State residents have the opportunity on Tuesday to change the state's governing document.
An opportunity for the people of New York to make changes to the state Constitution only comes around once every 20 years, and 2017 is one of them.
When voters go to the polls Tuesday, their choices will include three propositions, one of which asks whether or not the state should conduct a constitutional convention to amend its blueprint for governing. Voters are also reminded to check the backs of their ballots because that's where they'll find the propositional proposals.
Opinions on the constitutional convention issue are all over the board.
Proponents say it is for the people to adopt various ethics and voting reforms and campaign finance rules because they claim the Legislature won't.
Opponents say it will be too costly, there is already a free mechanism in place to change the constitution and that it will give wealthy outsiders a chance to exert undue influence and take away various guaranteed rights.
To Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, who is in favor of conducting a constitutional convention, it comes down to a single question.
“Is New York state government working?” he asked. “If it is, vote no. If it isn't, vote yes. It's that simple.”
Major concerns to him are having term limits for legislators and legislative leaders; eliminating back-door borrowing or the accumulation of debt without voter approval; ethics reform; and a truly independent redistricting process that removes control of drawing district lines from the two majorities in the state Legislature to eliminate gerrymandering, a practice political parties have used for decades to map out areas in ways advantageous to one or the other.
“Those are my top items on the list that I would like to see happen because those things have not happened in Albany,” said Kolb, noting Albany is not going to fix itself and if voters decide to have a constitutional convention, it will be up to them to elect the delegates and vote on any proposed amendments.
To address a concern some people have that the convention would be stacked with political delegates — the same people making decisions now — Kolb, in January, introduced legislation (Assembly Bill 2813) that would deem party committee officers to have resigned from their political party posts if elected as delegates to a state constitutional convention.
It was referred to the Election Law Committee later that month but there has been no action on the proposal since.
“It hasn't come to a vote,” Kolb said. “The reason it hasn't proceeded is because the status quo doesn't want change. The power structure does not want to change and what I've been trying to do is change it.”
He believes the chances for a constitutional convention — also known as “con con” — are diminishing daily, as large amounts of money from special interest groups are being spent on ads using scare tactics, one of the most popular telling public employees they will lose their pensions, something Kolb said is just not true.
In fact, in a September op-ed piece in the Daily Messenger, Kolb quotes Evan Davis, former counsel to former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who noted protections for public employees in the state Constitution cannot be eliminated without violating the contract clause of the federal Constitution, which bars states from rescinding contract rights.
“Fear is winning over hope for change,” Kolb said. “They prey on people's fears. It's negative advertising that works. It's much easier to just say no instead of doing research. This is an opportunity for voters to have a change because the status quo in Albany won't do these things.”
The area's other state representative, state Sen. Pam Helming, also a Republican from Canandaigua, is opposed to having a constitutional convention.
She points to the 1967 constitutional convention that cost taxpayers millions of dollars only to have voters reject every single one of the proposals.
Amendments that year were packaged in a single ballot question. Although 1967 was not in the 20-year cycle, growing demands for a convention forced the Legislature to put the question to voters that year.
Helming said in 1997, voters opted not to have a constitutional convention. She recognizes things have changed since then, but said the state already has a less costly and more effective way to make amendments to the state Constitution.
“And that's the resolution process,” she said. “That starts with the Legislature and then goes to a public vote in the general election.”
As an example, she pointed to another proposition on the ballot Tuesday that, if approved by voters, would amend the state Constitution to allow courts to reduce or revoke the pensions of public officers convicted of certain felonies for crimes committed in connection with the performance of their duties.
“If passed by the public, that will result in a constitutional amendment,” Helming said. “So, both the Legislature has input and the public has input. The public is the deciding factor.”
She is also concerned about the cost, which she said state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has estimated would be at least $50 million.
“I think there are better ways to spend that money — or better yet — don't spend it,” Helming said. “Save the taxpayers money.”
Kolb, citing the state's $155 billion budget, believes it's a good investment in trying to change state government for the better.
Helming said there is also a concern that most of the power in the state lies in New York City and a constitutional convention would allow downstaters to move the Constitution in a direction that does not favor upstate New York, especially the Finger Lakes region.
Helming agrees there is a lot of information on the issue from a lot of different parties and perspectives and recommends voters educate themselves before going to the polls to vote on the issue.
To others, the Legislature is the problem and allowing lawmakers to decide if and how the constitution may be changed — through approved or blocked legislation — is like having the fox guarding the hen house.
“The biggest issue right now is that we're never going to have term limits that are enacted in Albany and we're not going to be able to vote our way out of the situation because we have an over 95 percent incumbent election rate,” said Priscilla Grim, communications and marketing manager for Citizens Union, a good-government coalition founded in 1910.
“We have no meaningful campaign finance reform, nor is any going to be enacted,” Grim said. “Most importantly, we need to extend access to voting to everybody that is eligible in New York state. Right now, we don't have that.”
