News Coverage on Convention
Convene to fix constitution
Published 01:00 a.m., Monday, January 11, 2010
Recently published year-end retrospectives universally agree: State government in New York reached a new low of dysfunction and nonperformance in 2009. Cries were heard from every quarter: Throw all the rascals out. But in truth, only a state constitutional convention can give us reforms that will help cure us of our governmental malaise and bring hope back to New York.
Here are a few examples of the changes we need:
The end of "three men in a room" and the return to effective, informed, shared governance.
A fair method for legislative districting.
Campaign financing that enhances competitiveness.
Fair, objective administration of elections.
Proper balance between the legislative and executive branches in budgeting and filling vacancies in high office.
An effective, enforceable ethics provision that modernizes the constitution's current anti-corruption provisions
A unified court system.
Merit selection and retention of judges.
A 21st century system of local government.
Though respected leaders of both major parties recognize that a constitutional convention is the only way we can fix our state government, naysayers are once again deploying their familiar arguments, all eminently rebuttable:
The first argument is from those who say that nothing will change. They argue that the same people who now run the Legislature will control a convention. They will collect big paychecks as delegates while making sure that their personal interests and the interests of those who pay for their campaigns are protected.
We can prevent that by applying our usual standards against dual office holding to those who want to serve as convention delegates: a legislator would be allowed to run for delegate, but if elected would have to give up his or her legislative seat to serve.
The "nothing will change" crowd also often points out that the constitution written at the last convention in 1967 was rejected at the polls. That constitution failed at referendum only because those who led the convention presented all their proposals to the people in a single package. It offered desirable major improvements, like legislative districting by commission, but its unpopular provisions were strong enough to kill the constitution's chances at the polls. In contrast, many valuable changes were adopted by the people after the 1938 constitutional convention when they were presented as separate questions. That's what we can do again.
The second argument is that "everything might change." That is, a convention may open a Pandora's box, potentially unleashing a host of evils upon New York.
This is a false fear.
Constitutional change requires three separate votes by the electorate -- the first to call a convention (the question is on the ballot every 20 years, with the next vote coming in 2017; the Legislature can call a convention sooner), the second to elect delegates and the third to accept the convention's proposals.
Delegates elected to a convention know what they promised the people when they ran for delegate. And they know that if they give the state a final document that undoes one or more popular -- even cherished -- constitutional provisions or protections, their work will likely be rejected at the polls so they will avoid doing this. The truth is that while everything might be technically subject to change, any convention would be limited by political realities.
The third argument is that "the wrong things will change." The constitution says that state Senate districts, designed by Republicans to elect Republicans, must be used to choose convention delegates. "The wrong people will win," liberals say, "and they will cap taxes and constrain spending." Conservatives on the other hand, do not like the state's growing Democratic enrollment edge. "The wrong people will win," they say, "and do bad things like creating new rights to housing, higher education or health care."
But non-Republicans ought to remember that the districts they are worried about produced a Democratic Senate majority in 2008. Conservatives ought to remember that each Senate district will be used to elect three delegates, and the Voting Rights Act requires that the selection process assure the representation of a broad range of views and interests at a convention.
There are two reasons why the argument that "the wrong things would change" is the most disheartening of all. First, it says the people are only worth trusting when the outcome is certain. This is fear of democracy. Second, it suggests that protecting particular views and interests is more important than pursuing the broader public interest. This is fear of change.
Let's go back to the story of Pandora's box. When Pandora first opened the box and evils were unleashed, the ancient Greeks tell us one of the box's contents remained behind, too weak to escape. It was "hope." Pandora later returned to release "hope," which promised to be more powerful than the evils that preceded it.
Pandora's box has already been opened in New York; the disabilities of dysfunctional government abound. We now must act to release hope in the best way we can: We must call a constitutional convention.
Gerald Benjamin is director of the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach at SUNY New Paltz. Mario Cuomo is a former governor of New York.
Press Clip Relevance
This opinion piece from 2010 in the Times Union posts some of the strongest arguments to date in favor of convening a State Constitutional Convention and refutes many of the arguments advanced by opponents of a Constitutional Convention.