Every 20 years, New Yorkers get to vote on whether to convene a constitutional convention to modify their state’s principal governing document. In a state where the words “Albany” and “dysfunctional” regularly appear together, voters would seem likely to favor such a gathering. But repeatedly, the state’s unions have risen up to smother any such plans. So thorough was their last victory, in 1997, that with just months to go before this year’s vote, convention supporters have put little formal machinery in place to try to persuade New Yorkers to vote “yes” for an effort that might offer long-sought government reforms. Meanwhile, unions are mustering their forces again, determined to ensure that no convention ever takes place.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, New York State has given voters periodic opportunities to opt for a constitutional convention to pursue reforms. If a majority prevails, voters would convene an assembly, select delegates, and finally approve any recommended changes. The process pointedly excludes any involvement by the state legislature and the governor. When the ballot came before voters—in 1957, 1977, and 1997—they rejected it, though early sentiment favored a convention. (In 1967, a convention did take place, after the state legislature put the question to voters.) A July 1997 Quinnipiac University survey found that 53 percent of voters endorsed a convention and only 17 percent disapproved, with 30 percent undecided. When it came time to vote, however, 62 percent of voters opposed a convention.
The 1997 campaign in favor of a convention presented a collection of strange political bedfellows that should have attracted broad support. Former governor Mario Cuomo joined the man who defeated him, Governor George Pataki, in endorsing the convention proposal. Upstate businessman Tom Golisano, founder of the New York Independence Party, who challenged both Pataki and Cuomo in the 1994 gubernatorial race, also backed a convention. Such ideologically diverse supporters as the All-County Taxpayers Association, a fiscally conservative group, and progressive Democratic assemblyman Richard Brodsky pledged their support. All agreed that the only way to reform a state government overrun by insiders was to circumvent Albany’s elected officials through a voter-directed rewrite of the constitution.
In the end, though, their efforts seemed small compared with the opposition of the state’s unions. The unions’ most potent weapon is manpower: the Civil Service Employees Association, representing some 265,000 members, ran phone banks sending out thousands of calls daily to union households urging a “no” vote. The unions also spent months knocking on doors and expended nearly $1 million ($1.5 million in today’s dollars) in last-minute advertising against the ballot. As a Buffalo News columnist observed, the formidable union opposition faced “a cash-starved group of government reformers” holed up in “a low-budget motel outside Albany,” working to persuade voters to approve a convention. “No phone banks, no vans to get voters to the polls,” observed the writer. No wonder that the union effort proved decisive.
Unions opposed a convention then—and still do—because no matter how dysfunctional Albany might seem to the average citizen, the state works just fine for public-sector workers. They worry that a convention might eliminate some of their cherished prerogatives, including the way that the state constitution forbids changing the pension system for current workers—a protection nonexistent for private-sector workers and rare in the public sector. Labor also fears that a convention could weaken New York’s powerful and expensive worker-compensation system and even narrow or eliminate collective bargaining for state workers—a terrifying scenario for organized labor leaders. Even worse, voters could enact reforms such as nonpartisan redistricting of legislative seats that might make it tougher for unions and their allies to dominate elections.
Unions have been reaching out to their members and exhorting them to oppose a convention in 2017, too. Gotham’s largest public union, DC 37, is running a “no” campaign directed at its 175,000 active members and retirees. The Retired Public Employees Association of New York has urged members to oppose the convention, and has even enlisted Albany pols, including State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, to help persuade the membership. New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), representing about 600,000 teachers and government workers, has targeted its membership with mailings.
Unions also need to give ordinary voters a reason to oppose a convention. Right now, their principal strategy is to exaggerate its cost and question what it can accomplish. DC 37 has claimed that the price tag would reach $300 million; union ally John Flanagan, the Republican senate majority leader, says that it would be $350 million. Politico called some of these estimates an urban legend, and the former head of the New York State Bar Association labeled the $350 million number “ridiculous.” The real cost might be as little as 15 percent of these projections. But facts don’t matter when unions and their allies control much of the New York narrative. Union honchos also argue that a convention could be a Pandora’s box, exposing New York to crazy ideas. “Delegates to a possible convention can essentially blow up the way of life New Yorkers enjoy,” NYSUT warns. But citizens would have to approve whatever ideas a convention proposes.
So far, only two significant groups have stepped forward to promote reform. Democratic donor and good-government activist Bill Samuels has founded NYpeoplesconvention.org and pledged $500,000 to a PAC to endorse a state convention. He is urging Governor Andrew Cuomo, whom he has supported in the past, to back it. Cuomo says that he supports the idea but is worried that special interests could hijack a convention, so he’s predictably sitting on the fence. Simpson Thacher senior partner Richard Beattie, an advisor to Presidents Carter and Clinton, and SUNY professor Gerald Benjamin have formed the Committee for a Constitutional Convention. Each group’s biggest problem is the lack of a ready-made organization and funding to match the unions.
What convention backers have going for them, though, is voter awareness that Albany government is broken. A Siena College poll in February found that 63 percent of voters favored a convention. Once again, the unions are hard at work trying to change New Yorkers’ minds.
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