June 2017 Issue
June 01, 2017

We have a better, cheaper way to change state's constitution

Author: By Kara Smith
Source: NYSUT United

This is the eighth in a series about key reasons why an upcoming referendum to hold a state constitutional convention must be defeated. The series, "Open the state constitution? Heck, NO," examines topics — collective bargaining, public pensions, forever wild provisions, public education and social welfare obligations — that would be at risk if an expensive state constitutional convention was held. And make no mistake, a constitutional convention would cost taxpayers plenty.

Think holding a constitutional convention is the only way to change the New York State Constitution? Think again. There's a much simpler way to amend it and, unlike the hundreds of millions a constitutional convention is estimated to cost, it doesn't cost taxpayers a thing.

State legislators routinely pass bills to make constitutional changes as part of their regular, day-to-day job responsibilities. In fact, it's been done roughly 200 times since the last major constitutional redraft in 1894.

Here's how it works:

Measures altering the state constitution must win voter approval after they are passed by two separately elected bodies of the New York State Legislature, as constitutionally required. For example, a bill approved by a legislative body elected in 2014 must also be approved by a state Legislature elected two years later, in 2016. If both legislative bodies approve the bill, it goes before voters on that year's November ballot where it must win statewide voter approval.

"This is a better way to make changes, because it provides a system of checks and balances and gives regular people a bigger say in the amendment process," said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. "Best of all, it costs taxpayers nothing."

Some recent examples of this process include:

  • the statewide expansion of casino gambling;
  • selling specific tracts of land within the constitutionally protected Adirondack Park; and
  • a measure allowing the Senate and Assembly to go paperless, which saves more than $325,000 annually in printing and paper costs.

Since a simpler and cheaper method exists for changing the state constitution, holding a convention is like using a slide rule to crunch numbers instead of a computer. You can do it, but why would you?

It's estimated that hosting delegates and staff in Albany for an open-ended constitutional convention would cost hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars — hundreds of millions that could be spent on education, health care, infrastructure improvements or dozens of other investments a lot more important to New Yorkers statewide.

If changes to the state constitution can take place without taxpayers footing the bill for delegate salaries, travel expenses, per diems and pension costs, why have a constitutional convention at all?

It's a good question.

On Nov. 7, remember to vote NO on the constitutional convention.

What you need to know

  • The constitutionally required 20-year referendum to propose a constitutional convention will be on the Nov. 7 ballot.
  • If it passes, three delegates per state Senate district and 15 at-large delegates — 204 in total — would be elected at the next general election, in November 2018.
  • Delegates can include members of the Legislature or other elected officials, as well as political party leaders — and they can hold both positions, collecting both salaries and double pension credits.
  • The convention would meet in Albany in 2019 for an unspecified duration, and then publish its suggested amendments.
  • Any proposed changes are submitted to voters for approval separately or as a group for another public referendum.

Learn more about the perils of a constitutional convention and what you can do to educate yourself and others.