2014-04-24 / View From Here


A constitutional convention for New York?

New York may be the Empire State, but no one has ever said that our state government is the envy of the nation. That is why the debate about a constitutional covention in our state in 2017, which is beginning now, could be quite important for our state's future.

A little background may be helpful here. Just as the United States has a constitution, so do each of the states. The New York constitution is far more detailed than its federal counterpart and may be (and frequently is) amended by the act of two successive legislatures and a vote of the people. For example, last year the constitution was changed to permit casino gambling.

In New York, a vote is taken every 20 years on whether to hold a constitutional convention empowered to review and revise the entire constitution. This vote last occurred in 1997 and the next one will be in 2017. The 1997 vote rejected the convention, but under very odd circumstances. Over one third of the voters who cast votes in other races decided to take a pass on the constitutional convention question. There was also heavy spending by groups opposing the convention that wanted to avoid amendment of such current provi-sions in the current constitution as one guaranteeing the payment of pen-sions and providing that Adirondacks and Catskills would be "forever wild".

I attended a talk this week by Jim Coll, a professor at Nassau Community College and founder of Change NYS, a group that promotes discussion about the constitutional convention. Mr. Coll ticked off a number of shortcomings in the current constitution. For example, because much of the text dates back to 1894, there is a constitutional prohibition against racial discrimina-tion, but no language about discrimination on account of sex or a number of other grounds most people agree should be included. (Obviously, there are statutes covering discrimination, but the constitutional language is lacking.)

On a structural level, Mr. Coll noted that there seems to be almost no functional difference in the roles of the state senate and the assembly, except that the state senate has larger districts. While there are limits on changing state senate districts because of the U.S. Supreme Court "one person, one vote" decisions, Mr. Coll asks why, for example, the terms of the state senators should not be longer than those of the assembly members.

Of course, the constitutional conven tion could quickly get into pretty controversial territory.

In addition to the pension guarantee and "forever wild" provision discussed earlier, there would be renewed debate over the so-called Blaine Amendment in the current constitution that prohibits educational funding to religious schools, a longstanding source of controversy.

And the debate would really heat up on some purely political issues. For ex-ample, Mr. Coll mentioned that the convention could consider adopting in New York the system for allocating electoral votes in effect in Nebraska in Maine in which most of the votes are awarded by Congressional district rather than the current "winner take all" system. Democrats, who currently count on getting all the New York votes, would likely vigorously oppose this change. On the other hand, an-other possible amendment, nonpartisan redistricting of all legislative seats, would be unpopular with Republicans, who regard the current well drawn lines of the state senate districts (from their point of view) as essential to maintaining even a foothold of power in the state. Another possible change, the imposition of legislative term limits, would likely be opposed by incumbents of all political stripes.

I am not sure how I will vote when the constitutional convention question is on the ballot in 2017. But Mr. Coll does make a good point when he says that, given the current level of dys-function and downright corruption in Albany, we may not have much to lose by a thorough reexamination and redrafting of our constitutional document.

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