Gov. Pataki has now joined his predecessor, Mario Cuomo, in backing a state constitutional convention in 1999. His support, as well as recent backing from Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, should bolster public backing for a convention. And the state needs it. A "people's convention" can review and revise a State Constitution that is in need of an overhaul.
In the Nov. 4 election, voters will be asked this question on their ballots: "Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?"
Plainly, it's not a partisan issue. And the supporters and opponents aren't lining up on a partisan basis, either.
Pataki is a Republican; Cuomo, a Democrat. Yet both have sat as the state's chief executive. Based on their first-hand experience, both believe that the voters should answer "yes" to the question of whether a convention should be called. There are plenty of reasons for the public to agree.
"It is clear," said Pataki, "that a constitutional convention offers us the best opportunity to make fundamental changes in state government."
He and Cuomo could not be more perceptive. It is a shame that many entrenched Albany insiders, especially in the State Legislature, along with special-interest lobbies, are fighting hard to block a convention.
New Yorkers have little to fear and a lot to gain from a grass-roots convention of the people. Even the most casual glance at state government can discern problems in the way it's operating.
The constitution itself, cluttered with archaic provisions and unnecessary details, runs on to more than 50,000 words. Most other state charters are half as long, if that.
For 13 long years, whether Albany enjoyed surpluses or suffered from deficits, the Legislature has been unable to pass a budget on time.
Nor does New York's constitution contain any procedures for filling a mid-term vacancy in the state's second-highest executive office. Should Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross die or resign tomorrow, the office would have to remain vacant until the next regular election. Imagine the mess if, with the lieutenant governorship vacant, the governor were then to resign or die.
New York's last fully rewritten constitution was done more than a century ago, in 1894. It's cluttered with outdated material and amendments piled on amendments. With the new century just ahead, it is an ideal time to update it.
If voters approve the calling of a convention on Nov. 4, the people will elect special convention delegates next year. Those delegates would then meet to review and revise the constitution, beginning in April 1999.
The convention itself, however, can only recommend changes. These would have to go back to the people for ratification or rejection after the convention adjourns. So there need be no fears that a runaway convention could ram unwanted changes through. The people must OK any actual revision.
In endorsing a new convention, Gov. Pataki and former Gov. Cuomo, unlike too many opponents, chose hope over fear. Theirs is a timely act of confident leadership.