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REFORM IN THE HANDS OF VOTERS

In two weeks, state voters will face a proposition that could turn state government upside down and affect every person in New York for generations.

Depending on whom you talk to, one simple sentence could give new life to a moribund system that invests ultimate political power in just three people or backfire and make what is generally considered a bad system worse.

The sentence is: "Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?"

If the voters say yes on Nov. 4, then 198 delegates will be elected next year and a convention will be held in 1999.

The contest is about changing the political and governmental structure in Albany to improve a broken process reflected by late budgets, constant partisan bickering and built-in incumbency protection. Even many critics of the convention acknowledge state government is a mess.

And that, convention backers say, explains why so many special-interest groups and politicians oppose the constitutional gathering.

Proponents speak idealistically about a "people's" convention, its delegate ranks full of academicians, community activists, small-business men and housewives.

Opponents counter that the odds are better for a convention made up of the state's power elite, with taxpayers picking up the multimillion-dollar tab for an insiders' exercise in futility.

Convention opponents point to a litany of consequences they say could grow out of a convention taken over by special interests.

Among the dire predictions are these: People won't be able to join unions. Government pensions will be raided. Public schools will be annihilated. Children will be required to take gun training.

Such are the fears of the dozens of groups -- from conservative preachers to gay-rights activists to union leaders -- that oppose a rewriting of the State Constitution.

But nobody is talking about doing any of those things.

What's at the center of the debate is political power: Who has it, and who should have it.

For example, what if state legislators could no longer hold their decision-making sessions behind closed doors?

What if the April 1 deadline for state budget adoption was a real deadline that the Legislature could no longer so easily dismiss?

What if lawmakers were barred from holding fund-raisers during the legislative session? And what if the process by which Assembly and Senate district lines were re-drawn every 10 years to favor incumbents was taken out of the hands of the legislators themselves?

Were even one of those things to happen, the enormous power held by just two men in the State Legislature -- Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver -- would be significantly diminished. Together with the governor, these two men essentially run the state.

Not surprisingly, Silver and Bruno oppose the convention.

Every 20 years, the state's voters decide whether to call a convention to consider changes to the massive document that controls how state and local governments operate.

"They know the people know what's wrong and that the people can get it fixed," said Robert Schulz, a Warren County resident who for years has challenged in court the spending and borrowing ways of Albany. "Silver and Bruno know there will be political reforms to come from the convention and that will severely cut into their power."

"It's all about power. A convention will come up with popular reforms that will pass," Schulz added.

Silver and Bruno dismiss such talk. The Assembly speaker, a Manhattan Democrat, went so far as to call convention supporters -- who include everyone from Gov. Pataki and former Gov. Mario Cuomo to a number of his fellow Assembly Democrats -- "radicals."

"The agents of the radical fringes are the people who generally push for a convention of this type. . . . It's usually not the mainstream," Silver said. Bruno and Silver insist that bringing 198 delegates to Albany to consider changing the constitution will be a waste of money. It will, they say, cost in excess of $50 million.

"Historically, they have wasted a lot of time and money," Bruno said. "I just don't believe anything productive will come of it."

Supporters of the convention say that figure is hugely inflated.

And given the state's $60 billion-plus budget, the expense argument is a distraction, the convention supporters maintain.

"Shelly Silver says it's expensive. Yet he's got over $600 million in pork (in this year's state budget)," said Cuomo, a longtime supporter of the convention. "And they're all boasting of that internally. A convention would cost one-twelfth less than the pork in their digestive system."

Then how should the State Constitution be changed?

The State Legislature can do it, say Bruno, Silver and the coalition of unions and other special interests opposing the convention.

"It sounds good, and it's nice to be a good-government person. But history has shown us that if we want to change the constitution . . . (the Legislature) can change the constitution as I believe it has been done 93 times," Bruno said.

Moreover, they insist the convention's free reign could pose real trouble for protections built into the constitution.

Farm groups say they are worried initiative and referendum could come out of a convention that could set up a Pandora's box of environmentalist-led changes that could hurt family farms. Environmentalists, meanwhile, fear a convention could allow widespread development in wildlife areas.

Teachers say they're worried conservatives could push to put in place a voucher system for private schools. Conservatives, meanwhile, say liberals might try to write more benefits for the poor into the constitution; liberals say conservatives might force the opposite.

"The public is disenchanted with a lot of things. But a constitutional convention is not a realistic or successful way of changing things," said Linda Rosenblatt, a spokeswoman for the New York State United Teachers union, which is pressing its nearly 400,000 members to vote no.

If there has been a single theme of the convention campaign, it has been for the two sides to question each other's motives.

Backers say their opponents are merely moneyed interests seeking to keep a stranglehold over the system.

Opponents say the backers have their own personal stake in getting a convention.

Thomas Golisano, the Rochester businessman who is funding television and radio ads in support of the convention, is interested only in keeping his name alive for future political considerations, critics say. Golisano ran for governor in 1994.

"This is not about my personal interest," said Golisano, who maintains the convention represents the single best opportunity to reform Albany.

Cuomo, meanwhile, just wants to get his name back in the limelight, critics say, noting his desire to run as a convention delegate. And Pataki and U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato support the convention simply because it's supported in polls.

"They really are the ultimate insiders," said Barbara Bartoletti, a lobbyist with the League of Women Voters, which is opposing the convention. She notes that the delegate selection process could give political parties the power to get political insiders elected as delegates.

In the end, the convention fight has seemingly come down to a question of who knows best how to run the government.

The opposition would "rather keep the status quo and make piecemeal changes than have a constitutional convention that would look at the whole aspect of the constitution," said Assembly Republican Leader Thomas Reynolds of Erie County, the only legislative leader backing the convention.

"And the reality is that for most of those critics, including the Assembly Speaker and Senator Bruno, . . . a constitutional convention could bring about change that they don't want to see," Reynolds said.

Given the way the process has become so muddled in Albany, "it's time to shake it up and let the chips fall where they may," Reynolds said.

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