Vote No on the State Constitutional Convention
November 2, 2017
Every 20 years, New Yorkers are asked to decide whether this state should hold a constitutional convention to consider constitutional amendments. That question will be on the ballot once again on Election Day. Holding a constitutional convention would threaten many of the essential protections already included in the New York State Constitution, and I encourage people to vote No.
Generally, our constitution allows for amendments that are thoroughly discussed and reviewed by the state Legislature and voters, one amendment at a time. A constitutional convention would instead allow a select group of delegates to open up the entire Constitution. Quick fixes usually result in bad policy. And though the deliberative process can be frustrating, we have many essential protections that could go out the window in a constitutional convention dealing with the entire scope of our government.
Progressive voices frustrated by the failure of the legislative process to enact a number of reforms, like campaign finance reform, know that the stumbling block has been the Republican-dominated state Senate. Constitutional convention delegates are elected on state Senate lines, giving a clear edge to Republican or conservatives delegates. Added to that is the reality that Citizens United allows groups like the Koch brothers to pour funds into delegate elections. These conservative groups are anxious to undermine key protections, and would jump at the opportunity to do so in New York.
Naturally, progressives are energized by the prospect of advancing our views in many areas, a desire I would share if there weren’t as many organized groups with huge resources arrayed on the other side seeking not only to eliminate these protections but also prohibit them from ever going back into law.
What do we have to lose?
The Constitution guarantees a free and sound public education, which was the basis of the successful Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. Educational funding will be a prime target for education “reformers,” who consistently work to divert funds from traditional public schools to charter schools. Additionally, the Blaine Amendment enforces a separation of church and state in religious school funding. While there are exceptions for transportation costs, textbook aid and other mandatory-cost supports, private and parochial schools regularly advocate for increased funding that would violate the Blaine Amendment, and would try to eliminate this provision.
The LaGuardia Clause, added to our constitution in the 1930s, requires the state to provide “aid, care and support to the needy.” This has been a cornerstone of our social safety net, which obligates the state to provide shelter to the homeless, affordable housing to the poor, and healthcare to the needy. There are endless battles in the Legislature to protect the support we offer, and Social Darwinists are lined up to do away with this vital protection.
While the state Assembly has repeatedly passed the Reproductive Health Act, which I sponsor and which would uphold our abortion laws, the measure is never taken up in the Republican state Senate. A convention offers these anti-abortion forces a chance to undermine our efforts permanently by restricting access to reproductive healthcare and sex education. Some hope we could enshrine Roe v. Wade protections in our constitution, but I am unwilling to roll the dice and take the substantial risk of hurting our state’s women.
Our constitution provides for forever-wild lands. These forest preserves are part of the city’s watershed and limiting their development protects our water supply and provides for preservation of key habitat for many species. The constitution could also be changed to increase localities’ abilities to institute “home rule,” giving cities and counties the right to allow for fracking or other dangerous and unsound practices.
Courts have interpreted our constitution to guarantee a right to counsel beginning upon request, even for police lineups. A suspect can’t be forced to give up this right. Unlike federal law, our state constitution guarantees a right to a 12-person jury and a unanimous verdict. We can’t be unreasonably stopped and searched without an objective basis, and our homes are inviolate without a warrant. Evidence gathered in violation of our rights can be excluded, and this “exclusionary rule” will be a target for prosecutors and law enforcement backed by conservative forces.
Our constitution provides for a system of civil service based on merit and fitness for most state public employment, and protections for workers to organize and bargain collectively. We protect prevailing wages for workers contracted to work for the state, and we provide workers’ compensation for those injured on the job. Workers’ compensation and other protections are under constant attack by the business community, with many states undermining such protections through “right to work” laws, and those forces would work to achieve the same outcome here.
But the most important reason to Vote No is that next year our efforts must be focused on electing progressives to the U.S. House and Senate. Focusing on electing convention delegates will divert our energy and resources. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize. Vote No.
Originally published in The Villager