ConCon Debate Highlights Pros and Cons of Convention

With Election Day swiftly approaching, voters have been actively speaking out about what issues need to be addressed before anybody enters the polling stations.

On Monday, Oct. 16 at 6 p.m. community members alike gathered in the Coykendall Science Building Auditorium to hear SUNY New Paltz Associate Vice President for Regional Engagement and director of the The Benjamin Center for Public Policy Initiatives Gerald Benjamin and Statewide President United University Professions (UUP) Fred Kowal debate the pros and cons of potentially opening a constitutional convention. 

The debate came as a direct result of a statewide referendum question that will be present on the back of the ballot this upcoming Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 7.

The referendum question is required to appear on the voter’s ballot every 20 years and is cited on The New York State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse’s websites as allowing the public the inalienable right to alter the constitution in cases where the interests of the legislature and people conflict. 

The agenda of a convention is placed primarily in the hands of the people, independent of the legislature’s influence. The public’s power lies in its ability to call the convention, to elect delegates for the convention and to ratify any amendments the convention might propose. The last time the state opted for a constitutional convention was 1967.

Benjamin argued in favor of the vote to call a convention; Kowal, representing the UUP’s position that a convention will not help working families, spoke out against it.

The UUP has gone as far as releasing a public statement on its website citing the reasons behind the organization’s stance as being the cost to hold a constitutional convention and the potential jeopardization of basic rights.

In 1967, the Constitutional Convention was priced at $6.5 million to stage. Estimates put the price tag for a convention now from anywhere between $50-100 million.

“You know what else $100 million would pay for? It would cover doctors’ visits for 625,000 New Yorkers, and a year’s worth of meals for 163,333 of our hungriest children and it would pay tuition for 3,864 state residents to attend a SUNY school for four years,” the UUP wrote. “There are far better ways to spend our money than on a constitutional convention.”

Kowal’s sentiments mirrored that of the UUP, explaining that he believed the convention to be a distraction and a mirage.

“It offers radical change that a lot of progressives hope to see, but struggle to see how it could actually get there,” he said.

Benjamin’s argument stood on the side of urging voters to go out and select yes for the referendum in the upcoming election.

The constitutional problems he explained needed addressing are not problems that affect the public directly, but indirectly.

“You don’t think about these problems everyday; you don’t worry about litigation until you’re getting divorced,” Benjamin said.

He explained that the predictions being made about what could go wrong if the state should call a convention is harming the potential good it can do for the state.

“All these predictions are based on no evidence,” he said. “All these predictions are based on keeping you from doing your democratic ability to reform state government.” 

Third-year double major in psychology and political science Elee Wolf- Sonkin laments that while ideally the convention could be a good thing for reform, if done incorrectly it could do more harm.

“I think it would be extremely productive but it also undermines our state’s legislative process and therefore the opinions of those who attend could dangerously sway the politics of New York in a very un-Democratic fashion,” Wolf-Sonkin said.