Experts talk history, pros and cons of a Constitutional Convention

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)- Every 20 years, New Yorkers get a chance to change the law of the land by voting for a Constitutional Convention.

The provision to have a vote like this was created in 1846 as an alternative path to reform, in the event that New York voters didn’t feel their government was working for them.

Generally speaking, Constitutional Conventions take place when constituents aren’t happy with the status quo.

The last time New York held a Constitutional Convention was in 1967; we passed on a convention 30 years later and Tuesday, voters will decide once again.

“What this all really comes down to, is who do you think is going to go to the Convention,” explains Fred Floss, Chair of the Department of Economics and Finance at Buffalo State.

Each Senate District elects three people from within their district to go to the Convention as delegates, and then there’s an additional 15 at-large delegate positions.

If voters agree to have a Constitutional Convention, elections for delegates would take place in 2018 and the Convention would be held in 2019.

Floss says considering who’s likely to become delegates should shape voters opinion of whether or not a Convention would serve their interests.

Often times the delegates are assembly-members, senators, or other political leaders in a district. In theory, any resident could become a delegate for the Convention, but due to fundraising needs and the realities it takes to run a successful campaign, Floss suggests that’s not common.

“You get three bites of the apple. We decide whether we want to have a Convention, we decide who the delegates are and we decide whether their work is worthy of putting into our constitution,” says Peter Galie.

Galie, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Canisius College and author of several books on the subject, is in favor of a Convention. He believes it’s a way to root out corruption in Albany.

He’s not concerned with the prospect of delegate seats going only to the powerful. He says the fear that “somehow this Constitutional Convention is going to be un-anchored from our tradition and our values,” is unfounded.

“The people we elect will be delegates, they’ll be New Yorkers, they’re us,” he says.

In 1967, the changes made at the Convention were not adopted, because voters didn’t agree to them in the end. Once a Convention is complete, voters decide whether of not they approve of the changes.

Galie says the 1967 flop was in part because voters were handed an all or nothing package.

“I don’t believe that any Convention delegate who cares about having their right to accept it, will ever say ‘let’s give it to them all in a package and see if they take it,’ that’s suicide.”

If we have another Convention, Galie thinks voters would decide on more controversial changes separately.

Some of the most anticipated issues driving the push for or against a Convention this year are term limits, gun rights, public education and pensions.

Many local unions are against a Convention, on the grounds that pension protections could be rolled back.

Floss explains that while there are federal protections in place for pensions, the state does have power to change certain things.

“In New York State, particularly for public employees, pensions are not in the contract they’re actually a legislative action,” he says.

“It hasn’t allowed New York State to under-fund their pensions, so that we haven’t seen the crises we’ve seen for example in California, or in Wisconsin or in Illinois.”

New York is a model for the pension program, Floss says. But he says concern for possible cuts to pensions are not unfounded, if a Convention were to take place.

In terms of cost, Floss anticipates a Convention in Albany in 2019 could cost around $150 Million.

Galie says it’s more likely to cost taxpayers between $50-$75 Million, when looking at the 1967 bill in relative terms (the Convention cost around $7 Million in 1967).

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