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Constitutional convention shouldn't be run by insiders, reform groups say

Karen DeWitt
WRVO News (file photo)

New Yorkers will soon get a chance to decide whether to hold a constitutional convention in New York, but some government reform groups say there needs to be some major changes made first - including banning double dipping by state lawmakers who might become delegates.

In about a year and half, November 2017, a vote will be held on whether New York should hold what could be the first constitutional convention in over half a century.

Government reform groups say it’s not too early to make some key changes that would make a convention more open and transparent. Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, said the aim is to make it more of a people’s convention.

“What we’re really trying do is to limit the involvement of the political establishment in the convention,” Horner said.

One way is to change some rules that allow legislators to earn double their salary if they are elected as delegates to the convention. Senators and Assemblymembers have often been elected as delegates in the past. Current regulations say delegates would earn the full annual salary of a legislature, which is currently $79,500 a year. There’s no rule preventing a sitting lawmaker from collecting his or her $79,500 pay, plus any perks given for committee chairs or leadership posts, and also getting the same amount for attending the constitutional convention. In addition, any lawmakers serving as constitutional convention delegates would get more credits toward their state pensions from the extra earnings.

Barbara Bartoletti, with the League of Women Voters, said in 1967 -the last time a convention was held- most of the delegates were state lawmakers, judges and party leaders. She said a constitutional convention was proposed in 1997. It was voted down, partly due to worries that insiders would run the event.

“The public didn’t like the fact that these guys were really going to cash in big,” Bartoletti said.

She said at the time, Sheldon Silver was speaker of the Assembly and there were concerns that he would also be president of the constitutional convention.

“The voters said ‘no, no, no, we don’t want that’,” Bartoletti said. “And so it went down.”

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has since resigned, after being convicted of multiple corruption charges.

The reform groups have written a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s counsel, asking the governor to make a change to the convention rules. They believe it does not require a change to the actual state constitution itself, but simply requires that a law be passed. They also want the signature requirement for delegates to be reduced to make it easier for members of the public to run, and say current freedom of information laws and lobbying and ethics standards should apply to the convention’s proceedings.  

Cuomo has put $1 million into his budget proposal to create a commission to figure out exactly how a constitutional convention would be conducted. Bartoletti said she hopes the legislature agrees with the governor and leaves it in the budget.

“We would like to see it stay in the budget,” said Bartoletti, who said even more money would be helpful.

There are a number of issues that a constitutional convention could address, including whether to limit lawmakers’ outside income. Silver and former Senate Leader Dean Skelos both face prison terms over the abuse of their outside incomes. It could also enact public financing of campaigns.

But Horner said addressing corruption at the Capitol may not be enough of a justification to convince the public to vote to hold a convention.

“You’d have to able make a case to the public that good things can come of it other than cleaning up Albany,” Horner said. “Unless that case can be made, I think the voters would be very skeptical.”

He said in the past social issues have been the driving force, and he suggests for example items like ensuring a constitutional right to higher education or health care.

Because big social changes could be enacted by a constitutional convention, several groups, including the League of Women Voters, have in the past opposed holding one. Fears include dismantling of the state constitution’s Forever Wild land protection in the Adirondacks and limiting a woman’s right to choose abortion.

The convention price tag would likely be in the millions of dollars.

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.