Escape from New York City: Secessionist movement seeks rare constitutional convention

by WorldTribune Staff, May 31, 2017

Every 20 years, New York voters have the opportunity to call for a constitutional convention.

Upstate supporters of a movement to break away from New York City hope to use that opportunity to get a secession vote on the ballot. Voters will decide this November whether to hold a statewide constitutional convention, which would take place in 2019.

Residents of upstate New York say they seldom see the benefits of hefty taxes levied on New York City, part of why some wish to create a separate state.

The secession group Divide NYS Caucus hopes to seize on the opportunity.

“It’s time to cease fantasizing that NYS legislators have the best interests of the people in mind,” the caucus said in a statement. “If we vote YES on the NYS convention, the first step in our plan to form autonomous regions is complete.”

Divide NYS Caucus wants to split the state into two, or three, independent regions in order to boost upstate New York’s struggling economy. Such a division could be accomplished at the constitutional convention without the approval of the governor or the state Legislature.

“It’s the only thing they can’t control,” said Divide NYS Caucus chairman John Bergener.

If the convention is approved by voters in November, a year later they would select three delegates from each of the state’s 63 senatorial districts and 15 at-large delegates. Any amendments passed at the convention would go before the voters for final approval in November 2019.

New York has not held a constitutional convention since 1967, when the state legislature called it. The last one called by voters was in 1938.

For upstate supporters of secession, the convention “may come as their best chance to pull off a Brexit-style departure from New York City,” Valerie Richardson wrote for The Washington Times on May 30.

The Divide NYS Caucus said autonomous regions within New York would be led by their own governors and legislators instead of seeking approval from the Legislature and Congress to form a new state.

“It could be a model for other states, too, to go to the regional-districts method,” said Bergener. “This way you only need an amendment to your state constitution.”

Upstate New Yorkers have long struggled with the state’s high taxes and “onerous regulations have scared away jobs as companies flee to states with more business-friendly climates,” Richardson’s report said.

In December 2014, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a statewide ban on fracking, halting natural gas development from the rich Marcellus Shale in New York’s southern tier and fueling secession talk, including calls for the region to split off and join Pennsylvania.

“What it amounts to now is more taxes are gained in New York City and that money is sent upstate, but they put so many strings attached to it that it hasn’t been helping,” said Bergener. “So it’s a ‘Catch-22.’ If we were run more like Pennsylvania or Vermont, we’d be a lot better off.”

Other items that could come up in a constitutional convention include term limits, budget and pension reform, campaign finance rules, judicial reorganization, appointing versus electing judges and redistricting.

In a Siena College poll released May 24, 62 percent of those polled favor the convention, while 22 percent oppose it, while two-thirds have heard “nothing at all” about it.

Convention supporter Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at State University of New York at New Paltz, described advocates of the so-called “con con” as “underdogs.”

“The issue right now is whether the advocates can finance a serious campaign,” Benjamin said. “They’re getting their resources together. Right now I think we’re the underdogs on this. I think we have a chance, but we’re underdogs.”

The opposition to the “con con” advocates has plenty of muscle, including organized labor and the New York State Alliance for Retired Americans, which have launched campaigns urging voters to shoot down the convention, warning that delegates would have the power to gut public pension benefits and collective bargaining rights, Richardson’s report said.

“Delegates to a possible convention can essentially blow up the way of life New Yorkers enjoy and the expectations and priorities each of us have,” said Paul Pecorale, vice president of New York State United Teachers. “Whether it’s public education, collective bargaining, our retirement security, environmental protections, spending caps in the budget or any other issue one cares about, it’s all at risk.”

Cuomo, seen as a possible Democratic presidential contender in 2020, has said he supports a constitutional convention but has also expressed reservations about how it might look in practice.

“I think the governor has calculated the political consequences of his ability to influence the legislature, his ability to stay in a positive relationship with the organized labor movement and also his presidential ambitions, and he’s decided to back away,” said Benjamin. “He hasn’t denounced the idea, but he hasn’t given it the emphasis that, in the past, he has done.”

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