Changes are not being made because the same people have been in office for decades. Grim said the way to start effecting change is for the people to elect delegates to a constitutional convention.
“That is the idea of democracy,” she said. “This is our escape from the most corrupt state Legislature in the United States and all of them want you to vote no. That should be telling right there because they realize this would be a convention of people and not party politics and we could move forward with real decisions that affect everyday lives.”
She asked why entrenched politicians would put in term limits for themselves or vote on ethics reform that could affect them.
“They are fine with the way everything is working,” Grim said. “We are not. The biggest thing is we all agree that Albany is completely corrupt and it's not going to get any better. In fact, it's getting worse.”
She said it is also important to have an informed electorate and noted the state has not had a constitutional convention since Martin Luther King Jr. was alive, gas was 30 cents a gallon, women had little, if any, political clout, and well before the dawn of the internet — which alone brought about a lot of changes.
“We're in a totally different world and we need to have the possibility to instead of being on the plate of corruption, to have a seat at the table,” Grim said. “We could lead a new vision in a world in which so many people turn on the news and are disheartened by what they see. We can change that course and we can change it together.
“We have been voting no since 1977. If it is as unsafe to vote yes to this question under President Jimmy Carter as it is to vote yes under President (Donald) Trump, then we don't live in a democracy. We live in a dictatorship.”
Also opposed to having a constitution convention is the New York State United Teachers, a union representing more than 600,000 of the state’s teachers. NYSUT claims no one knows who the delegates will be; how long the convention would last and therefore how much it would cost; or what issues would be raised or put to a vote.
“It's a gigantic roll of the dice,” said Carl Korn, a NYSUT spokesman. “Many of the rights that we take for granted could be at risk.”
To that end, he cited the rights to free education, environmental protections, collective bargaining and — yes — pensions.
“There already exists a mechanism to amend the Constitution and it's been used more than 200 times in the state's history,” Korn said, pointing to the most recent amendment, voted on by two successive legislatures and approved by voters in 2013, to legalize gambling.
He also pointed to Proposition Two as a way to amend the Constitution without the expense of a convention, as well as a third proposition on the ballot to establish a land bank for the Adirondack State Park.
“Those are two examples of how the mechanism already exists to change the Constitution without calling a convention that would be dominated by special interests and big money donors,” Korn said. “If you look at what's happened in New York, just in the past few years, New York City billionaires have been writing gigantic checks to influence Albany.”
NYSUT is among more than 150 members of a coalition of New Yorkers Against Corruption that Korn said falls under the umbrella of “politics makes for strange bedfellows,” noting it consists of many organizations often at odds with one another, such as pro-choice and right-to-life groups.
“I think the reason why is this coalition believes a constitutional convention would be a taxpayer-funded boondoggle,” he said. “It would be a very expensive party in which ordinary New Yorkers would not get an invitation.”
Also in the coalition is the New York Farm Bureau, whose members believe a majority of convention delegates would come from New York City.
“They often have opinions that are different from those in a rural community may have and we're concerned what that impact would have on agriculture,” said Steve Ammerman, the bureau's public affairs manager.
The bureau's main concerns are about private property rights, labor laws, agriculture land use and conservation management, he said.
“A constitutional convention could open a Pandora's box that would minimize these things and the importance of sound, science-based farm practices in this state,” Ammerman said. “There are too many unanswered questions. It's going to be costly to hold a convention and our farmers have said they're not in favor of this.
“The coalition is broad and diverse. It's pretty amazing that people on all sides of the political spectrum have come out against the constitutional convention. We don't have to agree on every issue, as some of these other groups, to stand together to oppose a constitutional convention that we all agree would be bad for New York.”
In the 20 years since the question was last put to — and rejected by — voters, the state Legislature has not passed any meaningful ethics or voting reforms, according to Jennifer Wilson, program and policy director for the League of Women Voters, one of 14 Citizens Union supporters for a yes vote.
Instead, she said, in the past 10 years, more than 33 state officials have left office or been indicted because of crimes they committed while serving in office, something that prompted the drafting of Proposition Two.
“It took the indictment of the leaders of the Assembly and Senate to finally put it forward,” Wilson said. “It took this huge public scandal for them to finally do it.”
She is referring to the 2015 convictions of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, on federal corruption charges. Convictions against both have since been overturned on appeal and each is expected to be re-tried.
Wilson said one of the biggest changes that could be made would be to have a truly independent state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, free from interference by the Legislature or governor.
Another major concern is reproductive choice. Nothing in the state Constitution protects a woman's right to reproductive choice and the fear is New York women will not be protected by federal law if Roe v. Wade, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling the right to privacy extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion, is overturned, she said.
"It's not going to happen through the Legislature with a Republican-controlled Senate," Wilson said. "They're not going to act."
Polls open Tuesday at 6 a.m. and close at 9 p.m. Visit http://www.co.ontario.ny.us/107/Board-of-Elections to find area polling places.