In November, voters will be asked to approve holding a state constitutional convention. The League of Women Voters is opposing this because we are concerned about the process of electing delegates and the possibility that public officials might dominate convention proceedings.
If voters approve the proposition, delegates would be chosen in November 1998. Three would be elected from each State Senate district, and an additional 15 would be elected on an at-large basis, for a total of 198 delegates. The delegates would convene in April 1999. All constitutional revisions recommended by the convention would go to the voters, probably in November 1999.
Unfortunately, the deck is stacked against most qualified citizens who would like to serve as convention delegates. We all know how difficult it is in New York for independent candidates to get on the ballot. It takes money and usually professional and party assistance to get campaigns mobilized.
Members of the State Legislature will also be elected in 1998. There is nothing that prevents a state legislative candidate from simultaneously running for convention delegate, and there are significant salary and pension benefits that probably would induce many of them to do so. In addition, special interests may spend millions of dollars to ensure the election of delegates who favor their views. Therefore, it is naive to believe that this could be a "people's" convention.
Legislators and judges had a disproportionate influence at the last convention, held in 1967. All delegates were party-oriented. The convention itself met in the Assembly chamber and elected the Assembly speaker as president of the convention. Party leaders wielded tremendous power. Since 1967, New York has become even more partisan, and it seems unrealistic to expect that a delegate body elected in 1998 under the same system and organized along partisan lines would be any different.
The cost of the convention has been estimated at $45 million. Each delegate would be paid the same amount ($57,500) as members of the Legislature. This permits state legislators and judges who are elected as delegates to receive two full annual salaries during the year of the convention.
Our state constitution is filled with trivia, many provisions conflict with federal law and the document is unwieldly due to repeated revisions. But none of these present a compelling reason to hold a convention. There is no guarantee that any constitutional revisions recommended would lead to more efficient, effective state government. In fact, many of New York's problems, such as the failure to pass a budget on time, are not necessarily constitutional issues. They are under the control of state leaders who, although they lack the will, do have the power to change the process.
Given the probable delegate selection process, the prospects for true constitutional reform seem poor. And the possibility that important rights, now safeguarded, could be removed seems too great.
Lee Lambert First Vice President
League of Women Voters