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DEBATE AIRS SPLIT ON CALLING CONVENTION RISKS, OPPORTUNITIES SEEN IN FIXING STATE CONSTITUTION

Two of New York's most ardent advocates on opposite sides of the state constitutional convention question squared off in the Buffalo Hilton on Tuesday, with their diverging views symbolizing the deep divisions voters must consider about the Nov. 4 ballot question.

Gerald Benjamin, a noted political science professor at SUNY New Paltz, called the prospect of a new state governing document "the last chance in a generation for real reform in our political system."

But Frank Mauro, director of Albany's Fiscal Policy Institute and former deputy director of SUNY's Rockefeller Institute of Government, labeled it a "bad bet" that will fail to address the real concerns of New Yorkers.

"I know there are risks, but there is absolutely no real hope for reform in New York without a convention," Benjamin said. "The choice is between some choice and no choice."

"The convention is likely to bring more cynicism rather than less because of the way the delegates are selected and the substantially flawed process of the convention itself," Mauro countered.

Sponsored by Women for Downtown, the Greater Buffalo Partnership, and the University at Buffalo's Institute on Local Governance and Regional Growth, the forum drew several hundred people for an issue just now beginning to catch voters' attention.

Because the state constitution requires voters to every 20 years address whether a convention should draft a new charter, New Yorkers will face that question this year after rejecting it 1977.

Both men argued passionately for their positions, with both citing the successes and failures of past conventions. But both also seized on how many New York voters seem fed up with the current system, and how a convention could or could not offer solutions.

For Benjamin, a convention might address the idea that citizens gathering together would wrest control of the government process from entrenched politicians.

"The truth is the political system is rigged and run by those in power to keep power," he said, citing practices surrounding campaign financing, redistricting and candidate cross-endorsements.

He pointed out that fewer than 10 percent of state legislators face competitive elections, about one-third face no opposition, and that state legislators have "de facto career jobs." He said the perennially late state budget has become a metaphor for non-performance, while voters become more and more cynical.

"Perhaps they're just being rational when they stay home on Election Day," he said.

But Benjamin said a convention could serve as a "tool" to fix what's wrong with government, should that tool be used wisely. He said concerns over using State Senate districts to elect delegates would probably be challenged in court, while fears of lifting Forest Preserve protection or jeopardizing public pensions through constitutional changes won't happen if political will prevents it.

Mauro argued, however, that the inherent nature of the constitutional convention prevents it from enacting anything meaningful. He said the proposed $15 million budget would prove woefully inadequate for the size and scope of the project, as would its six-month session.

And he said no real flaws in the current document have been identified in terms of citizen cynicism. What gets people fed up, he said, is the politics surrounding the governmental process -- such as the dominance of the governor, Senate majority leader and Assembly speaker.

"There's nothing in the constitution that demands that," he said. "Traditionally New York has a system based on stronger party discipline and leadership. That's a choice."

Mauro warned of "wall to wall lobbyists" working in the highly charged atmosphere of a convention, and predicted an end-of-session rush failing to produce a valuable state charter. And there is no provisions for public input, hearings or revisions.

"The more we learn about the realities of the convention process," Mauro said, "the less likely we are to take the bet being offered by convention advocates."

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