This article is the first in an occasional series about the 2017 statewide referendum on a state constitutional convention.
Imagine, if you will, a day when the state of New York has no obligation to educate its young people; a day when it is relieved of its pension obligations to retirees; a day when you have no rights to collective bargaining or even to join a union. Imagine a day when the Adirondacks are no longer "Forever Wild." Or a day when the governor of New York dictates the state's annual budget with no requirement for input or approval from the Legislature.
A signpost is up ahead, but it's not "The Twilight Zone." It's the potential disaster known as a constitutional convention.
On Election Day — Nov. 7, 2017 — voters will be asked to decide whether the state should redraft the state's charter document — its constitution. This referendum will overshadow all other decisions citizens will be asked to make that November, and the outcome could have far-reaching effects for decades to come. Opening up the constitution to haphazard and wholesale changes could alter working conditions, our retirement security and our members' ability to provide a sound and basic education.
"A constitutional convention has ramifications for all New Yorkers, even those not residing in the state," said NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale. "A convention will only continue the attacks we've seen in recent years on the children, working and retired people of this great state."
Under the State Constitution (Article 19, §2), every 20 years the people are asked a seemingly simple ballot question: "Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend same?" It's an option, but it's not the only way to update or fix the basic outline of our state government.
The constitution can be amended in two ways. The first is through the passage of individual bills to amend specific language by two separately elected state Legislatures. If passed, such bills would then appear on the following November ballot as a referendum. Most recently this process was undertaken in 2014, and it has been used 200 times since the last major constitutional revision in 1894. It works.
The second process is a constitutional convention. This option allows for much wider modifications, including a full rewrite. If in 2017 voters approve holding the convention, delegates would be elected at the next general election, in November 2018. The convention would meet in Albany the following April for an unspecified duration, until it presents its recommendations, which would then be put to the voters for another referendum no sooner than six weeks later.
Why is this important to you as a NYSUT member? What's at stake?
"Delegates to a possible convention can essentially blow up the way of life New Yorkers enjoy and the expectations and priorities each of us have," said Pecorale. "Whether it's public education, collective bargaining, our retirement security, environmental protections, spending caps in the budget, or any other issue one cares about, it's all at risk."
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, following a 1967 convention, voters rejected the proposed changes that included repeal of the "Blaine Amendment," which prohibits the use of state monies to assist religious schools. Had this repeal not been rejected by the voters, public education would look very different here in New York.
Pecorale said NYSUT members must work together to educate each other, friends, families and communities about why we cannot risk destroying the state's charter document.
"We must understand the facts," he said, "talk about serious repercussions from a possible constitutional convention, and vote to defeat the referendum on the ballot in 2017."
To do that, said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta, "we need to work with others who share this priority, and there are a lot of them."
Voters rejected the last required call for a constitutional convention in 1997, after many groups worked together to convince voters that it was not in the best interest of the people of the state. They are:
- Public and private organized labor;
Environmentalists and conservationists who do not want to see the repeal of "forever wild" provisions;
Advocates for public education at all levels;
Social welfare advocates;
Fiscal conservatives who want to keep existing state debt limits in place; and
Government watchdog groups who just don't want to "spend the millions of dollars to hold a party in Albany."
"All of these groups, and more, will need to work together in 2017 to make sure voters understand just what could happen," Pallotta said.
WHAT'S AT RISK?
Many of the rights we enjoy as New York state citizens would be fair game should a State Constitutional Convention take place. The entire document would be exposed, and these rights with it:
- Guaranteeing the right to a free public education (Article 11, §1);
- Prohibiting reductions in public pension benefits (Article 5, §7);
- Rights to workers' compensation (Article 1, §18);
- Rights to be a member of a union and bargain collectively (Article 1, §17); and
- Requiring the state to provide for social welfare needs (Article 27, §1).
Watch for these stories, and more, in upcoming issues of NYSUT United: n Six reasons why a state constitutional convention could change your world, and not for the better
- How does a constitutional convention work?
A history lesson in state constitutional conventions
Public education would have been upended had delegates won the day at the constitutional convention in 1967
Who's with us, and how you can get involved