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Long IslandPoliticsSpin Cycle

Unions spend big to block constitutional convention, records show

MYTH: A constitutional convention would be a monumental

MYTH: A constitutional convention would be a monumental waste of money. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan puts the figure at $350 million, and other projections range as high as $500 million.
REALITY: This is blatantly false. Estimates for the cost of the last convention, in 1967, range from $7 million to $15 million. SUNY New Paltz political scientist Gerald Benjamin adjusted those figures for inflation to estimate that a convention now would cost $47 million. A reporter mistakenly thought $47 million was the actual cost of the 1967 convention and adjusted it for inflation a second time, which led to the $350 million figure, a mistake for which he since has apologized. But convention opponents like Flanagan, knowingly or unwittingly, seized on the higher figure and are using it wrongly in their arguments. Realistic estimates from experts put the cost of a modern convention at somewhere between $50 million and $100 million. Credit: YouTube / Nassau County PBA

ALBANY — Unions representing government workers have provided six-figure donations to the leading group that opposes a state constitutional convention that could overhaul state spending and policy, state records show.

The union-backed New Yorkers Against Corruption said it had $616,893 on hand for TV ads, phone banks, focus groups and mailings to urge voters to reject a constitutional convention in a Nov. 7 referendum. The group said it has collected more than $1.3 million in donations this year, campaign filings show.

By comparison, the two leading groups led by good-government advocates that support a convention have a combined $12,500 on hand with few contributions of more than $2,000, according to state Board of Elections records.

Among the largest contributors to New Yorkers Against Corruption are the Service Employees Union International Local 1199, which has contributed $250,000 this year; the AFL-CIO organization of unions, which gave $155,000; and the New York State United Teachers union, which contributed $122,000.

Opponents say a convention could erode the constitutional guarantee of a public pension and other worker rights.

Convention backers disagree, saying the U.S. Constitution prohibits weakening of labor contracts.

“Our most recent filing proves we are prepared to educate voters throughout the state about the many concerns our broad coalition has,” said Jordan Marks, campaign manager of New Yorkers Against Corruption.

Records show the pro-convention NY People’s Convention had $257 remaining in its account as of Friday, after spending $351,132 this year.

The group’s biggest contributor was Bill Samuels, a longtime political contributor and good-government advocate, who is a principal in the NY People’s Convention. Samuels contributed more than $344,000 to the group, which has collected $350,390 this year.

“This is going to make it tough,” Samuels said of the disparity in funding. “We’re the underdogs, but we’re right and we have a constructive platform, while they are negative. It’s disappointing.”

The other major convention backer, The Committee for a Constitutional Convention, had $12,404 on hand as of Friday.

Donors included former Democratic Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch, who gave $2,000; Gerald Crotty, a counsel to the late Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, $1,000; and former Democratic Lt. Gov. Stan Lundine and former state Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, $500 each.

The group collected $95,655 in contributions this year and has spent more than $82,000 this year, state records show.

If voters approve the referendum on Nov. 7, convention delegates will be elected from around the state who will be able to rewrite elements of the constitution and enact measures long blocked in the State Legislature. The measures could include term limits and legalization of marijuana.

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