It’s not hard to understand the appeal of a “People’s Convention” that could bypass the muck of ordinary New York State politics and enact a slate of progressive reforms to the state constitution. After all, the adjective most commonly associated with the state’s capital is “dysfunction”—as in “Albany’s dysfunction jeopardizes important legislation” or “Albany dysfunction fails women.” And not without reason.
In the last two years alone, the top leaders of both the State Assembly and State Senate have been convicted of corruption charges (though both verdicts have been vacated), while a former top aide to the governor is headed to trial on bribery corruption charges next year. Meanwhile, thanks to Republican gerrymandering, the GOP regularly wins half or more of the State Senate seats in a state where Democratic gubernatorial and presidential candidates routinely garner close to 60 percent of the statewide vote. Further compounding this imbalance? A group of eight rogue Democrats, nurturing interpersonal grudges and a preference for larger offices and increased committee stipends, have opted to sit with the Republicans in the chamber in recent years.
Finally, New York suffers from some of the loosest campaign-finance regulations in the country; statewide major-party candidates are eligible for campaign contributions of up to $65,100, while state party committees can accept annual contributions of up to $109,600. This system goes a long way toward explaining the proliferation of charter schools, which enjoy the enthusiastic backing of donors from major hedge funds, and the relentless erosion of rent protections in New York City, as the voices of struggling tenants are drowned out by campaign contributions from real-estate interests.
So it’s no wonder that some good-government advocates and progressives eagerly embrace a constitutional convention as an alternative path for moving their agendas forward. The problem is that, for all its theoretical promise, the act of opening up the state’s Constitution at this moment and tinkering with its contents—exposing cherished articles protecting free speech, labor rights, public education, and more, to powerful conservative meddling—poses more danger for a progressive agenda than possibility.
New York State voters will get to decide whether to endorse or reject the authorization of a constitutional convention on November 7. (A referendum on this question is automatically put to the voters every 20 years.) If they approve the convention, delegates will be elected in the November 2018 general election, and the convention itself will convene on April 2, 2019. The term of such a convention would be open-ended, and any amendments to the Constitution adopted by the convention would be put before the voters in the fall of 2019.
In making their cases, both proponents and opponents of the constitutional convention tend to invoke the lessons of the 1938 Constitutional Convention, the last one to produce amendments that were actually adopted by the public. That convention enshrined the state’s obligation to aid the needy, promote public health, educate its children, and care for the physically and mentally handicapped. Indeed, the 1938 amendments undergird many of the critical guarantees that protect key state social programs today—for example, the much-litigated right of every student in the state to a “sound, basic education.” The convention also authorized the legislature to establish programs to meet these needs and to provide for health care, pensions, and unemployment insurance. It established a system of prevailing wages on public works. And Section 17 of the state’s Bill of Rights adopted that same year declares that the “labor of human beings is not a commodity…and shall never be so…construed” and guarantees workers the right to bargain collectively.