To convene or not?
Debate sheds light on Constitutional convention
JAMESTOWN — The Chautauqua County League of Women’s Voters held an informative debate earlier this week on the topic of the New York State Constitutional Convention, as voters will be given the choice this Nov. 7 on whether to enact the process of revising and/or amending the state’s Constitution.
Held at the Moon Brook Country Club in Jamestown, the speaker representing the pro-convention side was Jonathan Chausovsky, associate professor of Politics and International Affairs at the State University of New York at Fredonia.
Speaking against convening was Mary O’Leary, retired veteran educator and current member of the League of Women Voters of Buffalo/Niagara.
Although the LWV of New York State issued a statement on March 27 officially in support of the convention, the Chautauqua district of the LWV has abstained from taking a position until further information is gathered.
Every 20 years in New York, a referendum is put on the ballot which gives voters the opportunity to call for a convention on the constitution. The last time voters approved a convention was in 1965, although the voters ultimately turned around and rejected all the proposed changes made by the delegates in the subsequent 1967 vote.
Chausovsky, who teaches courses on Constitutional law, framed his argument from a Jeffersonian perspective, that it is the right and obligation of a democratic society to periodically revise its constitutions, both at the state and national levels.
This requires an informed and engaged electorate, Chausovsky stressed, capable of in-depth reflection.
“The question is whether the people of New York are actually capable of reflection,” Chausovsky said. “If you say that they’re not, perhaps you don’t want a Constitutional convention.”
Chausovsky pointed at specific concerns that together warrant a convention, and that wouldn’t necessarily be fixed through the regular amendment process.
“Our court system is really a mess,” Chausovsky declared. “One-third of the New York state convention concerns the judiciary.”
Chausovsky criticized the “three men in a room” legislative process.
“It’s the governor in the room with the leader of the Assembly and the leader of the Senate and our budget gets set with those people negotiating,” he said.
Chausovsky noted that by law, a bill must be made available three days before it is voted on.
“But the governor is able, in emergencies, to issue a message of necessity that allows him to not have to wait those three days. He now uses it regularly for leverage,” he said. “I think that is one of those structural problems that has led to Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, the last two leaders of the Assembly and Senate, being prosecuted.”
Chausovsky listed other accounts of government corruption he argued can only be addressed through making structural changes to the Constitution through a thorough convention process.
Chausovsky mentioned the underfunding of SUNY, the free tuition program and gerrymandering as serious issues that need immediate attention that a convention process would provide.
“We’re not going to get rid of our corruption entirely, but a Constitutional convention is one way to begin addressing it,” he said.
O’Leary warned that if the convention were to pass in November, “it would open the entire Constitution to complete change and revision, not just isolated specific items. If the voters do approve a convention in November, it starts a multi-year process without any declared ending. Not only does it open the entire constitution, but there is no specific end date established for that.”
O’Leary argued that corrupt officials and powerful special interest groups could use their influence to remove positive elements set firmly in place.
Among those constitutional provisions vulnerable to attack, O’Leary listed: environmental safeguards, free K-12 public education, the public pension system, voting rights and social programs for the disabled and senior citizens.
While O’Leary acknowledged Chausovsky’s critique of the corruption within the state legislature, she offered an alternative to the convention process.
“No matter what laws we put into effect, we’re all going to have to be vigilant and on top of these things in order to have any consistent improvement,” O’Leary said. “We’re going to have to vote the crooks out.”
O’Leary pointed to a November 2017 ballot measure she praised as a step in the right direction — the New York pension forfeiture for convicted officials amendment.
“Any corrupt public official who was convicted of a felony could have their pension revoked,” O’Leary explained.
Although the public would vote for the delegates that would conduct the convention process, O’Leary argued that during the last convention of 1965, “80 percent of the delegates were sitting members of the state legislature. It’s not going to be the average person running for these positions.”
Finally, O’Leary cited the exorbitant cost of the convention process.
“There’s an estimate that it could be up to $340 million, and possibly more. We can spend our money a little wiser than that.”
Although the $340 million amount has been tossed around by several sources, including Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, as a strong argument against voting for the Constitutional Convention, Bill Mahoney of “Politico New York” cited others who insist that “the actual cost would likely be somewhere … in the range of the $47 million to $108 million figures used by advocates.”
A Siena College Poll last conducted on Feb. 27 shows that voters support a Constitutional convention, 63 to 24 percent.
According to Siena College Pollster Steven Greenberg, “Although 71 percent of voters say they have read or heard nothing about the vote this November on whether New York should hold a Constitutional Convention, and only 11 percent saying they’ve read or heard at least some about it, a strong majority of voters continues to say they support having a ConCon.”
For more information on the New York State Constitutional Convention, go to www.newyorkconcon.info.