2017 Elections

New York voters will decide whether or not to open up the New York Constitution on Election Day. Stock image

By Donna Newman

As amended in 1846, the New York State Constitution includes a mandatory requirement that every 20 years state voters be offered the opportunity via a ballot proposal to convene a constitutional convention — called “Con Con” by those familiar with state politics — to review and revise the existing document. If a majority votes “yes,” delegates are elected to serve at a convention held in Albany.

A recent meeting of the Three Village Civic Association was devoted to informing the public about the proposal to be presented to New York State voters on Election Day with the debate titled “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?”

Two guest speakers were invited to present opposing views of Proposal 1, the first of three proposals that will appear on the reverse side of the ballot listing the candidates for office Nov. 7. The civic association’s Vice President George Hoffman moderated the debate at the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library in Setauket.

The ballot question was last posed in 1997, when a majority of those voting said “no.” The last Con Con was held in 1967 and the voters later rejected all of the proposed changes. If a majority votes “yes” this time around, three delegates from each state senatorial district and 15 at-large statewide delegates will be elected in November 2018, according to the State Board of Elections website, www.elections.ny.gov.

“The delegates will convene at the Capitol in April 2019,” according to the website. “Amendments adopted by a majority of the delegates will be submitted to the voters for approval or rejection in a statewide referendum to be held at least six weeks after the Convention adjourns. The delegates will determine whether to submit proposed amendments as separate questions. Any amendments that the voters approve will go into effect on the January 1 following their approval.”

Anyone may run to be a delegate.

Anthony Figliola, vice president of Empire Government Strategies of Uniondale, a governmental consulting firm representing a variety of clients seeking liaisons in Albany, New York City or local municipalities, recommended a No vote.

Figliola’s primary argument is that a constitutional convention is an extremely expensive and risky way to affect change, especially when the document itself provides an alternative.

Anthony Figliola and Al Benninghoff participate in a debate about the constitutional convention at a recent Three Village Civic Association meeting. Photo from Jonathan Kornreich

“The referendum process has been more successful as compared to Con Con,” he said. “There have been 600 amendments passed by the voters in our history. This year there will be a question on the ballot as to whether pensions should be taken away from any state legislator convicted of a felony. In 2013 there were six constitutional amendments proposed. Five of them were approved. The good government groups are coming from a good place. They are [working] to enact change and they are trying to move the legislature and get the public at large involved in the process.”

He also spoke about the last Con Con, held in 1967, calling it “an utter failure.”

“Of the delegates elected 80 percent were politically connected,” he said. “And 45 percent were either sitting [or retired] elected officials … collecting — or in the pension system. This allowed them to take two salaries, as there is no prohibition against it in the constitution. In addition to doubling their income, pension credits accrued by doing this raised their pension payouts.”

In the end, all of the proposed amendments to the constitution were submitted for voter approval in one package — which the voters rejected.

Al Benninghoff is a campaign manager for the Committee for a Constitutional Convention and also with New York People’s Convention. A longtime political strategist and reform advocate, he recommended a Yes vote.

Benninghoff’s case can be summed up in two words: It’s time.

The last time a Con Con question was proposed to voters in 1997, the New York City Bar Association called for a “no” vote and suggested: “Let’s give the legislature a chance to reform itself. We gave it 20 years and nothing has happened,” he said.

“Frankly, enough is enough,” Benninghoff said. “The legislature holds all the power. If the legislature doesn’t want to find it within itself to give us the opportunity to vote on an amendment to the constitution, then they can absolutely withhold it. And they have done that a lot.”

He went on to list things he believes should have already been addressed.

“There have been no ethics reforms; independent redistricting in name only, not in actuality; no term limits; and no campaign finance reform,” he said. “There’s still a tremendous loophole with LLCs [limited liability companies]. If a person running for state legislative office wants to take campaign donations from an infinite number of LLCs created by one person, or one company, they can do so. That’s a campaign finance loophole big enough to drive a truck through. What it does is empower the political status quo. It takes all the power away from the people — and that is exactly what a New York State Constitutional Convention changes.”

In New York State history there have been nine constitutional conventions. The longest gap between conventions has been since the last one in 1967. It’s been 50 years. The last one did not produce any changes, arguably because all the proposals were lumped together in a single vote.

