What would be different about how New York State is governed today if the State Constitution proposed by the 1967 constitutional convention were adopted at the polls?

by Gerald Benjamin and Henrik N. Dullea

Those opposed to calling a state constitutional convention in New York today argue: “The last time we did it we failed. What makes you think we won’t fail again?”

And in truth it is fair to say that the 1967 failed politically; the constitution it produced was not adopted at the polls.

But did this happen because the proposed document contained a lot of bad ideas? Or was a document containing a good deal of positive change was poorly presented to the people, empowering defenders of the status quo?

Almost a half century later, a look back at what the draft 1967 constitution actually contained makes clear that, if it were adopted, state and local government in New York today would look different and work much differently than it does.

Would it be better? Would it be worse? Take a look at the thirty-three ideas listed below, provisions that went down when the 1967 constitution went down. And then decide for yourself.

1. There would be a five member commission redistricting the state legislature and Congress, chaired by an appointee of the Court of Appeals. Membership by legislators would be barred.  “Gerrymandering for any purpose” would be prohibited.

2. The would be a constitutional requirement for fair districting in New York’s local governments

3. There would be 60 members of the state Senate. The number would be fixed.

4. All public assistance and Medicaid costs not paid for by the national government would be borne by the state budget.   There would be no mandated local share.

5. There would be explicit state constitutional protections against discrimination on the basis of age, sex or physical or mental handicap.

6. A constitution prohibition of aid to parochial schools (the Blaine Amendment), since rendered largely ineffectual, would no longer be in the state constitution, replaced by the language of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution

7. A citizen would be constitutionally protected in his or her right to sue the state if he or she thought it was spending money unconstitutionally.  This provision was deemed to include the right of citizens to sue for violations of the forest preserve provisions.

8. State and local governments’ community economic development responsibilities would not be in question, but would be constitutionally specified, supported and legitimized.

9. The popular referendum requirement for the approval of state debt would not exist, though there would be a constitutional debt service limit, inked to general revenue receipts, on aggregate state and public authority debt.

10. Public higher education would have constitutional status.  The State University of New York and City University of New York would be specifically recognized.

11. Electronic eavesdropping or surveillance for law enforcement purposes would be explicitly constitutionally limited.

12. There would be an explicit state constitutional guarantee of the right to counsel “at every stage of the proceeding” in all criminal matters.

13. There would be a constitutional guarantee of openness in state government.

14. “Unfair, inequitable or dishonest sales, marketing and financ­ing practices” would be constitutionally specified as a matter of state concern.

15. The governor would have constitutional authority to reorganize state government, subject to legislative veto.

16. Vacancies in state elective offices would be filled by election as soon as practicable after they arose.

17. The state court system would be better structured and organized, with judicial staffing more responsive to need and workload.

18. District courts would be a viable option for counties outside New York City.

19. There would be a constitutional basis for procedures for administrative rule making and adoption.

20. More equitable assessment of real property for taxation, with a viable option of moving the function to the county level, would be constitutionally based and encouraged.

21. While the Adirondack and Catskill Preserves would remain “forever wild,” localities within the “blue lines” would enjoy the same capacity for home rule without amending the state constitution as do places elsewhere in New York.

22. It would be the constitutionally-based policy of the state “to conserve and protect its natural resources and scenic beauty and encourage the development and improvement of its agricultural lands for the production of food and other agricultural products.” The legislature, in implementing this policy, would be constitutionally directed to make “adequate provision for the abatement of air and water pollution and of excessive and unnecessary noise, the protection of agricultural lands, wetlands and shorelines, and the devel­opment and regulation of water resources.”

23. Unless overcome by later litigation based upon the U.S. constitution, New Yorkers would vote where they were “domiciled,” with “domicile” defined in the constitution.

