ITHACA, N.Y. – Tompkins County officials met Thursday morning around a table in the Tompkins County Legislative Chambers, encouraging voters to check ‘yes’ this Tuesday on the ballot proposition which would authorize a Constitutional Convention.
If it goes unapproved on Tuesday, the chance to authorize the Constitutional Convention will not return for another 20 years, giving people the chance to amend different parts of the state constitution.
“This is the first time we’ve had since 1997 to address the many dysfunctions we see coming from Albany,” said Michael Lane, Chair of the Tompkins County Legislature. “Without a convention, we will never have the kind of ethics reform that we need to get the special interest money out of government and put a stop to corruption.”
Broken down, the convention is quite simple. The State of New York’s constitution mandates that every 20 years, voters are able to decide whether or not to hold a Constitutional Convention – nearly an entire generation apart. It has been 50 years since New York’s last Constitutional Convention was passed by a vote, making this the longest stretch in New York history without one.
Henrik Dullea, Cornell Vice President Emeritus and leading authority on the NYS constitutional process, said he was present for the last Constitutional Convention, which was passed in 1967.
“The Constitutional Convention that passed way back in 1846 included a provision to look periodically and make sure the state is functioning as it should and making changes as necessary to the constitution,” Dullea said. “While most amendments came through the legislature, that wasn’t enough – it was important to have an opportunity to bypass legislature if they weren’t doing their job properly, and we’ve had a lot of success with that.”
Dullea described the current state legislature in Albany as a corrupt entity, dominated by a ‘pay-to-play’ culture.
“The state legislature has had fifty years since the last convention to submit necessary constitutional amendments to reform their operations and has failed to do so,” he said. “Only a Constitutional Convention can put an end to the gerrymandering that keeps incumbents in office forever.”
If the convention were to be approved this year, three delegates would have to be elected from each of New York State’s 63 senatorial districts, resulting in a total of 204 delegates who would be elected in 2018, and the convention would be held in 2019. Proposals to amend the Constitution would be decided on by voters.
Martha Robertson, a member of Tompkins County Legislature, said a convention was necessary for multiple reasons, one reason including the necessary amendment of women’s rights in the constitution.
“In the current constitution, (women’s rights) are virtually non-existent,” Robertson said. “In 1970 NYS courageously decriminalized abortion – it did not give women rights to an abortion, but women would no longer go to jail for it… we haven’t updated the law since then. We’ve had this so called women’s agenda that Cuomo has pushed for, but we can’t get that passed in NYS right now with the current legislature. We need to enshrine women’s rights to their own reproductive choices – they have refused to honor women in that way, and it couldn’t be more important now, especially in this climate.”
Tompkins County Legislator Rich John joined Robertson in supporting an affirmative vote for the convention, adding that court reform was also a necessary point to amend within the current constitution.
“We have such a complicated court system as it is now, it’s one of the most complicated things in the constitution,” he said. “The defining issue of our NYS legislature is the crisis in ethics – it is founded on a system of corruption… it’s an embarrassment.”
Dullea estimated the cost of the convention would fall somewhere between $50-$70 million dollars. He said the NYS legislative budget for this year was approximately $220 million.
“That’s about $3 per person in the state of New York,” he said. “It’s not a recurring expense – I think we could afford once in a generation to pay the one-time cost of the convention… we can’t afford not to.”
The proposition, which is found on the back of the ballot, is the first item on the list. If the vote does not pass on Tuesday, the proposition will return to the ballot in 2037.