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Effort begins to publicize next constitutional convention



New Yorkers will get their first chance in 20 years to vote on whether to hold a convention to change the state’s constitution in November of 2017. But groups advocating for an informed vote on the issue say it’s not too early to start getting the word out.

A constitutional convention, dry as it may sound, has the potential to make big changes to New York’s government. Delegates could decide to switch to a unicameral legislature, or require that lawmakers be full time. They could also tighten what critics say are lax campaign contribution laws.  

And the delegates could also address social issues like gay marriage, abortion laws, or even gun control.

The State University’s Rockefeller Institute of Government, is neutral on whether to hold a convention, but the Institute’s deputy director, Bob Bullock, says he wants the public to be informed when they do go into the voting booth.

“It’s an opportunity for us as we go into the 21st century, to take a look at his document and ask ourselves, is this document a relevant as it needs to be?” Bullock said.    

New York State Bar Association President David Miranda says his group has formed a committee to take a fresh look at the state’s constitution, which has not been overhauled in nearly 80 years. Miranda says the group will be a microcosm of the state’s political make up.

“We have people on both sides of the fence, we have Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals,” Miranda said.

The New York State Bar Association is also one of the groups, as is the League of Women Voters, which is not actually endorsing right now that a convention be held.

The fear of unpredictable action on social issues helped defeat the last proposed constitutional convention, in 1997. A number of government reform groups decided in the end to oppose holding a convention 20 years ago.

Bullock, with Rockefeller Institute, says those worries should not necessarily be a hindrance to holding a convention. He says the state has a long progressive tradition, with leaders like Teddy Roosevelt, Al Smith  and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The last constitutional convention, in 1967, resulted in a number of recommendations, but they were rejected by votes, who ultimately have the final say in the process.

The last time the constitution was significantly changed was in the 1930s,  in the midst of the Great Depression.

Bullock, with Rockefeller Institute, says people are also, like then, discontent with state government, as New York goes through a wave of corruption.

“Trust in government has eroded dramatically,” Bullock said.

Miranda, with the bar association, says now might be time to at least examine how well the document, which is seven times longer than the federal constitution, holds up.

“Things are different now,” Miranda said. “Maybe it’s time to take a look at it.”

A recent poll by Siena College found that, when New Yorkers were told about the constitutional convention, 69 percent were in favor of it.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is so far the only politician,  to endorse having a constitutional convention. It was part of the governor’s 2010 election platform, and a spokesman says Cuomo still backs the idea.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.