Not unexpectedly, the question of whether to hold a state constitutional convention was defeated in Tuesday’s voting, and soundly so. That’s disappointing to anyone who wanted to use the opportunity to attend to the defects that help to make New York one of the nation’s most politically corrupt states. That failure puts the onus on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to push harder than he has for ethics reforms.
The state constitution gives New Yorkers the opportunity to call a convention once every 20 years. With it, they can elect delegates who will consider changes to the constitution that wouldn’t take effect unless voters approved them in a referendum.
On Tuesday, for the third consecutive time, voters turned away, this year by a margin of about 3-to-1. The opposition, much of it alarmist and some of it flatly misleading, was led by unions and other groups – on both the left and the right – that feared their ox would be gored.
And so, New York hobbles along with a bloated, patchwork constitution that, despite some notable strengths, helps to enable a government in which corruption is endemic. That still needs to be fixed, either through legislation or the alternative method of amending the constitution. Cuomo needs to take the lead.
That other method was put to good use on Tuesday, as voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing judges to reduce or revoke the state pensions of public officers who are convicted of felonies related to their offices. To make that happen, two separately elected State Legislatures had to approve the amendment before it could be submitted to voters in a referendum. That’s the path for any ethics amendments, for at least the next 20 years.
But pension forfeiture is only a start. Other matters demand action. Campaign finance laws in New York are an invitation to corruption. Weaknesses in state and federal laws allow prominent politicians, such as former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, to weasel out of convictions despite wretched, self-dealing conduct that should plainly be illegal.
Cuomo has made an issue of ethics over the course of nearly two terms in office, but he’s never really gone to the mat over it. After coming out against a constitutional convention, this is now his obligation. It’s also his opportunity as Democrats take heart from Tuesday’s voting and his own re-election year looms in 2018.
Legislators resist significant changes because they like things as they are, allowing them, for example, to harvest virtually limitless dollars from willing donors, even if the policy creates temptations for some and distances all from their constituents. Cuomo needs to turn up the pressure.
He also needs to push for greater transparency in government by strengthening open meetings and public records laws. Public officials flout existing laws with impunity, knowing that the law is impotent. New Yorkers need clarity on what is public and officials need to know they could pay an unwanted price for violations.
There was never any guarantee that these issues would have been taken up or appropriately resolved in a constitutional convention. But what is guaranteed is that, without reforms, government in New York will continue to be a national embarrassment, worthy of the attention that federal prosecutors have given it in recent years.