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The dangers of a constitutional convention

New York Teacher

New Yorkers entering the voting booth on Nov. 7 will face a choice on the back of their ballots: whether or not to allow a costly and open-ended state constitutional convention to rewrite the state’s highest law, putting public-employee pensions and other cherished rights and benefits at risk.

“In an off-year election, this ballot question will be decided by a small minority of voters,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “That’s why it is imperative that every UFT member vote ‘no’ and encourage their friends and family to vote ‘no.’”

The UFT is part of a coalition of more than 100 organizations opposing the convention.

If the referendum passes, voters would next be asked to elect 204 convention delegates. Members of the state Legislature and other elected officials, as well as political party leaders, would be allowed to run for these posts.

Historically, when a sitting official runs for convention delegate, the official wins virtually every time. Each delegate is guaranteed an annual salary equal to that of a member of the State Assembly, $79,500, whether the convention lasts three months or three years.

The convention would meet in Albany in 2019 for an unspecified duration, all at taxpayer expense.

It’s happened before

The last time taxpayers picked up the tab for a constitutional convention in Albany was 1967. New Yorkers rejected all of the proposed changes that came out of that convention, but all the delegates and staff got paid for their time regardless.

Beyond its estimated cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, a constitutional convention would expose the rights and benefits guaranteed in New York’s constitution to alteration or removal.

Critically for public employees, the New York State constitution guarantees that the benefits of public employees who are currently members in any pension system “shall not be diminished or impaired.” A constitutional convention would present wealthy interests with a rare opportunity to end that guarantee and to slash public pensions.

Public employees could lose union protections as well. The state constitution safeguards workers’ rights to join a union and bargain together for a contract. A constitutional convention would give anti-union forces a chance to roll back those rights and leave workers powerless.

Everything would be at risk

Our state constitution also provides for the right to a free public education. The state constitution further forbids direct government aid to educational institutions that have a religious affiliation. A constitutional convention could remove those protections and open the door to charter school executives, voucher proponents and other well-financed interests seeking to privatize public education.

Even the environment is at risk. The state constitution requires that the Adirondack and Catskill mountains be kept “forever wild.” Opening up the constitution at a convention would give wealthy developers an opening to lobby for the removal of that protection, allowing them to profit from these green spaces.

The state constitution requires that this question appear on the ballot every 20 years, but a convention is ultimately unnecessary. New York State already has a legislative process in place to amend the state constitution without a convention. The state Legislature must pass a constitutional amendment in two consecutive legislative sessions and then it is put before New Yorkers in a statewide vote.

For all these reasons, it’s important that New Yorkers vote ‘No’ on Nov. 7.