News & Politics

If You Want To Fix Albany, Dare To Dream Of A Constitutional Convention

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Even the political creatures sunk deepest in Albany’s muck probably know how badly it all stinks. The system incentivizes noxious behavior and concentrates power in the hands of the very few at the expense of the many. Reforming it has been, to put it charitably, a Sisyphean task.

This fall, regular people will have a chance to blow the whole thing up and start over. Voters in November will decide whether New York holds a Constitutional Convention, a rare opportunity to update the state’s retrograde constitution. A referendum on a potential Con Con, as it’s known in political circles, is held only once every 20 years. There hasn’t been a convention called since 1967.

Why so long ago? Because elected officials, labor unions and various power brokers have long been opposed to a convention, successfully fighting at the ballot box to keep one from occurring again. The last convention was unsuccessful anyway. All changes made at a Con Con must be approved by voters and the limited tweaks of that year were all eventually shot down.

Once more, Con Con has many powerful enemies. Since opening up the State Constitution could mean, in theory, nullifying the state’s pension obligations, the major labor unions and their most sympathetic political allies, like Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, are vociferously against the idea. Governor Andrew Cuomo has been noncommittal, while the Republican minority leader of the Assembly, Brian Kolb, has joined good government groups in calling for a Con Con. The Independent Democratic Conference, a coalition of eight breakaway Democrats, is opposed to a convention, as is Republican Majority Leader John Flanagan; the leader of the mainline Senate Democrats, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, hasn’t voiced an opinion, though her deputy, Senator Mike Gianaris, told the progressive reformer and fundraiser Bill Samuels that he would support a convention.

“The arguments for a Con Con are far more compelling and should be heeded by anyone who wants to see New York become a fairer and saner place. A constitutional convention could enact many reforms that a recalcitrant legislature would ordinarily kill without much debate: Term limits could be imposed on lawmakers. Outdated voter registration rules could be changed. Home rule could be strengthened, freeing New York City from the shackles of Albany to protect tenants from the real estate lobby. A truly independent redistricting commission could end gerrymandering for good. All kinds of ethics reform would be on the table, including barring lawmakers from earning outside income.

For Democrats opposed to a convention, the fear is that conservative forces could co-opt it and turn New York into Mississippi. The delegate selection process gives them pause: if a Con Con is approved, three delegates from each of the state’s 63 Senate districts will be elected in 2018, setting up a 2019 convention. Republicans, with tacit approval from Cuomo, gerrymandered Senate districts in 2012, so progressives would have a slight disadvantage at the start.

But the fear-mongering from the left overshadows the fact that Flanagan, the GOP majority leader, is also against Con Con. His opposition is far more grounded in reality: New York is an overwhelmingly Democratic state and the grassroots energy, especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, is entirely with the left. Were delegates able to somehow pass a right-wing constitutional amendment, it would still need to be approved by voters statewide. Democrats could easily shoot it down.

Any great hope for change or fear of disaster should of course be tempered. Since 1894, conventions have only yielded six amendments in total, according to an analysis by former Assemblyman Arthur “Jerry” Kremer. Elected officials and lobbyists, along with political outsiders, can serve as delegates, possibly mucking up the opportunity to do profound good. Advocates must understand that going in.

But the status quo is insufficient and a Con Con is clearly worth the risks and costs, given how slowly Cuomo and state lawmakers have moved to introduce concrete reforms to New York’s sclerotic democracy. Not trying is the Albany way—and that’s maybe the greatest con of all.

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