state Legislature was shattered following the convictions of both legislative leaders on public corruption charges. In order to restore that trust, one lawmaker is exploring ways to get money out of politics completely.
Legislation introduced earlier this year by Republican Assemblymember David DiPietro, whose district includes Erie and Wyoming counties, would make the Legislature unpaid -- volunteer positions with an even lighter part-time schedule than lawmakers currently are required.
“If we remove pay from the equation, only those entirely interested in serving the public would consider running for office,” DiPietro wrote in his legislative column in February. “This action would save the state millions of dollars, and bring about a new era of citizen leadership. Holding this position is an honor and one that should be respected. This isn’t a full-time position and there’s no need to make it one. This is a part-time position in which you serve the people and you should be serving them with a clear conscience.”
While no groups have specifically proposed this as a potential ConCon agenda item, a constitutional amendment would be required.
5. Special Prosecutor for Certain Police-Involved Deaths
Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order appointing Attorney General Eric Schneiderman a special prosecutor for unarmed civilian deaths involving police officers in 2014, and though he has renewed the executive order since, there has been no movement in the Legislature on a bill to make a permanent special prosecutor.
While civil rights organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union have not taken a position on the upcoming convention referendum, should the public vote to hold a convention, this would be one plank advocacy groups might push to enshrine in constitutional law.
6. Single-payer Healthcare
Federal efforts to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act have renewed the discussion around New York having its own comprehensive healthcare system.
“The New York Health program,” authored by Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Health, would provide comprehensive, universal health coverage for every New Yorker, and has passed the Assembly three years in a row. A similar bill has been sponsored by 30 Senate Democrats, a number which is likely to rise to 31 now that the seat of Senator-turned-City Council Member Bill Perkins has been filled, but without the requisite 32 votes in the 63-seat chamber, it is unlikely to pass any time soon.
Effective NY argues for a constitutional amendment that grants New Yorkers the right to health care, enabling a single-payer system.
7. Limit Messages of Necessity
Messages of Necessity, which allow the Governor and Legislature to override the otherwise-required three-day aging period for any piece of legislation, are often misused in Albany. Major legislation, including the recently-passed $153 billion state budget, are pushed through with little scrutiny from lawmakers, the media, and the public.
According to one proposal put forward by Effective NY, the constitution would be amended to require a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate in order to enable a Message of Necessity.
8. Pensions for All
More than half of private sector employees in New York State do not have access to a retirement savings plan through work. This spring, Obama-era rules allowing state- and city-based retirement savings programs were rejected by the Republican-controlled Congress. Both New York City and the State had been exploring the possibility of creating a publicly-backed private-sector retirement-savings program, but those possibilities appear scuttled, or at least on hold.
A constitutional convention could be the best way to compel the state to guarantee a retirement program for all working New Yorkers. Samuels of Effective NY, who is committed to spending significant money for a “yes” vote on the ConCon question, has been advocating for a private sector retirement savings program for years.
9. Legalizing Marijuana
Could New York become the next state to fully legalize medical and recreational marijuana? The legal cannabis movement is spreading across the United States, with eight states now allowing recreational use of the drug.
New York State recently created a medical marijuana program, but only for a short list of 10 health conditions, and it may only be consumed in specific forms. However, due to highly restrictive zoning requirements that prevent access and the limited number of patients that qualify, marijuana dispensaries are struggling, according to the Buffalo News.
There is also a criminal justice reform element to legalizing marijuana, as countless have been arrested and jailed for minor, non-violent drug offenses. While Gov. Cuomo unsuccessfully advocated for decriminalization laws in 2012, the governor and the Senate have consistently opposed legalizing recreational use.
Jerome W. Dewald, who founded the PAC Restrict & Regulate in NY State 2019 (RRNY), says he has talked to marijuana industry leaders about utilizing the constitutional convention to advocate for full adult-use cannabis legalization in 2019.
“It’s commonly accepted that our legislature is the most corrupt in the nation. New York is important [for marijuana legalization] and there is no viable mechanism to get our agenda in New York besides for a constitutional convention,” said Dewald.
10. Upstate Secession
On the more extreme end of the spectrum are the Upstate New York secessionists. Ever since Vermont successfully broke away from New York in 1791, there have been secession movements in the state, though they have mostly remained on the fringe.
The Divide NYS Caucus is a coalition of New Yorkers who are unhappy with state policy they feel is unfairly dictated by New York City lawmakers. The Assembly is controlled by Democrats, many of them from the city, while Republicans -- many of them from Long Island and upstate -- currently cling to the majority in the Senate thanks to partnerships with breakaway Democrats. In 2015, the secession movement gained steam, when upstate New Yorkers -- mostly conservatives upset over issues like the gun control Safe Act of 2013 and Cuomo’s 2014 hydrofracking ban -- organized a protest in the Southern Tier. Now the caucus is seizing on the potential for a convention as a way to drum up more support.
The group proposes dividing the state into two or three autonomous regions, separating upstate from New York City, and possibly segregating Suffolk and Nassau counties as well. Each region would have its own Governor and regional legislators, who would serve six weeks out of the year at the state Legislature, according to Divide New York Caucus Inc. Chair John Bergener.
“The state government under the proposal would have about the same powers of the Queen of England,” said Bergener. “We are required to have an administrator and a Legislature, but we are not required to give them power.”
While the consensus from constitutional experts is that secession is implausible and potentially damaging to upstate’s economy, which relies heavily on New York City tax revenue, a recent bill sponsored by Assemblymember Stephen Hawley (Western New York), and co-signed by eight of his colleagues in the Assembly GOP, calls for a referendum on whether to separate New York City from the rest of the state.
Related legislation introduced in the Assembly and Senate aims to increase power to the counties, allowing them to supersede state law, or exempt regions outside New York City from certain provisions of the SAFE Act.
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette