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Advocates push for state constitutional convention

Only way for voters to propose reforms

Saturday, November 24, 2012
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— It might seem far off, but Gerald Benjamin is already thinking about 2017.

Benjamin would like to see New York hold a constitutional convention where delegates can propose changes to the state Constitution, bypassing the state Legislature. Such conventions are allowed once every 20 years, and 2017 is the earliest date at which a convention could be held.

Advocates say a constitutional convention would allow voters to enact reforms that legislators are reluctant to consider, such as term limits, and eliminate elements that are out-of-date.

“The state constitution is quite long,” said Benjamin, who serves as director of the Center for Research, Regional Education & Outreach at SUNY New Paltz. “Does the document have too much in it?”

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The advantages and disadvantages of holding a constitutional convention to achieve government reform will be discussed at an upcoming conference Thursday at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany. Also slated for discussion are redistricting reform and the state’s push to expand casino gambling.

In 2013, the state legislature is expected to consider two constitutional amendments: one to allow up to seven new, non-Indian casinos throughout the state and another to create a 10-member panel to draw the state’s political districts beginning in 2021. These amendments were already passed once by the Legislature but must be passed a second time; if they pass again, they will be sent to the voters for approval next November.

“We’ll be dealing with a broad range of issues,” said Tom Gais, director of the Rockefeller Institute.

The conference is sponsored by EffectiveNY.org, a nonprofit organization that favors reforming the state Constitution, the Government Law Center at Albany Law School, the Center for Research, Regional Education & Outreach and the Rockefeller Institute, and is expected to draw representatives from think tanks and good government groups, as well as university professors.

Constitutional conventions are approved by voters via ballot initiatives. The last time voters were asked whether they wanted to hold a constitutional convention, in 1997, they said no. New York has not held a constitutional convention since 1967 and hasn’t adopted a new constitution since 1894.

“It’s rare for New York to consider constitutional change,” Benjamin said. “Constitutional change is scary to people. Everybody likes the devil they know better than the devil they don’t know.”

But he said a lot of good can come from a constitutional convention because it provides a rare opportunity for voter-initiated reform.

Gais agreed.

“It takes a lot to get public support for major constitutional revision,” he said. “It’s an uphill fight.”

But there is some support for doing so.

“A lot of people think it would be good to take a broad look at the state constitution,” he said. “There are a lot of dysfunctional elements in it.”

Thursday’s conference will feature two panel discussions. The first will focus on constitutional issues in anticipation of the 2013 legislative session, and the other will consider what “could, or should, be removed from the current constitution,” according to a press release for the event.

In 2010, Gov. Andrew Cuomo wrote favorably of constitutional conventions in his New NY Agenda, saying: “Past constitutional conventions have resulted in transformative change in times of crisis. ... A new constitutional convention could be the vehicle for critical reforms to our state government.”

 
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