- Thomson Reuters
- Tuesday is Election Day. In New York, ballots will include a question about whether to hold a constitutional convention. You should vote “yes.” New York ballots will include two other questions.
On Tuesday, cities and counties all over New York state will hold elections for municipal office, including the race for New York City mayor.
There will also be three statewide referendum questions on the ballot, including Question 1, which would authorize a convention to revise New York’s state constitution.
A question about whether to hold a constitutional convention is automatically placed on ballots in New York every 20 years. If the question passes, residents of each state Senate district will choose three delegates to a constitutional convention, and 15 more will be elected statewide.
That convention would be tasked with proposing a menu of amendments to the state constitution – or even an entirely new one – which would be put before voters for approval or rejection in 2019.
I plan to vote “yes” on this question, and so should you.
A constitutional convention would force needed conversations
I have some issues with New York’s current constitution that I’d like to see addressed. But my main reason for wanting this convention is broader.
New Yorkers – residents and officials – talk a lot about our state government being structurally broken, but nobody ever does anything about it. Holding a constitutional convention would for two years elevate big questions about how our state government is structured to the top of the political conversation and force officials to think big about how it could change for the better.
A constitutional convention would provide a good forum to discuss why the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority are so dysfunctional, how funding sources and taxing powers are misaligned between the state and its municipalities, and, in particular, how New York City could be given both more power and more accountability over its finances.
Even if the recommendations of a convention were rejected, ideas that gained momentum through it could be adopted through other channels.
If the convention went off the rails, we could vote down its proposals
The main argument that opponents of a constitutional convention make is that the convention could propose bad changes to the constitution. That’s true – it might.
But if on Tuesday we approve a constitutional convention, convention delegates would not be given carte blanche to rewrite the state constitution without our further approval.
The proposals from a convention would come back before voters in 2019. If we didn’t like what the convention proposed, we could vote it down then. This has precedent: New York voters last approved a constitutional convention in 1965. Dissatisfied with its product, they soundly voted down the proposed changes in 1967.
Given the widespread dissatisfaction with the way our state government works today, I think we should give a convention a shot to come up with something good, rather than assume that whatever it would propose would be worse than the status quo.
Vote ‘no’ on Question 2 …
The other two questions on Tuesday’s ballot are less monumental.
Question 2 would allow judges to revoke the pensions of certain public employees convicted of crimes related to their work.
I understand the political impulse behind this proposal – it’s driven by outrage that the former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the former Senate President Dean Skelos kept their pensions after corruption convictions – but I intend to vote “no,” for boring and formalistic reasons related to due process.
An accrued pension is property. If you wouldn’t seize the contents of a former employee’s 401(k) account, you shouldn’t revoke their pension.
If a public employee’s crimes harmed the people of the state, then they should be sued for restitution. That restitution could be satisfied by the revocation (partial or total) of a pension. But any revocation should be based on the restitution needed to redress harm visited on state residents by the employee’s crime – not, as Question 2 provides, on the overall severity of the crime or the employee’s financial circumstances.
I understand the desire to punish corrupt public officials, of which New York produces more than its share. But this is the wrong mechanism.
… but vote ‘yes’ on Question 3
Question 3 would make some changes to the way land is managed in the Catskill and Adirondack forest reserves in upstate New York. I’m going to vote in favor of this question.
The Catskill and Adirondack reserves aren’t uninhabited, as a national park is, but are full of small towns, which occasionally have infrastructure needs (such as bridge improvements or water projects) that can be best met by using small amounts of wild land.
But the state constitution provides that undeveloped land within the reserves must be “forever wild.” Therefore, building on any piece of either, no matter how small, requires amending the state constitution and, therefore, holding a vote of the public.
State voters have been asked to approve matters as small as releasing one acre of land from the Adirondack reserve so the town of Long Lake could have a new water well. (This passed, in 2007.)
Question 3 would establish a 250-acre land bank and allow for exchanges of small amounts of land without the approval of voters statewide; parcels needed for infrastructure could be removed from the park reserve and replaced with wild land from the bank. The proposal would also allow the construction of new bike paths and utility lines along the routes of existing roads within the reserves.
This proposal appears to be strongly supported by people who live in and around the parks as a responsible way to manage the state’s wild lands while letting their towns replace old bridges and lay fiber-optic cables. It is also supported by environmental and conservation groups like the League of Conservation Voters. And it has no organized opposition I can identify.
If all these stakeholders want these new rules, I think we should let them have them.