Saying state and local governments need to be restructured, the state's most influential business lobbying group came out Wednesday in favor of holding a constitutional convention.
The support from the Business Council of New York State comes at a crucial time for the fledgling and hodgepodge assortment of interests pressing for the gathering.
On Nov. 4, voters will decide whether to hold a convention in 1999 to consider changes to the State Constitution that guides and mandates how everything from the State Legislature to the court system should run.
Backers say the annual mess over the state budget, the invincibility of incumbents and a host of government reforms can only be addressed by a convention. Opponents say a convention could lead to important provisions, such as language mandating care of the poor, being stripped by a convention ruled largely by political insiders.
But the Business Council said a convention is the best vehicle for change.
"As we approach the new century, New York needs to make a breakthrough. We need to restructure our state and local governments, producing a system that is accountable, cost-efficient and, most important of all, effective in meeting the needs of our young people, our businesses and all of our citizens," the group's board of directors said.
It noted New York has a productive work force, but one of the slowest rates of job growth in the nation.
"How can this be? We believe a key reason has to do with the structure of government in New York -- a structure that is too big, too expensive and too intrusive, and that is not accountable for the results it achieves," the board said.
Despite its members' deep pockets, the board did not approve any measure for a full-scale campaign to get the convention approved. That could prove troublesome, backers say, because the opposition is made up of some of the most politically connected unions and others, from women's groups to environmentalists, who are campaigning against one.
"Unlike some of the opponents, the Business Council doesn't have a huge supply of money to devote to these issues," said the group's spokesman, Bob Ward. "And we also don't feel it's appropriate. This is an issue the people will decide and we're making our views known and that's as far as we think we should take it."
One of the organizers of the anti-convention campaign said public relations was the Business Council's motivation for backing the gathering.
"It's because so many groups have come out on the other side and they just want to get some visibility," said Frank Mauro, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a union-funded think tank in Albany.
The Business Council said the Constitution needs to be changed to include such things as expanding home rule for local governments and banning unfunded mandates placed on localities by Albany.
They said a convention should consider ways to increase a sharing of services of local governments, as well as some sort of tax caps at the state and local levels. Also, the group wants a non-partisan reapportionment process that decides how legislative and congressional lines are drawn.
"The plethora of overlapping state and local government units and political bodies both drives up costs and blurs the responsibility for failure," the board said. "There is a circle of finger-pointing in which state officials blame local officials, local officials blame Albany, competing officials in Albany blame each other, everybody gets re-elected, and too little gets done."
Sensitive to the criticism of some anti-convention groups, the Business Council said it wouldn't support constitutional changes to lessen the state's role in the care of the poor or reducing pension rights for public employees or to end constitutional protections for forest lands.