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ENDORSEMENT: Constitutional Convention may be our only hope for change

ENDORSEMENT: Constitutional Convention may be our only hope for change

From the Election 2017 endorsements series
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There are three important propositions that New York voters will be considering on Election Day this year. (Remember they are on the back of the ballot.)

Both Proposition 2 and Proposition 3 are slam dunks and voters should not hesitate to approve them (see details below).

It’s Proposition 1 — on whether to have a Constitutional Convention — where you really need to do some homework.

Even after our board did that, it was still split.

The question is simple:

“Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?”

This is a mandatory referendum required by the New York State Constitution at least once every 20 years.

This is our once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Several members of our board believe this is the only possibility that fundamental changes in ethics and campaign finance reform can be addressed, since state representatives refuse to do it.

What has been discouraging to many of us on the editorial board has been the amount of misinformation that has been circulating about what the constitutional convention means and how it works.

Unions across the state have vigorously lobbied against it, because they believe that a constitutional convention could roll back pension guarantees for their members. That is not entirely true.

Any agreements on changes to the state constitution would have to be put to voters across the state for approval. We know of no one who is proposing a pension rollback.

When doing research for this endorsement, our board looked carefully at a report compiled by the New York State Bar Association.

Its committee on the Constitutional Convention held more than 20 meetings and heard presentations from more than two dozen experts as part of its reporting on the topic.

Its committee did recommend a convention, based on the belief that the restructuring and reorganization of the state’s court system has little practical chance of being achieved without a Constitutional Convention.

This is one of the overlooked advantages of the convention, and the bar association estimated that reforms to the court system could save the state over $100 million a year. If it was accomplished, it would pay for the cost of the convention in one year.

Here are some of the pros the bar association identified:

The constitution could be streamlined and modernized. It is desperately in need of revisions.

The convention could fix basic structural problems with state government, such as the multiple levels of trial courts that are the most in the nation.

The constitution does not include some rights that have recently been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, such as right to marriage of same-sex couples. A convention could also address early voting and same-day voting registration procedures.

The convention may be the only way to fix many of these problems. The Legislature can propose amendments to the constitution, but it has no record of doing so in recent years.

Here are the cons identified by the bar association:

The convention could open up just about any possibility, including revoking the right to a state pension for public employees and the “forever wild” provisions of the Adirondacks. Nobody has been lobbying for these provisions, but technically, it is possible.

The convention could add harmful new provisions to the constitution that would be controversial and divisive. The constitution could be amended to add limits on state debt or recalibrate the balance of power between the governor and the Legislature in the state budget process.

The convention would be faced with the same hurdles that undermine the legislative process — politics and special interests.

Any legislators or judges serving as delegates would receive double salaries that would run up the cost of a convention.

The convention is unnecessary because the legislative process has been used over 200 times in the past 100 years to propose amendments.

The cost could be very large. The 1967 Constitutional Convention cost taxpayers as much as $15 million. A 2019 Convention would be many times that figure.

When our board deliberated, it was divided into optimists and pessimists.

The optimists felt this was the only way to fix significant problems in ethics reform and the pay-to-play culture that persists in Albany. They preferred to think of what was “possible” over what was “probable.”

The pessimists did not believe that the money spent on the Constitutional Convention would lead to any significant and meaningful reforms, and it would be stacked with political figures who pose the same type of roadblocks we have seen in the Legislature each year.

To address that issue, the New York State Bar Association urged policymakers to establish a preparatory commission to reform the delegate selection process and address the dual compensation by delegates.

The four members of our board are “hopeful” that if those issues are addressed, meaningful reforms can be accomplished.

We like those odds better than our chances in the Legislature.

Proposition 2

Proposition 2 calls for the forfeiture of state pensions to convicted officials. Think of the New York State Legislature’s long list of corruption and this is the long overdue punishment to help battle it.

Proposition 3

Proposition 3 would set up a land bank of 250 acres that communities in the Adirondacks and Catskills could draw on when they need to use small portions of the state Forest Preserve for critical infrastructure improvements, such as upgrades of highways and bridges.

The state Constitution protects Forest Preserve land as “forever wild,” which means that now, any time even a tiny portion of it is needed to ensure the safety of local roads or to expand public utilities, a constitutional amendment must be passed. With the establishment of a land bank, that process would be greatly simplified.

Every organization with an interest in this proposition has supported it, including Adirondack municipalities, environmental advocates, businesses and residents. Use of the land bank would be strictly limited to necessary infrastructure work. This work, which in many instances is needed for public safety, has been neglected because of the obstacle posed by the Forest Preserve. Proposition 3 will solve the problem.

Post-Star editorials represent the opinion of the Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Publisher Robert Forcey, Controller/Operations Director Brian Corcoran, Editor Ken Tingley, Projects Editor Will Doolittle and citizen representatives Dan Gealt, George Nelson and Connie Bosse.


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