In politics and campaigns, it’s never too late to begin preparing for the next election. Voters today hardly have time to complete marking their ballots before being bombarded by rumors and polls, reading about “exploratory committees” and enduring new waves of candidate posturing in the press. This year is no exception.
In New York, we face a number of extremely important elections, and campaigns are now in full swing. Candidates for New York City Council as well as other borough and city offices will be on the ballot in the Sept. 12 primary and Nov. 7 general election. Voters will determine the direction and effectiveness of our resistance to policies of xenophobia, exploitation and sexism, as well as determine the direction and timbre of 2018’s state and federal elections.
However, among the most important questions before voters this year will be whether or not the state should convene a state constitutional convention in 2019. Though this could seem an exciting idea that would, under normal circumstances, seem an enticing opportunity, the uncertainty of our current political climate makes this ballot measure among the greatest legislative threats to Local 802, labor unions and hard-working New Yorkers in recent memory. Regardless of party affiliation, New Yorkers must say no.
The most recent constitutional convention, held in 1967, was largely seen as a failure, remembered for not passing any approved amendments while wasting taxpayers’ dollars on salaries for Albany insiders. However, the New York of 1967 is a far cry from the New York of 2017. This is an era of populism, of Citizens United, of outside special interests and of diversionary media tactics. We see the effects of the Koch Brothers, Mercer family, Steve Bannon and others with outsized political influence on day-to-day legislation and politics in this country.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
In today’s uncertain and populist political climate, a constitutional convention could be nothing short of disastrous for labor unions, progressives and hard-working New Yorkers across the state. From the right to a free public education and environmental protections and the Adirondacks, to the right to join a union and collectively bargain for fair pay and treatment, the right to workers’ compensation and the prohibition on reducing public pensions, many of the protections and guarantees New Yorkers take for granted are enshrined in our state constitution. These protections and many more will be vulnerable.
RISK VS. REWARD
If a state constitutional convention were passed, delegates to the convention would likely be selected from a pool of Albany insiders. These delegates would have close relationships with high-powered lobbyists and well-financed outside interests. Should we expect the Koch brothers to look for ways to de-regulate environmental protections and protect pro-business policies in New York? Can we imagine a scenario where the Mercer family, who helped nominate Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, pushes to remove public school protection from the constitution, in favor of charter schools? Should we be prepared for Steve Bannon to push for New York to become a right-to-work state, where workers’ rights to collectively bargain are weakened…or even banned? Absolutely!
Though a constitutional convention could theoretically provide regular voters with an opportunity to actually improve the state constitution, in reality the convention process is opaque, unwieldy, unpredictable and susceptible to corruption. Those who argue for the convention often say that it is a chance to fix Albany, create ethics reform and pass good policies by avoiding the legislative quagmire. This argument is at best overly optimistic and at worst dangerously naïve. Consider this: in a constitutional convention, three delegates for each Senate district would be elected. But those with campaign experience – longtime Albany insiders, judges and political operatives – would have a distinct advantage over inexperienced “regular” New Yorkers.
Additionally, the convention rules determining every aspect of the convention – from daily operations to the manner in which convention proposals will be presented to the voting public – would not be written until after the convention process begins. The constitutional convention is the government equivalent of Pandora’s box. Why would we dare open it?
THE ALTERNATIVE: HOLD REPRESENTATIVES ACCOUNTABLE
Instead of holding a convention with an estimated cost of an approximately $320 million, New Yorkers should be holding our state legislators accountable. They should be expected to do their job – write, introduce and pass legislation that addresses the needs and concerns of New Yorkers, including amending the constitution when necessary. Those who fail should be replaced. That is what elections are for. A constitutional convention sounds exciting and even a little sexy. It sounds like an easy way to advocate for specific issues and priorities. However, it is also a way to give Albany insiders, lobbyists and outside interest groups an opportunity to directly attack New York State, which, for all of its faults, is still a bulwark of inclusive and progressive policies and a beacon for the rest of the country. Don’t be fooled by campaign rhetoric and claims that a constitutional convention is a convention for the people, or a chance to raise your voice in Albany. In reality, the convention is an opportunity for people to negate the protections we need most, and silence the voices our society must rely upon – yours.
Understanding the New York State Constitutional Convention in 30 seconds…
Q: What is the New York State Constitutional Convention?
A: The New York State Constitutional Convention is one method to change the New York State Constitution. The state constitution mandates that voters be presented with this option every 20 years. On Nov. 7, 2017, voters in New York will see this question on their general election ballot: “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?” Local 802, the New York State AFL-CIO, and many other progressive organizations recommend that you vote NO.
Q: Why should we vote no?
A: Based on past experience, the actual representatives who would modify the state constitution would not be “regular New Yorkers” but instead Albany insiders, who are sure to be supported by big money. Once the process is started, there will be no way to limit it in time, scope, process or cost. Public education and union rights could be threatened, to name just two concerns. The risks are too great.