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Amending our state constitution won’t be easy

Amending our state constitution won’t be easy

Ask almost any New Yorker what's wrong with the state, and you'll get a litany of familiar answers.

Ask almost any New Yorker what's wrong with the state, and you'll get a litany of familiar answers.

The taxes are too high. There's too much regulation. The business climate is awful. Too many people have their hands in the public trough. We spend too much on education. We don't spend enough on education. All the politicians in Albany are corrupt, incompetent or both.

Now ask those same New Yorkers what's wrong with the state constitution, and all you'll hear are crickets.

Almost nobody you ask will know anything about the state constitution, even though it's been in place for 238 years — 11 years longer than the U.S. Constitution. And most people don't know much about that document, either, even though we all study it extensively in grade school.

Yet every two decades, we hear the same clamoring for a state constitutional convention to right all the wrongs. A recent poll showed almost 70 percent of state residents want a constitutional convention.

Take the politics and the politicians out of the process, they say, give the power directly to the people, they say, and all will be well.

It's understandable that we look for answers outside the system. But before we dive right in and convene over the constitution, we should know a few things.

First, there's no question the old document could use some revisions and streamlining. It's more than 50,000 words long and contains dozens of amendments and useless, outdated provisions. Drafted 240 years ago by none other than American founding father John Jay, it's in need of some rehab.

But it won't be easy.

There's the big problem of who will serve as delegates to the convention. Delegates will be elected. And like in regular elections, big money and incumbency are likely to dominate. In the last convention in 1967, two-thirds of the 186 delegates were lawyers, 13 were sitting legislators, 32 were former legislators or members of Congress and one fourth were judges. That's a stacked deck in favor of the status quo. Not surprisingly, that convention resulted in exactly zero constitutional amendments being approved by voters.

But even if current and former public officials are prohibited from running in 2017 — when the question of holding a convention next goes on the ballot — they'll find surrogates to run in their place to do their bidding.

In addition, the races will be open to powerful interests representing big business, labor, education and government. Grass-roots candidates, the ones we'd all like to serve, will be subject to many of the same disadvantages that current grass-roots candidates for political office face — lack of money and recognition. What's the point of holding a constitutional convention if it's being run by the very people everyone's railing against? So now we're talking about public financing of the convention delegate election. Who's in favor of that?

Then there's what people want from a convention. At some point, someone needs to put forth specific goals. Proponents say it's needed to enact reforms that legislators and the governor won't — term limits, initiative-and-referendum (giving people the power to directly vote on certain legislation), stronger ethics laws, and independent legislative redistricting. That's a good place to start, but you'll have to get delegates to agree on that agenda and then get them to agree on specific amendments to the constitution to put before voters. Again, not an easy task.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb in 2011 made an impassioned call for a state constitutional convention, arguing for its necessity and contending that it was possible to overcome the political influences that made the 1967 convention a bust and killed the 1997 effort. He says social media, a non-factor 20 years ago, will be a big part of that. (Google "Brian Kolb" and "New York's Last Best Hope for Real Reform," to read his entire essay. It's worth your time.)

Harvard political scholar J.H. Snider, in a recent column, said that what's needed if a convention has any chance of happening is a massive educational campaign to begin immediately. It should include a bipartisan commission appointed by the governor, webinars hosted by think tanks and public advocacy groups, informative museum displays, and high-school debate team competitions. The more informed we all are, Snider contends, the better off we'll be.

There you go. If we really want a constitutional convention that produces genuine governmental reforms, then we'll have to do a whole lot more than answer a poll.

In the meantime, we already have the power to get campaign finance reform, term limits, ethics reform, safer bridges and roads, lower taxes and a better educational system — all the things a constitutional convention would give us.

It's called voting.

That responsibility doesn't fall to the corrupt, dysfunctional government officials. It falls on all of us.

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