Debate weighs Constitutional Convention

JOE LoTEMPLIO/STAFF PHOTOJohn Sheehan (left) speaks during a debate on holding a New York state Constitutional Convention Thursday night at Clinton Community College. Sheehan, of the Adirondack Council, spoke against a convention while Dr. Gerald Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz (right) argued in favor. Thom Hallock of Mountain Lake PBS (center) moderated the event. Voters will get to decide on Election Day whether they want a convention. The proposition is the first of three on the ballot and it will appear on the back of the paper ballot at the polls.

PLATTSBURGH — Supporters of a Constitutional Convention in New York state say it would give the public a chance to make necessary changes to a corrupt system, while opponents say too much could go wrong.

The public got to hear from both sides at a Constitutional Convention debate at Clinton Community College Thursday night, sponsored by the college, Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, the Honors Student Association of SUNY Plattsburgh and the North Country League of Women Voters.

"We would like to see the constitution changed in a more surgical way so that it will last a long time," said John Sheehan of the Adirondack Council, who spoke in opposition to a convention.

"We are concerned that in a convention, rather than making surgical changes, it can blow up the whole system."

Dr. Gerald Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz spoke in favor of the convention, arguing that holding one is perhaps the only way to fix corruption in the State Legislature — because sitting legislators certainly won't do it, he said.

"Government in New York is in crisis. It is dysfunctional and filled with corruption."

204 DELEGATES 

New Yorkers get a chance every 20 years to decide if they want to hold a Constitutional Convention to make changes to the sacred document that was penned in the late 18th century.

If voters approve of a convention, a total of 204 delegates — three from each of the state's 63 Senate districts and 15 at large — would be elected next November.

In 2019, they would convene for the sake of amending the constitution.

Delegates get paid the same salary as legislators, at $79,000 per year. There is no time limit for how long a convention can last.

Voters would then have a chance to vote on amendments produced at the convention.

The last convention was held in 1967, and that was called by the Legislature, not by voters.

Voters rejected conventions in 1957, 1977 and 1997.

They did approve of one in 1937, during the Great Depression.

'LIKE A SWAP MEET'

Benjamin said a convention is the only way to make significant changes to help alleviate corruption in state government and make the system more democratic.

Most legislation is already decided in backrooms before the Legislature votes on the floor, he said, and incumbents have no fear of losing their seats because of gerrymandering of election districts.

"More legislators leave the Legislature because of indictments than they do because they were voted out," Benjamin said.

Sheehan said that methods to change the constitution already exist.

As an example, he pointed to the two other propositions that will appear on the ballot on Nov. 7, which call for public employees to lose their pension benefits if they are convicted of a crime related to their public duties, and a measure to allow a land bank of forestland acreage to allow for public projects.

"Proposition 3 (land bank) took about six years to negotiate, and both sides had to trust each other. In a convention, you can't carry out that kind of dynamic," Sheehan said.

"A convention can be kind of like a swap meet with a lot deals made in a short time."

'FUNDAMENTAL PROBLEMS'

Sheehan said he is also concerned that the state's "Forever Wild" clause protecting forestlands could be eliminated.

Benjamin said that clause was actually born at the 1894 Constitutional Convention.

"New Yorkers are unlikely to touch that because they like it," he said.

Sheehan said most of the delegates elected to a convention are likely to be former legislators or legislative staffers, leaving little room for a fresh approach.

"Democracy will not be a driving force of a convention," he said.

Benjamin said another key reason for having one is to create an opportunity to restructure the state's Court System, which he called "the least organized in the nation."

The Unified Court System wastes about $500 million a year, he said, and often leaves people frustrated from having to visit three different courts at times for the same case.

"We have some fundamental problems we have to face," he said.

RETIREMENT PENSIONS 

Opponents of a convention have argued that retirement pensions for state teachers could be eliminated, causing financial hardship on many New York families.

Sheehan noted that pensions were eliminated in Wisconsin.

"It could happen in New York, so the concern is very real," he said.

Benjamin said the fear over losing pensions is a "half truth," because they are protected not only under the State Constitution as a negotiated contract item, but also by the federal constitution.

He also said that the state already adjusts pensions by changing tier systems throughout the years.

"I don't think pensions will be touched, but those are predictions and speculation."

Email Joe LoTemplio:

jlotemplio@pressrepublican.com

Twitter: @jlotemplio

Staff Writer at Press-Republican since November of 1985. Has covered just about all beats at the paper, including sports.Currently covers government and politics. Graduated from Plattsburgh State in 1985. Originally from Rochester, NY.