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PATAKI FINALLY THROWS POLITICAL WEIGHT BEHIND STATE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION

Gov. Pataki Tuesday announced his support of the November ballot issue on a state constitutional convention, but said his only plans to win voter approval would be some speaking engagements.

"It is clear that a constitutional convention offers us the best opportunity to make fundamental changes to state government," said Pataki, one of the last elected leaders to take a stance.

The governor, who pressed hard for passage of the environmental bond act last fall, doesn't plan any similar fund raising or organized efforts to encourage a "yes" vote in November on whether to approve a 1999 gathering of delegates to consider changes to New York's Constitution.

Whether Pataki's backing -- coming just one month before the November vote -- will help the fledgling group of supporters against a coalition of dozens of the state's top special interest groups remains uncertain.

For months, Pataki eluded questions about the convention. At first, he said he wouldn't support the gathering unless changes were made to what critics say will be a delegate selection process dominated by political insiders. But the governor made no major public effort to press through the changes before lawmakers ended their session in August.

"It's a disappointment he didn't come out sooner . . . It would have certainly helped our side had any of the government leaders come out and given the issue any publicity. Instead, there's been this conspiracy of silence, and that's hurt us," said Robert Schulz, a Warren County anti-tax activist who is one of the leaders of the convention proposal.

Pataki dismissed criticism of his late-date endorsement of the convention. "I don't think that the timing is critical," he said, adding that there is "ample time" left to press for a "yes" vote.

Ironically, Pataki joins former Gov. Mario Cuomo on the relatively short list of current and former politicians backing the convention. Some have speculated Cuomo would like to lead the 196-delegate body if it is approved, an idea Pataki said would not be "appropriate." While he said he wanted "ordinary" citizens elected to the convention, Pataki did not rule out running himself.

Critics of the convention, which range from women's groups to the state's biggest labor organizations, said they weren't surprised by Pataki's decision. "The ultimate insider has now declared himself," said Edward Cleary, president of the state AFL-CIO. His group, which is part of an 82-member coalition representing some 3 million people, insist the convention will be dominated by political insiders now running the system. They also say the convention will be too costly, and could jeopardize many constitutional safeguards now in the 50,000-word document -- from environmental protections to mandates for caring for the poor.

Pataki's support comes a couple weeks after the state Business Council, an influential lobbying group, announced its support.

"His endorsement represents leadership at the highest level advocating for necessary, positive change in our state," Andrew Rudnick, president of the Greater Buffalo Partnership, said,

While Pataki, as he did with the 1996 environmental bond act plan, could spend as much as he wants using private donations to press for a convention, he is limited in what he can do using state funds.

Every 20 years New Yorkers must say whether they want a convention to consider changes to the constitution. The last gathering was in 1967; its recommendations were rejected by voters. While opponents say it could lead to dangerous proposals, advocates say the time is ripe to reform what many say is a broken process in Albany.

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