While all eyes are looking toward this November’s presidential election, a University at Buffalo Law School forum looked ahead to a vote next year with even greater impact for New Yorkers: the question of whether to convene a convention to revise the state’s Constitution.
That ballot issue – which will come before New York voters on Nov. 7, 2017 – comes around every 20 years. The April 5 forum, the first of a series of town hall meetings designed to educate voters and inspire discussion, featured experts in state constitutional law and the politics of revising it.
The discussion was convened by Professor Michael Halberstam, acting director of the Jaeckle Center for Law, Democracy and Governance. It was held under the auspices of the Baldy Center for Law & Social Policy and was co-sponsored by the Buffalo Law Review and the Buffalo Partnership for the Public Good.
New York’s current Constitution, the fourth the state has had, is very different from the U.S. Constitution, noted Christopher Bobst, co-author of a reference guide to the document. For one thing, he said, where the federal Constitution is a relatively brief 7,600 words, the state Constitution weighs in at 53,000 words covering everything from corporations to education, conservation to canals, social welfare to housing.
Both Constitutions, he said, “outline citizens’ basic rights, establish the institutions of government, apportion power among the institutions and prescribe the procedure for amendment.” But whereas the federal Constitution has been amended only 27 times, including the 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights, the New York State Constitution has seen over 225 amendments since its original 1894 incarnation.
“We have a Constitution that is in much need of revision and change,” Bobst said. “People’s daily lives are affected by what’s in there. In all the talk about revolution and making America great again, this is an opportunity for us to participate directly in what New York is going to be.”
Henrik Dullea, a SUNY trustee and author of a book about the last state constitutional convention, in 1967, laid out what such a convention would look like if voters approve the idea.
For one thing, he said, put aside any fears that a convention would radically change the law. “History will tell you that people are pretty conservative,” Dullea said. “They’re not radical in these gatherings. They want to preserve what there’s a consensus about. And the notion that every good thing that you’re interested in is going to be thrown out is very unlikely.”
If voters call for a convention, he said, 204 delegates would be elected in 2018: three from each of the state’s 63 senatorial districts, plus 15 elected by statewide vote. The convention would convene in April 2019 in Albany, most likely in the Assembly chamber. The resulting revised Constitution would then go before the voters for an up or down vote.
The process wouldn’t be cheap. The 1967 convention carried a price tag of $15 million – the equivalent of $108 million today.
But, said the next speaker, Peter Galie, a Canisius College professor emeritus and Bobst’s co-author, the issues that might prompt such a convention are compelling.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll, he said, found that 86 percent of New Yorkers say corruption is a serious problem in Albany. “Effective government is more likely when high trust exists, and high trust in turn generates effective government,” he said. “How do we break that vicious cycle and create a virtuous cycle?”
Particularly, he said, New Yorkers are suspicious of the longstanding “three men in a room” budget-making process and its lack of transparency. “It serves the parties and the Legislature, but it has not served the state,” Galie said. “We have a Legislature that is incapable or unwilling to govern, that has willingly abdicated power and policy making. This compromise Legislature has enabled an aggressive governor to be the dominant force in the making of public policy in the state.”
But the final speaker – SUNY New Paltz Professor Gerald Benjamin, who directs the Benjamin Center for Public Policy Initiatives – finds reason for hope in the upcoming ballot measure. “We’re seeing a convergence of opportunity and circumstance that we have very rarely seen in the 20-year cycle,” he said. “We have an opportunity arising at a time when we might at least consider taking it. Our problems are compelling and upsetting, but they are not unique.”
He compared the revision process to a car’s dashboard warning light. “What do you do when warning light goes on?” he asked. “One thing you can do is nothing, but nothing is very dangerous. At some point the system implodes. Or can get a tune-up, you can authorize major service, you can replace the engine, or you can get a new car. ... The state constitutional change process is built into the system, but you only notice it when it goes on. And if you’re not paying attention, you might notice it too late. This is small-d democracy in its essence.”