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New York's Constitutional Convention Debate

The 20-Year Question

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"New York suffers from disabilities in its governance, and increased costs, reduced democracy, and institutional stasis, partly as a consequence of its constitution," Benjamin explains. "So, we need to make some reforms that are pretty fundamental." Benjamin doesn't think that the state legislature is willing, through the legislative amendment process, to change the way it's elected, enhance voter participation, or impose stringent ethics processes on themselves. (Since 2000, 33 legislators have been indicted for criminal or ethical violations.)

In 1993, Governor Mario Cuomo tapped Benjamin to be research director of the Constitutional Revision Commission in anticipation of the 1997 constitutional convention ballot question. The Commission called for four action panels to be formed by the legislature, but they weren't.

"This used to be routine. Every 20 years, they'd gather and say, 'We can make things better.' They believed in themselves in the 19th century," Benjamin says. For Benjamin, it's a hope-versus-fear campaign. The New York State Bar Association agrees. Their House of Delegates met in Cooperstown in June and voted 111 to 28 in favor of a recommendation to support the ballot question. In presenting the Committee's findings, Chair Hank Greenberg noted that the New York State constitution is a 52,500-word behemoth. "The document was not designed to last through the ages," he told the audience of lawyers.

Ultimately, the Bar Association concluded that the need to reform the judiciary article in the state constitution was long overdue. Overlapping jurisdictions with varying rules and procedures results in an estimated $600 million wasted every year. The State Bar, along with individual justices, have made the case for judicial reform; yet, in 50 years, the legislature hasn't acted. "As a committee, we deeply believe that the risks are overstated," Greenberg said. Historically, the nine previous constitutional conventions were progressive rather than regressive, he noted. "This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity—a rare chance for direct democracy."

Deliberation Delegation

Benjamin doesn't believe that people who want to reform the state government at a convention would touch the current protections people cherish because that would just mobilize voters against the revisions in 2019. "The changes we propose under the process have to be ratified at the polls after they're recommended by a convention," he explains. "So, would I, or anybody who's interested in reform, put my reforms at risk by trying to change valued provisions? I would say not."

Convention delegates run for the office with all the trappings of a campaign. There are no constitutional amendments to bar elected officials from being delegates, nor prohibiting them from collecting a second salary or pension credit (called double-dipping). Because of that, Anthony Figliola, half of the bipartisan duo who leads Empire Government Strategies, a lobbying and consulting firm, insists a convention now would be in the best interest of politicians, not the people.

"I know that the good-government people believe in this utopian society," Figliola says. "They're under the delusion that if they can convince the majority of people to vote, then Joe six-pack will be a delegate. That's a false hope and disingenuous." Figliola thinks it would take a lot of resources to run.

Dullea wouldn't speculate on how much a delegate campaign might cost now, but he interviewed some back in 1967: very little was spent on delegate races, and candidates personally funded them. Depending on the circumstances of the district, some upstate Republicans felt assured that their constituents would vote down party lines. In Democratic races in the Bronx, candidates pooled resources with other party candidates running for Assembly and Senate seats. A contested race in Nassau County resulted in one wealthy candidate spending $9,000 of his own money.

Because the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling allows large sums from corporations, nonprofits, labor unions, and associations to finance campaigns, Figliola and others are concerned about special interests from outside the state unduly influencing a New York convention.

A Chance to Hit Restart

At an October 16 debate between Benjamin and the UUP's Kowal at SUNY New Paltz, Kowal stated that a constitutional convention now is a distraction from more pressing national concerns. "What is really needed to address some of the problems is a national progressive movement to deal with issues like health care, workers' rights across the country, economic justice, racial justice, protection of the environment." Kowal argued that New York might focus too narrowly on reforming the state constitution and end up damaged by decisions in Washington. "We really can't take our eye off that ball."

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