In 1997 New Yorkers missed an excellent opportunity to do something about their dysfunctional state government when they voted against holding a constitutional convention — and have been paying for it ever since. Given another chance we bet they’d vote otherwise today, and they could be given that chance if a bill introduced by Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb is passed. The bill would move up the question of whether to hold a convention, which the state constitution requires be put to voters every 20 years, from 2017 to 2010.
It’s not a foregone conclusion that a constitutional convention will accomplish anything. In fact, the failure of the last convention, held over five months in 1967, is one of the reasons voters opted not to bother in 1977 and again in 1997. Other major factors were the fear that the convention would be dominated by politicians and powerful special interests, as the 1967 convention was, and the opposition of some of those special interests, like the AFL-CIO, New York State United Teachers and trial lawyers.
As has been demonstrated by the failure of the Legislature to control spending and produce a responsible budget, even when the state’s fiscal solvency depends on it; or to do ethics reform, even when numerous high-profile public officials have been convicted of corruption; or to change the legislative process to give rank-and-file lawmakers a voice; or to seriously consider such ideas as a property tax or spending cap, bipartisan redistricting commission, mandate relief, voter initiative and referendum — the system is not only broken, but beyond repair. The Legislature, beholden to those special interests, has made it clear that it isn’t going to act; and they are going to take the state down together.
All those who benefit from the status quo will give reasons not to hold a convention, and will work against it in the unlikely event that the Legislature should pass the Kolb bill. Which is exactly the reason why a convention is needed, and why the public should be telling their representatives to vote for one — or else they won’t vote for them.