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The immortal life of inaccurate information

We don’t have any personal opinions of whether New York should or shouldn’t hold a constitutional convention. But we have enormous sympathy for the advocates of the convention, who confront the continued existence of the widely publicized and inaccurate statement that the convention will cost the state $350 million.

New York’s first Constitutional Convention — April, 1777

New Yorkers will vote yes or no on this issue in November and the convention, if it’s held, will take place in 2019. (The potential of a constitutional convention rises up in New York every 20 years.)

Here’s the problem:

According to a July blog post at The Rockefeller Institute of Government, the alleged cost of the convention has been used by opponents as an argument against.

But the $350 million figure is an error.

It stems from a miscalculation made by a reporter.  Here’s what happened: In the late 1960s, a constitutional convention was held in New York and it cost about $7.6 million (about 25 percent less than the legislature projected it would cost).

During a “media boot camp” in December 2015, political scientist New York State expert Gerald Benjamin took the $7.6 million cost of the convention, added an inflation factor to present an estimated $47 million cost in 2015 dollars. Albany Times-Union Reporter Casey Seiler then used the $47 million figure in an article, presuming that this was actually the unadjusted 1967 convention price tag.  Once the article was published, the cost figure took on a life of its own, with convention opponents applying an inflation figure again and arriving at $350 million.

As blog authors Peter G. Galie and Chropher Bopst point out, this figure is high enough to scare both conservatives and liberals.  They say the erroneous figure is now being used in anti-convention literature, and call it “manna from heaven for constitution opponents.”

As the Rockefeller blog post points out, reporter Seiler nobly owned up to his error in a February 2017 article that is headlined “Only off by $300 million” and which has as its first line “Mistakes were made. By me.” It’s quite a funny article (unfortunately available only by subscription.) But the key point is in the last line. “If you hear anyone throw out [the $350 million] number, tell them it’s bunk — and tell them I said so,” he wrote.


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