November 2017 is New York’s real opportunity for change
The U.S. Constitution is the closest thing to a sacred text allowed in a secular republic. It is treated with reverence, stored in a helium-filled, temperature-controlled case that is lowered every night into a waterproof, fireproof and bombproof vault.
Like holy writ, the Constitution also enjoys a near immutability. Deemed “functionally unamendable” by some scholars, it has been altered only 17 times since the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791. Recent calls for the abolition of the Electoral College are certain to fall by the wayside, joining the over 11,000 ultimately unsuccessful amendments introduced in Congress during that time.
New York state also has a constitution; in fact, the state has had four of them. Though far less known and appreciated than the U.S. Constitution, the New York State Constitution has much more to say about our daily lives than its federal counterpart in such areas as voting, education, state and local finances, care for the needy and the mentally ill, and the environment. Moreover, the state’s constitution gives New Yorkers the power to control their own destiny by establishing rights not recognized by the U.S. Constitution and instituting public policies independent of the actions of the federal government.
More responsive to the popular will than the U.S. Constitution, the current New York Constitution has been amended 228 times since its adoption in 1894. It can be amended two ways: by legislative amendment, which requires passage by two consecutively elected legislatures and then approval by the voters, or by a constitutional convention, the work of which also requires later voter approval. Our state constitution requires that voters be asked every 20 years whether they wish to go the constitutional convention route. That question will next appear on the ballot on Nov. 7, 2017.
To the extent New Yorkers are dissatisfied with the policies of the federal government, a state constitutional convention is our opportunity to reaffirm and extend our constitutional tradition of compassion, diversity and individual liberty. A “yes” vote on the con-con question puts New York’s future in the hands of New Yorkers. If we fail, to act we will not have another opportunity until 2037. Can we afford to wait?
So what changes could the convention expect to make? It is hard to say for certain, but here is a partial list of issues a convention would be expected to discuss:
a. Term limits for members of the legislature or legislative leaders to prevent the accumulation of unchecked power by a small group of individuals
b. An independent redistricting commission to prevent gerrymandering of any kind and to make sure the voters choose their representatives, not vice versa
c. A constitutionally created ethics commission with the power to prosecute violations of state ethics laws unencumbered by the need for legislative or gubernatorial approval
d. A streamlined state judiciary that could save the state an estimated $500 million per year currently wasted on inefficiencies
e. A thorough revision of public finance provisions originally adopted before the Civil War, when the state had one-sixth of its current population
f. Stronger constitutional requirements to educate our youth, take care of our mentally ill and protect our natural resources
g. New amendment methods that would provide means to achieve constitutional revision that do not depend on the whims of the legislature.
The New York State Constitution needs much work, and the state faces a crisis in governance. New Yorkers have the power to set the wheels of change in motion next November by calling a constitutional convention. A convention would provide us the opportunity to move in a direction of our own choosing and give our constitution “pride of place” consistent with our sobriquet as the “Empire State.”
Peter J. Galie is professor emeritus at Canisius College in Buffalo. Christopher Bopst is chief legal and financial officer at Sam-Son Logistics in Buffalo. They are co-authors of “The New York Constitution” (Oxford Press, 2012) and co-editors, along with Gerald Benjamin, of “New York’s Broken Constitution: The Governance Crisis and the Path to Renewed Greatness” (SUNY Press, 2016).