A referendum this November on whether New York should hold a constitutional conventioncould set the stage for debates about municipal bonding authority.

The Citizens Budget Commission held a forum at the Yale Club in Manhattan Tuesday to debate the pros and cons of holding a constitutional convention.

Voters will decide if such a convention should be held on Nov. 7. The referendum goes before voters every 20 years and failed the last time it reached the ballot in 1997.

Such a convention would put every aspect of the rules governing New York state on the table, opening the door for reforms on issues such as state borrowing limits. Public finance advocates for constitutional change have pushed for reforms that would enable local governments to issue revenue bonds secured by property taxes without needing state legislative approval.

Gerald Benjamin from SUNY New Paltz (left) and former New York State Assemblyman Jerry Kremer debated the pros and cons of a state constitutional convention Tuesday in Manhattan.
Gerald Benjamin from SUNY New Paltz (left) and former New York State Assemblyman Jerry Kremer debated the pros and cons of a state constitutional convention Tuesday in Manhattan. Andrew Coen

“We’d have to make a judgment about what we think is equitable for a borrowing limit in contemporary times,” said Gerald Benjamin, director of the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach at SUNY New Paltz, moments after the forum where he argued in favor of holding the state’s first constitutional convention since 1967. “I’m certainly not an advocate for there being no borrowing limit, but I’m an advocate for there being a reasonable borrowing limit.”

Benjamin’s support for constitutional changes was countered during the CBC panel by former State Assemblyman Jerry Kremer, who expressed concerns about interest groups from outside New York interfering with the debate following the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.

Kremer, president of Uniondale, N.Y.-based Empire Government Strategies, said constitutional conventions tend to be drawn by political lines and pointed out that the only time a bipartisan one occurred was 133 years ago in 1894. He added that constitutional conventions don't have a strong track record with 1937 being last time changes were recommended and adopted.

“The Citizens United case has opened up a floodgate throughout this country of outside money, which is used for whatever particular cause some special interest group feels is critically important,” said Kremer. “You just can’t brush it aside.”

A 'yes' vote on the constitutional convention ballot measure would trigger a three year process to propose changes. Delegates would then get elected in 2018 and meet in April 2019 to propose amendments for a new voter referendum in November 2019.

“There are serious governance issues in New York that won’t be addressed any other way,” said Benjamin. “What we have now is fundamentally broken.”

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