New York state government is broken and in need of reform.
We need independent redistricting, campaign finance reform and the end of many unfunded mandates on schools and localities. The state legislature also needs a massive overhaul, with limits on outside income, full disclosure of income, term limits on legislative leaders and the end of stipends for committee chairs.
But a Constitutional Convention is not the best way to achieve a better, more ethical government. One need only look at what happened at the state’s last Constitutional Convention in 1967 to understand why.
“How did it happen that what should have been an impressive display of constituent power, came to be regarded by public and press alike as a politically manipulated event?” asked the League of Women Voters in its 1973 book chronicling the convention, Seeds of Failure. “The 1967 convention was a disturbing event for New York.”
For starters, the con-con question on the 1965 ballot was narrowly approved. Statewide, 1,681,438 voted for a convention, 1,468,431 opposed it and 2,948,332 didn’t vote on the question at all. There was a lack of voter buy-in from the start. The LWV blames a lack of media attention in the midst of many important state and local races.
Once voters approve a Constitutional Convention, three delegates from each state senate district are elected the following year, plus 15 at-large delegates.
If you think this is an opportunity for your average concerned citizens to go to Albany and reform government, think again. The nominating process is controlled by each party, which designates a slate of candidates.
“For the most part, these nominations were given to party stalwarts,” the LWV wrote about what happened in 1967, adding that voters had no idea where delegates stood on issues due to lack of media coverage and other outreach.
In 1967, three-fourths of the 186 delegates were either elected officials or served in some governmental capacity. Eight were county chairmen. Thirteen were state legislators. Nineteen were sitting judges. The LWV said that to many observers, the convention was “dominated by the political and governmental establishment.”
Democrats won a majority of the seats at the 1967 convention, which convened that April and lasted until September. The Speaker of the Assembly was elected the chairman of the convention. The majority leader was elected to a similar position. The outcome so certain, a celebration party had already been scheduled before the vote.
Prominent Republicans, knowing their voice would be limited, didn’t play an active role. They included Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Senator Jacob Javits.
In 1967, the cost to hold the convention was $10 million, or $75 million in today’s dollars. The convention was allowed a payroll, which turned into a patronage mill. Relatives of delegates were employed. Delegates got paid the same salary as assembly members, which led to charges of double dipping and pension padding.
The 1967 convention was overrun by lobbyists. The delegation even had built-in special interests. For example, the delegation’s judicial block halted attempts to consolidate courts. (They also didn’t reform discipline procedures, either, as we see playing out in the Leticia Astacio case.)
Any propositions to be voted on by the entire delegation had to come from committees. The Speaker exerted enormous control. The LWV wrote, “His aides had a way of turning up at crucial meetings with a draft in hand of the proposition over which the committee was laboring.”
Committee work was painfully slow the summer of 1967. As the September deadline approached to vote on propositions, the press and even delegates got little information upon what would be voted. Propositions were printed the same day as scheduled votes. (Sound familiar?)
The LWV wrote, “One upstate Republican complained, ‘I’m really sorry I got involved in this thing. I thought this would be a great experience, but I can’t even find out what’s going on.’”
In the end, a package of reforms fell short. LWV wrote, “The leaders exercised firm control and the status quo was not to be disturbed by reform proposals offered by civic groups, the academic community or concerned citizens.”
Over strong objections, the Speaker got the propositions packaged into a single ballot question. Voters had to take or leave the convention’s entire set of reforms. The LWV was among numerous groups urging a “no” vote.
Not a single county voted yes on the measures.
There’s no reason to believe a statewide convention would be any different today. Well-funded political insiders would rule the process to elect delegates. Special interests and big money would overrun any convention. (The same special interests lining up to oppose a convention would be the same ones who will exert control over such an event.)
All hope for reform is not lost. We can enact changes through the legislature, which can pass measures that will then go before voters. That’s why the best way to bring reform to New York State is to elect reformers, people with the fortitude and courage to act.
Otherwise, the fox will continue to guard the hen house.