The last time the question was on the ballot was 1997 and at that time it was rejected by 62% of the voters. This year, voters again will have the opportunity to vote for or against a convention.
As we learned in school, in many ways our state constitution is similar to the U.S. Constitution. Both the U.S. Constitution and the NYS Constitution contain a Bill of Rights that set forth fundamental rights that cannot be infringed by governments—rights like freedom of speech and freedom of worship. Further, both documents set forth the organizational structure of their respective governments. In the federal government, we have a legislative branch made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the judiciary with the highest court being the Supreme Court and the executive branch that is the President of the United States. In NYS, our constitution sets forth that the legislative branch shall consist of the Assembly and Senate, the highest court is the Court of Appeals and the executive branch is run by the Governor.
While there are similarities, there are also significant differences between our state constitution and the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution is drafted in a manner so as to grant rights to the federal government and any rights not ceded to the federal government remain with the states or the people. On the other hand, because their authority was already established, state constitutions, including New York’s, tend to limit the state’s governing authority rather than establish it. What this means is that federal law is only supreme in those areas where its power is constitutionally granted. The states in all other areas are free to establish their own laws whether codified in their constitutions or by statute.
As a result of this structure, New York and other states have placed policy goals in their constitutions. The U.S. Constitution does not. In essence, the policy goals are issues that are seen of such great importance that they are codified in the constitution as mandates on the legislature. In New York, our constitution includes policy goals dealing with, among other things, education, social welfare and housing. Because of the inclusion of policy goals, New York’s constitution has seven times as many words as the U.S. Constitution.
As already mentioned, pursuant to Article 19 of the NYS Constitution every twenty years the question must be placed on the ballot as to whether New York should hold a constitutional convention. In New York’s history, there have been nine constitutional conventions. Three in the 20th century (1915, 1938 and 1967). If New Yorkers vote to hold a constitutional convention, voters at the next general election (November 2018) would then be required to elect three delegates from each of the state’s 63 state senate districts and 15 at-large delegates. The convention would then convene on April 2, 2019. The delegates would be responsible for introducing and voting on proposed amendments to the constitution. Any amendment adopted at the Convention would then need to be approved by New York voters within six weeks of the adjournment of the Convention.
It is estimated that, if held, a convention would cost between $12 to $15 million to pay for salaries, travel and lodging expenses, facility costs and printing expenses. These estimates are based on a 22-week convention—the length of time the last constitutional convention was held in 1967. There is no reason a convention couldn’t be shorter or longer than 22 weeks.
Lastly, it should be noted that a constitutional convention is not the only way the state’s constitution can be amended. Amendments can also be made when the proposed amendment is passed by two successive legislatures and then approved by NYS voters. This year, an amendment to allow for pension forfeiture of state government employees who have been convicted of certain felonies related to their official duties will be on the ballot.
Many good government groups are advocating for a constitutional convention. The groups view it as a way to change policy that is otherwise unlikely to change with the State Legislature. While there is merit to this and positive changes could occur if one is convened, there is also the strong possibility that the proposed amendments would be steered by special interest groups or political agendas as has been the case in the past. If you have any questions or comments regarding this or any other state issue, please contact me. My office can be reached by mail at 200 North Second Street, Fulton, New York 13069, by e-mail at [email protected], or by calling (315) 598-5185. You also can friend me, Assemblyman Barclay, on Facebook.