As moderator of this informational session and the Q&A period that followed it, Hoffman remained clearly impartial. But in supplying additional data after the event he said he formed an opinion.

“I take the question to hold a constitutional convention very seriously and I am leaning to supporting it,” Hoffman said. “I see it as a solemn responsibility to periodically review our state constitution. I think it’s clear to most that many things need to change in Albany and a constitutional convention might be the only way to bring that change. I would seriously consider running for delegate if the constitutional convention is approved.”

For more information on the New York State Constitutional Convention, visit www.rockinst.org/nys_concon2017.

The polls will open at 6 a.m. on Election Day.

By Lisa Scott

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7. Voting is not only a right, it is a responsibility — our democracy works best when everyone participates. Polls in Suffolk County will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. To confirm that you are registered to vote and confirm your polling place, visit www.suffolkvotes.com — the website of the Suffolk County Board of Elections. If you believe your information is incorrect, call them at 631-852-4500.

If you think you may not be in the county on Election Day or will not be able to get to polls because of illness, complete an absentee ballot application (available at libraries, post offices and town halls or download at http://suffolkvotes.com/Images/ABSENTEE_APPLICATION_%20English.pdf). Print and mail it to the Suffolk County Board of Elections by Oct. 31. They will mail you your ballot, which you must complete and mail back by Nov. 6.

Remember Nov. 7 is a general election. The Suffolk County ballot will include candidates for district attorney, sheriff and judges. All 18 Suffolk County Legislature seats are on the ballot as well. Locally there are elections for various town offices.

In addition to electing public officials, voters have an opportunity to approve or reject proposals made by any local governmental body. These are usually printed on the back of the ballot. This year, New York State has offered Proposals 1, 2 and 3 for consideration by the voter.

The first — “Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution and amend the same?” — is offered by law every 20 years to the electorate.  If the vote is negative, there will be no convention.  If the majority vote yes, there will be a convention in 2019 to consider amendments to the New York State Constitution.

In November 2018 delegates will be elected by the voters — three from each state senatorial district and 15 at large.  The amendments that are adopted by a majority of the delegates will be submitted to the voters for their approval at least six weeks after the convention adjourns.  Proponents of the convention hope that it will affect election and voting and ethics reform, changes that have been proposed to the legislature but never passed.

Other areas for improvement are judicial reform, environmental issues and health care and women’s issues. Opponents of the proposal are concerned that it may lead to a complete overhaul of the state constitution, removing or revising protections of state pensions and collective bargaining, the Adirondack Forest Preserve and school funding.

The second proposal — “Allowing the complete or partial forfeiture of a public officer’s pension if he or she is convicted of a certain type of felony,” — would allow a court to reduce or revoke the pension of a public officer who is convicted of a felony that has a direct and actual relationship to the performance of the officer’s duties.  In reaching this determination the court must consider the seriousness of the crime and whether the forfeiture would result in undue hardship to dependent children. If approved, the amendment will apply only to crimes committed on or after Jan. 1, 2018, because the New York Constitution now provides that the benefits of a public pension or retirement system cannot be reduced or impaired.

The third proposal — “Authorizing the use of forest preserve land for specific purposes,” — would create a land account with up to 250 acres for use by towns, villages and counties that have no viable alternative to using forest preserve land to address specific public health and safety concerns.  Another 250 acres will be added to the forest preserve as a substitute for the land removed. The proposed article would allow counties and townships of certain regions to conduct repairs on road and bridges and allow for the installation of new bike paths, broadband internet and water well infrastructure.

Although the Adirondack Forest Preserve is protected by the “Forever Wild” clause of the constitution, local governments, elected officials and the NYS DEC all support this amendment, feeling it is necessary for the safety of residents and to ensure that quality of life is maintained.

Make sure you are registered to vote by Oct. 13. If you moved since the last time you voted, you must reregister. Watch for news of candidate forums in your community and articles in your local newspaper or visit www.Vote411.org and the Suffolk County Board of Elections website, www.suffolkvotes.com. Be a voter, and have your voice heard.

Lisa Scott is the president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

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