24. There would no longer be an affirmative constitutional obligation of the state to aid the needy.  However, Article I, 10a of the new constitution provided that “It shall be the policy of the state to foster and promote the general welfare and to establish a firm basis of economic security for the people of the state,” and Article XII, 12.a.noted that “economic and community development purposes shall include the renewal and rebuilding of communities, the development of new communities, and programs and facilities to enhance the physical environment, health and social well-being of, and  to encourage the expansion of economic opportunity for, the people of the state.”

25. Claims against the state would no longer be time bound.  (Art. III, 5e)

26. Equality of educational opportunity would be guaranteed to all the people of the state.

27. State aid to school districts would be based on registration rather than attendance and would consider the “special educational needs, if any, of the students in each district and the total local tax burden of the taxpayers of each district.”

28. Defendants would have a right to a jury trial for offenses punishable by a term of imprisonment of more than six months.

29. Judges would be permitted to dispense with bail for non-capital offenses if the court is reasonably satisfied that a defendant will appear when directed.

30. The addition of “public campsites of the kind presently constructed and maintained, and in areas similar to those in which they are presently located,” would be permitted in the forest preserve.

31. The “welfare of the child” would be the primary concern in determining adoption or guardianship decisions.  Article V, sec. 27.

32. Discrimination in the admission to any school receiving public funds would be prohibited.

33. The Public Service Commission would have four members appointed by the governor and three members elected by the legislature sitting in joint session.

Amendments

Article I

Bill of Rights

Section 2. The article grants equal protection of the laws, and prohibits discrimination in civil rights on grounds of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, age, sex or physical or mental handicap. Unreasonable searches and seizures and unreasonable interception of telephone and other communications are forbidden, except that statutes may permit the interception of such communications upon court orders under conditions specified. Such article forbids deprivation of life, liberty or property without due process of law and sets forth basic procedural rights in criminal proceedings.

Article I

Bill of Rights

Section 1.  This article is the New York State constitution’s bill of rights.  It provides for freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition in language substantively equivalent to the first amendment to the federal constitution.  Citizens’ suits are authorized to restrain unconstitutional acts or expenditures.

Article I

Bill of Rights

Section 7. The legislature is authorized to provide for the protection and education of the people of the state against unfair, inequitable or dishonest sales, marketing and financing practices.

Article II

Suffrage

Section 1. This article defines the right of citizens to vote. Any citizen who is domiciled in a county, city, or village of the state for at least three months, and in his election district for at least thirty days prior to the date of an election is entitled to vote in such election. In elections for president of the United States or state­wide offices, domicile in the state for three months and in the election district for thirty days is sufficient. For school or special district elections, the only requirement is domicile in the district for three months.

Section 2. Property qualifications or other tests for voting are prohibited except that statutes may be enacted establishing property qualifications for voting in special district elections and requiring party enrollment for voting in a primary election. All voting must be in secret. The minimum voting age is 21 years except that statutes may reduce the voting age to not less than 18. If so reduced, the voting age may not he thereafter increased by statute.

Section 3. Domicile is defined as the fixed, permanent and principal home to which a person always intends to return. Provision is made for the enactment of statutes for the conduct of elections, the nomination of candidates, permanent personal registration and voting, including absentee registration and voting. All boards of election, except for school district and nonpartisan village and special district elections, are to have equal representation of the two political parties receiving the highest number of votes in the last gubernatorial election.

Article V

Judiciary

Section 4. The article provides for a mandatory referendum in every county of the state, except those comprising New York City and those counties in which a district court presently exists, on the question of whether a district court system should be established. Upon establishment of a district court in any county, inferior courts therein may be abolished.

Article IX

Education

Section 1. This article continues the present system of free public education below the college level and requires the legislature to make annual appropriations therefor. It requires the legislature to establish and define a system of higher education, encompassing both public and private institutions, by programs which may include free tuition, grants, fellowships and scholarships.

Section 2. This article provides that if the state relieves students at public institutions of higher learning from the present requirement of paying tuition and other fees, the contractual obligations of any such institution or instrumentality of the state which have as their security, directly or indirectly, student tuition and other fees and which remain unpaid as the result of such state action, will be assumed by the state.

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