Beware of the 2017 Constitutional Convention Trojan horse
Under the New York State Constitution (Article 19, §2), every twenty years the people of New York State may be asked to vote on a question that will appear on the top of the ballot: “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?” If passed, on November 7, 2017, these simple twelve words will have a huge impact not only on our members, but also on every resident of the state.
If the voters approve a constitutional convention, the outcome could be catastrophic – for you – the union member and public educator. Many of the fundamental rights that our predecessors worked to achieve: free public education, the right to collective bargain, prohibition of the reduction of public pension benefits could be taken away by the same elected officials who relentlessly attack our profession.
This important document performs three vital roles that are important to us, our families and the school community we serve. First, the constitution establishes a basic organizational structure for state government. If changes are made that give too much power to one branch, for example the executive, then our system of self-governance will be upended.
Second, the constitution establishes the fundamental rights we enjoy as citizens of New York State and as public employees.
The right to a free public education (Article 11, §1);
Prohibiting reductions in public pension benefits (Article 5, §7);
Rights to worker compensation (Article 1, §18);
Rights to be a member of a union and bargain collectively (Article 1, §17), and
Requirements that the state provide for social welfare needs (Article 27, §1).
Third, the constitution sets the most important policy goals for the people of New York State, and thus, has an impact on every other law currently in place and on future statutes yet to come. For example, the 1967 convention was specially convened by an act of the Legislature a decade after the 20 year scheduled referendum was voted down in 1957. Following the 1967 convention, voters rejected the proposed changes which included proposed repeal to the “Blaine Amendment” which prohibits the use of state monies to be used to assist religious schools. Had this proposal not been rejected by the voters, public education would look very different in New York (NYSUT).
Since the American Revolution, 236 state constitutional conventions have been held throughout the country. The mandatory convention question was entered in the New York State constitution in 1846. New York has used this process nine times (1777, 1801, 1821, 1846, 1867, 1894, 1915, 1938 and 1967) to undertake major re-writes of the document. It was Thomas Jefferson, author of the U. S. Declaration of Independence, who argued that America’s state constitutions should be living documents, and ought to be revisited every twenty years. Others maintain that the current constitution is lengthy, confusing, and unreadable, with 225 amendments and obsolete provisions for today’s needs.
The state constitution can be amended in two ways. First, is through the passage of individual bills by two separately elected state Legislatures (Article 19, §1). These Bills propose specific amendment questions which then appear on the November ballot. Most recently this process was undertaken in 2013. Several constitutional amendments ranging from the expansion of casino gaming in New York State to the sale of specific tracks of land within the constitutionally protected Adirondack Park were voted on by the people. All but one was passed and became part of the state constitution. This process has been used 200 times since the last major constitutional revision in 1894.
The second process for amending the New York State Constitution involves holding a constitutional convention (Article 19, §2). This legal process allows for much wider modifications of the constitution than the single amendment; including a full rewrite of the document. If the voters approve, a multi-year process begins. In 2018, three delegate’s per-State Senate District and fifteen at-large delegates are elected at the next scheduled general election-204 delegates in total. These delegates can include sitting members of the State Legislature, political party leaders or other office holders. The delegates are allowed to hold both their elected office and a position as a delegate; collecting both salaries.
The convention delegates convene in Albany on the first Tuesday of April following their election and continue in session until their work is complete. They deliberate and then publish the suggested amendments. The proposed changes are then submitted to the voters, either individually or as a group, with another public referendum vote no sooner than six weeks after the adjournment of the convention. If approved at the polls, constitutional changes go into effect the first day in January, the year after the vote is held (NYSUT).
The constitutional convention of 1967 cost the taxpayers ten million dollars. In 2017, the cost to the taxpayers could reach ten times that amount. Voters rejected the last required call for a constitutional convention in 1997. Rejection was not by accident, many groups such as advocates for public education, environmentalists, public and private organized labor etc. worked together to convince voters that holding a convention was not in the best interest of the citizens of the state.
More than ever before, we need to protect and preserve our constitutional rights in this state.
Do we trust today’s elected officials to rewrite our state constitution that has served us well for so many years? Do we want politicians, misconceptions, uninformed and misled voters to threaten the fundamental rights documented in the state constitution?
It is crucial that the WCT and the WCRT need to stay involved and cognizant of the issues and the threats to our livelihood. If we don’t protect it who will? We have to remain active in the political process. When we go to the polls on November 7, 2017, we must vote NO to the question: “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?” as we are well aware of the disastrous ramifications of such a process.
Pasquale Delli Carpini